March 13, 2023
Tiny rays of sunlight kissed the leafless cottonwoods bringing a sermon of gobbles. Huddled in a Double Bull cloaked in ninja gear, my hunting partner and I jabbed at each other's sides with our fingers each time the birds thundered. It was opening day in the Cornhusker state, and despite a biting north wind and temperatures in the 20s; birds were hammering, and we were excited.
Many states, not only Nebraska, give archers a head start before shotgun hunters hit the woods. If you're a hardcore bowhunter like myself, my advice: Take full advantage of early season turkeys but heed the words to come.
The X Is The Most Important Thing
I stole some lingo from the waterfowl world, but when hunting early season birds, nothing is more critical, regardless of the time of day you hunt them, than being on the X. The X, in waterfowl terms, is setting the decoys right where copious amounts of migrating fowl have been feeding in a field. Duck and goose fields are typically scouted for a few days before the hunt, and then when the time is right, the hunt takes place.
You will kill more early season thunder chickens with archery tackle if you go about hunting them in this manner. Spend time before the season locating roost sites, and then note how birds use the terrain to travel from their roost to their favorite food source. Please don't stop at food; stay with the birds and see how they work, not only the food source, but where they go after breakfast.
During the early season, scouting is easy because winter's grip still has a hold on spring green-up. Trees are starting to bud but aren't full of leaves and ground vegetation lacks leaf cover. This makes a good pair of binoculars and spotting scope essential tools. In many locations, even when hunting public dirt, you can watch birds most of the day. I also like to set trail cameras, especially in locations off feeding areas where I find tracks, strut marks, and droppings. These are usually midday hangouts—strutting zones—and birds can get very consistent in visiting these places. If your cameras tell you a tom or three are hitting a particular spot between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. daily, your bowhunt just got much less complicated.
Another scouting factor likely to work in your favor is the number of birds that will be together. Often, even into April's first week, wintertime flocks remain, which means lots of black blobs are moving together, making finding birds all the easier.
After breakfast, the birds will likely stay together during the early part of the season. The toms, sometimes as many as 10 or 12, along with a wad of jakes, will tail behind a gaggle of hens. Keep the birds' movements marked on a good hunting app like Hunt Stand, which allows you to write notes into the app.
If left undisturbed, early-season turkeys are extremely patternable on food sources, strut zones, midday loafing areas, travel routes, and evening food sources. Once you know how birds use an area, it's time to strike.
I'm not a big fan of field-edge bowhunting during the early season, but it can be highly effective if you've done your homework. I'm not fond of the risk versus the reward that often comes with morning field hunts. Naked trees and open areas increase the odds of at least one beady little eyeball spying on you from above, and one eyeball is all it takes to foil a morning hunt and blow an established roost.
When bowhunting turkeys from a ground blind during the morning on a field edge, I want to be on the X—within 150 yards of where the birds have been coming into the field—but if the landscape doesn't allow, I don't push it.
Always go super early and operate under cover of total darkness. Darkness allows you to get away with movement and some noise, which you will make when popping up a ground blind and setting decoys. Also, refrain from pressing in closer and closer on the roost. Our bowhunting psyche is weird, and for some reason, in the inky black, we tend to abandon a well-laid plan and creep closer and closer to a roost. You did your scouting and are where the birds want to be. Stop! Set the blind, a full-strut tom decoy (more to come on this) over a ready-to-breed hen, a feeder hen and wait.
Don't get crazy on the calls. You're relying on your location and decoys to do the work. The hope is when the first hens hit the field, they start working toward your fakes. If this happens, it's game over. If not, you're hoping your scouting puts you close enough to the hens that the toms won't tolerate the presence of a new kid on the block when they hit the field.
Last season on March 25 and 26, my hunting companion and I harvested five Nebraska birds—two for me and a triple for him. All of the birds were killed between 10:30 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. How? We knew where the birds wanted to be, set up a Double Bull ground blind, some Avian-X turkey fakes—this time a jake and a duo of hens—and waited.
Two toms started hammering at 10:27 a.m. We yelped back twice and never called again. The birds kept gobbling, but it was evident that an entire flock of turkeys was coming our way, and there was no reason to call. We were set in a circular opening off an old farm two-track. Our trail cameras had caught the boy birds strutting up and down the road every day before the season. Water and timber were close by, and there were piles of leaves for hens to toss around as they searched for bugs and seeds. It was the perfect set.
The first tom arrived with three jakes, and he wasted no time establishing his dominance. He karate-kicked the inflated imposter, and I hammered him with a Sevr-tipped Easton. The jakes hung around, which is expected. The quietness of an arrow doesn't spook birds, and when a boy bird hits the ground or shows weakness, other males take full advantage and want to put a beating on their injured comrade. When bowhunting, my buddy and I don't discriminate, and we whacked all three jakes. The next day, in another loafing zone, he hammered a tom at 11:46 a.m.
Evening Hunts Are A Win
I know many turkey hunters that prefer not to hunt evenings—and I understand in some states, laws prohibit it—but, it's the second-best time of day to kill an early season tom.
Typically, birds will follow the same path of travel back to their roost and hit the same food source they did that morning. I like a timber ambush in a narrow pinch at least 400 yards from the perch without decoys or a field edge set far enough from the roost to pack my gear and walk out without waiting an extra hour for the night to black everything out. All-day turkey hunting is a lengthy affair, and after making the drive home, you'll only get a few hours of sleep before it's time to wake up and do it all over again. Don't spend unnecessary time afield.
When hunting a pinch point, whether along a waterway, a narrow strip of timber, etc., I typically set my blind within 20 yards of where the birds will walk—remember your scouting and be where the sign is—and don't set a decoy. This is a pure ambush.
I like a full-strut decoy if I hit a field edge during an evening over a laydown hen with a feeder hen—the same set I use for morning hunting. Early in the season, I like a full-strut tom. My go-to this season is Avian's HDR Strutter, and I use a true fan over the supplied one. Full-strut decoys are easily visible; even two-year-old birds seem to come in during the early season. I believe this is because they haven't had a month of taking a beating from older birds, but that's only a guess. I like a jake over a laydown and feeder hen during the middle part of the day.
Though I like this option better once birds break up and toms roam solo during the midday when hens hit nests, it can be money during the early season, especially if you want to run and gun.
Ultimate Predator Gear's Stalker Turkey tips the scale at 10.3 ounces and folds to 11 inches, making it easy to store in your pack. Two options are available: the MerRio Turkey Stalker and the Eastern Turkey Stalker. Both feature a photographic image of a full-strut tom printed on micro-suede UV-free fabric, and both have a large shooting window. Attachment via Velcro straps that come with the decoy or the purchase of UPG Spider Wraps takes seconds. What I love about this decoy is the coverage it provides. Mounted to the front of the riser with the sight and stabilizer protruding through the window, your entire body is covered.
My favorite method is locating birds through my optics or getting them to fire at a hen yelp or locator call. Once I know where a boy bird is, I pull up my online mapping system, mark the bird's position, and plan my approach. I like a hybrid map mode that provides an aerial image with topo lines. Figure out a good route and creep as close as you dare. When you set up, try and do so around some brush or other cover. I've found that if you can show a tom only bits and pieces of the decoy and blend the rest into some cover, it helps. This past spring, I used the edge of a creek. As the bird approached, I would push the fan just above the bank. I brought the entire decoy above the bank when he started coming hard. I shot that bird at three yards.
There you have it; everything you need to be successful on early season turkeys with archery gear. Enjoy the process.