Foul Weather Turkey Hunting by TR Michels
Even though the first day of the spring turkey hunt was cloudy, and a cold wind was blowing, I headed for the soybean field where I had seen a flock of turkeys appear just after daylight for the last two weeks. I was fairly sure the birds wouldn’t show up because of the weather. Just to be on the safe side I drove to the field forty-five minutes before daylight. I parked on the road, got out of the suburban, and owl hooted loudly. When I didn’t get an answer I hooted again. Still no answer. I waited several minutes as the sky grew lighter and then blew a flydown cackle. No answer. The birds were either not there or not talking.
Luckily, I had been researching this particular flock for more than two years and I had a good idea of where I could find at least two of the fourteen jakes and toms in the area. I got back in the Suburban and drove to a small bean field that was protected from north and east winds by the surrounding woods. By the time I got there the sky was already turning gray, so I grabbed my bag of turkey decoys and quickly made my way to the edge of the woods on the west side of the small field. When I reached the gully that ran into the field from the north I put out two hen decoys and two tom decoys, one in a semi-strut the other in a full strut.
I chose a large tree at the edge of the woods, checked to make sure I had a clear line of sight, sat down, and yelped softly on my box call. With the wind blowing I wasn’t sure if I could hear the birds, or if they could hear me. I called intermittently for the next fifteen minutes without getting a response. Then I heard a double gobble. I called one more time and waited. I knew the birds were calling because they kept gobbling every two to three minutes, and each time the sound was closer. A half an hour after I set up two long bearded toms walked down the gully, into the field and approached the decoys. If I had been hunting the birds would have offered an easy shot at fifteen yards.
As a guide, writer and seminar speaker it’s my job to know when and where to find game animals on a regular basis. After hunting for more than thirty years I have learned a bit about animals. Reading magazine articles and attending seminars helped me a lot at first. Then I began to talk to researchers and biologists throughout the United States. After reading several of their research papers I realized there was much more to learn. So, I decided to begin doing my own research.
Like most hunters I have had days when I felt I had chosen the right day, the right spot, and the right time to hunt, and still didn’t see anything. I was fairly sure the weather had a lot to do with game movement because of some of the research I had read. I knew that turkeys often roosted on the downwind side of a hill to get out of cold winds, and from my own experience I knew that they often flew down later than normal on cloudy days. But, I wasn’t sure when or where the birds moved when the conditions weren’t right.
That’s when I began watching the flock of thirty-four birds that were about a half-mile from my house. For two years I watched, listened and learned the movement of the birds. From the middle of March to late May I would go out in the evening to find out where the birds roosted. The next morning I would arrive an hour before daybreak. In a notebook I wrote down the date, temperature, wind speed, wind-chill, sky conditions and precipitation. Then I recorded the time and number of all the gobbles, any other calls the birds made, how many hens, toms and jakes I saw, what they did and when they did it, how long they did it and where they went from sunrise to as late as 1:30 PM. What I learned has allowed me to see more birds, find the birds on a regular basis, and get closer to them.
My studies show that several different meteorological conditions affect when and where turkeys move on a daily basis. These conditions include; the temperature or wind-chill, whichever is lower, the wind speed, amount and type of precipitation, and the cloud cover. The first thing I noticed during my study was that the birds generally started gobbling about forty-five minutes before sunrise, and that most gobbling occurred from forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise. They generally flew down from five to thirty minutes before sunrise. When the sky was cloudy the birds usually called ten to twenty minutes later than when the sky was clear, and flew down later than normal. When the temperature or wind-chill was below 34 degrees there was very little gobbling, and the birds often waited until the temperature warmed later in the day before actively gobbling.
There was far less gobbling on windy and rainy days. I suspect that high winds and the sound of the rain make it hard for the birds to hear each other, causing them to gobble less in response to each other. I also found that the birds responded less to my calling on windy and rainy days, probably because they couldn’t hear my calls. Stormy weather in the evening often caused the birds to be late on their daily routine.
Usually the birds roosted within a few hundred yards of a nearby feeding/strutting area, and they generally choose the same trees to roost in. But, when it began to rain or snow early in the afternoon they often roosted earlier than normal, and chose the nearest sheltered areas rather than going to trees they would normally use when they were in that area. This caused them to arrive at feeding/strutting areas later than normal the next morning, because they had to travel farther to get there. When I did see birds the next morning in open areas it was later than normal. The birds would often sit in protected areas with their wings outspread so they could dry out, especially if the sun was shining.
When the weather was cold and windy the birds generally stayed out of large open feeding areas, choosing to move to feeding sites on the downwind side of hills or woods, and in low-lying areas out of the wind. I watched three jakes come off the roost one morning and land in the field where they normally gobbled and strutted. There was a 23 mph wind that day and the wind-chill was 34 degrees. The birds moved to the small, protected field I mentioned at the beginning of this article and stayed there for twenty-five minutes. They ate infrequently, never gobbled, did not strut, and generally stood with their backs to the wind.
Spring Turkey Activity
Spring is when turkeys begin to move from their winter to summer ranges. However, this shift doesn’t happen at the same time each year, it depends on the amount of food available and the weather conditions. Depending on where you hunt the summer ranges may be from as little as a half mile to several miles apart. In areas where the winter and summer ranges are only a few miles apart the shift may occur over several days, with birds leaving one day and returning the next. In areas where the ranges are several miles apart the move may take weeks, with the birds advancing only as far as new foods become available. The only way to determine where the birds are on a regular basis is by scouting the area from a week to a day before you hunt.
Predicting Turkey Activity
The best way to find turkeys on a regular basis is to pattern their movements. In order to do this you should thoroughly scout the area you intend to hunt; key areas to look for are roosting sites and feeding areas. Studies by several researchers show that turkeys prefer to roost out of the wind when possible, in areas that are open to the early morning sun. I often find roosts on east and south facing slopes, or on the east and south side of wooded areas. The trees selected for roosting sites are usually taller than the surrounding trees, with large horizontal limbs. Large oak, elm, maple and box elder are used in the Midwest, cottonwood and aspen are often used in the prairie states, and pines are used where ever they are available.
The preferred food sources of turkeys depend on the time of the year. In early spring, before the snow has melted or new green growth has appeared, turkeys often use agriculture fields shortly after leaving the roost. Unplowed fields of corn and soybeans will we be used frequently as long as grain is still available. Grain fields that have been heavily grazed by cattle, or that have been plowed under will receive less use by turkeys. Turkeys frequently use agricultural fields and pastures where cattle are fed on a regular basis as they search for leftover food and pick through cow droppings for undigested grains. Turkeys will also feed on leftover acorns and other mast crops where available.
Once the weather warms the birds may begin frequenting CRP and agricultural fields, pastures and open meadows in search of grasses, hay, alfalfa and winter wheat. They will also use south and east facing slopes and creek bottoms where they feed on insects and newly grown forbs. Scratching in leaf litter in wooded areas, where new forbs have been eaten, is a sure sign or a turkey travel route.
During your scouting you may see tracks, droppings, feathers and dusting bowls. These signs help you determine whether or not there are birds in the area and how recently. While you are scouting carry along a topographical map or aerial photo of the area and a notebook. Mark the areas where you see sign. When you hear or see birds note the time and weather conditions, and the number, sex and location of the birds in your notebook. Then mark the area on your map or photo. If you can, watch the birds several times before you hunt, so you know the areas where they normally roost and feed. Watch more than one flock if you can, so that you have back up birds to work if you can’t find your first choice.
You should know where the birds fly down, when they leave their favorite roosting areas, where they feed when they are in that area, and the route they usually take when going to the feeding area. You should also know where they go after they leave the early morning feeding area. Generally the birds will stay in an open feeding/strutting area a half an hour or more before moving to another area. They may move through wooded areas, feeding as they go, and arrive at another open feeding area, or they may stay in the woods. Knowing where they go when they leave the early morning feeding/strutting site will give you the opportunity to hunt the birds later in the day.
Look for birds going to roost the night before you hunt, so you know where to find them the next morning. If you see birds feeding in open areas within a half-hour of sunset they will usually roost nearby. They may return to feed in the same area the next morning. If you don’t see any birds drive around to likely roosting areas and try to get the birds to shock gobble in response to a crow call, owl hoot, pileated woodpecker call, or gobble. Once you have found a roosting area figure out where the birds will likely feed the next morning, and the travel route they will take. The next morning, setup along the travel route or in the feeding area. If the weather is nice expect the birds to feed in unprotected areas. If it’s windy, cold or rainy set up in protected areas, and expect the birds to call less, call later than normal, and to move later in the day than they would on warm sunny days.