Unusual early spring calls for change in turkey tactics

Just in case you haven’t noticed, the seasons are all out of whack this year. We had one of the warmest winters on record.
For the first time in my lifetime, we had no snow to speak of and very few frigid nights. By mid-February, when they should have been shivering in below freezing overnight temps, spring peepers were already peeping in 70-degree weather.
Bears were out roaming around by the first week of March, and daffodils flowered about a month ahead of time.
By the third week in March, more than 3,000 new high temperature records all across the country had been set.
Keep in mind that the normal last date for frost in our area is typically April 15. Frost? I can hardly remember when we last had frost. Must have been sometime back around early February.
So, how will all this wacky weather affect turkey season? Well, first you have to understand how a normal turkey season normally proceeds here in the upcountry of South Carolina.
The reason our turkey season begins on April 1, while the season starts on March 15 in the lowcountry, is the fact that spring moves up from the coast. In a normal year, the turkeys are gobbling their heads off by mid-March in the coastal region, while our turkeys are still in the winter doldrums during that awkward late-winter/early spring period.
In a normal year, by the time our season rolls around on April Fools Day, our turkeys would be just getting geared up for the breeding season. Hens would still be grouped in large flocks, gobblers would be hanging out with their male counterparts and just starting to gobble now and then on warm mornings.
Later, about mid-season, most hens would be bred and off by themselves tending a nest. At this point, gobblers get lonely and are particularly susceptible to a hunter who can pass himself off as a willing hen looking for a date.
Then, toward the end of the month, things would tend to taper off and hunters would typically have to call pretty aggressively to get a gobbler’s attention.
This year, look for the turkeys to be well ahead of schedule in their spring routine. Gobblers have already been gobbling for a month, and bachelor groups are beginning to break up. Some hens have already been bred, and others are anxious to do the same. Prepare to hit the ground running this year.
Rather than starting off slow, which often happens when winter weather sometimes lingers into the first week of April here in the upcountry, the turkeys are already rocking and rolling this year. Get ready for some fast action. When you call to a gobbler in a tree at first light this year, be advised that he may hit the ground and come in running before you have time to set up.
Here’s how I deal with the situation. I developed a self-imposed rule several years ago that has served me well. I never call to a gobbling turkey without either already being set up and ready to get my gun in position on a moment’s notice, or by making sure that I am standing at a big tree where I can plop down in two seconds flat and get set up at the first sign that the gobbler is on the way. This strategy is particularly helpful when the leaves are crispy and the gobbler is close.
Turkey hunters know well enough that you can’t move after a turkey gobbles back and he’s less than a hundred yards away.
Finally, there is a period, even during normal years, when the gobblers just shut up and there is nothing you can do to make them reveal their presence. This year the lull is likely to occur earlier in the season. The trick is to hunt late and do what I call “trolling for turkeys.”
If the woods are quiet at first light and in the first hour or two of the morning, try easing around the woods where there is ample turkey sign and making soft sporadic calls. If your wanderings bring you within a hundred yards or so of a gobbler who had lockjaw at first light, he may well sound off if you convince him that you are a lonely hen looking for company. Just keep in mind, as I cautioned before, that he may come in before you get your act together. The Boy Scout motto is good advice — be prepared.