With a few exceptions, most turkey hunters have reported hearing very little gobbling this season.
Most gobbling reports are coming from the mountain regions. One such report came from Mike Stanley of Highland, who killed a magnificent, double-bearded gobbler while sitting in the same spot where I killed a gobbler on the next-to-last day of the 2020 season. He used the same Bill Rhodes cedar box call that I used to kill that gobbler to call up a flock of jakes which were subsequently run off by a trio of mature gobblers.
Heavy rain has now put that field underwater. Regrettably, riparian areas adjacent to small creeks and rivers are prime turkey nesting areas. Flooding will have washed away every nest in flooded areas. If turkeys do not nest again, we will have lost that segment of the 2021 hatch.
Jeremy Wood, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s turkey biologist, said reproduction and recruitment was excellent in many areas in 2020. A repeat performance in 2021 could get Arkansas’ turkeys a lot closer to being healthy. We hate to lose any amount of local nesting, including areas that are being controlled burned so late in the spring, such as a large tract on Mount Magazine. Controlled burning creates excellent turkey habitat, but we do wish the burns would be conducted in late February or in March before turkeys begin nesting. Burning in April might minimally impair turkey nesting, but the optics are very bad.
Lack of gobbling activity is partly attributable to the season starting so late. The Game and Fish Commission set the season to occur after most hens had been bred, and when the largest number of gobblers was available for breeding. When you have a struggling, limited resource, maximizing numbers is vital to reproductive success, even if that entails a more challenging hunting experience. And yes, the season structure is designed to minimize hunter success in order to enable more mature gobblers to live another year so that more gobblers will be available to breed hens in 2022.
Of course, it is very hard to hunt turkeys if they don’t gobble because you never know if a turkey is near. In the late season, turkeys often come silently to calls. That often means a turkey sees a hunter first, which greatly curtails a hunter’s chances for success.
Concealment and alertness are keys to late-season success. A hunter must choose a location that offers maximum visibility while also minimizing the chances of being seen. A pop-up blind is an excellent solution. A gillie suit is also an excellent solution if you like to move around.
Most important, you must listen very, very hard. Most turkey hunting is done with the ears. I suggest turning off the radio while driving to your hunting spot. This cleanses your hearing from nonessential sounds and prepares it for the more subtle sonics of the woodland environment. It’s similar to the adjustment your eyes must make when entering darkness from a brightly lit environment.
If you listen closely, you will distinguish turkey vocalizations if a turkey is near. You will hear clucks, purrs and scratching. A snapping stick alerted me to the presence of turkeys in a new area that I hunted in the late afternoon of April 22. I did not see the turkey, but I knew an animal of substantial size stepped on a stick forcibly enough to break it. Raccoons and possums push things, but they don’t break things. It could only have been a deer or turkey.
About 15 minutes later, a crow shrieked in the distance and a turkey yelped in protest. Had I not been utterly silent, I wouldn’t have heard it.
After giving the turkey time to clear the area, I scouted where it had been and found a natural travel funnel. I found a good spot to set up in the morning and left my chair and decoys there so I wouldn’t have to carry them in later.
The next morning, I was in position to call up five gobblers that traveled the funnel, and I exited the woods with one draped across my shoulder. It was my ninth Arkansas gobbler since 2013.
Call as much or as little as you like. Call as loud or as soft as you like. Be patient. If a turkey is near, it will hear you. If it wants to find you, it will.