Conventional wisdom if you want to bag this amazing bird is to hit the woods at the butt crack of dawn and start calling but is conventional wisdom true? As a family, we have turkey hunted my entire life, sometimes taking as many as 8 or other people with us. This tends to generate a lot of experience in a short time for a young man.
None of my family members agree on much but they all agree that the morning is the time to hit the woods. We may challenge that assumption a bit. Many of my extended family are just happy to get out in the woods and if one person brings in a turkey, everyone gets a part of the reward. Me, I want to be the one who gets the bird.
Before we dive into this any further, I need to say that much of this will be dependent on a number of factors. The best time to hunt can change by time of year, bird population, local predators, overhunting, and weather. It can also be changed by local laws and hunting regulations.
With that said, here is one man’s experience built over 30 years of hunting:
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Time of Year – Effects and Challenges
In my neck of the woods, we are blessed with two turkey hunting seasons each year. In spring we get a 3-week open window for hunting that tends to be very fruitful. In the fall, we get a shotgun season just long enough to bag one bird for Thanksgiving and a few weeks later, a second season for a Christmas bird.
These two seasons hunt very differently, mostly due to feeding habits and hunting pressure. Spring has always been far more productive for me but you have to hunt the fall seasons if you want those holiday birds. So, I hunt all of them and, generally speaking, never go hungry for turkey meat.
Spring Hunting: This season around home starts in middle of April and goes into the first week of May. At the tail end of winter and the first start of the bloom, everything in the woods is just coming back to life. After a long winter of sparse and boring foods, every animal in the woods is ravenous for these new food sources.
While the majority of the spring diet consists of shoots, buds, and early berries, the booming insect population is irresistible for some much-needed fats and proteins. This feeding habit can keep birds active much later into the day, especially with temperatures that are still cold until well after sunup.
Spring in my area is not as popular as the Fall seasons which are somewhat of a tradition. This means overall less hunting pressure and birds that are not quite as stressed out. This also keeps them active longer during daylight hours. Most hunters who do go after turkey are usually out of the woods by 10:00 am or so, having hit the woods around 4:00 am and put in a full day.
Fall Hunting: Both the November and December seasons for us in the East hunt about the same except in one regard, November sees far more hunters. The pressure on November turkey can chase them farther into the woods and keep them very subdued. This is a time to be patient and watchful if you want a bird.
Diet of the birds in fall is almost all forage. Shoots are gone and there is little to no insect population. This is a lean time where the persistent bird lives and the lazy bird dies. The Winter coming is long and cruel so every calorie will count before the buffet of early spring opens up.
As we move into Fall, the sun may only be up for about 10 hours or less a day. For both the hunter and the turkey, every one of these hours is important. There are better and worse times of the day but to be successful, you may need to use the whole day.
If you are only after one turkey a year and want the best shot at getting that one single bird, do it in the spring. With lower hunting pressure, better food reserves, and typically more careless behavior, your chances are much, much higher.
That said, if turkey is your game, you need to be in the woods for every season. You get plenty of opportunities and with a little persistence, you can bag birds at any time of year.
Hunting the Morning and Early Day
Consistently, turkey hunters will tell you to be in the woods as early as you can get there, our family was overly fond of the hour of 4:00 am for no reason that was ever explained to me. While they have always been somewhat productive in their hunts, for the number of people fielded the take seemed awfully small.
That aside, most people work jobs that won’t allow them to hunt most days that early and leaves them with the very limited weekend action. If you want to see pressure, hit the woods at 4:00 am on a Saturday morning.
I profess to be an early hunter rather than a late one. I prefer to hit the woods in the morning rather than the evening, especially in winter when sunset happens before 6:00 pm. I just don’t hit the woods quite as early as most hunters do.
Instead of hitting that 4:00 am rush I will have a late breakfast and be in the woods about 8:00 am, about an hour or two before most hunters will be done for the day. I want to get a good spot and wait out the majority of the hunters and wait for the pressure to ease. Usually, by 11:00, the birds will start to perk up and become active again.
The spot I pick is important. I usually push to a side of the hunting area without an easy parking point. I want a place that won’t have hunters coming and going. This is likely the way the birds were pushed out of the hunting area and they will be coming back. You just need to wait them out.
This works well in both Spring and Fall but is more successful when more hunters are in the woods. In spring, it will depend more on how many hunters as to how successful this method is. If hunting pressure is lower, you may just want to stick to those conventional early morning times.
Hunting Late Day and Evening
If my weekends are unsuccessful, I may hit the woods after work to get some evening action. No matter the time of year, I consider this to be a less successful time for most people. Getting the right spot without setting off the birds and getting them nervous can be more difficult.
In the evening, I want to hunt deeper into the woods where there is ample food and more nesting areas that are away from predators and people. In the fall, this is not a time to wait around as you do in the mornings. Time is short so I don’t tend to remain still as much, instead circling quietly through this area to cover more ground.
Occasionally, you may happen across an area that you can see obvious signs of turkey moving away. Though these can be risky to your chance of success, if I were going to pick a place to sit still and try to wait them out, it would be a place like this. I still think the more active approach is better.
If I were to narrow it down to a shorter period, I would say that the hours just before sunset, around 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm in my area in the fall or 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm in the spring are best. These are the times Turkey will be looking for their last meal of the day and a place to roost or bed down. It isn’t that they are careless at this time but they can be a little more frantic, making them less prone to seeing you.
Weather, its Effects and How to Deal with them
Things like temperature and rain can drastically affect the active time for many game animals. This is a fact commonly ignored by hunters to their own detriment. If you are looking for the best 2 hour period to hunt any animal, you better factor weather into the mix.
Starting with temperature, higher seasonal temperatures can make animals more restless. This is more apparent the closer to mid-day than in the earlier or later hours. It isn’t the temperatures themselves that cause this but what they mean. Typically, if you have unseasonal warmth, rain will soon follow. In cases where it is warmer, move your hunting time earlier if you can.
Colder temperatures than normal for the season make animals more lethargic. Though this is more apparent with deer, it can be seen with most other game animals. In this case, turkey may move more when the sun is higher in the sky. They will be more nervous during this time and harder to sneak up on. In colder weather, hold a position or make movement very slow and cautious.
Precipitation always affects animal behavior. Even with water-resistant fur and feathers, they don’t want to be any wetter than they have to be. I have known turkey to never leave their bedding sites if heavy rain is falling. And why would any hunter want to be out in that anyway?
Light rain can be a fine time to hunt. It obscures smells and any noise you may make. The birds don’t move as much and, when they do, they move much slower just seem lazy. Many of my best hunts have been in light rain.
From my experience, snow has much less of an effect than rain. Though I love hunting in snow and the amazing opportunity for some very easy tracking, it is probably far less fruitful than hunting other times. Snow tends to make the woods far quieter and turkey far more alert. They spook easier and are much harder to sneak up on.
It’s probably best to start this with a perfect time of day and adjust from there. In spring or fall either one, I would want to be in the woods in the late morning. Turkey doesn’t bed down like deer and will still be active. Hunting pressure will be lower as well as the pressure from other predators. I hunt every turkey season and at least 75% of my birds were probably taken between 10:00 am and Noon.
If I were forced to hunt the evening, I would want to be in the woods as early as possible. 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm at the latest. This would give me more time to hunt and a better opportunity to get to a position favorable to wait. In the spring, I may push that back an hour or so if my available time in the woods was short.
Adjusting this, if there is unseasonable warmth, I would move this a hair earlier but not more than an hour. For cold, I would hit the woods later in the morning but keep evening times the same or a little earlier.
For rain, I would move morning times closer to mid-day and evening times too, if I could. Even in rain, this will be a warmer and more active time.
Hunting pressure will have the greatest effect so steer clear of it. Hunt when hunter population is lower. On weekends this means hunting off times. On weekdays, most any time in the later morning is great and far less hunted than the evening.
Hopefully, this has given you some ideas on how best to plan your own hunt to get the greatest chance at a bagging a great bird. As with all hunting, there are few hard and fast rules. Everything has to fit into the human schedule. This guide is informational at best and not universally the best guidelines. Such an article would be impossible.
That said, I have hunted both fall and the spring seasons for over 20 years and have never missed bringing home a respectable bird.