Sunday, April 22, 2012

Less Is More When Calling Toms In Pennsylvania's Crowded Woodlands

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's noteworthy in turkey hunting circles to get a Mexican or Canadian Slam -- shooting birds in those countries. It's a significant hunting achievement to score a U.S. Grand Slam -- taking Eastern, Osceola, Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys. Put those turkey slams together and you've achieved a rare World Slam.
Do it all during one spring season with a bow and arrow and you're Jason Michael of Williamsport, Pa. Publicity about his unique achievement led the former electric and nuclear plant employee to quit his day job and go pro, guiding and helping to develop the Little Runt turkey decoy with
Pro hunter Jason Michael shows a turkey decoy 
he helped to develop. Patience is everything -- 
get the turkeys in close.
But Michael said all of that is nothing compared to the extreme sporting challenge of shooting a gobbler in his home state.

"It's brutal," said Michael. "Pennsylvania is the hardest state you'll ever kill a turkey in because of all the people pressure. New York, Virginia, Ohio, Maryland -- they all have a lot of hunters -- but Pennsylvania has had the most hunters for the longest time."
The crowds come for turkeys that weren't always there, evidence of a significant wildlife management success.
When Pennsylvania held its first spring gobbler season in 1968, biologists estimated about 60,000 wild turkeys inhabited about half of the state's forestland. The initial six-day season resulted in the harvest of 1,636 toms.
With regulated hunting as a primary tool of turkey management, the population grew and the birds' range has swelled to blanket the entire state.
Game Commission analysis of hunter success surveys shows there are now more spring turkey hunters (230,000) than fall turkey hunters (163,000). Spring harvests average 38,000 to 45,000 toms, while fall harvests average 16,000 to 25,000 birds of either sex.
A hunter's primary concern during any high-pressure season has got to be safety, and in woodlands that attract camouflaged hunters with guns, there's special reason to be cautious.
"I put out a little orange tape," Michael said. "It will not screw up your hunt. Drape it on a sapling branch or wrap it around a tree, or put an orange band on your hat."
With lots of yelping and yakking all around him, Michael doesn't try to out-call the other hunters.
"I understand if you have one weekend to hunt, you may be anxious to get a shot. But pressing the birds too hard in Pennsylvania, where there's already a lot of pressure, is the wrong way to go," he said. "I back it down 10 percent. Just some soft hen yelping to let them think you're the more realistic of the calls they're hearing."
Over-calling, in fact, can drive the toms away.
"Many times the turkey hears yak, yak, yak and he thinks, 'That's another hunter,' so he'll circle around. I'll tell my other gunner to go over there 80 or 100 yards and don't do anything. The caller actually pushes the bird to a hunter who's not calling."
Experienced turkey hunters often bring several calls, but Michael said in high-pressure areas variety is vital.
"You've got to feel the flock out, give them what they want to hear. Give back what they give to you," he said. "In the middle of the season when the tom pitches down, try a box call or a slate call or a glass call or a mouth call. Throw several out to him. He'll usually call back to the one he thinks is most lifelike. When you find it, don't over do it. Let him come to you."
Having scouted the area preseason, Michael sets up 60 to 100 yards from where he believes the flock is roosting near a point the gobbler is likely to pass. At dawn he starts with a few soft tree yelps.
"When he takes off in the morning, he'll be on autopilot for a while. Get in his path," he said. "Then just do some basic calls. Not too much."
After the first 45 to 60 minutes, vocalizations should change.
"Go to a more excited hen yelp," he said, "getting more vocal and louder."
If nothing is happening by about 9 a.m., pack up and move.
"Now you're going to go walking around," he said. "Cautious, walking slowly, throwing some calls out there trying to get ahead of the tom. Move 50, 80, maybe 150 yards and reposition yourself."
From April 28 to May 12, legal hunting hours are 30 minutes before dawn until noon. Michael said the majority of birds are called between 10 a.m. and noon, when the gobblers tend to move off from the hens.
"You're kind of in desperation mode by then, but ultimately it can be the best time," he said.
May 14 to May 31, hunting hours stretch from a half-hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset.
"After noon, hunt these turkeys like you'd hunt a deer," Michael said. "You're trying to put yourself in their travel path. You know where they roost -- you've got to be in position three hours before roosting time. Woodsmanship comes into play, and a pair of binoculars."
Michael said the hunting tool turkey hunters most often lack is patience. Too often, hunters shoot too soon.
"They rush the shot. With a shotgun, you don't want to shoot at 25 or 30 yards -- bring him in at least to the 20s," he said. "When a bird is committed to a decoy he'll stand up quick -- hunters think they've been spotted. But has the bird taken one step? Moved his body left or right? No, that's just him being a turkey. You can wait until he's right on your decoy to shoot, actually fighting it or attempting to mate it. Patience is everything."

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