Eric Atherton: Turkeys follow their schedule, not yours

The sun hadn't risen as I and Roxie, my 12-week-old Lab, walked through the weeds and brush behind our house on a calm, frosty Tuesday morning. In the distance I heard the faint-yet-unmistakable sound of a turkey gobble.

The sun hadn't risen as I and Roxie, my 12-week-old Lab, walked through the weeds and brush behind our house on a calm, frosty Tuesday morning. In the distance I heard the faint-yet-unmistakable sound of a turkey gobble.

We moved closer, stopped and listened, and eventually I was able to pinpoint at least two different gobblers. Using my voice, I tried a few hen yelps, but the only response was from Roxie, who growled, then jumped up and grabbed my coat in her teeth. Apparently she wasn't a fan of my calling.

Back at the house, my cell phone rang at exactly 7 a.m., and I didn't recognize the number. I answered it anyway, and a voice I immediately recognized as my neighbor Al said "There's about 15 turkeys up on top of the hill at the edge of the woods."

About 12 hours earlier, chatting with Al while Roxie played with his kids, I'd asked if he had been seeing any turkeys. I'd seen some tracks in the recent snowfall, but I hadn't actually seen the birds until Al's call.

Using binoculars from my deck, I saw two strutting gobblers amid a mass of constantly moving black shapes. Within minutes, the full sun hit the birds and their feathers glistened.


This wasn't the first time I've witnessed such a display near my home, but it's been years since I saw a strutting tom out there. Not since 2009 have I seen enough birds to warrant setting up a blind and actually hunting on my home turf.

I scrambled to find the camera, awakened my 13-year-old son, and for the next two hours we took turns sneaking within 200 yards to take photos.

Learning opportunity

This is something that every turkey hunter should try to experience. Since the turkey season wasn't open, there was no reason for us to call or interfere with the birds in any way, so we just watched and learned by letting them do what they do.

What lessons can you learn by watching a group of turkeys on a perfect spring morning?

For starters, you'll learn that turkeys follow their own schedule, and to a hunter, that can be absolutely maddening. For the first hour that we watched these birds, they didn't move 100 yards. The gobblers were in full strut the whole time and sometimes stood almost motionless for five minutes or more. They never gobbled, and the hens rarely talked, either.

Had I been a hunter set up on the other side of the ridge, I would have been convinced that these birds were miles away. We've all been there — we hear birds gobbling from the roost, then they fly down, start going the other way, disappear over a hill and stop talking to us.

It's tough to sit tight in that situation, so by 8:30 there's a good chance that I would have been trying to peep over the top of the ridge to see if the coast was clear. At that point I'd probably have been busted, not only spoiling the rest of that day's hunt but also educating the birds to steer clear of that area the next day.


That's OK if you have 500 acres of woods and pastures to hunt, but if you have limited land, you need to treat your birds with kid gloves.

Hens rule

The other lesson you'll learn by watching a big group of birds is that the hens truly rule the roost. On this day the gobblers never determined the flock's direction — they simply followed the boss hen. Had I been calling these birds, I have no doubt that they would have gobbled at me, but the odds of me getting a tom to break away from 10 hens would have been virtually nil. And I don't think there's a professional caller out there who would fare any better in that situation.

The best way to kill a henned-up gobbler is to scout the flock and put yourself where the hens want to go. Failing that, you'll need to stay in the field later — or arrive later — and hope to find a lovesick tom whose hens are on their nests for the day. That's when your calling skill (or lack thereof) will truly come into play.

I hope these birds stick around until the archery season begins. With two gobblers and three jakes in the flock, I'd like my chances of coaxing one into bow range. They didn't show up on Wednesday morning, and Parker and I heard no gobbling from the distant ridges.

But even if I never see these turkeys again, they gave me and my son a morning — and some lessons — that we'll never forget.

What To Read Next
Get Local