I am no doctor, but like everyone else in America these days I do have an opinion and I am pretty certain spring turkey hunting is a great way to social distance.
But then I am partial to leaning back on the trunk of an old oak at sunrise listening to the birds gobble from the roost and trying to trick a big tom into shotgun range.
It has always been amazing to me that more hunters don’t participate in the spring season. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, an estimated 42,000 hunted mostly Rio Grande turkeys last year. Sadly, it is a number that has been dropping the past six years.
That is surprising because when it all happens right, it can easily be one of the most exciting and challenging hunts in Texas.
It is a simple sport requiring little more on the hunter’s part than a shotgun, No. 5 shot shells, some type of call and head-to-toe camouflage. The only other needed ingredient are the turkeys themselves.
This could be an interesting year because there may not be a lot of mature Rio Grande turkey.
“There are a ton of jakes out there this year, but not a lot of 2- and 3-year-old toms,” said Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader. “Fortunately, with our low harvest rates across the Rio range, we always have some mature toms out there. This year they will be 4- and 5-year-old birds.”
In the South, turkey hunting is more of a religion like deer hunting in Texas. Long spurs and beard reaching to the ground are just as revered as giant antlers. They have learned the challenge of finding the birds each spring, and work at perfecting the art of calling them. That seems to be a bigger challenge with eastern wild turkeys than the Rio Grandes that are prominent in Texas. My guess is because increased hunting pressure makes the birds more wary. Rios are not considered the smartest bird in the tree.
The idea behind turkey hunting is for the hunter to undertake the role of the hen. The closer the shot, the more challenging.
The problem is this is not how nature works. In the wild, the mature toms call and unbred hens come running.
But reversing the situation can work, and it could be especially successful with a higher number of jakes in the population. Jakes, a year-old bird, have not been alive long enough to have heard a hen call. Typically they are easier to pull in and often will bring a mature bird with them.
The trick is knowing which is which. Of course, appearance-wise, the easiest marker is the beard. A jake is going to have one 4 inches or less.
Then there is the gobble. Jakes have a short, or broken, gobble. A mature tom’s is fuller and lasts longer. It is like thunder rumbling through a valley.
Whether using a box, mouth or slate call, hunters can really get away with knowing just two or three calls, a soft or tree yelp, a fly-down cackle and a yelp. The key is not to overcall or call too loudly. The temptation is to return every gobble with a call, but it is better to leave them wanting more. I don’t know it for a fact, but it seems that overcalling creates a situation where the tom feels he has the upper hand and he expects the overly-amorous hen to come to him.
To be successful, start with knowing where the toms are roosting. Rio Grandes typically roost in the same area every night because of a lack of roost areas. There is an art of setting up just the right distance and a lot of it depends on the cover you have to slip in unnoticed. The trick is to get set up without the bird seeing you no matter what the situation.
It also helps to know which direction they go after flying down. Even if they are with hens, they are going to start the morning strutting on a road or in an open field to be visible to any interesting hens. If you can get them to fly down directly to you, catching them strutting is another good time to work the birds.
A lot of hunters will give up early on spring birds when the truth is they can be hunted all day. If a tom starts the day with a hen, eventually they are going to separate and the old saying is that any tom that is gobbling during the day can be successfully hunted.
There are three things hunters need to think about during the spring season — chiggers and ticks, rattlesnakes and amorous skunks. The bugs can be handled with Permethrin spray on clothes and DEET on skin. Snakes require paying attention while walking and stepping around brush piles and clumps of grass where snakes may hide. With skunks, just give them space.
The spring season in the south zone opened March 21 and remains open through May 3. The north zone is April 4 through May 17.