By Josh Boyd
Turkey hunting and the spring of the year go together like a ball and glove. However, if the spring thaw is the only time you go afield in search of turkey hunting splendor, you are missing out on a whole world of overlooked opportunity.
When a hunter thinks of December and January, they often envision time spent tucked away in a duck blind, braving the cold to fill their final deer tag, or kicking up rabbits with the help of close friends and a wise old dog.
Few hunters today give even a momentary thought to chasing longbeards across frost-covered agriculture fields and snow-draped woodlots. This makes the winter turkey season an overlooked gem of a hunting pursuit.
To those that have not yet taken advantage of these abundant year’s end adventures, the stark differences between turkey behavior during this segment of the year, and that experienced during the well-renowned spring season, is often quite substantial.
However, with changing times, comes the need for changing tactics. By adapting to the seasonal variations in flock behavior, you can put yourself in contention to punch winter turkey tags with relentless consistency.
During the winter months, typical turkey flocks balloon in numbers. Smaller sized groups that were commonplace during the fall months have now joined together to form sizable, all-encompassing flocks.
Flocks of this size work in unison to ensure the safety of its members, and seek out any remaining food sources during the harsh winter months. This is a notable contrast to the behavior witnessed during the spring when flocks are divided and breeding courtship is the norm.
Because of this, calling, while still a viable strategy, is typically not as effective as it would be during April and May. Therefore, success is highly dependent upon hunting within close proximity of these sizable flocks. There are few ways to accomplish this more efficiently than to be where the turkeys want to be when coming off roost.
This makes the roosting of winter birds highly beneficial. Although roosting is often thought of as a springtime tactic, it can be used to a hunter’s advantage even in the depths of winter.
Indeed, coaxing a shock gobble out of a tom during this time of the year might be difficult. However, a hunter can glass fields as a winter flock heads to roost and listen for the unmistakable sound of thunderous wing beats as sizable flocks ascend to their perch.
Once a roost site is discovered; rise early the following morning and creep slowly into position as close to this location as you can get, without frightening the roosted birds. With flocks of longbeards often numbering in the 6-10 head range, and those consisting of hens often containing as many as 40 or more members, the odds are favorable that a shot opportunity will arise at fly-down.
Pick A Fight
Even though the wild turkey’s spring breeding season is still several months away, gobblers are already beginning to sort out matters of pecking order. If you observe a flock of toms from a distance during the winter months, you will often observe periodic breaks in feeding for posturing and the occasional sparring amongst flockmates.
A wise hunter can capitalize upon this behavior by attempting to conjure up a territorial response from a tom at the top of the pecking order. Though this is not as easily accomplished as it is during the fevered pitch of breeding activity experienced in the spring, toms are still willing to stake their claim if you are in the right place at the right time.
This is best accomplished by pre-scouting an area and becoming familiar with the day to day habits of the particular fall flock of gobblers that you intend to hunt, Through scouting, you will often uncover strut zones where toms will strut and occasionally gobble upon flying down from roost.
Once these locations are identified, a hunter can ease into place during the predawn darkness and stake out a full strut decoy, as you would during the spring. A periodic series of gobbler yelps, with the occasional gobble mixed in, adds a level of natural realism to the scene that you are staging.
The hope is that the nearby flock of toms will decide that the given agriculture field or river bottom is not big enough for the fake that they spy in the distance. A group of toms will often pitch down from their roost at daylight, ready to hand out an ample serving of territorial based violence, therefore leading them into the path of the awaiting hunter’s gun barrel.
Break Things Up
Turkeys hang tight to their social groups during the winter months, with little desire to break this cycle until spring rolls around. This reluctance to separate from their flock mates can be a turkey’s undoing if you can recognize and act upon it.
If you have ever startled a winter flock of turkeys and spent more than ten minutes in the same area following their scattered departure, you have probably heard the widespread chorus of turkey vocalizations that are emitted as a flock seeks to regroup.
This is true for both toms and hens and is generally characterized by the flock reassembling close to where the first bird began communicating their location. In knowing this, a strategic hunter can scatter a flock, set up, and attempt to impersonate a turkey seeking its flock mates.
The hope is that the turkeys of the flock are attracted to your calling, bringing them into range as they attempt to regroup. The method of how a flock is scattered is not nearly as critical as ensuring that the flock is thoroughly scattered. Some individuals prefer to scatter the flock themselves, while others employ the use of dogs for this task where legal.
No matter your method, scatter the flock in question as thoroughly as possible, set up at the nearest point of cover, and call with vocalizations that are appropriate to the sex of turkeys within that flock.
Winning Winter Turkey Tactics
This winter, if you begin to feel as if cabin fever is setting in, get out and go afield to experience all that this overlooked time in the turkey woods has to offer. A morning spent in pursuit of the majestic wild turkey is always worthwhile, no matter the season of the year.