Hit Me With Your Best Shot
Turkey hunters looking for a new challenge or a reason to extend the season need to pick up a stick and string. The up-close nature of archery brings new adventure and tactics to hunting sharp-eyed wild turkeys. Nebraska and Kansas archery hunters have their own season up to 10 days earlier than firearm hunters. Iowa resident archery hunters have a six-week turkey season.
Early Season Archery
Hunting early in the season presents many challenges including inclement weather, winter flocking birds, negative reaction to calling, ignoring or reacting negatively to decoys and rapidly changing daily flock habits. Here are some tips and observations on beating the odds and sticking an early season gobbler:
Be Prepared for the Weather
You may have experienced one of many out-of-the ordinary storm systems in spring 2013. While drying out from a monsoon at a turkey hunt in Alabama, I saw on the Weather Channel that Winter Storm Virgil was burying the Rockies and my next hunting spot in a heavy layer of snow. When the storm affecting your spot has a name, expect a tough hunt and pack accordingly. Waterproof Mossy Oak bibs and jacket and insulated boots were added to my duffle bag headed to Custer County, Neb. Make sure you practice shooting with your gear on.
Changing Flock Dynamics
Until the storm hit, turkey flocks were starting to disperse from their traditional winter roosting spots and head to breeding areas. The storm seemed to reverse that trend, as turkeys returned to their winter roosting sites. Spring hunting spots that held small flocks dried up as birds moved back to winter roosts. Pecking orders were re-established, gobbler groups were constantly fighting, and hens dominated most of the conversations on the roost and the ground. Hunting tactics switched from spring to winter. Hunting routes become more important than calling birds. If you are not along the route, call it a day – or find another spot. Roosting evening birds and knowing their routes in and out of the roost is essential when habits change due to weather.
Too Many Eyes and Ears
Some may think more birds mean more opportunities, but more birds made things worse. When hunting a roost with just a few birds, standing out with your calling or decoys is pretty easy. When you are trying to stand out among a roost of several hundred birds, you are just noise, often ignored or treated warily, because you are often the one bird separated from the flock. Sneaking in or out of the area is complicated because there is always one bird that sees or hears you, starts putting and warns the others to skirt the strange looking turkey by itself on the ground. Use a portable blind whenever possible. With so many eyes and ears, it is hard to set up on a roost without being seen. Leave early enough that the birds do not see you moving into position.
Be Prepared to Move
Since flock dynamics were in flux, it seemed there was a different bird in charge every morning. They would fly down in a new spot and take a different route in and out of the roost. If your initial set up is a failure, have a backup blind set up in a late-morning spot, usually a field where they are feeding, scratching or dusting. It may take a few days to figure out routes, so pre-scouting is essential for success. Archery manufacturers such as Browning make hunting packs that serve as vests designed to carry compound bows or crossbows, leaving your hands free to carry gear or scout your next spot using binoculars.
Be flexible when using decoys. I watched some groups where the gobblers were too busy fighting to take on a full strutter on display. Hens — especially dominant hens — were often offended by decoys that did not toe the line when challenged at a distance. Sometimes an alpha hen led her whole flock over to give a decoy a piece of her mind. Watch the bird's body language to see if decoys can help or hurt the hunt.
In Farm Country, Work with the Farmer
Early season turkey hunting usually coincides with planting preparation. Find out where things are happening with the farmer and plan accordingly.
Know Your Distance
Archers know judging distance is critical for accurate shot placement. If snow is blanketing the ground, distance is tough to gauge without reference points. Measure and mark known distances using rocks, sticks or trees.
Calling came down to the individual bird. Some toms were curious about a hot hen and gobbled their heads off, but we were off the flocks main route of travel. Gobblers were willing to make a lot of noise, but unwilling to move more than 20 feet from their route. Calling too much sometimes agitated a hen to move her entire flock to another route, so watch what you say. Annoying her may get her to bring the flock for an argument, but enraging her usually meant you watched dozens of birds marching away from your setup.
Be Willing to Knock on Doors
For the first few days, we watched a flock of more than 100 birds fly down and cross a property we did not have permission to hunt. The outfitter made a few phone calls, tracked down the owner, asked nicely and we were finally on birds on the last days of the hunt.
At times hunting Nebraskas early season gobblers resembled a fall/winter hunt rather than a spring adventure, but as the days warmed and snow melted, flocks started to break up and, by the end of the week, things changed rapidly. Be prepared and flexible.