Turkey Season Primer

These two experts know more about turkeys than the Butterball corporation. Follow their advice to bag a bird this season.

I was in my sixth decade of life before I was even remotely interested in spring turkey hunting.

I had made a single foray with Ruston’s V.E. “Blue” Parkman once where we heard a turkey gobble on Jackson Bienville Wildlife Management Area. However, the gobbler eluded us, and as he departed, so did my interest in turkey hunting.That was, however, before I was introduced to a colorful character from Birmingham, Ala., named Dennis “Skinny” Hallmark. The hunt had been arranged by an outdoor writer friend, John Phillips, who had everything set up for me to hunt with Hallmark in Alabama.

Frankly, I would have rathered Phillips offer me a hot chinquapin bed or a spot after a spawning sway-bellied largemouth bass because that’s what I did on springtime outings. The idea of pulling on hunting togs and going out to sit among the blossoming dogwoods while purple martins twittered overhead seemed weird and out of place.

The fact that Phillips threw in air fare, a set of new camouflage clothing, a guide and other amenities tipped the scales away from the bream beds that spring of 1992.

Something happened on my trip to Alabama that forever changed the way I look at the outdoors on spring mornings. Hallmark called in a strutting longbeard to my gun, and I shot him. Everything about that morning still burns like fire in my mind 14 years later; that’s characteristic of what happens when you experience something that jolts you and alters your life.

Actually, the Alabama hunt with Hallmark, I was to realize later, was set up by the gentle prodding of a friend here in Ruston who had quietly and patiently cajoled me to come go turkey hunting with him.

Luke Lewis worked at the time as wildlife biologist for the now-defunct Willamette Industries. We hunted deer and ducks together, and although he didn’t put real pressure on me, there was little doubt that he thought if I would abandon the bream beds just once to go to the turkey woods with him I wouldn’t regret the move.

Lewis’ gentle persuasions, however, went unheeded; I stuck with my bream beds until the Alabama offer was dangled before me like a carrot before a horse.

Fourteen spring turkey hunting seasons have come and gone since that April morning in Alabama, and I have taken to the sport like a chinquapin to a spawning bed in March. Over the course of those 14 seasons, I have managed to average nearly two gobblers a season, even completing a lifetime Grand Slam with the taking of all four subspecies of wild turkeys that qualify hunters for this feat.

Although I have traveled far and wide to finish my Grand Slam, I have never forgotten the advice, tips and tactics I’ve learned from my two mentors, Skinny Hallmark and Luke Lewis. During the course of our hunts together — I still go over to Alabama nearly every spring to hunt with Skinny — I’ve been able to pick their brains and write down what they tell me.

Humble Beginnings

Luke Lewis’ entry into turkey hunting in 1981 began a bit like mine. His main interests were duck and deer hunting, but his job as Willamette’s wildlife biologist put him in close proximity to the wild turkey population that lived on Jackson Bienville WMA, land owned by Willamette.

“As I went about planting food plots on the area for deer and turkeys, I gradually developed an interest in turkeys,” he said. “However, the district supervisor on Jackson Bienville, Levi McCullen, was the one who tipped the scales for me.

“He began talking to me about hunting wild turkeys, introduced me to different types of turkey calls and hunting techniques. It seems that by my working with and hanging around Levi, I just sort of fell into it.

“These birds fascinated me a lot, but I had another problem; I loved to play softball in spring, which conflicted with turkey hunting. I realized that you can’t do either very well if you’re trying to do both, so I grudgingly gave up softball to concentrate on wild turkeys.

“Over the course of the next two seasons, I shot at and missed one and ran lots of turkeys off while trying to learn.

“On opening day of my third season, I bagged my first bird. It was such an awesome experience that I surprised myself when I broke down and wept; I couldn’t help it. From that point of calling in and bagging my first bird, it was in my blood.”

Lewis became involved in his local chapter, the Northcentral Louisiana group of the NWTF, and eventually served not only that chapter as president, but eventually became state president. He later left Willamette to work full time as a wildlife biologist for the NWTF.

Today, Lewis is biologist in the Texas panhandle working for Texas Prairie Rivers Region.

Prior to his leaving Ruston, I sat down with him to talk about what he has learned about turkey hunting and what advice he would give hunters new to the sport.

“Here in Louisiana, we have seen a growing interest in people who never turkey hunted and who are seeing turkeys in the woods. The whole scenario — hearing a turkey gobble, calling to it, the beauty of the woods this time of year — is such a moving experience, a new opportunity never afforded to us until now,” Lewis explained.

“If I had to come up with tips for the new turkey hunter, the first would be there is no better teacher than experience. You can listen to other hunters talk, read turkey hunting magazines and watch videos until your eyes cross, but there is nothing to take the place of being out there, scouting and staying in the woods, paying your dues.

“Nothing takes the place of pre-season scouting. What I’m looking for when I go out before season is to determine what foods are available for turkeys. I’ll check the acorn crop and see if the dogwoods are producing berries. I’ll look for V-shaped scratchings where turkeys are looking for insects and acorns. If the acorn crop is slim, I’ll check food plots because they’ll utilize winter grass and seeds.

“One thing to remember is that where the food is in short supply, you won’t likely hear as much gobbling in spring. During such times, the gobblers conserve their energy for breeding and are quieter.

“When I’ve found turkey sign and the season is open, I’ll concentrate on my calling. Two basic calls will call in a gobbler when he’s ready. A ‘cluck’ and ‘yelp’ call is all you need to master, and you can use a variety of calls to make realistic sounds. Box calls, pot and striker calls or mouth calls are all effective when you master them.

“A lot depends on being in the right place at the right time. A good example happened to me on the Kisatchie National Forest when hunting with friend Doug Burt of Ruston.

“We had seen turkeys the afternoon before and heard them fly up to roost. The next morning, I called the entire flock to me from the roost. The hens came first followed by the gobblers. Two gobblers were so close together that if I’d shot, I ran the risk of hitting both. They finally separated, giving me an opportunity.

“However, I failed to notice a small sapling between me and turkey, which took the brunt of the shot; the turkey flew off. Doug managed to kill the other bird.

“Doug went back to camp while I determined to stay with it. Later, I called in two gobblers that hung up out of range.

“Still later, I heard another gobbler, so I set up my decoy. I had just sat down when I looked up, and there was the gobbler. I shot him, a big bird with a 10-inch beard.

“The key to my success was persistence. Had I not determined to stay with the game, I wouldn’t have been successful.”

There are some turkeys that are dumb; they come running in when you call, begging for a ride in your truck. There are far more, however, that present special challenges.

“Sometimes you want to pull your hair out; sometimes it’s just blind luck,” Lewis confessed. “If a gobbler has been called to by one type of call, switch calls on him, making him think a new girl has moved in. Try calling more or less, depending upon how he’s been called to on previous days.

“Sometimes you can call to the hens, and if they come, you can bet the gobbler will follow. The best way to get hens to come in is to ‘out-hen’ them. If they yelp, then you yelp louder and more aggressively than her; cut her off in the middle of her yelp. Sometimes this tactic will infuriate a hen so much she’ll come in spoiling for a fight.

“One thing to be cautious of is a gobbler sneaking in without making a sound. Many times I’ve been sitting there conversing with a gobbler, and he just shuts up — not a sound. I’ve sat there until I was sure he’d left, but when I stood up to leave, there he flew from 30 yards away.

“My rule here is to sit until you’re sure no gobbler is coming, then wait 15 more minutes, just to be sure.”

Get the Skinny

Skinny Hallmark added some more thoughts to those of Luke Lewis. I asked Hallmark to describe the scenario when you hear a gobbler on the roost and move in quietly to set up on him.

“When I hear the first cardinal softly chirp on a spring morning, and I know a gobbler is roosted nearby, I’ll give one very soft, almost-inaudible ‘cluck’,” said Hallmark. “Chances are he’ll gobble soon after that; your call has let him know there is a hen in the area.

“Make another cluck or two, still very soft, and try to read his reaction. If he hammers right back at you, and you don’t hear hens yelping and clucking near him, remain quiet; he knows you’re there and there is a chance he’ll fly down and strut in.

“If you hear hens, your job is to talk to the hens and ignore him. He gobbles; you say nothing. A hen sounds off, and you cut her off with more aggressive calling.

“Sometimes, this fires the gobbler up, and he might fly down to you. If not, you might call in the hens, and he’ll come in following them.”

Springtime is usually a time of year known for thunderstorms and cold front passages. Turkey season doesn’t shut down when the weather gets bad, but the hunter who understands what to do and when to do it can often score on a gobbler. We asked Hallmark about hunting during stormy weather.

“An old gobbler will ‘white knuckle’ his roost limb until the heavy rains, thunder and lightning pass. Usually after such an event, it will drizzle for awhile as the weather changes,” he said.

“A turkey will fly down and go to a field with short grass or woods roads to dry out and feed. Bugs and worms usually come to the surface after a rain, and turkeys know this.

“Probably the best time to locate a gobbler is right after a heavy rain, when he’ll be in short grass fields or pecking along woods roads and other such clearings.”

Turkey season will be here before you know it, and I’ll be one of those addicted junkies who will be out there every chance I get to try and out-maneuver a wild turkey gobbler. I’ll have Skinny Hallmark and Luke Lewis to thank for the fact that I’m in the woods and not on a chinquapin bed.

About Glynn Harris 508 Articles
Glynn Harris is a long-time outdoor writer from Ruston. He writes weekly outdoor columns for several north Louisiana newspapers, has magazine credits in a number of state and national magazines and broadcasts four outdoor radio broadcasts each week. He has won more than 50 writing and broadcasting awards during his 47 year career.