Early-Bird Toms

Taking on a gobbler in open woods is tough business!

It was opening day of turkey season and it seemed as though someone forgot to tell Mother Nature. The cold wind blew and a very wet snow began falling; not the kind of weather one looks forward to when hunting. Each year, my husband John and I begin hunting on opening day and have savored success on many occasions despite less than ideal weather conditions.

Many veteran turkey hunters talk about the early season and the challenges it presents, which makes hunting more difficult. This does not mean you cannot hunt the early season and bag your bird, however. There are several factors to consider as you head into the winter-like turkey woods.

Shortage Of Greenery
In most cases, the woods’ floor is still barren and trees have not yet begun to bloom. Setting up before first light is crucial as this enables you to be within reach of roosted birds before the fly-down. Getting too close, however, can flush birds. Therefore it is best to do your homework and know the terrain. Turkeys have favorite roost areas, including trees on the fringes of lakes or ponds, dense pine thickets, and valleys in the hardwoods. 

This early-season hunter is in open woods, nestling into the thickest cover available, which forces the gobbler to look for the hen. (Photo by John and Vikki L. Trout)

One tactic that has worked for us is to put the gobbler to bed. It is so helpful to know where that turkey went up at dark, because he will be there at first light, assuming all went well through the night and he did not get flushed. Once you sneak out after dark, return to that location the next morning before daylight. You may want to leave a marker just to insure you are at the same spot come morning.

Getting Close
Moving around in open woods is no easy task. There have been countless times we have reached our “listening spot” only to hear a gobbler off in the distance. This is where gently rolling hills come in handy. Since it is nearly impossible to move in open woods while the bird is on the roost, we typically wait until fly down to relocate. Then, the hills can be used to hide. Ditches and creekbeds also can be used for concealment as you move towards the gobbling bird. 

Once you have reached your setup destination, the trick is to convince the gobbler to come through the open woods. Getting behind a small hill or in brush can then make the turkey hunt for you. If you can set-up within 40- to 50 yards of a hilltop, this will cause the bird to be within range when he comes into view.

Brush between you and the gobbler works the same way. If you can have a tree against your back and foliage in front, he has to come close to find the hen. Remember you are not the only one that can see everywhere. If the gobbler scans the woods and cannot find the hen that he heard, he quickly departs. 

Having the caller set up behind the shooter aids in bringing a gobbler within range. This tactic has paid of on several occasions for us when hunting open woods. The caller sets up about 30- to 40 yards behind the shooter. Since the turkey can pinpoint the exact location of the call, he can easily step within gun range of the shooter.

Dealing With Hens
Hens are seldom nesting when turkey season opens. Moreover, when hens are breeding, they have no desire whatsoever to share their gobbler with any other hen in the woods. Therefore, to hunt the gobbler, you have to hunt the hen. The problem is that hens are difficult to figure out. There are those that hear your call and run away taking the gobbler with them, and yet there are others looking for a fight. 

If you can figure out which hen you are dealing with, you increase your chance for success. We usually try soft calls to assure the hen we are looking for company and have no interest in her gobbler. If that doesn’t work, try moving to a new location and get more aggressive with calling. This could make her think she has a “floozy” in the woods, which spells trouble and competition for her. This increases the possibility that the hen will come in to let the intruder know she is not welcome.

Cold, Wet Weather
Many turkey seasons come in before winter has lost its grip to spring. Being prepared to stay outdoors is important to success. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, my opening morning was cold, windy and snowing. Surprisingly though, a longbeard came into our calls. However, he never offered a shot before taking one look around and leaving. The second day of season was also cold and windy, but a dandy long-beard came in silently. This time the bird walked within range of my shotgun.

As I prepared this article in February 2011, I can see the open woods through my office window. Snow flurries are falling. Turkey season is close and it looks like we will be bringing in another cold one. I can hardly wait!

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