I’ve hunted turkeys just about every spring since 1983, and while I look forward to the spring season every year, I hunt for different reasons today. Twenty-five years ago, a perfect turkey hunt ended with me carrying a big tom to the truck. But as I’ve grown older, my motivations have changed.
So what drives me to hunt turkeys each spring? I know this sounds cliché, but it’s being there, watching and hearing the woods wake up on a fine spring morning.
Today, my perfect turkey hunt goes something like this:
The hunt actually starts the night before. “Roosting” a gobbler is essential to boost morale for the hunt, and it makes getting up at 4:30 a.m. seem almost reasonable. On the morning of the hunt, I must get in place by “dark-thirty.” It’s part of the experience, and the chilled pre-dawn air makes sunrise a much-anticipated event. I’ll find a tree wider than my shoulders to sit against with a strutting zone in front – open, but not too open. A proud gobbler wants to be seen but not exposed. A green carpet of fresh cheatgrass and a few evenly spaced honey locust trees make a perfect foreground.
Now, I move rock, twigs and dry leaves so sitting is somewhat comfortable, and subtle movement is less noisy. Next, I carefully take turkey calls out of my hunting vests’s oversized pockets – a peg-and-slate, a freshly-chalked box call, and my favorite diaphragm call. Calls are positioned with the precision of a surgeon, and I practice reaching for each to ensure efficiency. Then I plop the diaphragm call in my mouth to prime the reeds. Quietly, I load my shotgun.
I pull my facemask down, put on gloves, take a deep breath and relax. I slow my breathing so I can hear. Yep, that was a gobble! That could be a good sign – the bird gobbling early on the roost. But I know the bird could go silent as soon as its feet hit the dirt. There are no guarantees, and if there were I wouldn’t be here. It’s time to watch the woods wake up.
Movement! I can barely see ghostly dark shapes moving along the green carpet, mingling with the black locust trunks. I blink, squint and refocus – a family of raccoons is hurrying home after a night on the prowl, racing the impending sunrise. They don’t have time to look, or maybe they never knew I was there. It’s going to be a good morning. Each experience counts.
Listen. A chickadee’s awake. And bobwhites call “keyuck,” from their grassy roost. Quail whistles always make me smile – could be it’s the optimism I take knowing they survived the winter, or maybe it’s that I just like the sound. I hear footfalls in the leaves, delicate and careful. My eyes bounce around trying to locate the source in the dim light. Larger shadows. Deer. More wary than the ‘coons, the deer are alert, statue still and looking toward me. A doe and last year’s fawns silently slip around my position; not really alarmed, but not relaxed, either. They count.
My surroundings have an eerie glow just before sunrise. The eastern sky appears pale yellow; I scrunch back against the tree and fold my arms to ward of the chill. Hurry up sun. I hear another gobble, and I forget the cold. Finally, there is orange and yellow fire flooding over the horizon. Warmth! The gobbler chortles and sings to welcome the sun. Time to convince him I’m a hen turkey. A few subtle yelps on the slate call should do it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement, a gray flicker among the tangle of locust branches. It’s fast and silent, and my eyes have trouble catching up. A sharp-skinned hawk glides through the tress, looking for breakfast. Glad I’m not that chickadee.
Another gobble resonates from the trees to the east, then the sounds of big wings cutting damp air, and some cackling yelps pierce the still morning. The gobblers on the ground! My heart rate bounces. I scrape some soft clucks on the slate, followed by my sweetest-sounding yelps on the diaphragm. I hear another gobble, and it’s closer! Yep, it’s already a perfect turkey hunt. I could go home happy right now, but I think I’ll stay and see how this one turns out.
I’ve hunted Kansas turkeys long enough to see the hunting opportunities go from limited-draw permits to multiple permits available over the counter. Today, Kansas offers outstanding turkey hunting statewide, and our spring hunters have one of the highest success rates among Midwest states. The Kansas spring turkey season opens April 1 when youth, disabled and archery hungers can hunt for 12 days. On April 13, the regular season opens, and it will close May 31.
Mike Miller grew up in Greensburg, hunting and fishing in the fields, grasslands and farm ponds of Kiowa County. He’s worked for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in Pratt for 28 years, and currently heads the Information Production Section, editing and producing Kansas Wildlife & Parks magazine, as well as a variety of other publications. He spends his spare time hunting birds and fishing for whatever is biting.