Successful Turkey Hunting: Understanding the Breeding Cycle

Pro-staff Contributor: Zach Raulie

I’m no archery purist, but I prefer to hunt turkeys with a bow. I know, crazy, right? Taking spring gobblers with a bow requires that I slow down, be patient and more thorough in my setup. And my success rate has dramatically increased since switching to being “mostly” a bow turkey hunter. This isn’t because of my weapon choice, but rather, because I’ve found that the single greatest factor that determines whether I go home empty handed or with turkeys in three to four states each year is the ability to understand where the turkeys are in their breeding cycle.

Zach with his second kill this year.

Zach with his second kill this year.

Scouting

Prior to hunting, I spend time determining what part of the breeding season the turkeys are in. Are they still in winter flocks? This will likely be the case this spring as many of the Midwestern states are seeing very cool temperatures and have snow on the ground as seasons open. Even in North Florida, where I live, the spring season has been 2-3 weeks later than normal due to the much cooler temperatures. Scouting is critical in determining what part of the breeding cycle birds are in.

Adaptation

You should be ready to adapt your hunting tactics as turkeys break from their winter flocks and go into full swing. A prime example of this is the changes I experienced during our Florida opener this year. Ten days before opener, trail cameras were showing only a few turkeys—still in winter, bachelor flocks. As seasoned opened, I was blessed with 6 gobblers, 20+ hens and 10 jakes all around the small property I hunt. Then by the end of the first week of the season, this big flock had broken up into much smaller groups of hens, solo-dominant gobblers, and subordinate gobblers and jakes. This all occurred within seven days!

Suffice it to say, the stages of the spring season change very quickly. Adapting to these changes will increase your success rate immensely.

Working the Cycle

Early in the season, when gobblers are still establishing their roles in the pecking order, I’ll observe a lot of fighting between them. Jake decoys, like the Avian X LCD ¼ Strut or a full strut decoy, can be game changers because they challenge the dominant birds on your property. During

A gobbler approaching a full strut decoy.
A gobbler approaching a full strut decoy.

one of the first days of the season, as I yelped at a lone dominant gobbler, he turned, went into full-strut facing the challenging decoy I had deployed, and in less than a minute from first sight he was face to face with my strutting decoy and six yards from my well-hidden blind.

But when the cycle progressed, it was important to adapt. Several days after this first encounter, the gobblers would not commit to the same decoy the first gobbler ran in to meet. I suspected that they had their tails whipped by the dominant bird and had to change my strategy. Before my next hunt, I set out two hen decoys in the predawn hours. I flapped a turkey wing against my leg as morning broke and gave a very soft series of yelps. Moments later a hen cackled as she flew from her roost into the field. Another turkey, with a much harder thud, hit the ground on the fire break behind me and seconds later, 5 yards away, in full strut, he eased his way into the decoys.

Many hunters, me included, have tried to stick with a “lucky” decoy and wonder why it doesn’t work. It’s simple. The cycle within the turkey breeding season changed. Adapting to that change and using different tactics, different calls, and different decoy strategies can be all it takes to pull that gobbler into range. Scout your birds: they will tell you what part of the season they’re in.

Zach Raulie is an avid hunter and amateur retriever trainer living outside of Jacksonville, Florida.   He is a multi-year qualifier for the World’s Duck Calling Contest and is highly competitive in AKC and UKC sanctioned hunt tests.  You’ll see Zach representing krugerfarms.com and Lodge Creek Calls in all of his endeavors each year.  You can contact Zach at zraulie@gmail.com and find him on Facebook (facebook.com/zraulie).

Zach with his first kill this year.

Zach with his first kill this year.

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