It’s the bane of every early-season turkey hunter. Cold, wet skies stick around and won’t give you the beach weather required for a morning time gobble fest. What’s worse, the birds that spent all winter marching to a picked cornfield or cattle rancher’s feedlot seem to be stuck in that roost-to-food, food-to-roost rut.
You can try to get as close as possible and sweet talk a tom into your setup, but peeling off a bird from a dozen potential girlfriends is no easy task. Sure, you’ll get some courtesy gobbles and watch a long-distance display of strutting action, but that’s about it. You’ll need a new strategy to succeed when the birds are balled up and unwilling to play.
Wait Them Out
Several years ago, a buddy and I drove to Nebraska for an early season public land hunt. The late March birds were flocked up, and the best we could do was watch as 75 turkeys vacuumed their way back and forth across a giant cornfield.
After a couple of days of this, I noticed one morning that the toms were starting to get really aggressive with each other. Cold weather be damned, their tolerance of other males disappeared and they fought nearly nonstop for two hours. Not only was it impressive to watch, but it was also a crash-course in turkey vocalizations.
With nothing to do, I sat in the blind all day long waiting for their hostility to turn towards my dekes. I never had a bird anywhere near me for days—even though dozens laid eyes on my spread and heard me call—until late one afternoon. Two toms gobbled and walked right into my decoys. I shot the feathers off one and watched as both dinosaur-ran their way out of my life. I was a broadhead blade-length away from improbable success, and all because I stuck it out and waited for the inevitable turkey rut to begin.
As I saw on that trip and many others, sunrise hunts are a lost cause with flocked-up birds. They seem to go from roost to food quickly and spend hours focused on calories. Eventually, the forced intimacy of the situation starts to beg the pecking order to right itself. Throughout the day you’ll see small groups of jakes get booted out, and better yet, the 2-year-old toms that can’t win a fight may start looking for greener pastures.
There are quite a few trophies hanging on my beard board from toms that broke off late in the day to go for a cruise. They simply couldn’t contain themselves when they spotted a few hens being guarded by a submissive jake. Even in nasty, blizzard conditions I’ve watched this happen, which tells me that there’s an awful lot of seasonal timing and photoperiodism at play here. If you’re out in early April and dealing with big flocks, don’t leave the woods until legal shooting light disappears.
Early season birds stick together, which means if you want your decoys to represent what toms expect to see, you need to assemble a flock of your own. I like my spread to include one submissive jake with at least three hens—sometimes more if I can carry them. The time for a solo hen is much later in the season when nesting is going on—not right now.
Be sure to give cruising toms not only something to look at, but also to listen to. Very rarely do multiple birds get together and not talk nonstop. This conversation might not consist of uninterrupted, continuous yelping and cutting, rather it will usually be full of soft, plaintive yelps, clucks, and purrs. It will also involve plenty of scratching, because most hens this time of year are thinking calories, not amorous encounters.
Do your best to be out there when the longbeards are likely to go wandering, and think about what they are looking for when they do. Even if they’re too dumb to understand it, gobblers expect to see smaller flocks of hens on the landscape. Fresh off of aggressive encounters with the big dogs of the flock, a jake that looks like he’s about to lose his V-card to a sexy hen is the perfect target for their rage. That’s a scene that no flocked-up bird can resist.
Feature image via Captured Creative.