Turkey season is nigh upon us. For those not familiar with hunting, one of the few times the sport is conducted in the spring (at least in the lower 48) is during the spring turkey season. Wild turkeys are found in nearly every state and the various Game and Fish Departments set a spring season to coincide with the latter part of the turkeys' spring breeding period. At that point, most of the hens are on nests and the males (gobblers) are, biologically speaking, surplusage since they do not help to raise the young. The spring season is limited to taking gobblers and the primary method of hunting is to entice the bird into range by mimicking the calls of a hen turkey.
One of the fascinating things about wild turkeys is their amazingly acute eyesight and the wariness with which they approach a caller. Consequently, when hunting turkeys you do best to wear full camouflage and are wise to accompany that with a face net as well. Here in the west, the birds move around quite a bit, adjusting their elevation to the unsettled weather and the progress of the spring vegetation. On top of that, they seem to have fairly large territories and you have to spend some time just hiking around looking for them. The gobblers typically begin to call at first light, so turkey hunting consist of getting up in the dark and then hiking out to an area with birds, then listening for a gobble. Once you hear a bird, you try to sneak fairly close without spooking him, then settle against some bit of cover and begin to call. Once you get a dialogue going, you try to entice the bird within the thirty yards or so which constitute the limit of shotgun range. Frequently, the gobbler will hold up a hundred yards out, trying to get the hen he's hearing to meet him halfway. I'm convinced that birds who have survived a season or two hold up until a hen comes out to meet them as a survival tactic.
I sometimes think that the most intriguing aspect of hunting is the interaction with wildlife. When you hunt, you are not a mere observer but a predator and participant in the lives of both prey and non-prey. Hunts which involve calling the game heighten that participation considerably, whether it is gabbling at a bunch of mallards circling your decoys, chirping at a bull elk that just cut loose with a bugle, or softly yelping at a gobbler who has just shouted that he owns this ridge. When the game responds to your call it is a unique bit of connection with the bird or animal. Not only that, but adrenaline hits your system and your palms sweat a bit. Suddenly, there are a myriad of ways to screw this up- the wrong call, the wrong note, too sudden a move. Meanwhile, the game is moving closer, checking everything out, calling at you and expecting the right response. Every time that happens, whether you find your prey within range or blow the whole thing, you've had a good day.
I have limited hope for this season. We've been in a long drought and turkey numbers in my area have been way down. Last year, I walked all morning to hear a single gobble. I did see some birds, though. The year before I heard no birds and saw only a few. Two years before that, those same ridges echoed with the gobbles of half a dozen birds or more. However, last year featured a wet spring and summer and this winter had a decent snow pack. With any luck, there was a good hatch last spring and a good number of birds made it through the winter to this one. Like many birds, turkey numbers can rebound pretty quickly.
Even with fair numbers of birds, wind is the scourge of the southwestern turkey hunter. The birds don't seem to call or respond to calling when the wind blows any more than a breeze. Unfortunately, the mountains tend to be windy at all times and especially so in the spring. As a weekend hunter who lives a distance from his hunting area I've had whole seasons blown out. Few things are more discouraging than waking at 4 a.m. to the sound of the ponderosa crowns being tossed about by the cursed wind. Pack up and go home or hang out and hope it lays tomorrow morning? An essential piece of gear for a turkey hunt is a good book!