BUTLER COUNTY — One morning they were gobbling hard well before dawn, about two-dozen toms trying to talk at once. Conservatively, I heard at least 200 gobbles by sunrise.
One afternoon I saw enough strutting and fighting to photograph about 700 frames in a tad more than an hour, as the toms worked themselves into a hormone-driven tizzy.
Rather than last spring, both days were this winter when patches of snow covered the ground and wind chills were in the teens.
To some degree, such was the norm on several hunts with shotgun, then camera, from mid-December through last week.
As my friend Ray Eye has said, “They’re just boy turkeys being real boy turkeys.”
Knowing what he’s preached for 30 years, and what I saw this winter, understanding the real world of gobblers can lead to great viewing no matter the season.
That includes spring hunting as well as fall.
Ray, a famed wild turkey expert and videographer, has long said that spring breeding behavior is not normal turkey behavior.
Toms strutting for hens and coming to hen calls is but a few weeks of the year. Toms vying for dominance and their place in the pecking order happens year-round.
Eye, from the Missouri Ozarks, has gotten in on that action for years, replicating the aggressive, coarse yelps, cutting and gobbling of some new gobbler ready to take over a local tom flock. Such calling is the educational mainstay of several of his popular turkey hunting DVDs.
After decades of his encouragement, I gave the tactics serious attempts this winter. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed such consistent success during any spring.
I can’t hold a candle to Eye’s tom-to-tom calling, but I got toms to respond from the roost. Others I got to at least wander basically my way.
Five out of five times this winter, one look was all I needed, thanks to a unique decoy.
It’s made by Dakota Decoys, though other companies make similar models. The $90 seemed steep at first, but it’s been money well spent.
It’s a hard-plastic replica of a yearling jake in great detail. As important, to me, is the decoy’s size and posture.
Rather than big and alert, it’s small, horizontal and with its head and neck tucked in. One company says it looks arrogant. I think it looks cowardly and submissive.
Not good combinations in the boy turkey world.
Toms have no mercy or compassion for weaker birds and relish keeping them in their place by bestowing their dominance with posture or violence.
If my decoy could talk, it would tell horror stories.
On our first hunt in mid-December, two longbeards sprinted across a field the second they saw the decoy. A few minutes of bumping and wing smacking followed a few seconds of strutting.
On Jan. 26. a flock of ten longbeards and jakes attacked the decoy in such tight formation it was five minutes before one cleared the melee and gave me a shot.
Last Tuesday afternoon, when I shot hundreds of photos, toms did about everything imaginable, and some I’d never imagined, to assert dominance.
A photo gallery at kansas.com/outdoors shows some of the behavior.
They attacked the decoy so hard, they buried its stake completely into the ground and the decoy was resting on dirt. The lower it got, the more the toms attacked.
Curious, I made several series of super-excited hen yelps and cutting. No real reaction from the toms. Yet if one started yelping, eventually some were gobbling.
Toms bumping other toms as they worked the decoy often ended up in battle. Though the action was surprisingly good in December, it’s progressively improved and will intensify over the next couple of weeks.
Some of my favorite spring mornings are in mid-March, when the gobbling is amazing amid roosted gobbler flocks just before they break up for spring. Fights are about a sure thing at fly-down time as their hormones rage.
It’s something to sit back and behold, drinking a hot cup of coffee from a thermos and a warm donut from a bag.
By the April 1 opening of youth and archery seasons, most of the toms will be venturing out for love, hoping to gather a harem of hens.
For the 34th season, I’ll be afield with hen calls and decoys, but I’m sure my submissive jake decoy will bring in the most toms. Even with love on his mind, an old tom won’t be able to resist putting a weakling in his place.
But just as much, I’m anticipating again hunting the big gobbler flocks of next winter, when “They’re just boy turkeys being real boy turkeys,” and being a whole lot of fun.