When I started hunting turkeys, I was under the impression that jake turkeys were a meek-and-mild bunch. I assumed they slipped along in the cool shadows of the spring woods not really wanting to be noticed, especially by a dominant gobbler.
I was just two days into my second season of turkey hunting when I realized I had it all wrong, and I found out that there was a lot more to these “teenagers” of the turkey woods than I thought.
I had just sent a five-yelp series off the ridge I was standing on, and I nearly fell over when a thundering gobble hit me right on the end of my call. I scrambled for a setup and gathered myself. Once I settled in, I sent five more yelps in his direction, and he hammered it again. I soon saw him through the leaves on the trees as he made his way toward me.
Within five minutes he was strutting in front of me at 30 yards. I couldn’t believe that I had been fooled so easily as I stared at the strutting jake. He thought he was the boss of the woods. I had no reason to doubt him the way he carried on.
I was a green sophomore at the time, and I had heard all these veteran hunters talk about how you could always tell when a jake gobbled. The jake that put on the show that afternoon made me ditch that nonsense forever. Once again it proved that always and never don’t apply to turkeys. Since that time I have heard quite a few jakes that sounded and even acted like a big, old, grown-up gobbler.
While most jakes will sound like jakes, you are liable to see a variation of jakes in the turkey woods. They can be a royal pain in your turkey seat at times, and then they can be the ace in the hole on some hunts. Learning to deal with them and using them to your advantage can pay off big in the turkey woods. Since all jakes aren’t created equal, recognizing the kind of jake you are dealing with can go a long way toward success.
Shy Silhouettes: I can’t count the times I have been working a big boy while watching the dark forms of jakes nervously crisscrossing in the background at the same time. They have an interest in the “hen” they hear, but they aren’t sure why yet. They have also likely been taught to heed the way of the boss gobbler and are reluctant to cause any friction that might result in another lesson. Some will continue to stay tucked away as the mature bird closes the distance, while others tend to follow along, albeit at a safe and respectable distance.
These are my favorite jakes to deal with. When jakes are behaving this way, they are basically scared to death to cross the boss bird, even if he isn’t in sight. When they do slip in to a calling setup, it will generally be quietly and lots of times it is simply to get with other birds. Most of the time these jakes pose no threat to a dominant bird or to your hunt, but when I get one of these birds in the neighborhood of my setup, I want to use them to get on a mature gobbler’s bad side.
Jake yelps, jake gobbles and jake decoys can help out here. I want to send a message to the big boy out there that I’m ignoring his warning, and I’m moving in on his hens. It’s important to set the tone with some basic, plain hen talk here. I don’t generally start on a gobbler with aggression. All I’m doing here is letting him know I’m in the vicinity. If I get a gobbler to hit it, but he won’t commit, that’s when I will sometimes talk jake to him. I have seen many arrogant, mature gobblers take offense immediately to a mouthy jake that poses a threat to his dominance. I’ve seen a bunch of them flop in the dirt because of it. Just keep it simple, and don’t try to out-gobble him. You don’t want him to change his mind or second guess his own dominance.
A Pack of Trouble: It was going on an hour and a half since I had grabbed the attention of a bird around the bend in a wide, flat creek bottom. He had gobbled enthusiastically enough to begin with but had grown overly sporadic over the last 45 minutes. I could see him strutting at 75 yards, and he was still coming but at a snail’s pace.
I had a good setup and was sure that he would have to come look for me eventually. I sat quietly watching until he finally began feeding and walking my way. When he hit the 60-yard line, I tightened my grip and pushed the safety to the other side of the gun. When the big bird hit 50 yards, a band of renegade jakes appeared from nowhere and commenced a thrashing like I had never seen on a bird of this caliber. They ganged up on him, and I’m sure permanently ruined his self-esteem.
When they were satisfied they had won some new turf, the melee continued as they decided to check the status of the pecking order. I watched them continue this free-for-all for the next 10 minutes. They finally dispersed, and I left the woods scratching my head. It was the first time I had seen jakes manhandle a mature gobble or even try to for that matter.
These are the nemesis in the turkey woods. At some point they figure out that there is strength in numbers. Their purpose seems to be more about beating up on older birds than it does breeding a hen. They also seem to enjoy messing up a good hunt, be it intentional or not.
I hunted Oklahoma a couple of seasons ago, and the jakes were in total control. Calling a longbeard in was next to impossible. The big boys were scared to death, and jake decoys were a no-no for sure. I finally managed to kill one in a cold, windy rain that slipped in behind me. I never heard him gobble, and if I hadn’t heard him drum, I probably would have never known he was there. I turned to see him standing behind me in a cautious half strut at 50 yards, and that’s where I dropped him.
When I run into this situation where there’s a bunch of jakes in an area, I will hunt a little differently. Jakes seem to respond more to a gobbling bird than a yelping hen, so if I am able to get a bird to gobble, I will try to keep him interested, but I don’t want him gobbling his head off either. That, in turn, means less calling and softer stuff. I want him to fall in love, but I don’t want him to tell the whole world about it. Of course how much he wants to gobble is ultimately up to him.
However, most times, when jakes are ruling the woods, the big boys will gobble less, especially if they know the young thugs are potentially looming at every turn. If a bird hits your call but doesn’t get all fired up, take that as your cue that the renegades might be close. At this point, tone it down. Treat the situation as if a longbeard is coming. Lots of times he will be.
Socially Unacceptable: I think some turkeys are just born “bad” with an ugly disposition. I have seen some jakes that hang out all by themselves as they walk around looking for trouble. They don’t mind gobbling, and apparently they take great pride in messing up a hunt or two along the way.
Sometimes they make life miserable for other gobblers. I have seen single jakes hanging out with grown gobblers, carrying on just like the rest of them, strutting around with no reservation whatsoever. They seem to become somewhat acceptable to the mature gobblers and are allowed to hang around.
I was guiding a gentleman on a midday hunt along a turkey-infested river bottom a couple of years ago. A little more than 30 minutes into our hunt I struck a bird 100 yards from where we were standing. We set up quickly, and I went to work. A few short minutes passed when we could see a slender jake slowly approaching our position.
“Surely not,” I thought, but I was soon relieved to see a big gobbler bringing up the rear. He was heading to us at a quicker pace and soon caught up with the jake. He appeared to be agitated with the jake and began working his way in front of him. Soon it became a back-and-forth effort between the two birds to get in front of each other.
Finally, the longbeard put a few yards between himself and the jake. I watched my client steady his aim and tighten his grip as the bird got closer. Suddenly, the big gobbler seemed to forget all about us and turned and ran the jake out of sight. Both were nowhere to be seen or heard in a matter of seconds. I got up after a few minutes and walked over and sat down by my client. He was handling it better than I was as he had found a little more humor in the situation than I had. We decided to stay put a while and see if the big bird might remember us and come back for a visit.
A half hour passed when I got a reply from back downstream. We were ready when the aggravating jake rounded the curve in the woodline and began strutting back and forth. He strutted less than a minute before the longbeard came rushing in and plowed directly into the jake.
“Here we go again,” I thought. This time the jake was running in no particular direction and began looping in and out of being dangerously close to the range my client could shoot. He finally looped close enough to bring the longbeard in range, and I cutt loudly at the birds. Both stopped, and my client dropped the big bird at 30 yards. We thanked the jake as he retreated back down the river bottom. Basically, the dominance of the longbeard and his lack of tolerance for the jake got him killed. In this particular case, the jake that had caused us grief initially helped us close the deal in the long run.
Jake Essential: So just how valuable are jakes in the turkey woods? Extremely! They generally don’t cause a lot of harm unless they are in the renegade packs. Rarely will you see a mature gobbler back down from a single jake, no matter how bad the jake thinks he might be. That is the reason behind the flood of jake decoys on the market today.
If I am going to use a gobbler decoy, it’s more apt to be a jake decoy than a mature gobbler decoy. I might use a mature gobbler decoy if I have a good number of mature birds in my hunting area, but if I’m not sure about gobbler density, or if I know there aren’t that many mature gobblers in the area, I will likely use a jake decoy.
I have seen mature gobblers steer clear of a mature decoy from time to time, but I don’t ever recall seeing a full-grown gobbler avoid a jake decoy. Dominant gobblers just can’t stand the idea of a jake intruding on their turf, let alone trying to get cozy with any of their hens.
Jakes are also valuable because they are the “seed” for next year. Biologically speaking, it has often been said that roughly half the turkeys that hatch each year will be jakes and that they will offset the numbers of male birds shot the year before. While that may be so, I am not a huge fan of shooting jakes because that biological information is based on the assumption that we are going to have a decent hatch, and those have been hard to come by lately in Georgia. Whether or not to shoot jakes is a debate that will likely rage among turkey hunters until the end of time.
It is certainly within every hunter’s rights to take a jake if the situation arises, and I would not have you believe I have never done it. It’s just been years since I shot one, and I can remember feeling a little regretful after I pulled the trigger.
I don’t mind turning a kid lose on one every now and then, especially if it is his or her first bird. Once a kid has a jake under his belt, though, I generally will try to teach restraint on jakes and explain to them how a longbeard might be bringing up the rear. Sounds a little like deer hunting again, doesn’t it?
Jacob Knight, son of longtime friend and hunting partner Bobby Knight, has learned this valuable lesson already, and at the age of 16 has dropped several hosses by letting the jakes walk. Two years ago Jacob was hunting with his dad in a spot that was covered up in jakes. Even though he routinely had jakes in his lap while hunting the area, he held off. He was soon rewarded with a stud that slipped in after the jakes had strolled through.
Hopefully we’ll see plenty of jakes this spring. I don’t mind getting fooled by one every now and then, and when a big pack of them cruises by, it brings a smile to my face. I know they have an important role to play in the turkey woods, and whether they hurt my chances or help me give a longbeard a ride to the house, I’m looking at tomorrow’s longbeards.