By Joe Blake
The morning was deathly still, without a single gobble, yelp, or cluck to betray the presence of any birds on the roost. The approaching sunrise painted the eastern horizon with a kaleidoscope of color, and the chill morning air stirred a wisp of fog rising from the cattail slough along the edge of the meadow, but still no turkeys greeted the coming day.
Idly shifting a diaphragm call from one cheek to the other and cradling a box call in my lap, I resisted the temptation to force the action with some calls of my own. Late-season turkeys are much more reluctant to call than their early season counterparts after being hunted for a month or two, so bowhunters should follow suit.
Eventually the sun cleared the trees on the eastern horizon and bathed the meadow in rich, warm light. Songbirds darted through the timber along the edge of the open field, geese honked noisily from the pond, and a lone whitetail doe made her way slowly along the timber's edge en route to her daytime bed, yet still no turkeys sounded off. Finally I'd had enough of the silence and positioned the latex call on the roof of my mouth and gave a few soft yelps. The results were immediate and dramatic!
One second all was calm around my ambush site and the next a thunderous gobble erupted from just inside the trees only a few yards away. How the tom had gotten so close without making a sound I'll never know, but here he was strutting out of the trees less than 25 yards away and closing fast!
Dropping the box call quietly onto my day pack, I eased into position and gently gripped the 57-pound longbow with my left hand. Risking a peek out the back window of the blind, I could see that the huge gobbler had cut the distance in half and was locked on to the hen decoy I had placed out in front of my blind. As he strutted steadily closer, I slipped my fingers around the string and concentrated on the blind's window opening that faced the faux hen.
Booming and spitting nonstop, the big bird closed the distance in a flash, stopping only twice to shatter the countryside with a pair of roaring gobbles, and finally was so close that his fan was actually brushing the east side of my blind! Now, I love a pointblank shot, but this was ridiculous! In fact, the bird was too close, and I had to wait until he cleared the blind and started toward the decoy six yards distant before I made my move.
Turkey hunting with traditional archery equipment has surged in popularity in recent years, and rightly so: Pound for pound, turkeys offer some of the most exciting bowhunting available, and there's nothing quite like a fully inflated tom charging in to pointblank range! Turkeys are also one of our nation's most incredible wildlife success stories, with populations of birds increasing and spreading to all corners of the country and even southern Canada, offering stickbow enthusiasts opportunities like never before.
For myself, I was slow to warm to the thrill of spring turkey hunting. But once I tried it I was hooked, and I now chase birds in two or three states every spring. Unlike a large number of turkey hunters though, who jockey for rights to hunt undisturbed birds during the first or second week of the season, I regularly wait until the last few days of available hunting to try to arrow a trophy tom. Here's why.
When to chase late-season gobblers will depend on where you're hunting, because seasons vary considerably from state to state. Here in Minnesota our season runs for about two months, which is fairly common across the wild turkey's range, coming to a close at or very near the end of May. While most hunters apply for the first or second season of the year, when birds will presumably be easier to hunt and respond better to calling, I like to wait for the end of the season to get serious about birds.
The "why," is twofold. First of all, there are far fewer hunters in the woods, hunters you will have to compete with for birds and even places to hunt. Early in the season it can seem like there's a hunter calling from every patch of timber, but by the tail end of the season, the majority of turkey hunters have either bagged their bird or given up and moved on to other pursuits, like fishing.
If you make it your choice to bowhunt late for toms, you will likely have the woods all to yourself. And fewer hunters around also makes the woods safer, and significantly less likely that a two-legged predator will stalk into your setup.
The second reason to chase birds late is that pretty much all the hens will have been bred already, and these females will be spending most of their day tucked away on a nest somewhere, leaving amorous toms frustrated and on the prowl.
While flocks of birds will still roost together in a preferred stand of timber, and also fly down to feed in these groups, by midmorning the hens will slip away to their nests, leaving the gobblers alone and looking for love. My best late-season hunting often occurs between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
A couple years ago on a trip to Kansas I shot my biggest gobbler to date at 1:30 p.m., a 26-pound brute with an 11-inch beard and 1½-inch spurs, just as a thunderstorm rolled across the prairie. Even though I was in my blind before first light, this was the first and only tom I saw that day, but definitely worth the wait!
All the early season tactics you normally employ will work for late-season toms, but I like to tweak things just a bit to improve my odds of success. First, instead of setting up in large, open fields or pastures with lots of visibility, I prefer to set up in hidden openings in the woods. Remember, the birds have been hunted for at least several weeks, and they will be shy and reluctant to call or show themselves. Small, hidden meadows inside the timber are perfect locations to ambush birds.
Second, I like to plan my hunt as an all-day endeavor. Early mornings are tough during late season because the flocks will be together and suspicious of almost everything after having been pushed hard by other hunters. But after the hens disappear the gobblers will be cruising alone, looking for a last minute date.
A top-quality blind with lots of room is a must, as is a comfortable seat, some food and water, and a good book to help pass the long hours. But if you can hunt all day, you will greatly increase you chances of success. A few years back I drew a late-season tag here in Minnesota, and was in my Primos Double Bull well before daylight.
And while I heard birds off and on all day long, it wasn't until an hour before the end of legal shooting time that a big gobbler made the mistake of following a jake into 18 yards and taking a perfect arrow from my 60-pound Prairie Panther longbow. Success has a way of helping you forget the long day in a blindâ€¦and your sore backside!
Finally, I call a bit differently later in the spring season. As mentioned, late-season birds have already heard their share of hunters lighting up the woods with all manner of turkey music, so I like to call very softly and sparingly on late-season hunts. Forget aggressive yelps, cutts and gobbles, and instead confine your calling to very soft yelps, clucks, and purrs. Turkeys have excellent hearing so you don't have to call loudly, and even calls that are barely audible to you will bring in a gobbler from quite a distance.
I also idle things down where decoys are concerned, preferring a single hen positioned six to 10 yards in front of my blind and facing directly away from my ambush. While hunting earlier in the season, I almost always use a strutting tom decoy because I love the aggressive reactions as the real thing charges in, but later in the year the birds will be much more cautious, making the softer approach to decoying and calling more successful.
It was actually my wife, Kim, who deserves an assist on my 2012 Minnesota bird. After a frustrating season in Kansas and Minnesota, I had been throwing everything into the woods except the kitchen sink, including using strutting gobbler decoys as my season wound down.
But before I went out on my last morning, Kim told me to leave the tom facsimile at home and just set up a single hen, which leads us back to the opening story.
As the big gobbler cleared the blind and strutted up to my hen decoy, I drew smoothly back and sent a heavy, tapered hickory arrow quartering through his back and buried it in his breastbone with a deafening crack. The bird launched himself in the air but came down quickly — and stayed in full strut! I couldn't believe it!
Figuring two arrows are better than one, I waited for the gobbler to turn and quarter away again, and then sent another 850-grain arrow one inch beside the first. This time however, the gobbler decided it would be safer to head to the woods, and he slowly walked off, still in full strut, but tipped over stone dead a scant few yards away, proving that longbows and late-season toms make for a great way to spend a season-ending bowhunt.