Winning the Season Opener

Locating, pattering, and utalizing the day can put an opening-day gobbler in the bag.

I was feeling pretty confident as I stood beside my hunting partner Bobby Knight. It was opening day of turkey season and the orange glow of the eastern sky began to push the darkness from around us. The woods were coming to life as a half a dozen or so barred owls began their morning serenade. All we needed now was a gobble.

Minutes passed before we heard one, and soon we heard two more. The only problem we had was that we were on Cedar Creek WMA and the closest turkey to us sounded as if he was in Macon. All three were too distant to close on, so we decided to set up and call a while.

I was somewhat surprised that we didn’t hear anything close. I had put in a lot of hours scouting prior to the open- er and had located birds on more than one occasion less than 100 yards from our set-up.

Bobby was as puzzled as I was, but our pre-season scouting reminded us that we were in a well-used area. Several weeks prior to the opener we had heard turkeys up and down this creek at different times of the morning, so we decided to hunt in the general vicinity until it was time to hunt some after- noon birds that I had found.

A few hours later, due to the rising temperature, we decided to shed a few layers of clothing before heading to the truck. We had just ended a series of soft yelps and clucks. I was on a knee when I looked up and saw a turkey running straight toward us. I frantically told Bobby, “Turkey’s coming,” and we dove for cover behind a giant oak.

We managed to pull our gear and guns to us without being spotted, and we got our head nets back on. Before I knew what was going on we had five big gobblers coming right into shotgun range. It took some luck, but with- in 30 seconds we put four of the birds on the ground while the lone survivor retreated quickly to freedom. I had taken two birds with one shot while Bobby took two birds with two shots. Needless to say, we were pumped up!

We could have called it a day right there and would have had a remarkable opening day, but we didn’t wait all year for opening day to hunt half of it. So, by 4:30 that afternoon we were standing on a piece of national-forest land overlooking the bend of a beautiful river bottom. We again felt confident in our choice of hunting area and liked our chances for the evening. I had put in several hours along this river in the pre-season and had heard a bird or two in the evenings on three different days during the week before opening day.

We wasted no time getting started as the first call I made from the ridge jerked a gobble from a bird in the bot- tom below. The view we had revealed a heavy thicket between us and the bird, so we decided to split up and drop into the bottom on opposite sides of him. Once I got settled into a suitable set-up I started calling.

The bird seemed as eager as I was to get the show started as he began gobbling with little pausing in between. I soon began hearing some of the loudest drumming I had ever heard. The big river gobbler soon appeared as he stepped up on a dead log 60 yards away.

For the next 10 minutes, he strut- ted from his perch only coming out of it occasionally to stretch his neck in search of the hen. Things had looked promising until Bobby joined the game and sent an obviously seductive series of yelps toward the gobbler. He quickly performed a perfect 180-degree spin atop the log, hoped off and headed straight toward Bobby. I honestly expected to hear the report of Bobby’s gun within the next few minutes, but after about 15 minutes it was apparent that the gobbler was now enjoying tormenting Bobby and was quite content on spending the remainder of the evening hung up between us. He answered both of us regularly, but by 6:15 I made a decision to move on the bird. Bobby was obviously pinned down as each call he made came from his set-up. I guessed the bird to be 100 yards or so from each of us.

There was a huge double-based oak tree right on the edge of a big open flat. I felt that if I could get to the big oak I might be able to work the bird into the flat for a shot. Each time the bird gobbled, giving away its location, I crawled a little closer toward my destination.

I finally reached the giant oak; I just hoped I had made it undetected. My first call relieved my fears as the bird answered less than 75 yards away. Still he wouldn’t commit and was apparently not going to move until a hen showed herself.

We were getting dangerously close to fly-up time, so I resorted to drastic measures. While cutting on a diaphragm, I began gobbling on a box. The bird double-gobbled but held his ground. I managed one more gobble from my box before breaking my rubber band. I then pulled out my slate and as a last-ditch effort, began an obnoxious series of fighting purrs. Two double gobbles and 15 seconds later, I shot the bird on a dead run toward me at 38 yards. Season over!

I had pulled off a rare feat and completed my Georgia turkey season on opening day. The strangest thing about it was that I wasn’t all that surprised. I don’t mean that in a cocky sense, because Lord knows I’ve been humbled enough by these birds too many times to think I’m the master of the spring woods. I just mean that when you put in so much effort in the pre-season, you should expect a good return on your hard work.

Until that season back in 1996, I had only managed a handful of opening-day turkeys. Since then I have taken 10 on opening day. So what has made the difference? If I could nail it down to three things, it would be locating birds, patterning birds and utilizing the entire day.

Locating Birds: Prior to 1996 I would scout birds the same way every year. In my truck I’d run from ridge to bottom on every road owling, crow calling or whatever trying to get a turkey to gobble. As soon as I heard one, I was off to the next spot and so forth and so on. Occasionally, I would head into the woods and look for sign, but that was about the extent of my pre-season scouting. It finally occurred to me that all I had done each preseason was locate a few birds before they ever hit the ground. I believe that’s also the reason I came home on opening day empty handed so many times.

During the pre-season of 1996, I decided if I was going to change the outcome on opening day, I was going to have to change my approach. After all, it didn’t appear the turkeys were going to change theirs.

The best thing I ever did concerning preseason scouting was to go from simply locating a bird to locating and patterning a bird. That means finding out not only where a bird is, but what the bird is doing at different times of the day. I used to have anywhere from 10 to 15 gobblers located by opening day, but I didn’t have a clue as to what any of them were going to do when they hit the ground. As I said earlier, I’d locate one and move on to find another one. The problem with that was I was leaving a lot of valuable information sitting on the limb. Now, when opening day arrives, I might not have as many birds located as I used to have, but I will know what more of the ones I’ve located are going to do when they fly down.

Patterning: When I locate a bird now in the preseason, I’ll go ahead and set up on him close enough to determine which direction he’s heading when he hits the ground. One of the things that I remember hearing in the early days of my turkey-hunting career was to get where he wants to be. A few mornings dedicated to patterning a bird’s routine can tell you what he likes to do and where he wants to be. You will also be able to tell if he’s covered up with hens or if he only has a few. You might also hear another gobbler or two close enough to check out before opening day.

When I do this, I dress out in full camo. I will also have my binoculars, a good seat and a crow call. You should leave your turkey calls at home when patterning a bird. Remember, you’re  not trying to call him up yet. If you have one turkey call or a pocket full, it’s going to be too tempting to call to him. Now I just sit back and pay attention. Once I get a good read of his direction of travel; say a couple hundred yards or so and I can do so with- out being spotted, I’ll move on. If I can catch him going the same direction a few times, then there’s a good chance it’s his routine… a routine he will likely still be in on opening day. If you set up in his general area of travel, he’s more likely to come investigate your calling than if he wanted to go the opposite direction.

The closer to opening day you can find and pattern a gobbler the better shot you’ll have at killing that bird. There is nothing wrong with scouting birds in early February, but I believe they’ll be closer to where they’re going to be on opening day when you find them starting in early March. Some people get alarmed when they hear turkeys gobbling in February after a few warm days. It is natural to assume that since they are gobbling that it is time to start scouting. While it is a good time to locate some gobblers, they likely will be somewhere else opening day. Birds are generally still in winter flocks throughout much of February, regardless of the temperature, and they usually aren’t busting up into small flocks for several weeks. By early March you can start hearing birds in more scattered areas. All I’m saying is don’t be surprised if a bird you found in February is in a very distant location on opening day.

So, in summary, morning scouting is fairly simple. Locate birds, pattern them and you’ll have a good place to start on opening morning.

If that doesn’t pan out, I like to hang around in the general vicinity of the roost area through the mid-morning hours.

Bobby and I shot our four Cedar Creek WMA gobblers in a well-scout- ed-out roost area. Even though we didn’t hear birds gobble close that morning, we were confident enough in the area to believe birds were either there and not gobbling or would show up sometime that morning.

Many times I’ve heard birds roost- ed in an entirely different area that slowly made their way toward the place they heard a bunch of gobbles and hen racket. Often, these are subordinate birds who come in pretty quiet, but occasionally a mid-morning “Boss” who has found himself henless will return to retrieve the one he left behind.

I mentioned earlier that most of my scouting prior to ’96 usually ended not long after it had begun. Today, I’ll also make plans to scout at different times of the day. I would have to say that aside from the gobbling activity that the mornings bring, the afternoons and evenings are my favorite times to hunt.

Utilizing The Day: In my turkey hunting infancy, I was led to believe that turkey hunting was more of a morning affair…. this is far from the truth. I am still amazed at the number of hunters who simply don’t hunt in the afternoon. I believe a large number of hunters who don’t score on opening day are unsuccessful because they don’t utilize the whole day. I believe I have a better chance of killing a fired- up gobbler in the evening than I do a fired-up gobbler in the morning. Let me explain.

It is not uncommon to hear a gobbler explode into a gobbling frenzy in the early morning hours, even in the presence of hens. On the perfect spring morning, he might gobble 50-plus times before his feet ever touch the ground. He is a somewhat arrogant, egotistical bird. It is his nature, but at some point after fly-down he will settle down and the gobbling will cease. He may have answered your calling dozens of times during the morning, inviting you over to join his harem as he follows them away. However, in the afternoon and evening if I can get a gobbler really hot, I believe my chances of taking him are better because of his lack of hens. It’s just a fact that a gobbler’s harem will diminish throughout the day and until he can round them back up, he’s just plain lonely.

So, if I want to find one of these lonely gobblers in the evening, I’ve got to know where he likes to spend his “free time.” The only way to know where a gobbler likes to hang out in the evening is to find one in the evening. That can be a chore, because, as a general rule, gobblers aren’t gobbling much on their own in the evenings. So, you’re going to have to get some visuals or some responses to the crow call or hawk screamer or something to get him to shock gobble.

Again, I stay away from turkey calls in the preseason. I know some will use them anyway, but I’m not interested in calling one up to look at. It is possible to use a turkey call if you get a gobble and get out of there, but if he is close enough to see you then you’ll probably have a tougher time the next time you call to him.

Glassing fields or open woods is a great way to locate evening gobblers. I also look for strut zones and dusting sites. When you find a well-used strut zone or dusting site with no birds in it, have a seat; eventually, something is going to show up.

I found a strut zone one day around 4 p.m. while scouting, and I backed off to watch for awhile. Within an hour and a half, three different gobblers had made it a point to utilize the zone. Two of the three spent less that 10 minutes there, but the last one to visit stayed for nearly an hour.

Gobblers, like hens, will dust. These dusting sites are easily identifiable by the “bowl-like” impression they leave in loose-soil areas in old roadbeds or field edges. You can often find feathers or droppings in these dusting areas, and when you find a feather with the tell-tale black tip or a big J-shaped dropping, you’ve found a gobbler’s stomping ground.

I have had better results hunting strut zones and dusting areas in the afternoons and evenings. It makes sense that gobblers spend more time in strut zones in the evenings because they have lost their hens by then and are desperately trying to attract the attention of a hen they hope will pass by.

Dusting sites are utilized more as the temperatures rise and insects become more active. They dust to use the dirt as insecticide and routinely use the same areas.

The evening hunt I had on opening day in 1996 will always stand out as one of my favorites. It, along with the hunt that morning, was the result of time spent afield in the preseason and is a prime example of some of the most intense spitting, drumming and gob- bling I’ve ever witnessed. That day, and the reason it ended up the way it did, has motivated me to spend more time preparing for opening day ever since. It is now just part of turkey hunting to me and allows me to spend more time getting to know a few gobblers on a more personal level.

Opening day of turkey season only comes around once a year, and I strong- ly encourage hunters to take advantage of the whole day, both during preseason and during the season. If you will put in the effort during the preseason, you have a great chance of reaping the benefits on opening day… and who knows, you might just win the season opener.

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