Best Day of the Turkey Strut: April 18

We revealed the seven Best Days of the Turkey Strut a few weeks ago, and now Day No. 3 is upon us and focuses on late-morning/afternoon hunting, so there’s still plenty of time to pull your stuff together, make an excuse, and get out there. Turkey seasons are in full swing across much of the country, and, as in many areas, bird numbers are down in Arkansas, home of this week’s expert. Population density can have a big effect on the behavior of birds during the spring breeding season and, of course, how hunters should adjust tactics to score. When turkey numbers are low, it’s typically due to a poor hatch in the previous spring (if not multiple springs) so, in addition to fewer birds to hunt, the existing birds are older toms who may not be as eager to run to a yelp as a two-year-old or a jake. Obviously this can pose some difficulties, but there are still plenty of ways to score, and nobody knows that better than today’s expert.

The Pro: Phillip Vanderpool, Arkansas

photo of hunter with turkey
Phillip Vanderpool with a big-woods gobbler. Phillip Vanderpool

Credentials: Vanderpool, host of The Virtue outdoor television show, hunts gobblers across their range every spring, but he cut his turkey hunting teeth on his home ground, which includes the vast Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Perfectly compfortable with a shotgun or muzzleloader, Vanderpool has taken more than 100 gobblers with a bow, many without the use of a blind. 

Strut Stage: Post Peak Breeding

“We’re probably a bit past peak breeding now in Arkansas,” Vanderpool says. “Dominant gobblers will have had some success breeding hens in certain areas, and they’ll keep returning to those spots until they quit having that success. Also, once hens start laying eggs, they won’t be with gobblers very long in the morning, so that bird may be vulnerable later in the day. Sub-dominant toms will start grouping up now a bit, so count on these gobblers mixing it up with each other and responding more aggressively to calls. But with bird numbers down, I don’t expect to encounter as many of these gobbler groups as I would in a normal year.” 

Vanderpool runs trail cameras year-round anyway, but says that whenever populations are low, these tools become really important. “I set them up in areas where I expect turkey activity, including water sources, oak ridges, and logging roads. Some mornings, I may not even hear a gobbler, but if my trail cams have pointed out some good areas, I just go to those and try to strike a gobbler. And if I’m in the mood to sit, those are the spots to just plunk down and keep calling. Finally, it’s really important to stay highly mobile now. I have thousands of acres of public land to roam, and if one spot is dead, I just keep hopping to new areas that I know hold birds. Sometimes it can be silent as a tomb in one area, and I drive 5 or 10 miles and find a gobbler or two lighting up the woods.”

Expert Tactic for April 10: Strike a Late-Day Tom in the Timber

Always the optimist, Vanderpool says low bird numbers can actually be a good thing for a hunter. “Toms just have fewer hens to breed, so even if you encounter a henned-up gobbler at dawn, chances are high that bird will be lonely later in the day,” he says. That’s why he recommends a late-morning or afternoon hunt now. “I love to walk ridge tops, trying to strike one with a box call, and I never hesitate to check in with a gobbler that wouldn’t budge early in the morning, or even a tom I might have bumped. Give that bird a couple hours of alone time, and he’ll likely run to a call. If I strike a bird mid-morning or later, I don’t waste time taking his temperature or trying to fire him up; chances are high he’s already coming as soon as he hears my call. So I get out a Dave Smith jake decoy and set it up in an opening in the timber where I know the tom will see it. Jake decoys are critical in timber hunts because the red head is more visible. I’ve had many toms come in to a single hen decoy and simply not see it. But that red head will get his attention for sure. Then it’s just a matter of soft calling and scratching in the leaves; those finishing tactics will get him to close the distance. I’ve killed a lot of turkeys a lot of different ways, and in my mind there’s nothing better than calling one up in the hardwoods, with my back pressed against a big old oak.”

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