Article by Contributing Writer J. Minich.
Spring turkeys have long been a nemesis of mine. I’m not talking about a Captain Ahab and Moby Dick situation, because my efforts have been more casual than obsessive. Yet, in my 16 year hunting career I have yet to kill one. I have taken fall birds, and truthfully, my addiction to walleye fishing as well as life’s general obligations have caused turkeys to slide pretty far down the priority list some seasons. Still, I have put in many hours and been defeated by missed shots, other hunters, hung-up birds, season ending injuries, and a handful of other occasions when Murphy’s Law was the only explanation why there was a tag in my noodle soup in place of the turkey.
Despite all these frustrations, this year I found myself more determined than ever to finally down a longbeard as the gentle warming of spring again triggered the explosion of vibrant new life. Life as hunter is such a beautiful cycle of nature’s seasons, with each bringing a renewed sense of optimism and focus.
I started scouting for turkeys in early April, a first for me. I found six gobblers in a new spot on public land, as well as a couple here and there in other locations. I felt good about my chances, and for the first time even scheduled a couple vacation days to chase thunder chickens up and down the hills of Central PA.
The forecast for the first day predicted cold, but clear and calm post-frontal weather. Phew, no issue with my walleye addiction, being about the worst walleye weather you can ask for. I planned a backpack trip into the place I scouted in April with the five gobblers.
The workdays leading up to the opener drag by as they always do, but finally I head North the afternoon before the season begins. Cold rain persists through the afternoon so I ditch my plans to backpack, opting for the relative comfort of sleeping in the back of my SUV.Â I fail to roost any gobblers that evening, but I find a lot of fresh sign, including a broken turkey egg, and remain confident that I would find action the next day.
The alarm pierces my sleep much too early, and I prepare my gear and ease around the mountain targeting a patch of hemlock beside a clearcut where I guessed the birds could be roosted since I was unable to locate them the evening before. As I approach the towering hemlocks, my suspicions are confirmed when two gobbles answer the call of a distant screech owl. I creep in and setup right between them, hoping I can pull them in with my seductive calls. This setup is the stuff of magazines and TV shows, clearly I am set! As the gray skies continue to lighten, I hear the dreaded yelps and clucks of hens on the roost. Not just a couple hens, but at least six or eight, scattered around the grove of hemlocks. This would be tough to compete with.
I stay fairly quiet until the moment seems right and I attempt to sound like the first hen to fly down hoping to pull one of the gobblers my direction.Â I attempt my best fly down cackle and thrash my hat, which elicits immediate gobbles from each side, but then nearly immediate cackles and fly-downs from the real hens, one of which lands about 40 yards away. I continue yelping and cutting but the next gobble just a couple minutes later sounds off a ways down the mountain. I was hoping these were different birds but it becomes clear the gobblers heard or saw something more appealing and pitched off in the different direction.
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The first day here is often met by a henned-up phase of the breeding cycle, and it was clear this would be the case again. The rest of the morning is dead silent on the gobbling front as I walk between calling setups hoping to bring in a silent bird. As I am hiking back to my truck right before the noon quitting time, I bump a gobbler in an open strutting area, cursing my bad fortune but marking the area for future hunts.
My work schedule does not allow me to get out at all until the following Friday, one of my planned vacation days. I plan to hunt Friday morning then fish for walleye in the afternoon and all day Saturday (I know, there I go again with the commitment to getting this done! So much to choose from in the Spring and so little time).Â Now I am in Western PA, where I grew up, hunting patchwork public and private land that I have permission to hunt.
This area holds quite a few birds but they are heavily hunted and alter their patterns quite frequently, largely spending time on private land I cannot access. I head to a spot where they historically roost, but hear no turkeys as the forest awakens to another beautiful spring morning.
As so often happens in hunting, action came next when I least expected it. Â I am poking around the corner of a field, pondering my next move, when a gobble rings out a hundred yards or so through the woods. I quickly find a good tree with some cover to break up my outline and setup. I cut and yelp on my diaphragm call and the gobbler immediate answers with three enthusiastic gobbles. Just then I catch movement to my left at 30 yards, and it’s a turkey! This is looking good!
Nope, not the gobbler, rather a hen heading in the gobbler’s direction. My heart sinks knowing what this likely means to my chances but I cut and yelp away hoping I can pull the tom in without him catching sight of the real hen, who is now cutting and yelping as well. Within seconds I catch the white head of the gobbler through the underbrush about 75 yards out and my chances are looking good until he pulls an abrupt u-turn and heads the other way, assumedly because he caught sight of the real hen. He runs off to get some action, not to be heard from again. Good result for him, bad one for me. Foiled again!
Frustrated, I check a few more spots, but hear nothing the rest of the morning. An expert turkey hunter likely would have hung around there all morning until the tom freed up from his frisky lady and came looking for me, but an expert turkey hunter clearly I am not.
And so ends the first part of the story as I stuck to my plan to fish the rest of the weekend. Several more hunting days lie ahead to try to tackle this personal goal of mine, including the second part of the season when afternoon/evening hunting is allowed which is much easier to coordinate with work. Not every great hunting story ends with a harvest, but here’s to hoping this one does. Stay tuned for my chronicle of the second half of the season.
About the Author
Joe lives in Centre County, PA with his wife and growing family. He lives to bowhunt, especially elk hunting out West, in addition to whatever is in season around his home. Joe also is an obsessed fisherman, especially walleyes, and he dabbles in foraging from time to time. Joe most enjoys utilizing the bounties his lifestyle provides by cooking frequently and constantly experimenting with new methods and ingredients. Connect with Joe on Instagram @j.r.minich