Chasing Wary, Woods-wise Gobblers on their own Turf

There’s nothing more exciting than a boisterous tom “gobbling” as he searches for receptive hens. However, when a mating tom is at close-range creating “spit and drum” hums with intensity, these sounds will draw you deeper into their outdoor world.

To watch a mature gobble in full fan, strutting into gun range, pirouetting in small circles and strutting in a stop-and-go fashion is the epitome of spring gobbler hunting. There’s no doubt that resourceful gobblers are a stimulating influence. Their elusive actions eventually make us better hunters—but again, this is what a gobbler is.

There is not one gobbler that deserves to be shot! That is, until a hunter has faced-off with a tom that’s challenged the hunter to the best of his instinctive abilities. After all, this is the basis of every spring turkey hunt: confronting a wary, woods-wise gobbler on its own terms. But to do so, hunters should have the skills to outwit an elusive spring gobbler. Therefore, we must understand their fundamental lifestyle habits.

Gobblers escalate excitement for a hunter when approaching in a full strut.

Each spring, hunters pursue this majestic, elusive and exciting gamebird. We currently have physical numbers in every county. Thus, their expansion has allowed hunters larger areas and less pressured hunting. Every hunter looks for prime population numbers to increase success. However, even when we locate resident toms, we must be more vigilant at understanding the lifestyle of a spring gobbler. Not every gobbler is a clone of another. There are a few basic lifestyle habits they display. Here’s a sample that’s symbolic of a typical spring gobbler:

A spring male wild turkey is called a “gobbler.” I believe the best description is “survivalist.”

Hunters focus on the two main visual features of a gobbler’s body: its beard and spurs. Jakes and young toms haven’t as yet grown exceptional body features that excite. And, their prowess and wariness aren’t as unpredictable as a mature tom’s.

A turkey’s body and wing feathers are waterproof and act as insulation. And, dense feathers are a key feature for protection. Ask any shotgun hunter who has tried to body-shoot a gobbler. A tom’s overlapping feathers can act as a cushion—even when pelted by a load of heavy shot. Therefore, the best shot placement is at a turkey’s head and neck.

A tom’s acute sense of sight and hearing usually contribute to self-preservation. Hunters quickly learn the value of these two senses and are often amazed by a turkey’s ability to judge their calling location as well as detect the slightest movements. Fortunately, gobblers don’t exhibit a keen sense of smell like most mammals or they would be more difficult to tag. Experienced wildlife biologists believe their sense of smell has little or no impact upon their daily habits.

Because turkeys are predominantly ground-dwelling birds, they require adequate escape methods. Like a wary white-tailed buck, gobblers often stand motionless within dense habits until a potential predator has moved on. If an intruder remains close by, a tom often escapes the location on foot. It’s been determined turkeys can run at ground speeds of 12 mph or greater. And when pushed to the limit they will take wing and fly at speeds between 45 to 55 mph. Although each bird can be different, this gives hunters a better understanding of a bird’s escape modes.

During early spring, turkeys feed heavily before breeding escalates. Turkey diets are very diverse and provide them with growth stimulus and energy. Their diets are omnivorous; especially after cruel winter months and they usually pursue soft foods as spring breaks. Grasses, seeds, new-growth leaves, legumes, as well as any leftover mast hidden under leaf cover, is their diet. But earthworms, grasshoppers, spiders and a variety of insects eventually satisfy their varied diet. During hunting season, a tag will contain a mixture of green foliage and insect parts and matter, etc.

Mating is a gobbler’s role every spring.

The mating instincts of toms begin in the spring, and they will each separate from their winter flock. Most toms seek privacy as they pursue receptive hens. Although it’s not unusual for two or more toms to hang together, their breeding status has already been determined from previous pecking order conflicts. Usually, only the most dominate toms will breed hens within their habitats. But it’s not unusual for an interloping tom to slip into a location and steal hens. Sometimes even jakes will have opportunities to breed hens if a mature tom is busy breeding other hens.

If you have never watched a spring gobbler breed with a hen, then you’ve missed a unique experience. The beautiful full strut gobbler displays with arrogant confidence. He might have gobbled to attract a hen or two, but once he’s joined with his hen(s) to engage in the mating process, he seldom gobbles. This is a reason hunters don’t often hear toms gobble intensely after they leave their roosts during these prime mating weeks. Also, calling to a tom when he’s courting a hen can be futile, because he already has what he needs.

Mating actions are instinctively programmed. The tom often exposes himself on open landscape with gobbling and strutting. This activity can last for an hour or two, and longer if hens don’t appear. But when a hen is ready to breed, she goes to him. She often teases him with a yo-yo action or an “in- and-out” at him. Occasionally, she will rub against his chest and sides to excite him. (I watched a hen taunt a tom in this manner. When she walked around behind him, he gobbled hard.) As soon as she’s ready to mate, she squats down to the ground into what is called the “sexual crouch.” She will slightly spread her wings across the ground and often wriggles her body, inviting him to breed with her. The tom will step up on her back and tread her as he inseminates her. He may remain on her back for up to 8 to 10 minutes. When he dismounts her he often gobbles. She stands up, shakes her body and preens her feathers. Then they each go separate ways. However, any breeding session can vary, and this is a typical mating ritual.

Toms are always cautious; be alert.

When hunters pursue gobblers throughout spring season they should focus upon the location of hens. Gobblers are breeding machines and they direct their energies at every hen they can mount. But that’s a tom’s role in his life—breeding; every other segment takes second fiddle.

What about eating? That also, is not the top priority during mating intensity. Toms have already been feeding heavily before mating and developed their chest breast sponge. This layer of fatty tissue is normally about 3 to 4 pounds and helps sustain them during the demanding physical rigors throughout breeding activities. During early spring, gobblers will display a very large breast because intense breeding activities haven’t forced their bodies to absorb the tissue of their breast sponge.

Undoubtedly, the more we know about turkeys, the better our chances of scoring during spring hunting. The sooner hunters learn the value of their knowledge about their quarry, they sooner they will be more successful. Gobblers will act and react differently before, during and after spring mating more so than they do at other times of the year. Perhaps this is why consistent hunters learn the intricacies of gobblers.