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Wildlife Species Guide

Wild Turkeys in Nebraska
Wild Turkeys The Turkey's Year Monitoring The Flocks
Challenge of the Hunt Sex Identification Age Determination

Challenge of the Hunt

Southwest of Crawford, a father and son from Lincoln share a Pine Ridge dawn, listening for gobblers in roost trees on a nearby ridge. Along the Platte River, a farm couple sits quietly in a blind waiting for their first sight of a tom moving steadily in their direction. In an oak forest along the Missouri River, a school teacher moves cautiously through the woods on a pre-season scouting trip before the dayís first class.

hunter Each year, in every state but Alaska, millions of turkey hunters have the opportunity to enter the wild turkeyís realm in pursuit of this remarkable gamebird. In recent years, about 20,000 shotgun and archery turkey permits have been issued for Nebraskaís spring and fall turkey seasons, and birds have been harvested in 72 of the stateís 93 counties.

Few outdoor experiences match the exhilaration and challenge of a traditional spring gobbler hunt. The sound of a gobblerís excited calling as he steadily approaches, the harmonic puffing and feather snapping of an unseen bird and the first sight of the gobbler in full strutting display as he comes into view are unforgettable.

Many such ideal spring hunts take place each year throughout Nebraska, but spring turkey hunters quickly learn that knowing all there is to know about gobbler hunting can take a lifetime.

Experienced turkey hunters know that harvesting a wary gobbler is not the only measure of a huntís success. Returning home empty-handed is not nearly as discouraging as finishing a hunt without having learned something new about wild turkeys.

turkey blind For most hunters, spring gobbler hunting begins with establishing and renewing landowner contacts long before the season opens. Most Nebraska turkey hunting takes place on private land, and permission is required to hunt on all private land in Nebraska. Landowners also are often the best sources of up-to-date information about numbers of birds and their movements.

Pre-season scouting is helpful, especially when hunting a new area, and understanding how winter flocks move to their spring breeding areas makes scouting more effective. Winter flocks usually begin to break up before spring hunting seasons in late March or early April, but bad weather can delay or slow the winter breakup and even pull scattered flocks back to winter roosts.

If pre-season scouting reveals that birds are still concentrated on winter roosts, hunters should look for possible dispersal routes and nesting habitat. Tracks, feathers and droppings can help identify turkey movement patterns.

As spring progresses, birds begin to disperse from the winter roosts, and flocks scatter. Small groups of gobblers often move across open country miles from the nearest tree cover.

Some hunters map the terrain, noting possible travel lanes, roost sites (roost trees often are marked by several yearís accumulated droppings), water sources and other features. Gobblers often use creekbottoms as natural travel lanes, while flocks of young gobblers, called jakes, can be found almost anywhere.

It is often difficult to call a gobbler across deep canyons or downhill into steep ravines and canyons. Most hunters have better success calling birds uphill or along natural travel lanes including ridgetops, benches overlooking ravines and around the edges of canyons. Turkeys often circle to approach from behind a callerís position, and occasionally they approach silently and warily. Noting good calling locations and hunter access on a map is useful.

Experienced turkey hunters recommend patterning a shotgun used for turkey hunting. Turkey patterning targets are available from commercial sources and from all district offices of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Patterning and load selection require a safe shooting location, and many shooting clubs and trap ranges provide places to shoot.

A dense pattern of No. 4 or No. 6 shot is recommended by many experienced hunters. Aimed at a turkeyís vulnerable head and neck, a dense pattern of small shot is more effective than a relatively open pattern of larger shot. Even large shot is often deflected by a turkeyís dense, hard feathers.

In the field, shots should be limited to ranges within the gunís effective patterning distance. Large shot, poor patterning performance and long shots result in unrecovered birds.

If a shotgun does not pattern well, using a different shot size or brand can help, since loads from different manufacturers sometimes pattern differently. If the pattern does not center on the target, the cause is usually poor sight alignment or stock fit, problems easily fixed by a gunsmith.

Practice with a turkey call also will improve hunter success. A common box call is easy to use, but the number of other calls using friction or air continues to grow. Books and tapes to assist with the selection of a call and its use are readily available.

Most hunters wear camouflage clothing, including a face mask or net and gloves. Binoculars, a small pack, a knife, a small first-aid kit and a water bottle are useful. A shotgun sling and an expanding pack or hunter-orange bag in which to carry a gobbler helps add to a hunterís safety.

Turkey decoys are a useful addition to the spring turkey hunterís kit and can attract a wary gobblerís attention away from a concealed hunter. Sophisticated decoy techniques include the use of juvenile or jake gobbler decoys and hen decoys, upright or in the low, breeding crouch.

To avoid the possibility of another hunter mistaking a decoy for a live bird, carry it concealed in a pack or a hunter orange net sack, and keep hunter safety foremost when setting up and using decoys. Place the decoy in front you with a distant, open background that will effectively prevent anyone from approaching to within shotgun range on your line of fire and to ensure that you will not be in another hunterís line of fire.

Spring turkey hunting involves camouflage, stealth and close ranges, but a hunter also must be seen and identified by other hunters. Select a calling positions that provides cover from behind, and avoid red, white and blue in your turkey hunting outfit since those colors are prominent on displaying gobblers. A hunter-orange flag or hat placed behind the hunter but out of sight of an approaching turkey can help reveal a hunterís presence to other hunters.

Calling a wary gobbler into bow or shotgun range is the high point of the spring hunt. Successful calling requires understanding of turkey habits and basic field craft -- stalking, concealment and calling.

Call from concealment, but select a location that provides security, good visibility and the freedom to move slightly if a bird approaches from an unanticipated direction. Avoid restricting potential shooting lanes or Knowing when to call and when to remain silent is important. If a gobbler responds to the first series of yelps, for example, how long should a hunter wait to call again? Experienced callers look for important clues: How far away was the responding gobbler? Did more than one bird answer? From what direction? While turkey researchers report the gobble call is always produced with the same intensity, an experienced hunter often can judge a gobblerís interest from a single response.

If the response is very close, additional calling might not be possible or necessary. With a more distant gobbler, wait a few minutes before calling again. If the gobblerís answer is immediate and sounds closer, the bird might be moving toward the sound of the call. Birds that answer several times from the same distance or even farther away are often accompanied by hens. A gobbler with hens is difficult to call.

In such cases, it is sometimes possible to close the distance before calling again, but avoid the temptation to stalk an unseen gobbler; they are difficult to approach, and stalking an unseen gobbler in an area where there might be concealed hunters is dangerous. If a gobbler is moving steadily in one direction, moving ahead of the flock to call from a new and closer position can be effective.

A turkeyís daily activities begin and end at the roost. Even several hours before sunrise, gobblers can be heard calling from the roost trees. As sunrise approaches, calling activity can increase and then drop off almost completely as the birds prepare to leave the roost. Weather conditions can delay the birdsí departure from the roost. The sound of wing beats, often accompanied by the sound of breaking limbs and twigs, can sometimes be heard as birds descend from the trees.

Daily activity changes as the number of nesting hens increases. In early spring, gobblers roosting with hens call frequently from the roost, but calling often slows or stops as a flock leaves the roost, only to steadily increase again as the morning progresses. Usually feeding activity slows by midmorning, and birds loaf in heavy cover where they are protected from flying predators. On warm days, loafing areas are usually shaded sites. Loafing activities include preening and scratching and dusting in bare soil.

Feeding resumes by midafternoon, sometimes accompanied by an occasional gobble call as toms follow feeding hens. As evening approaches, flocks return to the roost trees.

As the breeding season progresses and more hens are nesting, the gobblersí responses and movements toward a call often increase. Hunting pressure can affect calling success, especially late in the season on heavily hunted public lands.

The spring season is a gobbler-only hunt, although regulations now permit taking a bearded hen. An approaching gobbler in full strutting display is easy to identify, but identifying the sex of a turkey in poor light and dense vegetation can be difficult.

A gobblerís lower neck and breast feathers are fringed in black. The breast appears jet black, often in contrast to a vibrant red head and neck. A henís breast feathers are white fringed, giving the bird a "frosted" appearance. The henís head and neck might have more feathers than the gobblerís, but the variable size, shape and color of the head make it an unreliable sex identifier. If there is any doubt about the birdís sex, or if the background might conceal other birds or a hunter, donít shoot.

In the fall turkey season birds of either sex can be taken, and fall hunting requires different hunting strategies. Depending on season dates, fall finds turkeys scattered in mixed flocks, including hens and young-of-the-year flocks, and in gobbler-only flocks of mature toms. Isolated groups of only a few gobblers and single mature gobblers also might be seen. Fall gobblers are wary and make up a small part of the fall harvest.

Fall turkey hunting usually requires a "still hunt" or a listen-watch-and-stalk technique. Fall flocks of hens and young-of-year birds can be quite vocal during their daily activities, and large flocks are usually easy to locate. Locating fall flocks is the key to a successful fall hunt.

ridge hunters It is often possible to circle a slowly moving flock and use natural terrain features to funnel the feeding birds into shooting range. Shotgun hunters should select an isolated bird away from the main flock to prevent killing more than one turkey. In tall grass, it is possible for unseen turkeys to be feeding with their heads down behind the targeted bird. Carefully identify the target bird against a safe, open background.

Unlike spring hunting when hunters call to attract a gobbling tom, in fall, calling is used to locate birds if a flock has been accidentally or purposefully scattered. From a concealed calling position produce the "kee-kee" or lost calls of the young jake or the henís "assembly" clucks. Young birds often quickly respond, and hunters can be selective as individual birds move into range. Fall hunting takes patience, since the scattered birds are sometimes slow to regroup. Some fall hunters flush or chase calling hens to prevent them from recalling scattered flocks.

In spring and fall, hunters must sign the permit carcass tag and attach it to the carcass immediately after a bird is killed. A downed bird should be field-dressed as soon as possible. Make an incision under the tail to remove the entrails, lungs and heart. Make a second incision to remove the crop and, on a spring gobbler, the spongy fat on the upper breast. The birdís head and feet must remain attached to the carcass for transport, but the feathers can be removed in the field. On warm days it is important to cool the carcass as soon as possible.

When carrying a turkey out of the field, use a field pack, a hunter-orange mesh bag or a hunter-orange ribbon to mark the bird. Do not carry the bird over your shoulder. A hunter in full camouflage clothing can be almost impossible to identify in poor light or dense vegetation, and another hunter might see what he thinks is a turkey. Spring or fall, the opportunity to hunt wild turkeys is challenging and rewarding. The breeding rituals and gobbling activity of the toms in early spring are a welcome break from Nebraskaís winters. The fall turkey seasonís crisp air and vibrant foliage are an exhilarating setting for a day-hunt or extended stay in the woods. Hunting wild turkeys was once the exclusive privilege of hunters in the southern and eastern states, but the wild turkeyís return to Nebraska and other states in and beyond its historic range has created a growing following for this remarkable gamebird.

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