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Biology & The Turkey Hunter

James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D

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James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D.
Chief Conservation Officer

Nothing beats experience in the turkey woods. The longer you hunt, the collective hours you invest in the field, and the time you spend studying the habits of turkeys in the wild all pay huge dividends when it comes to your success as a turkey hunter. Even under the watch of an experienced old-timer, it takes years to progress from the level of a novice to that of an expert.

With the recent publishing of “The Proceedings of the Tenth National Wild Turkey Symposium,” I I’m reminded of the importance of biology to the average hunter. Biology gives us the details of turkey behavior and fills in the blanks to a good many of the questions hunters ask as seasons unfold. So, while time in the field is irreplaceable, perhaps the second most important thing a turkey hunter can do is study the body of scientific literature of the bird they pursue.

Biology answers some of our most vexing questions:

  • Why does a gobbler hang up out of range and how will he respond to calling in that situation?

  • How does elevation effect a gobbler’s reaction to calling?

  • What can you do about a henned-up gobbler?

  • When is gobbling activity at its peak?

  • How do you locate roosting areas on a new property?

  • If you don’t kill a bird right off the roost in the morning, when is the next best time to call one in?

The answers to these questions and thousands more like them are all available through decades of spring turkey seasons spent in the woods, but they are far more readily available in the series of ten wild turkey biology symposiums, the latest of which took place in 2011. (Hardbound copies of the current book are available at the NWTF’s online retail store OutdoorDealHound.com for $25.) Here’s just a sampling of how turkey biology can help you become a better hunter.

All Hung Up

If you’ve hunted turkeys for any amount of time, you’ve experienced at least one gobbler (probably several) that was initially coming to your calls but stopped his forward progress before coming into shooting range. We commonly refer to this situation as a gobbler that has “hung up.”

Typically, the reason he stopped moving your way is that he’s expecting the hen (you) to come to him. That’s the way things work in the turkey woods — the hens come to the gobblers. We also know that when a hung up gobbler responds to your calling but refuses to step closer, he’s more than likely got one or more hens around him. And with that kind of attention, he won’t go out of his way to find another hen, even one that’s calling incessantly. He’ll probably strut, show off his tail fan, and may even do a bit of spitting and drumming, but an accompanied tom isn’t one to abandon one sure thing to go looking for another.

The tom that’s all alone and hangs up is being cautious. He could be an educated bird, one that has encountered this routine and is being extra wary. Or, he could be en route to his favorite strutting zone. The odds of convincing him to change directions are slim.

You have a couple of options to deal with a tom that hangs up. The first is to keep calling from the same location and listen as he moves away from you. A single hen with a gobbler will lead that gobbler away from competition. The second, and more viable option is to get a fix on the turkeys’ direction, then move so that you’ve put yourself in their path. Put simply, you have to put yourself where that gobbler wants to go.

For the gobbler surrounded by seven, eight or even up to 10 hens, it might work to become more aggressive in your calling by incorporating sharp clucks, excited hen calling and the like. What you’re aiming for is to convince the boss hen to come your way, dragging the gobbler and all of those other hens in behind her. My personal preference is to play coy. I’ll just move to get in front of their travel path and then call to bring the gobbler toward me.

We humans expect that tom to be real quick in responding to our calls, but it doesn’t work like that in the turkey’s world. Usually, he’s in no hurry. He’s just not programmed to come running in like that. Dominant gobblers are preconditioned to doing a very few things in the spring: Find a good roosting area, call the hens close to him, fly down somewhere in the morning where the hens can find him, eat, drink, and then find some more hens. That’s about it. When we hunt them, we’re trying to trick them into breaking that routine.

The Effects of Elevation

Biological studies tell us mature gobblers don’t like to come downhill. Usually, a tom will climb to the top of a ridge and look down to see any hen that might be trying to gain his attention. He will fan out and strut to attract her to him.

If you find yourself in terrain with varying elevations, you want to hunt from a position equal to or higher in elevation than the gobbler. Unless he’s extremely lonely, the likelihood that he will go uphill to find a hen is far greater than the chances of him heading downhill.

For the gobbler that gains an elevated position on you that you cannot overcome without giving yourself away, the best advice is to use a high-pitched, loud call such as a boat paddle-style box call. Use it to create some real sparks and get that gobbler fired up and gobbling. And be patient. I’ve watched gobblers stand completely still at the top of a ridge for upwards of 15 minutes, just watching and observing what’s going on around him. Too often hunters will give up too soon, and just as they stand up to move along, they spook a gobbler that has finally decided to come in quietly.

Afternoon Hunts

While it’s true that a majority of gobblers are killed within the first hour of daylight, don’t overlook later in the day. It’s the next best time to be in the woods.

There are a couple of ways to go about afternoon hunting. The first is a rather hit-or-miss proposition. It entails sitting in good turkey habitat and calling infrequently to try to gain the attention of a passing gobbler. The second way is far more effective.

You should try to find turkeys in fields or along wood lines, and then position yourself to call to them. This is a time when the hens that were with a gobbler earlier in the day have departed his company to go lay eggs. The gobbler will, naturally, be looking for more hens to breed. But don’t expect him to gobble during an afternoon hunt. He is more than likely going to come in silently.

One of the best times to find turkeys out in the open is during a rainstorm. Observation has shown us that turkeys get out of the woods when it’s raining. Hearing is one of their best defense mechanisms, but rain falling in the woods impedes their ability to hear, so the birds will move into open fields, pastures and other open areas to use their eyes to detect any approaching predators or other dangers. Such turkeys will respond to calling, if you choose your calling position wisely and put yourself in front of the turkey’s chosen path.

Hunting the Roosts

There’s a huge difference in how Eastern and Osceola wild turkeys use roosts compared to Merriam’s or Rio Grande turkeys. While Easterns and Osceolas will change roost sites several times during a given week, their Western counterparts tend to use the same roosting areas night after night unless they are disturbed.

It’s important that hunters pursuing either the Merriam’s or Rio Grandes do not hunt those birds in close proximity to their roost. Sure, you might kill a gobbler fresh off a roost on opening morning, but any other toms in the area will be long gone and far more difficult to find after that.

Merriam’s and Rio Grande gobblers look for roosts in areas where they feel comfortable and safe from predators. Once that comfort level is lost, it’s anybody’s guess where they will be the next morning.

Radio telemetry studies indicate that Rio Grande turkeys will travel up to five miles from their roost in a given day, and then return to that same roost in the evening. Your chances of patterning that bird once he’s on the ground are good, and not targeting him at his roosting area will ensure that you will know where to find him to start the next day.

Telemetry studies also tell us that gobblers tend to expand their daily travel routes later in spring than they do in the first days of the hunting season. It’s early in the season when a gobbler will find himself surrounded by hens ready for breeding. Once those hens have been bred and are going to their nests to lay or incubate eggs, the gobblers increase their amount of travel to find other hens. Be sure to check areas late in the season where you did not see birds earlier in the season. Those areas could come into play as the gobblers expand their range looking for hens.

Sub-Dominant Toms

I once moved a clutch of young turkeys for a university study to a pen at my house. One of the males was obviously the dominant bird of the bunch. They hatched in April, and in November of their first year, I noticed one of the other males sitting off in a corner, bleeding from his head. He had lost a dominance fight with the superior clutch mate. I nursed him back to health, but he never again attempted to take a dominant position in the flock.

The following January, it happened again with another of the toms in the flock. The dominant tom asserted himself over the lesser bird. It too required some nursing and never again attempted to challenge the dominant bird.

We hear a lot about a flock’s pecking order. This is how dominance is initiated. But the study of these birds also pointed out this dominance is sustained throughout a turkey’s life. Once a male turkey assumes a sub-dominant role in the flock, he will usually never become the dominant bird even if the dominant bird is killed.

This reaction to dominance also affects the physical attributes of gobblers. While dominant male turkeys will develop a heavy, healthy breast sponge, the sub-dominant birds’ breast sponges never fully develop.

Sub-dominant toms tend to become satellite gobblers that act as sentinels for the real strutters. From a biological perspective, harvesting these satellite gobblers makes more sense than trying to wait for the strutter to come into play. All it takes is one blown hunting opportunity to educate these birds and heighten their wariness for the entire spring turkey season. While the strutter is busy with breeding hens, it’s the birds with the extra set of eyeballs that will become educated and make that strutter far more difficult to hunt the next time out. The best advice is to take that satellite tom out of the flock while the big guy’s attention is diverted, then come back for the dominant bird later.

With these few examples, it should be plain to see how biology can be used to sharpen your hunting skills in the turkey woods and help you develop into a woods-wise hunter. Biologists across North America continue to learn about these magnificent birds, providing all of us information that just a couple of generations ago could be obtained only by a lifetime of spring seasons spent in the woods. It’s a shortcut we’d all be wise to follow.

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