Home soil advantage
Our house sits in the woods. In front, across our driveway, we have a small open space where we have a garden and a few fruit trees. Off to the side is a partially shaded, overgrown, unproductive blackberry patch. Most of our land, however, is wooded. We have trees nearly touching our walls on three sides.
We don’t have any large meadows or traditional places for turkey hunting. The closest thing we have is a bit of cornfield off our driveway. But while we see plenty of turkeys down there in the fall, gleaning after the corn is harvested, it’s not really a sort of place they go during the spring hunting season when there isn’t much but freshly turned soil.
Still, I do most of my hunting on my own property. Though it’s not prime turkey territory, it offers me two big advantages. First, I can be outside with my decoys set up and ready to hunt within a couple minutes of waking. Which, put another way, means I don’t need to get out of bed until a couple minutes before I want to hunt. Second, and closely related, I know the land well. I know its contours and trails and patches of brush, and where the stands of beech are. I can walk it in almost pitch dark.
So most of my spring turkey hunting is done in the deep woods out back. Early in the spring, before the trees leaf out, this can be both moderately good and quite lively. Out in the woods, the birds start talking first thing in the morning, half an hour before sunset, while they’re still on their roosts. I can generally count on one or two good long conversations with Tom even if I don’t call him all the way in.
Later in the spring, however, when the trees leaf out, the turkeys go silent. Unlike deer, which rely largely on scent, turkeys are sharp-sighted and highly vision-oriented in their movements and habits. When they can no longer see sixty yards through the trees, they don’t gobble very much.
Of course this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. When it comes to wild animals, there are few hard-and-fast rules. I’ve been woken in late May by the sound of gobbling coming through my bedroom window, and have gone out and called in a bearded bird close enough to rename it “dinner.”
Still, by and large, once the trees leaf out, hunting in the woods becomes much more dependent on just plain luck. That’s when I’d much rather be out on the edge of some meadow — the sort of meadow that doesn’t exist on my property.
Most years I have until May 10 or later before the trees leaf out and the woods become unproductive. That’s plenty of time to get a bird. This year I even thought I had the bird picked out. Early in April, I was looking out my bedroom window around 7 a.m. when a nice hen wandered right through our lawn.
Two mornings later, around the same time, a 14-pound Jake came walking through the woods on the other side of the house, just 15 yards away. It heard our voices and started acting very nervous, but for some reason didn’t head back down the hill. It took me a minute to see why. A big Tom, in the 24-pound range, was 20 yards further down the hill, in full display, chasing the Jake off his land. That was my bird.
And then something strange happened. My trees leafed out. They leafed out not in the second week of May. Not even in the first week of May. They started leafing out with a full week left in April. Not just buds, or hints of baby leaves, but a full-scale canopy of green.
So this year, for the first time in six years, I did my opening day hunting on somebody else’s property — somebody with 50 or so acres of meadow on the side of a hill, with an adjoining woods. It was exactly the sort of habitat I always envision when I think of turkey hunting. The sort of habitat I wish I had on my own property. It was sort of place one couldn’t fail to get a bird.
It was the sort of place that, after hunting for several hours on Saturday and Sunday morning and not being able to call a bird in closer than 60 yards, I felt very embarrassed about having failed to get a bird on. I’m sure looking forward to hunting my own woods tomorrow morning. Here, at least, I have the third advantage of a wonderful excuse if I fail to get a bird: It’s the leaves.