“Birds of a feather flock together” has a figurative meaning, but in regards to early spring turkey hunts, the phrase applies in a more literal sense. Across the country, if you’re hunting early, you’re more often than not hunting groups of birds rather than individual toms. That’s especially true in years where unseasonable cold and winter weather patterns stretch far into spring, pushing back the breeding season and putting more state hunts into the “early” category.
Sure, you’re hunting birds that haven’t seen a decoy or its owner since last year at the earliest, but you’re also facing the hardest competition of all, and that’s a live hen. In the event of a late spring, mother nature applies extra pressure to pack in as much breeding activity when more favorable weather does come, making it that much more difficult to go against the real thing. For those reasons or more, you need a set of strategies to deal with the 80/20 rule, being that the majority of the turkeys are bunched-up in a very small part of available habitat.
A Fresh Scout
First and foremost, you can’t kill a turkey where they ain’t, so the value of scouting is dramatically more important early in the season compared to late. In the latter portions of the season, forlorn gobblers are wandering aimlessly, looking for the last hens of spring as the majority have been bred and are sitting on nests. Striking up a conversation then with a random bird is easier as they’re looking for you, whereas early, most toms have already found what they’re looking for.
Not all scouting is created equal, and especially with changing weather patterns and a rapidly progressing breeding season, the freshest information is best. While it’s good to have a flock located, along with a “Plan B” property or two to fall back on, the few days and hours directly before your season will provide the ultimate in actionable intel. You’re not just looking to find out what fields or openings these big flocks are working, you’re getting there early and keeping your distance, scouting with optics preferably. It’s difficult to beat multiple sets of eyes, and you want a vantage of the entire operation to see how the entire organism moves, retreats, and flows from one area to the next. You want precise information, like field-edge openings, funnels, and specific fence-posts or trees that the majority of birds move past.
As you hunt birds in these fields, even old pros of the turkey woods are well served by some sort of blind to conceal movements. Big groups are notorious for enveloping your position, as hens or jakes abound within range before picking you off, while the toms stay just outside of what it takes to put them down. In a blind, you have some flexibility to move, throw your calls in differing directions, and the ability to use scratching, hat-flapping, and other high-movement type calls you’d never be able to get away with out in the open. In the north, a blind will also handily house a small propane heater, something that may be a requirement for a sit of any length during the early youth seasons.
Perhaps the best part of this type of hunting early season, is that you’re going to see birds. Setting up in a well-scouted open area, where you are likely to see birds throughout the day, offers some unique insight into a turkey’s world. So much of what I’ve learned about calling, specifically what types of calls to make, and when, comes from the lessons learned huddled inside a blind as birds work all around me. So often we focus on gobblers and how they interact with your calling, how they decoy, or ways to best hunt them overall, we miss out on how much hens really run the show during the early part of the year.
All About the Hens
A lead-hen’s stomach, and the patterns she finds most convenient or safe, will often determine the manner and location of your hunting during the early season. From there, even if you’re in the right place at the right time, calling too aggressively or during the wrong time can have you shunned as a wise-old matriarchal hen leads her group of turkeys, gobblers and all, in the opposite direction. Flock talk then is of the utmost importance. Soft contented clucks, with some check yelps and purrs mixed in are the order of the early spring, especially with birds in sight, as you’re trying to mimic a group of feeding hens to fool the live hens, not an upstart jenny looking to steal toms.
Field hunts can also be frustrating, sometimes taking you so close, yet still too far. For that reason, you also want roost locations, and not just general information, but specifics down to which trees the toms will favor vs. the rest of the flock. Keep in mind, it’s a dangerous play to be anywhere too close to these locations in-person, both scouting and hunting, but if your field or strut zone play is a low percentage one, your best bet is often to get on them right from the roost.
With early being the order of the season, think about getting within 100 yds of the roost a good hour or more before first light, minimizing your chance to spook birds. Cover is sparse early, so use your own best judgment on exact distances, but keep in mind that you may be hunting this group throughout the season, so it’s often best to stay conservative. Depending on how tight the toms roost to the hens, try to get near a reasonable landing zone or just off of it while putting your back to those hens. Avoid overcalling and hanging a tom on the limb, offering him just enough to drop out of the tree and hunt you down, without keeping him up on the branch while waiting for all the hens to fly down and saunter up to his roost tree.
Whether your move is a field-edge or the deep woods right off of the roost, early birds will test your patience and require you to hunt the hens just as much as the toms. If all else fails, see what you can do to get that lead hen talking. A loudmouth lead-hen has been the downfall of many a great tom, and do your best to mimic her. As her frustration and volume grows for the home-wrecker jenny you’re imitating, step on her calls and cut her off a few times. While it can be a last ditch effort, it’s often the deal-maker on a tough-hunting flock that won’t move any way but away from you.