The thrill of gobbler season

After fretting about perhaps having to hunt gobblers in the snow this spring, yesterday’s opener for spring gobblers was simply a relief.

There are plenty of gobblers out there, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has assured us so we have the outlook of great days ahead.

How many were aware I wondered, that yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of spring gobbler seasons in Pennsylvania. I’m old enough to remember that far back and to remember the hullabaloo that ensued when it was announced that hunting gobblers in the spring would now be a reality.

Few hunters had any idea what was happening in the turkey’s world and how to intrude into the breeding routine of spring turkeys. Many hunters were staunchly against hunting gobblers in the spring, calling it a fish-in-the barrel routine, that hunting the gobblers in the spring would soon mean the extinction of wild turkeys in the state.

Those who decided to try this new opportunity tried to hunt spring gobblers the same way they hunted them in the fall and quickly found out that wouldn’t work. In the first couple seasons, gobblers did come running to about any turkey call they heard. I’ve often said that in that first season, you could go out and rattle stones in a tin can and the lovesick toms would come dashing toward you.

Turkeys, like all wild creatures, quickly adapt to anything that happens to them repeatedly. Gobblers soon learned that hens yelping from the distance were not always the real thing, that the enemy had invaded their space and learned their language and so they adapted by becoming spooky and balky, by gobbling on the roost and shutting up when they flew down from roost, by approaching only so far toward a “hen” and then hanging up somewhere just out of shotgun range and waiting for the hen to come there to him. If she didn’t show up he would move on.

Every season it seemed to get somewhat harder. Gobblers often didn’t respond to a hunter’s calls at all and in the last few years, we find gobblers taking two hours to approach a hunter’s pleas and often doing it without every uttering a responding call.

So now, it is much more a waiting game to bag gobblers than it was 50 years ago, much more a contest of tactics between hunter and gobbler now.

Still, few other outdoor experiences can match the utter thrill of being in the woods as the dawn slowly creeps in and one strains to hear that first gobble. It is this vocal element that gives to spring gobbler hunting its charm, its draw. Actually having to listen for a gobbler to begin advertising his lust and location on the morning breeze and then knowing that you had better know how to speak his language and that it is up to you to persuade that big old bird that you are the sexiest, most desirable hen in the woods.

Then if you catch sight of him gliding through the woods on his way to you, and you have to wait for him to approach to within range of your 12 gauge, knowing that if he spots you or sees anything he doesn’t like or if you make the slightest movement that will send him racing for the distant ridges set your heart thumping, your breath raspy, sweat trickling down your back.

Gobbler hunting in the spring has now become so popular that it rivals only deer hunting for excitement and anticipation. One must practice talking like a turkey, figuring out what kind of a mood he is in just by the intensity and frequency of his gobbles. It has the same intensity as watching the Super Bowl has.

Remember that you do have to display orange while moving through the woods and it is a definite safety benefit. Never believe that any gobbling you hear or yelping of a hen that you hear is really being made by a turkey because it may not be. Most turkey hunters are pretty good callers nowadays and sound very convincing, especially when we are so anxious to be convinced that what we see or hear is the real thing.

Because I was once the victim of a “mistaken for a turkey” shooting in the woods near Raystown Lake, I am extra safety-minded. I take several looks before I pull a trigger, often looking away and then looking back at the target before I will shoot.

Thanks to great educational efforts in the last couple decades, especially the NRA sponsored safety courses, the rate for turkey hunting related accidents is very small. Let’s keep it that way.