The early season is all about the obvious turkeys. They are ones strutting in cut cornfields for their prospective girlfriends as the ladies munch on carbs doing their best to ignore the showoffs. Eventually, the grain they’ve dined on all winter long will give way to earthworms, snails, and all types of bugs, and that obvious field pattern will die.
We are witnessing that right now, and if you’re still sitting on an unfilled tag it’s best to rethink your hunting strategy. A better bet is to focus on the abundance of food in the woods and along wooded trails and adjust your thinking.
Scouting Secret Strutters
Spotting a black ball of feathers in the back of a field isn’t much of a challenge, but that same bird spitting and drumming his way through the May woods is a different story. His visibility drops with the increase in foliage, so you’ll need to get eyes or ears on him in a different way.
While I don’t run them for every hunt, I do occasionally put up trail cameras if I’m going to be helping out some newbie hunters. There is nothing I like more than setting a few cameras over two-tracks in the woods and checking them a few days later to see who has walked by. This strategy, when paired with a couple of mornings of listening to gobbling activity, provides a good glimpse into what the birds are doing on a daily basis. And what they are usually doing is following the hens around wherever the ladies want to eat.
Why this is significant is that there is food everywhere for turkeys now, so the hens will split up and go wherever their little turkey brains lead them. This will fracture up the remaining gobblers, which means you’ve got to know where the hens are spending their time now. That might be along an overgrown logging road or in a grasshopper-filled clearing in the woods, or it might simply be along a series of wooded ridges where they can wander back and forth snacking on six-legged treats.
This goes against traditional turkey hunting wisdom and preferences, but if you want to arrow a May gobbler you often have to set your blinds where you can’t see very far. This is a hard thing for a lot of hunters because it’s more fun to sit on the edge of a field, and we usually justify that by telling ourselves that our decoys will be more visible. While this is true, May birds are highly callable and this only gets better if you are where they expect hens to be.
This will probably not be on the edge of a field that was the hotspot in April.
Resign yourself to the fact that you’ll probably have to sit where visibility is limited but the toms will be responsive. The plus-side of these setups is that he will have to get close to lay eyes on your decoys and in those situations he will usually commit. Deep-in-the-cover setups are a great way to avoid those birds that will hang up at 75 yards as if they’ve bumped into an invisible wall.
Decoys & Calling
By mid-May, I’m done with the full decoy spread. I don’t know why it is, but my success in calling in birds grows the more I pare my decoy choices down. By this time of year, I’ll either use only a jake and a hen, or oftentimes, a solo hen. For bowhunts, those decoys go about seven yards from my blind so that if a bird doesn’t fully commit, he’ll still be well within bow range.
When it comes to calling, I prefer to get after it. While you’ll hear fewer birds gobbling at sunrise than in April and probably have fewer hens answer you this time of the season, it seems as if longbeards want some persuading in May. They tend to respond well to the two-bird calling setups, which means if you can run a mouth call and a slate or a box at the same time, do it. Or if you hunt with a competent caller, don’t be afraid to both let loose during the same session.
If you know how to cut aggressively, don’t be afraid to work that into your conversations, as well. This is my go-to calling strategy for mid-day hunting because it seems to be a good way to get real hens ticked off. They will often mimic your calling if you get aggressive enough and eventually will show up to see what the fuss is all about. Having live hens talking to you and mingling with your fakes is always a good thing, so work on your conversational skills.
Don’t give up on turkey hunting yet just because the fish are biting and the morels are popping. Rethink your strategy and do a little ground-truthing to figure out where the birds are spending their time. Once you narrow that down, brush in a blind, pare down your decoy setup, and start calling. You might not be able to see as many birds strutting across wide-open fields this time of year, but the longbeards that do respond to your calling might just strut into your lap through the fresh greenery as if they have no choice in the matter at all.