May 4, 2017
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Except for the stormy weather on the final day, the 2017 wild turkey season in Alabama went out with a whimper.
However, that wasn’t a surprise to many because of a mild winter and early spring. Many expected the turkey breeding activity to be slightly ahead of a normal schedule as well.
Some, like Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, didn’t expect the last half of the season to be quite so tough, especially with more favorable weather conditions than in 2016.
“It’s been mixed,” Sykes said of the reports from turkey hunters throughout the season. “It was about like it has been the last couple of years. I think it was a little better overall. The weather was better on the weekends for the most part. Last year, it seemed like every storm came through on the weekend.
“I know some people who killed their limit (5 gobblers per season). I know some who didn’t come close to a limit. For me, March couldn’t have been any better, and April couldn’t have been any worse.”
Sykes said because he hunts on numerous properties with different hunters he rarely gets to pattern specific turkeys, which means there is very little room for error.
“I seldom get to hunt the same turkeys two days in a row,” he said. “In March, I don’t know what it was. I just made the right decisions. Where I set up was in the right place, where the turkey wanted to be. And the turkeys just worked well. Early in the season I called up multiple turkeys, two or three, on a lot of the hunts.”
Sykes said his luck went south later in the season because hunting pressure had changed the gobblers’ behavior.
“Late in the season, you need to be able to hunt a piece of property repeatedly to learn what these turkeys are going to do,” he said. “They’ve been pressured. You’re going after turkeys that have been spooked three or four times or shot at.”
Sykes, who bagged three turkeys during the season, said there was one hunt where a little local knowledge would have gone a long way in outsmarting a wary gobbler.
“I went with a friend and hunted this turkey,” he said. “We fooled with him and fooled with him. We got him close and then he started going away. We circled around, but we didn’t kill the turkey. My friend said, ‘You know, he’s done that the last three times I’ve hunted him.’ That would have been good intel going into the hunt. We could have not wasted time chasing him. We could have just circled around and cut him off.
“A lot of it was just the situation. There was a lot better gobbling for me early in the year. Even on those 24- and 25-degree mornings, the turkeys gobbled good. I don’t know. I could do no wrong in March and could do no right in April. There were a bunch of days in April where I didn’t even sit down to a turkey.”
Like Sykes, the gobblers where I hunted sounded off well for the first few weeks of the season. On a couple of hunts the last week of the season in Marengo County, it looked like the turkeys had packed their bags and vacated the premises. There wasn’t a single gobble heard on those two mornings, and the turkey sign was gone. Instead of abundant sign of gobbler and hen tracks, strut marks and dusting areas, it was a turkey desert. Hunting partner Doug Shearer, a member of the Alabama Avid Turkey Hunter Survey team, said, “This report’s not going to take long.”
“At different times of the year, the hens move,” Sykes said. “Where it was good early, it may not have been good habitat for nesting or brood rearing. When the hens change locations, the gobblers are going to go with them. The gobblers may just walk up and down certain roads, waiting for the hens to come off the nest.
“A lot of times, what’s good early in the season is not good late in the season because the habitat changed.”
One of Sykes’ most memorable hunts of 2017 occurred on family property in Choctaw County. His father, Willie, raises cattle on several hundred acres that is mostly pasture. For the last couple of years, Sykes has seen several gobblers tending hens in the pasture, but there was no place to hide in that wide-open field.
“I hate hunting out of a blind,” he said. “I don’t like deer hunting out of a blind, much less turkey hunting. But it goes back to knowing a piece of property and knowing what the turkeys are going to do. The property is pastureland. There are very limited places where I can set up. Those turkeys were not in places where I had a few strips of woods where I could hunt. Those turkeys were roosting over a creek off the property. They would either pitch down in the woods and stay in the woods or they would pitch down into the pasture. We are surrounded by multiple landowners, so if you don’t get those gobblers the first few days of the season, there is so much pressure that they go somewhere else.
“As anybody who has hunted turkeys enough knows, you have to hunt where turkeys want to be. It’s extremely difficult to make them go somewhere they don’t want to go. And they liked to stay in that one pasture, which is close to where Daddy feeds his cows.”
Despite his disdain for the hunting tool, Sykes erected a pop-up blind just across the fence from where Willie feeds his Charolais cattle.
“I got one of the old hay rings and put it around the blind,” Chuck said. “A lot of times when you stick a blind in the woods, you’ll brush it up with limbs and leaves to make it blend in. But there’s nothing to blend in in the middle of a hay field. So the hay ring made it sort of blend in.
“That first day, it worked out well (longbeard down at 20 yards). I knew the turkeys. I knew what they were doing. That’s where hunting the same property year after year comes in and understanding how the turkeys utilize it. That makes all the difference in the world. Pretty calling is just pretty calling. Location is what kills turkeys. What looks good to one turkey will look good to the others. Next year, I can probably kill a turkey out of that hay ring the first week of the season. Later in the season, it’s not going to happen.”
Sykes said he did see a lot of mature turkeys taken this year, which is further evidence of tough hunting the previous two years. A good many of those turkeys made it into older age classes.
“From what I saw where I was hunting, I probably didn’t see but a couple of 2-year-olds killed, and the rest were 3- and 4-year-olds,” he said. “That was a good sign.”
Steve Barnett, WFF’s Alabama Wild Turkey Project Leader, said avid hunter survey results as reported in WFF’s Full Fans and Sharp Spurs publications for the last three years show peak gobbling activity occurs in March and early April.
“Early indications, based on a small sample size of hunters in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, are that the number of turkeys gobbling and the amount of gobbling heard tend to be best early in the season,” Barnett said. “There is somewhat of a correlation in harvest, based on that sample.
“But we don’t have enough data from our survey yet to talk about trends or apply the samples to what’s going on statewide. We need more folks to enlist in the survey to help guide turkey management in Alabama.”
Go to www.outdooralabama.com/wild-turkey to see the Full Fans and Sharp Spurs publications for 2014, 2015 and 2016.
PHOTOS: Chuck Sykes and his father, Willie, show off the gobbler that was fooled by Sykes’ setup in a pop-up blind inside a hay ring in Willie’s cattle pasture. Sykes had a great early season and frustrating April, which seems to be what members of the Alabama Avid Turkey Hunting Survey team have experienced in recent years.