Everybody loves opening-day gobblers. It’s nice to call in a big old longbeard right off the roost first thing opening morning and get him bagged and tagged early. It’s what every turkey hunter dreams of.
Unfortunately, hopes and wishes don’t put turkeys in the freezer.
I was lucky enough to fill not one but two of my Nebraska turkey tags on opening morning this season, but it doesn’t always go that easy. I’ve had turkey seasons that dragged on into late-April or even May. One year, it was Memorial Day before I dropped the hammer on an old Kansas patriarch.
Those seasons that seemingly last forever can really take their toll on a turkey hunter’s mind, body and soul. Not only is there the physical aspect of repeatedly getting up early that tires one out, but the battle inside the mind can become particularly cumbersome. Feelings of self-doubt (and self-loathing) start creeping in as the season progresses. The turkeys start getting into your head. The mind games, those played by the birds and by our own psyche, can be crippling.
Don’t throw in the towel just yet, though. Here are some ways to keep your head in the game and hopefully punch that tag before the season ends or you go nuts.
Patience isn’t just a virtue in turkey hunting — it’s essential. After the first week or two of the season, the pressure’s on to make something happen. But that doesn’t mean you should go running willy-nilly through the woods. The same methodical approach to turkey hunting that applies anytime of the year becomes especially important in the late-season. When you strike a bird, calm down, take a few breaths, and be patient. Don’t let the bird dictate the pace; make him come to you on your own terms.
In that same vein, call in moderation. Don’t overcall and blow a bird out of the woods. This is particularly important in the late-season, when gobblers have likely been called to by several hunters. They didn’t survive this long by being stupid.
You shouldn’t be either. While you might feel desperate, don’t let the bird know that. Call sparingly, just enough to let the tom know you’re there and interested. Think about it — boys are always most interested in the girl who plays hard-to-get. In this case, that’s you, as you play the part of a coy little hen. Give the gobbler enough to tease him, and then shut up. And get your gun ready, too.
The late-season is no time for experimenting with small-bores or light loads. Use the most gun you can comfortably handle. For many that means a 3-inch 12-gauge, but if you can stand a 3½-inch or even a 10-gauge, use it. Now’s the time to pull out the big guns. Also, use enough choke. Pressured, late-season gobblers have a tendency to only come in so far and then hang up. While I like to call ’em in close just as much as the next hunter, the reality is that’s probably not as likely to happen as the season progresses. Be prepared for every contingency and use a gun, tight choke, and heavy payload that can reach out to 40 yards or a little beyond and cleanly kill a turkey.
Nothing beats killing a gobbler just as the sun cracks the Eastern horizon, but in the real world of turkey hunting, that situation doesn’t play out as often as TV shows or DVDs would indicate. This is especially true in the late-season. Turkeys have grown used to a bunch of yahoos running around the woods at first light. The survivors have learned to keep their mouths shut until around mid-morning, when they can happily go about their normal daily turkey activities unmolested.
By mid-morning, a lot of late-season hens have also left their boyfriends to go lay eggs or sit on their nests. That means gobblers are lonely, desperate, and vulnerable. Slip into the woods around noon or even in the afternoon (if legal) and it’ll likely be just you and Mr. Tom. Over the years, I’ve killed a lot of late-season turkeys around noontime.
A lot of those mid-day birds were wizened old gobblers, but that doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to longbeards. If a yearling jake or 2-year-old answers your calls and comes into range, by all means shoot him, especially if there’s only a few weeks or days left in the season. The late-season is no time to be picky. Longbeards are nice, but any legal bird is a trophy in my book. Besides, tender young jakes taste a whole lot better than a worn-down old boss tom whose energy reserves are depleted by weeks of hard breeding.
We began this discussion with patience, and we end it with another equally important turkey hunting virtue — perseverance. It’s an absolute fact that you won’t get anything if you’re not out there hunting. Be persistent. I know, it gets difficult as the season winds down and lawn care, fishing, and other interests and chores compete for our time. The early-morning wake-up calls have also long since ceased being fun. But don’t give up. Get out there in the woods and hunt, even if it’s just for an hour or two. That might be all the longer it takes to tag a late-season tom.
As for my current season, two days after enjoying opening day success, I slipped into the woods after work. A half-hour later, I struck a gobbler with a box call, and continued calling sparingly as he inched his way forward. I’d just sat the box down and readied my gun when he came into view. I was loath to call any more, but needed him to move just a bit to the right so I could thread the 3½-inch payload of Magnum Blend through the brush. I gave three soft yelps on a mouth call. That was all it took.
My reward for getting out there, being patient, calling sparingly, and making the shot was a nice fat jake, which I happily tagged. Just like that, my Nebraska season was over. I knelt and thanked the Lord for a short and successful season.
However, as I write this in late April, the late-season has officially begun, and I’ve still got a Kansas permit burning a hole in my vest pocket. My dad still has a few tags to fill, too, so he’s definitely going the distance this spring.
No matter, we’ll be out there until the closing bell — and loving every minute of the late-season.