March 28, 2013

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Brrrrrrr! What a difference a year makes for the opening weeks of wild turkey season. Last year, spring sprung extremely early with dogwoods blooming around March 1. This year, I’m still throwing logs on the fire.

Just days ago, I had on my warmest thermal undergarments and an insulated jacket for a Sumter County turkey hunt with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes and two-time World Champion turkey caller Larry Norton.

This, apparently, is the winter that won’t end as weather forecasts predict freezing temperatures this week for most of Alabama.

And just like last year, the turkey behavior is following the weather patterns. Last year, the gobblers were sounding off early in March, and the youth weekend, which occurs the weekend before the regular opening day of March 15, was a huge success in terms of gobbling activity and harvest.

This year’s youth weekend couldn’t be called a bust because it got young hunters into the woods. But the turkey activity was reminiscent of the final week of deer season.

When our entourage headed into the woods recently in Sumter County, Norton had scouted the day before and had a good idea of where a gobbler was located. Both Sykes and Norton, once turkey guides at nearby Bent Creek Hunting Lodge, were familiar with the inclinations of these west central Alabama birds, but a mantra common these days among turkey hunters is “roosted ain’t roasted.”

As the darkness faded into light, the turkey sounded off when Sykes played a barred owl tune on his custom-made owl hooter. We were situated near a large green field and headed toward the turkey that we thought was close to a creek in a nearby bottom. When we got to the dim road leading out of the field, Norton cautioned, “Chuck, hit that owl call again. That turkey may have been facing the other way that first time.”

As soon as Sykes produced the first note from the call, the turkey almost bowled us over with a gobble so loud that all of us cringed. If it hadn’t been for a barricade of pine limbs, I’m convinced we would have been able to see that gobbler’s gizzard. Slowly we turned, step by step. We retreated, hoping we hadn’t been busted.

We set up beside the green field. As first shooter, I was facing the dim road where we expected the gobbler to appear. There was a lay-down pine tree at the base of my tree that was about halfway on its journey of being reclaimed by the earth. Problem was, I had to commit to either the dim road or the field. I rolled the dice and chose the dim road.

Twice an owl hooted about a half-mile away and the gobbler sounded off. A raspy, old hen responded to the gobbler in a nearby tree. Norton tried a series of tree yelps, but the gobbler refused to respond.

Then the tell-tale sound of wings flapping echoed from the bottom, and a big, black bird with red-and-white head sailed through the pines. However, the gobbler didn’t pitch down in a bend of the dim road to saunter cautiously up to the green field. Instead, the bird maintained his altitude for about 150 yards before he landed in the green field.

His long flight put him out of the possibilities of my taking a shot. There was no way I could get around that far without getting busted picking up my legs to get over the deadwood.

Instead, I whispered behind me, “Shoot him if you can.” Sykes, the backup shooter, didn’t hear me.

The gobbler made several of what Norton called “inquisitive” putts and then slowly walked away when that imaginary hen failed to appear.

“Why didn’t y’all shoot,” queried Norton with a bit of disdain.

“I couldn’t,” I replied.

“I could have shot him when his feet touched the ground,” Sykes replied, “but I guess I dropped back into guide mode. That won’t happen again.”

Norton responded, “It better not, because I’m bringing my gun next time.”

Of the three turkeys we heard that morning, two gobbled at owls and the third sounded off at a group of crows, which meant the turkeys are definitely behind schedule, especially compared to last year.

“This time last year, turkeys were acting like mid-season turkeys if not late-season turkeys,” Sykes said. “We were duck hunting at the end of the season last year, and it was all I could do to keep from chewing my arm off to go shoot a turkey that kept gobbling. This year, it turned off hot for a while in January and then it got cold.

“We need 10 days or two weeks of good weather for the turkeys to really get going, and we haven’t had that. It’ll be warm for a couple of days and then a front will come in. It’ll rain a foot and get cold again, so they’re really still in a wintertime pattern right now.”

Sykes said he’s hunted this spring in five different counties, so our hunt was not an isolated incident.

“They’re really not doing anything anywhere,” he said. “There are people I know who have killed turkeys, but they have basically found them in fields or have done some really good scouting to get them patterned. The turkeys are not gobbling but once or twice, if any, on the limb. Once they get on the ground, they’re not vocal at all.

“We’re basically deer hunting them now. And that’s not why I hunt turkeys. I hunt them to hear them gobble and do right. I don’t enjoy hunting them when you have to turn a turkey into a deer.”

However, that is not to say that lucky hunters are not going to stumble onto a gobbler that is willing to cooperate in terms of gobbling and responding to calls. Sykes and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. found such a bird on Guy’s farm near Letohatchee.

“Gunter is a big-time outdoorsman,” Sykes said. “He knew he had a good number of birds, so we rode around for a while that afternoon before and saw five longbeards in one bunch and two in another. The next morning, we went in where we saw the group of five and hooted. Nothing. We set up and called for an hour. Nothing; I mean dead.

“As we were headed back, we saw a turkey strutting in a cornfield. We got set up. I yelped one time and another turkey gobbled in the bottom. It just worked out. We caught that one turkey on the place that happened to be happy that day. He gobbled 8 or 10 times and worked like a champ. That was the only turkey I have heard gobble.”

Sykes said turkey hunters really get to test their overall hunting skills during the adverse conditions of the current season.

“When turkeys are acting like this, woodsmanship kills turkeys, not pretty calling,” he said. “This goes to show you have to be adaptive because you’re dealing with Mother Nature. You’ve got to be able to roll with the punches.”

The good news is that the majority of Alabama hunters will have the entire month of April to pursue turkeys.

“If we can get six or eight days of sunshine, I think the turkeys will get into a pattern,” Sykes said. “I’m thinking the week after Easter things are going to be rocking.

“I have heard this my whole life, and I can’t think of a single incidence when it’s let me down – when those dogwoods start popping, the turkeys are gonna be gobbling and the crappie are gonna be biting.”