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by Steve Shea, Wildlife Biologist St. Joe Timberland Company

Gobbler harvest success rate peaks in April

The spring turkey season is in full swing, and I’ve received mixed reports on success rates and gobbling activity.

The unseasonably cool weather in late February had birds somewhat behind schedule, but the mild weather in March got the gobbling heated up in most areas. Often times, the calm, sunny days between fronts are very productive early in the season.

However, March can be a frustrating month for many turkey hunters. Although gobbling activity is very high due to toms trying to gather as many hens as possible, they often stay “henned-up” for most of the morning until hens move off to their nests to lay.

It has been my experience that during most years, peak hunting success in both North and Central Florida occurs during the first two weeks of April, when I have found gobblers far more susceptible to being called into gun range.

Although some hunters may attribute this newfound success to experience, weather or other factors, the more probable factor is a change in turkey behavior. Most ardent turkey hunters realize that the key to many a gobbler’s demise hinges on the breeding and nesting behavior of hens.

Depending on where in Florida you hunt, most hens begin egg-laying during mid- to late March. Hens usually leave the flock and their accompanying tom(s) during late morning and lay an egg a day sometime during midday.

As hens accumulate a clutch averaging 10 eggs, they spend more and more time each afternoon incubating them. By the time they are close to laying an entire clutch, they will sit on the nest most of the afternoon. Once they lay their last egg, hens will incubate almost continuously both day and night until the clutch hatches.

During March, boss toms have accumulated a harem and most often will not travel far from them, especially if there are subordinate toms close by.

Much of the breeding occurs during this stage of the spring. Although our most affectionately-toned calls will illicit gobbles from our quarry, they will not lure him away from the hens he inevitably will just follow away, leaving us dumbfounded.

Hens have the undivided attention of the toms, and sometimes it is almost impossible to entice them away. Toms must feel like a college student at a beach night club on ladies night during spring break. There are lots of hens available, and his chances of meeting one are pretty good, so he is not leaving until “Last Call.”

My best success at fooling toms seems to occur right in the middle of Florida’s five-week season – usually the first two weeks of April. During this time, many hens are either finishing up laying or spending significant amounts of time incubating clutches, which leaves many toms frustrated and more willing to pursue the sounds of a lonely hen – especially during mid- to late morning.

Early April is “Last Call” in the turkey woods and time for hunters to gear up for immediate action. If you are like me, and work gets in the way of your leisure time, especially during spring turkey season, you may not get to the turkey woods except on weekends.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that gobbler activity will be the same as it was the last weekend you hunted. I have hunted the same birds hard for a couple of weeks without success, only to have them come in on a string after “Last Call” in early April.

During March hunts, you may have had to constantly relocate and try to get ahead of a non-responsive gobbling tom that is in tow of a group of hens. After participating in this drill several times early in the season, you may be prone to making a move prematurely after “Last Call” in early April, only to bump a bird that was moving your way.

I am a proponent of being very aggressive, especially early in the season when you sometimes have to get in the comfort zone of a tom to get him to commit to your calling. However, patience is definitely a virtue, especially after “Last Call” in the turkey woods.

I find if toms don’t commit right away, they will often make a bee-line to your location after they realize the last couple of hens they were courting are headed off to their nests.

Unless you are in the woods at least a couple of times a week during turkey season, stay in close contact with your hunting buddies or others who frequent the field during spring. They can keep you posted on what stage of the breeding season birds are in so you can adjust your strategy and state of mind the next time you take to the woods.

Some hunters may not realize that, just as buck susceptibility to harvest increases during the rut, the same goes for spring toms after “Last Call.” Plan your vacation time accordingly, and always remember to hunt safely and ethically, and take your sons and daughters.

Steve Shea is a 23-year veteran wildlife biologist in North Florida. He is Director of the Ecological Services and Wildlife Section for St. Joe Timberland Company and has authored many research manuscripts and popular articles on wildlife management in Florida, especially on white-tailed deer. Steve operated a deer research facility for 7 years and serves as representative on the Wildlife Society SE Deer Committee, Board of Directors for Future of Hunting in Florida and member of the FWC Deer Technical Advisory Group. He also has guided waterfowl, turkey and deer hunts in the Southeast and hunts big game across North America. He is an active member of QDMA, DU and NWTF. He can be contacted at [email protected]