For the last few years, I’ve trekked north into the foothills of Northern California specifically for Thanksgiving, and during that break I’ve spent the majority of at least one day sitting in blinds for my chance at a wild turkey. The rolling hills of Oak and Pine trees lend to particularly great turkey habitat. With plenty of acorns and pine nuts for food, local cover and water to create a thriving ecosystem for a healthy bird population. This year, I was more determined than ever to give myself a serious opportunity to get a bird with the limited time I had. So, there I was sitting in a small oak tree to act as cover, waiting.
Like any game bird, turkey have a specific and limited season for hunting. As you might expect, there is one open season during Fall around Thanksgiving, and then a second Spring season.
Perhaps a surprise though, the best Turkey hunting in California may happen during the Spring when Turkeys fall into their rut season. If you’re familiar with a deer rut, Turkeys also have a season when, driven by hormones and natural desires, the mature Toms (male turkeys) build a harem of female turkeys to mate with. Similar to the deer rut, a lot more action happens during this season than others, when the Toms will be more territorial and aggressive. For the hunter, this often means the birds will be more likely to respond to calls, challenge decoys, and generally be more responsive at this time than at any other point. Spring hunting would be my preferred time to hunt as there appears to be many different techniques towards in drawing . If something isn’t working, it’s nice to me to think that you can change techniques as needed to increase your chances.
As many positive things happen in Spring for turkey hunting, the opposite seems true for Fall. The birds, which are always challenging because of their keen eyesight and skittish behavior, cannot be stalked or chased, force hunters to lie in wait, covered by brush, camo, or tent blind, hoping they respond to your calls. The best hunters rely on their ability to call Turkeys into their decoys and will be able to call Turkeys from hundreds of yards away. Unfortunately, without the rut season, and the birds really only concerned with food, the only working strategy is to pick a spot and hope to get lucky and the only thing a hunter can control besides his location is how long he wants to stay in the woods.
In the Fall, It’s been my experience that I turkeys will roam perhaps up to five miles during the day looking for grain to fill up for a long night. They will continue to move for most of the day before returning to a home base. Turkeys, despite their large size and serious effort, do in fact roost, and every night will make their way up into the trees for safety. The turkeys will often find one tree for the season, and will return to it regularly. This return offers perhaps the only saving grace for Fall turkey hunting and my dad has gotten the best opportunities by finding the roosting tree and setting up close by. Over the years, many of his Fall shots have been taken late in the afternoon when the birds are returning to the roosting tree.
On this particular trip, because of my tight schedule, I was really limited to only one day of possible hunting. With the suggestion of my dad, we decided we would set up to see if we could get a an opportunity early in the morning when the turkeys were leaving their roosting tree, and stay if we needed to for when they return.
After we got set up for our hunt, like clockwork, just as the first signs of light broke the horizon, a rooster crowed in the distance and awoke a roar of turkey gobbles the in a tree not so far away. I started to get hopeful that this was going to be a successful morning. Shortly after dawn however, the turkeys made their way down and around the tree, then without rhyme or reason, they dispersed off in the opposite direction from our location. We would have to wait to see if they would return.
To create the best opportunity for the turkey to return, the only hope seems to be based on our ability to stay in cover but remain in the ready. In the blind you must limit the noise you make, movement, and potentially odor in order to create a space the birds will feel safe in if they enter. For this particular hunt, we cannot chase the turkeys down, the only tools we have left are to look, listen and wait for opportunities. As the morning turns into mid morning and it begins to rain, it’s easy to get uncomfortable. As more time passes, It’s easy to become frustrated and anxious. Where did the turkeys go? Why aren’t they coming back? How long do I have to sit here in this blind? Is there anything that I can do to change my circumstances? My anxious thoughts try to get me to move and change my strategy. But, if I move, I will potentially blow any cover that I have established and only manage to scare birds if they are close by. I wait. And wait. As I sat in the blind, I realized, the battle to quiet myself was actually a wilderness of uneasiness, stirring within. While I was out in the woods, the real action was felt deep down as I wrestled with and contended against myself hoping for a successful hunt. We spent almost 10 hours sitting in a blind waiting for turkeys without seeing one. My dad told me that I paid my dues.
Fall turkey hunting can, and oftentimes, is frustrating. It’s easy to hate this moment. Not being able to do anything to change your circumstances. I’ve had more hunting experiences that haven’t gone my way than have, and even when they do go my way, it still can be very uncomfortable and boring work that has led up to the success or will be needed to complete the task at hand. But mostly, there has been a lot of waiting, waiting and more waiting. So much waiting just for things to line up to give you even one opportunity to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes things go your way pretty quickly, and other times they don’t. The long path isn’t the bad path. I was happy that I did all I could to put myself in the right place to come away with a bird because sometimes at the end of the day, all you can control is getting yourself out there. Even though I didn’t get my shot, I still think I can walk away happy. And of course, my dad went out and got his second bird of the season after I left when the weather cleared.