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Foolers' paradise: How to take advantage of high turkey numbers this spring

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Ray Sasser, Outdoor Writer

A dramatic spring is in store for wild turkey hunters. In mid-March, my family and I witnessed a Kerr County drama during our annual spring break. We were sitting in a blind one afternoon, waiting for a hog to come to a corn feeder.

A mature gobbler came instead. He hoped to find a hen at the feeder, a previously successful pickup point. He gobbled a couple of times and pecked at a few kernels of corn. In the distance, another gobbler sounded off. The big turkey at the feeder looked nervous and eventually retreated down a fence line beyond our sight.

Three jakes, young-of-the-year gobblers, then showed up at the feeder. They didn't pay much attention to the corn either. In the distance, we all heard the mature turkey gobble again. The jakes took off running down the fence line, obviously chasing the lone bird.

Thanks to consecutive years of abundant rainfall and mild summers, Rio Grande turkey numbers are very high this spring. There are plenty of jakes and they can act like teenage gangs, eager to harass their elders. That's good news for spring turkey hunters, particularly novice hunters trying to call their first gobbler into shotgun range. Jakes are easier to fool than mature toms.

A turkey's ringing gobble ranks among the great wild sounds, right up there with an elk bugle, the yelp of passing geese, the yodel of sandhill cranes or the yip of coyotes. Wild gobblers are the kings of spring, strutting with self-importance through wildflower-covered hills.

Here are three wild turkey facts and some basic strategies and rules you may have forgotten since last spring:

Turkey hunting tips

Find a good spot where you expect a gobbler to pass close enough to hear your calls and remain patient and still. Call quietly every 15 minutes or so and be on the lookout for a gobbler that comes in silent.

Protect yourself against biting insects. A turkey hunter often sits down and leans against a tree, then wanders through high grass and brush chasing after vocal gobblers. That's an engraved dinner invitation to biting insects that spread a variety of nasty and serious diseases. Use DEET-based repellents against mosquitoes and spray all clothing with permethrin (follow the instructions carefully) to render yourself a tick-free zone. Thermacell has a new model MR450 that attaches to a belt and is touted as more effective at creating a chemical barrier between hunters and mosquitoes or gnats. It costs about $40.

Study the lay of the land where you hunt. It's hard to call a turkey across a running creek or a goat-wire fence. If turkeys fly down from the roost and move away from your location, wait until they've beyond sight and then study where they went and why they went there.

Check the choke tube or tubes in your shotgun. A full choke is best because it delivers a dense pattern at 30 yards, which is optimum range for shooting a turkey with a shotgun. Twenty yards is better. Aim for the turkey's throat. Shotgun triggers are famously stiff, and shooting a shotgun as if it were a rifle often results in the shot going high. Turkeys are large birds (20 to 30 pounds) and tough to bring down. Just about every turkey will flop wildly when struck by a lethal load of pellets. Keep shooting as long as the turkey has his legs under him.

For best results, pattern your shotgun with the shells you plan to use. This requires shooting at a paper target placed at 20, 30 and 40 yards. You may have to test various brands and shot sizes to determine which works best in your shotgun. No. 6 shot is a proven winner, but some hunters prefer a heavier shot. Use shotshells designed for turkey hunting.

Wear full camouflage, including a face net or face paint. Like most birds, turkeys have excellent eyesight and will detect any movement. Turkeys also have a remarkable ability to pinpoint the location of hen calls.

Stay legal by studying the regulations in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual, available where licenses are sold and also at the state agency's website (tpwd.texas.gov). Make sure you know the county in which you're hunting and look closely at the turkey tags on your hunting license. A turkey must be tagged with an appropriate tag as soon as it is harvested.

Don't give up just because the turkeys stop gobbling soon after flying down from the roost. Rio Grande gobblers usually roost with hens. The hens may already be bred, but the gobblers show off and follow the hens, just in case. A turkey that gobbles at midmorning is looking for hens and can be tricked.

Learn the roost sites of Rio Grande turkeys where you hunt. They use traditional roost trees on a regular basis. Eastern turkeys roost wherever nightfall finds them. Rio Grande turkeys usually roost in big trees along creek bottoms. Look for their droppings and tracks under likely trees.

It doesn't take an expert caller to lure a turkey. Just learn to make a simple yelp on a box call, one of the original friction calling devices and the easiest for most rookie hunters to master. The sounds you make need not be perfect.

Use a hen turkey decoy to reassure a gobbler and give him something to look at other than you. Place the decoy within easy shooting range of your location. If possible, sit down with a cushion on the ground and your back against a tree. This breaks up your outline and also makes it more comfortable for you to sit still for a long time. It helps to have brush or other cover to hide behind. Some hunters use a jake gobbler decoy along with the hen, and that's effective for luring aggressive birds. Multiple decoys are difficult to transport.

Be careful with a gobbler decoy where other hunters are using rifles. It is legal in Texas to hunt Rio Grande birds with a rifle, in either spring or fall. Many of the new decoys are very realistic. A lot of turkey hunters just ride around in a truck and shoot a gobbler with a rifle. It's important for turkey hunters sharing the same property to know where others intend to hunt.

A water hole is a good hunting spot on a hot day. Set up with a good vantage point and call sparingly. Look for turkey tracks in the mud to determine if birds are using a particular tank or creek. A gobbler's tracks show a longer middle toe. Turkeys often come to water in the middle of a warm afternoon.

Locate birds with a locator call like a barred owl or a raucous crow. A turkey will often gobble to these sounds, revealing his approximate location. At dusk, when birds fly up to roost, they will gobble to any loud noise, including a truck horn. Knowing where birds are roosted gives you a starting place for the morning hunt.

Study the habits of wild turkeys. A jake is identifiable by his stubby, sometimes nonexistent, beard. A jake's fan has longer feathers in the middle. Unless the bird has lost feathers in a fight, the fan feathers of a mature gobbler are even. A jake's gobble is not as deep as a mature turkey's call. Gobblers are considered fully mature at age 2. At that age, most will have a beard that measures about 9 inches.

If you enjoy hunting, do not sit out the spring turkey season. Get into the woods, enjoy nature and take up the challenge of calling a wary bird to within shotgun or camera range. When it works, calling a spring gobbler is a real thrill, whether you shoot or not.

OUTDOORS CALENDAR

SATURDAY, APRIL 1 -- Spring turkey season begins in the North Zone. Consult regulations booklet for county details.

SATURDAY, APRIL 1 -- Outdoors Tomorrow Foundation annual Rendezvous of the Guardians Banquet and Fundraiser, 5:45 p.m. at Westin Galleria, 13350 Dallas Parkway. GoOTF.com.