- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

For those who lament the passing of autumn and winter hunting seasons, rejoice. Wild turkeys roam woods and fields from Virginia to Pennsylvania and April is the month that heralds spring turkey hunting. Are you ready to go after a wonderfully tasty bird that many camouflage-bedecked nimrods agree is perhaps the most challenging and exciting of all woodland game?

I’ll never forget the first time I hunted springtime gobblers. I looked like a walking roll of leaves, dressed to the nines in a camo shirt, pants, cap, gloves and face netting. A friend told me that Virginia’s huge George Washington National Forest was the place to go. I learned how to emit the yelping sound of a hen turkey, secured topographic maps, talked to people who’d hunted the GW Forest, and soon sat firmly ensconced under the roof-like branches of a young beech tree that leaned toward a rise in the wooded terrain, affording good concealment.

Suddenly, the thunderous gobble of a tom turkey sounded off near my hiding spot. The bird had to be within 25 feet of me, but the little hill in front of me blocked a clear view. I began to yelp with my diaphragm call. “Yeep, yeep, yeep.” The bellow of the male was returned almost instantly. Oh, yeah, I’d be sticking a turkey into a roasting pan before the day was over — for sure.

When the gobbler didn’t show, but continued to sound off, I took my 12-gauge and slowly crawled to the crest of the rise — looked across it and almost touched the face of another hunter. The “gobbler” was a human and, thank heavens, nobody was harmed. I departed to try somewhere else and to this day still don’t know why the fellow used a shaker gobble call.

That year I fared poorly, but in subsequent spring seasons did well, learning more every time I entered the woods.

All this happened before 1973, when the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded. What a grand idea it was to form a nationwide group of like-minded hunters — women and men. Since then, 1.5 million turkey hunters have doubled in size. More than 550,000 of them are NWTF members with chapters and supporters in 50 states, Canada, Mexico and other foreign countries.

Thanks to various wildlife agencies and the NWTF’s many volunteers who assisted in propagation, conservation and habitat programs, today there are more than 7 million wild turkeys. The nonprofit NWTF and its partners have spent $258 million upholding hunting traditions and conserving more than 13.1 million acres of wildlife habitat.

Before you take the plunge and try to bring home a gobbler, check out what the NWTF has to say about prehunt scouting; it’s something all of us must do to be successful.

NWTF chief executive officer Rob Keck said, “Scouting gives me a chance to spend time enjoying the sights and sounds of the woods around me while I’m looking for animal signs that can lead to hunting success. You have to take your time walking through the woods over and over again if you’re going to do it right.”

Keck said before daybreak, walk to a high point and listen for gobbling. Try scouring the woods for roosting areas by searching for feathers and turkey droppings — the hen’s droppings look like small pieces of popcorn while a gobbler’s droppings are larger and J-shaped. Scout around field edges and along logging roads by checking for tracks, dusting areas and wing drag marks from the strutting bearded birds.

Spend a few mid-morning hours listening and keeping your eyes open for turkeys that might show up near field edges or in open spots in the woods. In a small notebook, jot down what you see, including weather conditions.

Whatever you do, even after having mastered a diaphragm or striker box call, refrain from overdoing the calling. In fact, some of the experts at the NWTF urge you to leave the turkey calls at home while you’re scouting. Turkeys are bright birds with a capacity to remember. If you call a lot, sounding like a hen, and a real turkey shows up he might get wary when he doesn’t find female companionship.

If you must make some noise, try using a crow or owl call. They’ll often reveal where a gobbler is strutting about because the big birds can’t resist answering.

For more information about the NWTF, visit nwtf.org.

Population unharmed by inclement weather

A run of bad weather, including monsoon rains and resulting floods, apparently has had little effect on wild turkey populations.

The National Wild Turkey Federation said springtime hunters should not be concerned. For example, the recent devastating floods in Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio will not impact the huge wild birds, NWTF biologists said.

In spring, wild turkey hens lay up to a dozen eggs in rough nests on the ground and when done sit on the nest to incubate them. In the case of flooded lowlands, the wild turkeys will either delay the egg laying, or move to higher elevations.

The NWTF said an overabundance of rain during the breeding and nesting season can displace wild turkeys. It will inconvenience hunters, but not the turkeys.

However, if heavy flood rains arrive as poults are about to come out of their egg shells, it can be a big problem.

Spring turkey seasons: Maryland, April 18-May 23; Virginia, April 12-May 3, May 5-17; West Virginia, April 28-May 24; Pennsylvania, April 26-May 26.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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