The calendar says that our spring turkey opener here in the Upper Midwest is a month away, but with two feet of snow on the ground, it seems as distant as other side of the moon. But that won’t keep me from daydreaming, and no matter what the weather, it’s time to start planning for the season—prepping gear, practicing my calling, and, most important, planning when to hunt. Assuming you’re doing the same, and to make the opener seem a little closer in my own head, I decided to get on the phone with some of the best turkey hunters I know to talk about the season ahead. And my main question to them was “If you had to pick a single day to chase a gobbler in your area, what would it be?”
Invariably there was a long pause, and I knew exactly why: Each of these guys are good enough tag a gobbler any time they head to the timber with a gun and calls. But asking them to pick a specific date is kind of a trick, as it takes the focus off the skill of the hunter and puts it on the bird in question. So I clarified: When are turkeys in your area are behaving in such a way that your odds success in a one-day hunt soar, or when hunting them is simply the most fun. Their answers, below, comprise F&S’s 2023 Best Days of the Strut—seven dates when, if the season is open in your area, you need to be in the turkey woods.
Best Day of the Strut No. 1: April 2
Mark Drury with a Texas longbeard. Drury Outdoors
Although turkey expert Mark Drury of Drury Outdoors is from the Midwest, he’s been hunting Texas every spring for the last 30-plus years. “The season opens on April 1 in the area we hunt, and I always like to be there about that time,” he told F&S. “While breeding has definitely started, you don’t find as many henned-up toms as you will in another week or two. The key, in my opinion, is to focus on gobblers when they’re more vulnerable during that first week.”
Where they are vulnerable is important, too, Drury says, and in this case, it’s well off roost sites. While all turkeys are flock-oriented, he says Rios are particularly prone to that behavior. “It’s even exaggerated in Texas because of the lack of roosting trees,” he said. “Birds will pile into available trees, and a morning roost hunt can be chaotic and blow up in a hurry. We’ve found that targeting gobblers from mid-morning to early afternoon brings us the most success, particularly in this time frame. There’s another good window in the late afternoon and early evening, as birds start gradually heading back toward roosting areas. But that midday hunt is tough to beat during those first few days after the opener.”
Best Day of the Strut No. 2: April 8
Terry Rohm, a national calling champ, poses with a nice Eastern gobbler in Georgia. Terry Rohm
Savvy whitetail hunters know that the early season—when bucks are still acting like normal deer before the breeding craze kicks in—can be one of the best times to kill a monster. Georgia expert Terry Rohm, a pro staffer with The Grind Outdoors, takes that exact same approach with turkeys. “When our public-land season opens on April 8, I’ve usually got a lot of scouting miles on already,” he said. The guide and expert caller (Rohm won NWTF’s first two Grand National calling championships) can make turkey talk with the best of them, but he’s also a strict adherent of the old maxim that it’s easier to call a turkey to a place he already wants to be. And he does that by boots-on-the-ground work.
Given the hunting pressure that public-land toms get, and with Georgia bird numbers generally down, Rohm knows that focusing on prime habitat is key to success. “A lot of the dominant birds will be henned up at the opener—and generally this time of year in the South—but there should be plenty of 2- and 3-year-olds ready to play the game,” he said. “Some of those birds will still be hanging together, either in or near the best habitat. I look for that first green vegetation of the season, water sources, like creeks, and terrain that funnels bird movement. It’s kind of like deer hunting; if you can figure out where a buck’s eating and sleeping, you can kill him.”
Best Day of the Strut No. 3: April 17
Tim Herald with a Kentucky tom he fooled with a jake-and-hen decoy pair. Tim Herald
Kentucky expert Tim Herald of Worldwide Trophy Adventures also leans toward the beginning the season, but not because it’s the easiest time to hunt turkeys. Instead, he likes the challenge and the satisfaction that comes with success during this time frame. “I love hunting our opener and typically do so with a friend or two,” he said. “But our toms are almost always henned up pretty badly, so I had to figure out something to get around that.”
Herald found the answer in not trying to work birds right off the roost. “Usually gobblers are either roosted right with hens, or not far away,” he said. “Sometimes you can get tight enough to call in a tom, but a lot of times that roost hunt blows up in a hurry and you’re scrambling to come up with Plan B. My success rate soared when I laid off the roost hunt and just started setting up where I knew local birds were going to assemble right after fly-down. Turkeys in this part of the country are still pretty flock-oriented in the middle of April, and once we started focusing on these assembly spots—creek bottoms, field edges, ridge tops—our success rates soared. It can take some observation and scouting time to find them, but once you do, you’re in for a great hunt.”
Best Day of the Strut #4: April 30
Steve Sherk with a Pennsylvania longbeard. Steve Sherk
Hunting pressure’s effect on the turkey breeding cycle—and hunter success—is something few gobbler chasers discuss, but it’s everything to Steve Sherk. The turkey fanatic and whitetail guide hunts the big-woods habitat of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, which is virtually all public ground and open to any hunter in his gobbler-crazy state. “We get a lot of pressure here, and honestly, after the first five or six days of the season, it really seems to get to the birds,” he said. “Any tom that was living close to the road is either dead by then or has relocated to a place less accessible to hunters. So I like to get one for me or a hunter early, before the pressure gets to them.”
Not one to be intimidated by big country, Sherk hikes deep into the timber to leave other hunters behind. But he also enjoys getting the first crack at birds he might have listened to for weeks before the opener. He also believes that the once-predictable breeding cycle of turkeys has been disrupted by climate change. “We simply don’t have the winters we used to have,” he said. “Breeding typically starts long before the season opener and is earlier than it’s ever been. So I focus more on getting on a tom that’s either living off the grid a bit, or is being ignored by other hunters.” That boils down to scouting hard enough before the season that you’ve got a number of birds pegged. If you’ve done that, those first few days of the season can be on fire.
Best Day of the Strut No. 5: May 2
Gary Greenwalt with a big Idaho tom, taken with a bow. Gary Greenwalt
Garry Greenwalt could have a lot worse reasons for choosing May 2nd for his favorite day to kill a big western gobbler. “It’s my birthday!” he laughs. “But seriously, I’ve had a ton of success on that day, and I’m convinced it’s not just a birthday gift.” Greenwalt, who guides and hunts the mountains of Washington and Idaho and has killed 45 gobblers with a bow, says things just line up perfectly at the beginning of May for the Rios and Merriams he chases. “We open around April 15, and a lot of toms are still henned up then. But by early May, some of those girls are nesting and with a little work I can get on to a tom ready to play.”
Spring weather can be fickle in the mountains, and Greenwalt says adjusting to weather patterns can be critical. “It’s not unusual to get some snow now, and while it really doesn’t interrupt the breeding activity to a big degree, it can affect available food sources used by the hens, so it’s important to keep up with that,” he said. “When the weather is dicey, we spend a lot of scouting time on south- and southwest-facing slopes. Hens will key in on the first green vegetation, but also heftier food sources like grasshoppers and even snails. Find what hens are feeding on and the gobblers are never far away.”
Best Day of the Strut No. 6: May 15
Shane Simpson shows off a big Minnesota tom. Shane Simpson
When the (mostly) bell-shaped curve of the turkey breeding season on its downward trajectory, Shane Simpson of Simpson Outdoors shifts his hunting effort into overdrive. While the turkey expert calls Minnesota home, he goes after gobblers all over the country, and he chooses the mid-May period as his favorite. “Everyone seems to want to get first crack and go at the opener, and I get that, to a degree,” he said. “But to me, turkey hunting is just more enjoyable when the trees are leafing out, there’s green stuff in the woods and fields, and temps are warm and consistent.”
But personal comfort just scratches the surface of Simpson’s favorite time period. “I like the roost hunt a whole lot, and that mid-May period is when I’ve had the most success,” he said. “Gobblers and hens typically roost apart, but that time of year it’s even more dramatic. If I can get a tom roosted in the evening, then do my part the next morning, my chances of killing him—or calling him up for a buddy, which I do a lot of—are exponentially higher than at any other time of season. And while a lot of people think gobbling decreases as the season progresses, I’ve found that there’s a big gobbling peak about that time; with more hens heading to nests, toms spend a lot more time alone—which means they’ll be gobbling as much as, if not more than, they did in the early season. It’s a roost-hunter’s dream.”
Best Day of the Strut No. 7: May 28
The author with his own Minnesota longbeard. Scott Bestul
I’ve been hunting Minnesota and Wisconsin for over 30 years and have a lot of “best” days in my memory bank, but my favorite time frame lies hard against the close of the season. When my buddies tell me I’m nuts, I concede that there’s no way to sugar-coat the drawbacks. It can be sweaty-warm, even at dawn. Bugs can be a problem, and the heavy foliage can make it tough to hear a gobble. In fact, I wouldn’t pick the last week of May as my favorite time of the spring to hunt just any gobbler. But if I had to pick the absolute top time to tag my best turkey of the season, it would be the last couple of days in the fifth month.
Here’s what’s happening. Most hens are sitting now, which means that old, hook-spurred gobbler, the one that hens have been running to all spring, suddenly finds himself alone a lot. He may continue to plant his feet for a while, expecting hens to cooperate like they did in April, but when that proves fruitless, he’ll strap on his track shoes and run to a call like any 2-year-old. Even better, gobblers are starting to flock back up now, which simply gives me another tool in the box that can be effective. If toms aren’t coming to your yelps and cutting, toss a gobble at ‘em, or throw a fighting-purr party, and the results can be dramatic. Finally, most hunters have thrown in the towel for the year, meaning I’ve got virtually every public spot I hunt all to myself. I’ve also accessed tons of private land in the late season that was inaccessible only two weeks earlier. So if you find yourself at the tail end of the season with a tag still in you pocket, consider yourself lucky. You’ve just save the best for last, that’s all.
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