The Perfect Turkey Hunt

The word “perfect” is seldom used when one describes a turkey hunt. There are so many variables that can adversely affect the hunt. Weather, natural barriers, other hunters and other animals can all cause a big tom to shut-up and/or leave the area. To be involved in a perfect turkey hunt is mainly luck.

Taking a boss gobbler of the big levee made room for another big bird to take its place.

Last year I did have such a hunt. As a matter of fact, that is how I can describe my entire 1999 spring turkey season. I always have read about, heard about and talked about the pecking order of the wild turkey. Last year, I got to see that behavior first-hand. What I saw validated much of what I have come to learn and understand about gobblers.

Because Illinois has such a different method of allocating its spring turkey seasons, one can legally hunt from the middle of April to almost the middle of May, with the right permits. I hunted with John and Sue Caldwell who outfit turkey hunts at “The Break” each spring. A large portion of those hunts takes place right on the Mississippi River levee that keeps the river off their farm.

The gobblers there roost both in timber outside the levee and in swampy woods inside the levee. They use the levee as their strut zones because it is the only high ground for miles around. Each dominant tom controls about a mile of the levee.

Establishing A Pecking Order
In March an order of dominance or “pecking order” is established. The mature birds have confrontations as they choose and defend their part of the levee. The younger and / or less dominant gobblers will then fight among themselves to see where they will fall when it comes time to breed in early April. By mating season, this order is well defined by the birds in a given area.

As the peak of the breeding season arrives, many times frustrated sub-dominant gobblers will challenge the Alpha male to try to take his place in the order. These fights can be loud, long and painful for both the winner and the loser. Turkey biologists say that the Alpha male, or “Boss Gobbler” gets to choose the prime breeding area. Other males are not welcome here and he defends this space very aggressively. Theoretically, if he is not present to defend his spot, the next most dominant male in this pre-set order takes his place and is in-turn challenged again by the others.

The Caldwells have three natural hunting blinds built at the base of the levee about a half-mile apart. I have hunted spring gobblers there for the past five seasons. There always are Alpha males controlling the levee at all three blinds.

Last year, during scouting trips John and I had discovered that the big bird on that section of levee roosted about 200 yards east of the sand ridge. Each morning he would gobble from his roost, then fly down and slowly make his way to HIS levee. There he would gobble and strut and display, attracting and breeding hens right there.

The author’s natural blind hides him well from the telescopic eyes of a gobbler.

We also discovered that there were two other gobblers roosting in the same general area. We guessed that these were 2-year-old toms because of their constant gobbling and strutting. They did their ritual in a winter wheat field in full sight of, but several hundred yards from the big bird on the levee. Hens seldom, if ever, paid them any attention, always going to the levee for service.

There also were several jakes roosting inside the levee. These birds could pop-up anytime, anywhere. They were tolerated by the other toms, but just barely.

The first morning of the season was miserable. Heavy rain and strong winds from thunderstorms curtailed the turkey activity and cut our hunt short at mid-morning.

Weather Turns On Gobblers
On Tuesday the sun rose and the gobblers went nuts. The big bird gobbled at least 20 times from his roost. Every time he would call, the 2-year-olds would both respond with double gobbles, trying to out-do their superior. The dominant bird ignored their weak threats and was on top of the levee by 7 a.m.

The two younger birds gobbled their defiance at the big tom for over an hour. They wanted him off the levee, they just wanted no part of that process. Luckily for them, at 8:25 a.m. I solved their problem for them. He weighed 24 pounds and had an 11-3/4-inch beard.

Less than a week after the alpha tom was harvested on the levee, this sub-dominate adult tom was taken from the same blind.

The following morning John had another hunt from the same blind. The 2-year-old toms came out into the wheat field, but seemed perplexed that their adversary was not on the levee.

On Thursday morning they were gobbling from different ends of the woods. About 6:30 a.m., they flew-down and met in the wheat field. The feathers flew as they flogged and spurred each other. They clucked and yelped and purred as they fought.

The winner of the fight did not take long to recover. He began gobbling and strutting within 15-minutes. The following morning, we used a full-strut jake decoy on the levee, and the new boss lost no time in getting there. His forgotten companion still patrolled the wheat field, now alone. The inexperienced tom came to the challenging decoy like he was on a tight string, and the hunter ended his reign.

In all, 14 gobblers came off the levee at “The Break” last year. Several theories about the pecking order of wild turkeys were validated by last year’s observations.

To reserve your spot on “The Break’s” levee, call John Caldwell at 217-647-3355.

For a fine selection of Turkey Hunting gear, click here.

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