The mating display of a tom turkey is captivating. He struts, he dances. He spread his wings, he fans his tail. He gobbles, he becomes quiet. And then, as often happens when a wily, old tom tires of trying to attract the attention of an inanimate hen turkey decoy, he suddenly vanishes, causing a hunter’s spirits to plummet.
This seasonal rite is the centerpiece of spring turkey-hunting. It provides its theatrical allure. It is the key to a hunter’s success.
What’s more important, this week marked the opening of the spring turkey season which runs until May 13.
Turkey hunting is a fairly new tradition for local sportsmen. When I began hunting in the 1950s, we had no turkeys. Today, when I drive around the countryside, I see more turkeys than pheasants or bobwhite quail, a profound change. Pheasants and quail once were our most celebrated upland game-birds.
Hunting wild turkeys is a challenge. They are the wariest game bird in North America. If we include the entire planet, only the capercaillie of northern Europe’s coniferous forests can challenge the turkey’s elusive behavior.
The standard method of hunting turkeys is deceptively simplistic. You find an area where the birds live, set out a hen turkey decoy and wait for a love-struck tom to come courting. In theory, it is easy. In practice, it is very, very difficult.
You begin long before sunrise, walking silently along or through a woods where turkeys are known to roost. You do not want to disturb the birds on their roost.
You approach closely — but not too closely — to their roost. In an adjacent field or pasture you poke a stick in the ground to anchor a hen turkey decoy. You do not want the decoy too close to your blind. Ideally, it is on the far edge of shotgun range. Then you find a place to hide along the edge of the woods and wait.
Occasionally you make a call to let the roosting birds know another turkey is in the area. If you are lucky, with the coming of daylight, the turkeys will fly down from their roost to land in your approximate area.
You hope an adventuresome tom sees your hen. Only bearded males are legal game in the spring. Hens are protected. You want an interested tom to closely approach the hen.
If no tom pays attention, you produce a couple of clucks, the come-to-me utterance of a lonely hen. This often works. A tom will take notice and begin strutting, fanning his tale and whatnot — the displays that he thinks will make a female swoon. All of this occurs beyond gun range.
What you want is for the tom to approach closely to your decoy, bringing it within shotgun range.
Here is the catch. Tom turkeys are exceedingly vain. Many are so enamored of themselves they think a female should come to them, something a decoy cannot do. An old, egotistical tom will strut his stuff, but often will quickly lose interest when the decoy hen does not stroll toward him. The tom will walk away, ending your chance for a shot and leaving you to face the truth: you will return home empty-handed.
Years ago, in my youthful days, a hunting companion in Virginia tried to comfort me after a grand old tom had spurned my best efforts.
“You have to respect wise, old toms,” he said. “Think of it this way: How far would you advance toward a smokin’ hot, female mannequin standing motionless on the dance floor of a trendy disco?”
“It would depend on the number of margaritas I had consumed,” I riposted.
“Turkeys don’t drink margaritas,” he pointed out.
In the South, where turkey hunting is an ancient, celebrated tradition, a veteran Mississippi sportsman once pointed out to me that “it takes a skilled deer hunter at least three years to learn to hunt turkeys.”
This celebrated wariness also can be found in game-management’s general rule-of-thumb, based on harvest surveys, that 20 percent of the hunters take 80 percent of the game — ducks, geese, quail, deer or whatnot.
This is not the case with turkeys. For example, in the 2010 season, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates 20 percent of the hunters killed 92 percent of the turkeys. Last year, Hoosier hunters bagged 11,669 turkeys, a drop of 15 percent from the previous year. A further decline is expected this season due to a poor hatch.
What all this means is that if you bring home a turkey in the coming days, you can take pride in knowing that you rank among the sporting elite.
James H. Phillips can be reached at