For those who dwell in the urban jungles, the first sounds of spring is usually a small songbird with a few chirps only audible when the rest of the city is silent. It is soft and short, bereft of any kind of force.
Hunters listen for something different altogether. A loud, multi note trill shatters quiet mornings before the sun rises, giving turkeys their moniker ‘thunder chickens’. After the winter, it is a turkey gobble that announces spring's arrival. It is exhilarating to a hunter’s ear and only rivaled by the bugle of an elk.
Hunters Have It Backwards
Turkeys Are Predictably Unpredictable
The best case scenario for a turkey hunter is to set up just before the first light and elicit a gobble from a roosting bird. When legal shooting time brings the first touch of gold to everything, another few notes from a diaphragm is answered and the bird eliminates all detours on his way to you.
It can all be over in just a few minutes—leaving you a little unsatisfied that your season was so short, but also feeling accomplished that everything went exactly right. This is extremely rare and few stories like it exist.
Instead, turkey hunting usually plays like a game of chess. Effective calling will unfold into a full conversation of back and forth messages that make the hunter believe a gobbler is on his way. What sounded like a very interested tom becomes silent. He offers no new clue to his position or intentions and the hunter begins to wonder what he did wrong.
Frustrated, he packs up to leave and from the corner of the eye, sees a retreating bird that had circled wide to come in from behind. There was no mention from either party of a change in plans. The stage had been set with a hen decoy thirty yards into the cleared meadow. The lesson learned is even when everything is performed as scripted, turkeys play by their own rulebook.
The Challenge Keeps Hunters Coming Back
The hope of outsmarting an old tom, wise to ways of a hunter, is the draw of spring turkey hunting. A soft purr will tell the tom a hen is relaxed and feeding. Yelping several notes tells a tom to come here, and cluck is just an alluring “what are you waiting for?”
Used together as the correct answers to a tom’s questions, they move him from cautious to committed. The back and forth is a second language required of hunters who successfully harvest birds. Learning it requires time afield and more listening than speaking.
Beyond all of this, turkey hunting offers a variety to please every hunter’s preference. Minimalists with just a decoy and shotgun can “run and gun” as they cover ground in search of a bird willing to answer a call. Traditionalists opt to sit in a blind over a cut grain field with a decoy, frequently calling and waiting for a receptive tom.
Many states offer multiple tags and nonresident licenses are a fraction of big game pursuits. Spring can mean unpredictable weather, but is generally pleasant. The reward at the end of the hunt is a bird that is deliciously different from its domestic cousin and best cooked low and slow.
About the Author: Everett Headley is an outdoor writer and educator. He was raised hunting and fishing in Montana. He lives in the Bitterroot with his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Cane, and his peregrine falcon, Freyja. You can find more of his work on his website, on Instagram @everettheadley, and his podcast Elevate The Hunt.