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ELK ARTICLES

Elk Biology & Behavior (top of this column)

Elk Hunting Tips (bottom of this column)

 

 T.R.'s Elk Biology & Behavior 

Photo courtesy US FWS

 

Post Rut Elk Behavior 11/11/03

By T.R. Michels

After the rut the exhausted, readily identifiable, antlered bulls leave the herd to avoid predation. They seek out areas of sufficient cover with high quality food sources. In general they stop bugling and some of them become solitary. They may begin to "pioneer" at this time, exploring new areas. During their wandering, young bulls often find the same areas, and small bachelor herds may form. Older bulls often form bachelor herds after the rut. Because of their need for food, and because they need to remain away from the cows, bulls often stay at higher elevations than the cows. After the rut the cows return to normal daily routines, until the winter migration occurs. If there is insufficient forage and the cows begin to wander, they soon find the areas the bulls use, and the elk range is eventually expanded.

Winter

The determining factors in the timing of the winter migration are severe weather and excessive snow depth. Once snow depths reach 1 1/2-2 feet cows and weaker animals have difficulty moving, at 3 1/2 feet all mature elk have problems traveling, and at 4 feet they cannot move efficiently. Most elk begin to seek new areas once snow depth reaches 1 1/2 feet. Cow and calf herds begin to move first, and usually return to traditional wintering areas, using traditional travel routes. These routes are often used for both fall and spring migration. This use of the same routes can be attributed to the topography of the land, the animals having discovered the easiest routes to travel in previous years.

 

Bull Scent; Rubs, Scrapes, Wallows and Self Impregnation 10/1/03

Scents (pheromones and hormones) are used to express dominance, breeding readiness and as a priming source to help synchronize breeding readiness between the sexes. Bull elk use scents as short-range communication by self impregnating, putting scent on themselves and by leaving scent on rubs and in wallows. Scent left on rubs from Apocrine glands on the skin near the antlers and in the velvet itself may tell other bulls in the area that a dominant bull is using the area, and which bull it is.

Most of the scents associated with bull elk are the scents left on the bull after it scrapes or wallows. Scrapes are often formed when the bull arises from its bed. Upon rising, the bull may "horn" or dig up the ground with its antlers; it may also paw the ground. Wallows are formed when a bull makes a scrape in a wet area, often in a marsh, pond, spring, or creek bottom. While making a scrape or wallow the bull's stomach may flutter up and down (palpitation), and the bull may urinate on its legs, belly and neck. It also urinates on the ground. Some experts claim there is a gland or glands just in front of the penal shaft, where the bull frequently urinates on itself. This area is called the "rut spot" and if there are glands there they may serve the same purpose as the tarsal glands of white-tailed deer, whereby the animal uses the scent from this area as a recognition scent.

After the bull has created a rub or wallow it may lie down and roll on the ground, getting urine-laced water or mud on it's body, neck, head and antlers. This often leaves the body of the elk darker than normal. This dark colored body is thought to be used by dominant bulls to intimidate subdominant bulls. Because the bull frequently rubs its antlers in the dirt, the formerly light-colored antlers begin are coated with dirt, which turns them brown. I've often seen cows smell, lick and chew on the antlers of a bull. Bulls may roar, bugle or grunt while scraping and wallowing. The urine-testosterone scent on the bull's body may help cows identify individual bulls, and help keep the cows near the bull during the rut. The scent may also induce cows to come into estrus in preparation for breeding.

Bulls may also thrash nearby bushes and the outer limbs of trees before or after scraping or wallowing, leaving forehead scent on the vegetation. A spruce tree with small broken limbs around the perimeter of the tree is a sign that a bull may have been sparring with the tree. The scent left at rubs, scrapes and wallows tells other bulls there is another bull using the area, and which bull it is.

Cow Scents

Cow elk have their own individual recognition scent, which is a combination of urine and scent from modified sweat glands on the underside of the tail. Cows also have glands on their rumps, near the anus, which may contribute to their individual scent. When they are in estrus cows also give off the smell of estrogen.

Other Scents

Unlike White-tailed deer, elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves, but the dribbling of urine while they walk may serve as a tracking scent. Elk do have large metatarsal glands that may be used to express alarm like deer. I've noticed that the area below the metatarsal gland is stained darker than the rest of the leg on most bulls. Elk also have a large pre-orbital gland that opens when the bull bugles. This gland may have its own scent used for dominance, and to attract cows. It may also be left on trees and brush during rubbing and thrashing. There may also be a cheek gland, used to deposit scent when elk chew the bark on aspens and rub their head and neck on trees.

The Rut 9/1/03

Bull elk over the age of 3 years usually begin bugling shortly after they shed their velvet; from mid-August to early September. Within two to three weeks of shedding their velvet the older bulls begin associating with the cows. During the next few weeks the bulls will try to gather as many cows as they can into a harem, and try to protect them from the advances of other bulls that try to steal them away and breed them. In Minnesota I found that bugling by older bulls starts around August 20th - 24th. Game call manufacturer Larry Jones says he heard his first bugle about August 24th in Idaho in 2002.

The rut (both breeding and bugling) may peak from September 10th to October 10th in different areas, with breeding beginning the first week of September. In Minnesota I found that peak breeding occurs from September 7th to the 21st. While I was guiding in northern New Mexico, I found that peak bugling occurred around September 14th. Well known writer Dwight Schuh tells me peak bugling and breeding occurs from September 20th to the 25th in Idaho. In extreme northern latitudes the rut may occur a week or two later, it may also vary within each state or province. Larry Jones tells me a study done in eastern Oregon showed that peak bugling occurred from September 25th to October 5th. It appears that peak bugling in many areas occurs during the later part of September or early part of October.

The initial breeding phase may last from three weeks before to three weeks after the actual peak of the rut. Information on calving dates for northern elk suggest that breeding will normally last 20 to 45 days. Because spring arrives earlier and fall occurs later in southern latitudes, elk in southern areas may have longer breeding periods; in excess of 50 days for Tule elk in California. Even in northern areas breeding may continue for as long as 65 days, from early September to early November.

When they are in estrus the cows may be sexually receptive for 12 to 15 or more hours. If they are not bred during their first estrus cow may experience estrus again from 21 to 28 days later, with an average of about 21 days. There is usually a second breeding phase three to four weeks after the initial breeding phase, when unbred older cows come into a second estrus. My research suggests that two year old cows my come into estrus one to two weeks after the first of the older cows come into estrus; and that yearling cows may come into estrus two to three weeks after the first of the older cows come into estrus.

There is not much variance in the timing of the elk rut from northern British Columbia to southern New Mexico. If the rut is photoperiodic (dependent on the number of hours of light per day) it would be expected that elk in Montana would rut earlier than those in New Mexico. However this is not necessarily the case. The explanation for this phenomenon is quite simple. Many of the elk of North America are transplants from the Yellowstone ecosystem and still rut when their predecessors did. Because most of these herds are not over a hundred years old they have not had time to readapt to their new environment. There is evidence that Tule elk in California and Rocky Mountain elk in southern New Mexico breed slightly later than their northern relatives, and that their breeding seasons are longer. This is probably because these elk live in areas where fall starts later, which means the calves can be born later and still be big enough to survive the winter.

Bugling Peaks

It has been suggested that peak bugling of elk, like peak gobbling of turkeys and peak scraping of whitetails, occurs prior to and after peak breeding. However, this is not the case. My research shows that peak bugling of elk occurs during peak breeding, when the bulls are trying to attract cows, and when the bulls are competing for breeding rights. One of the ways a bull out-competes other bulls for cows is by bugling. Bulls also bugle frequently when they come in contact with each other as they look for or follow estrus cows. Thus, more bugling occurs when the cows are in estrus, during peak breeding. The Bugling/Bull/5 Minutes graph from my studies shows the average number of bugles per bull per 5 minutes throughout the rut; and shows that peak bugling in 2001 occurred the week of September 14 (during the primary breeding phase) and again on October 5 (during the late breeding phase, which is when subdominant bulls challenge herd bulls for breeding rights). These bugling peaks coincide with peak breeding, but the dates may vary by location.

Herding Strategies

Once the dominant bulls begin herding they may hold from 1-100 cows, plus calves. While the dominant bull is collecting cows several subdominants and immature bulls may hang around the herd trying to cut out a receptive cow, or breed with one of the cows while the dominant is otherwise occupied chasing cows or bulls, or fighting. Some of these subdominants may be as big as or bigger than the herd bull in body or rack size, but because they have not challenged the dominant and beaten him, they do not have their own herd. Because the dominant bull chases and herds a large number of cows, and breeds several of them, and has to fight off the other bulls, it may eventually succumb to fatigue. When the bull is fatigued it may leave the herd; allow other bulls to stay near the herd and breed cows; or it may be driven off by another bull, which may in turn be driven off by yet another bull. Usually the first bull with a herd will have serviced numerous cows and passed on its genes.

Breeding

Prior to breeding a cow the bull often sniffs the ground where the cow has lain down, or where it urinated. The bull often performs the lip curl or Flehmen sniff when it checks the urine, it may even stick its tongue in the urine stream while the cow is urinating. If the cow is in estrous it may stand, turn and lick the bulls head, neck, antlers or body; or lift her tail. The cow may also mount the bull. The bull may in turn lick the cow's neck, body or genitals. The bull then leans its neck on the cows back, to see if it will stand still. If the cow is ready to breed it will stand still and the bull will mount the cow. Once mounted the bull usually makes several pelvic thrusts, followed by a jump during ejaculation. During the jump the bull's head is thrown back, and its hind feet often leave the ground. The bull then dismounts and walks away.

Cows may allow more than one bull to mount and breed them. In early October of 2001 I watched a subdominant bull mount a cow while the dominant bull was herding other cows. The subdominant made several pelvic thrusts but did not appear to breed the cow, because it did not jump before it dismounted. The dominant saw the subdominant near the cow and drove the subdominant away. The dominant then followed the cow, and the cow mounted the bull. The dominant bull then mounted the cow several times, and eventually bred the cow. While the dominant was occupied with this cow the subdominant bred one of the other cows.

Bugling Purpose

The roar, bugle and grunt are used by bull elk to proclaim dominance, telling all other bulls in the area, "I am strong, healthy and ready to fight for the right to breed." The Full Bugle Sequence of a dominant bull tells smaller bulls that they should stay away. It tells other large bulls that a dominant is looking for (and probably collecting) cows, and if the other dominant wants to challenge for the right to collect or breed those cows it should respond and be ready to fight, because it will have to take the cows by force. At the same time the bull is telling the cows (many of which may have been in his harem and were bred by the bull last year, and are familiar with the sound and smell of the bull) that he is ready to breed, and where to find him. Because the older cows know the dominant bull by his bugle and scent, and know that he treated them gently the year before, they often go to the same bull again. Younger cows may be intimidated by older bulls, and because they may come into estrus later than older cows, they may choose to associate and breed with smaller subdominant bulls later in the rut.

Bugling Strategies

During the rut bulls may bugle all day and night, but most frequently in the early morning and late afternoon, when the herds are most active and liable to hear the bugling. Therefore, bugling activity closely parallels daily activity, and bugling activity is usually most frequent during feeding periods at dawn and dusk. The bugle serves two purposes, it tells other bulls that there is a dominant in the area and that he is ready to fight for the right to breed. It also serves to let the cows know a breeding bull is near so they can find him. As you can see by the Bugling/Bull/5 Minutes graph, during peak rut a bull averages about two bugles every five minutes. My research shows that older bulls may bugle up to two times per minute, which is probably the most a bull bugle per minute.

Since part of the object of bugling is to advertise the presence of the bull to cows, the bull should want to silence any competition from other bulls. When another bull bugles near a bull with a herd, the herd bull feels a need to meet the challenge and drive the other bull away. At the same time the bull may feel the need to out advertise other bulls by bugling more, in an effort to attract cows. Generally speaking, older bulls with cows bugle more than younger bulls.

Some dominant bulls do very little bugling. Large dominant bulls that drive off all competition can afford to be more leisurely around the cows, therefore they can be gentler while breeding, and they gain the loyalty of the cows. Young bulls often have to rush in to breed a cow while the herd bull is occupied elsewhere. Because of this younger bulls are not as leisurely with their breeding, are often rougher, and therefore are not preferred by the cows. During my elk research one herd bull bugled an average of 2 to 5 times every 5 minutes, while another herd bull of approximately the same age bugled 0 to 2 times every 5 minutes. The first bull was rough on the cows, while the second bull was very gentle.

Human Impact on Bugling

That's how bulls have called for centuries, but since hunters began to bugle to attract elk, bulls have begun to change their bugling patterns, especially on public land. While it may be true that hunters are teaching bulls that a bugle they do not recognize is probably a hunter, it is more likely that hunters are changing the biology of elk. Aggressive elk that respond to human bugling are often killed by hunters, and the aggressive bugling style is slowly being bred out of current elk herds. Instead of frequently bugling bulls breeding most of the cows, it is the non-bugling or extremely wary bulls that breed more cows and survive to pass on the same traits to their young.

Bulls have also learned not to respond to a challenge unless they can actually see the other bull; they often ignore the sound of another bull, or they may push their herds away from aggressive calling. When I have called to nearby bulls during my research, most of them looked in my direction, but very few of them bugled back. On the other hand, when I bugled to bulls that were more than 100 yards away, that could not see me, they often responded. I've seen bulls respond to the bugling of other bulls in the same way. This leads me to believe that when a bull hears a bugle up close, it expects to see another bull.

Cow Response to Bugling and Scents

Because elk ranges are traditional (both the bulls and cows returning to the same areas year after year) the cows may return to the same bull, as long as he is dominant. Because the bugle of each bull is distinctive (the bugling pattern remains about the same each season) the older cows readily return to the bulls they remember. They also choose the bulls by their scent. Because the bulls self-impregnate themselves during spraying, scraping and wallowing, each bull has its own individual scent. The combination of the urine, testosterone and possibly scent from the belly gland tells the cow not only that the bull is dominant, but which bull it is. If cow elk smell protein levels in urine (like whitetails do) they may also choose the healthiest bull by the amount of protein they smell in its urine. If the cows associate the sound and smell of the bull with dominance, health and gentleness, they often choose that particular bull as the herd bull, and breed with it.

Daily Activity during the Rut

In September and October, during the rut, elk often rest, travel and feed intermittently throughout the night. Bulls often continue to bugle infrequently throughout the night, even while they are lying down. By an hour before daylight the elk are usually feeding or traveling. If they have been laying down before daylight, older bulls often get up and make a scrape, raking the ground with their antlers and pawing it with their front hooves while they urinate on their belly, legs and neck. They may roar, bugle or grunt while they are making the scrape. They may also lie down and roll in the scrape, getting the urine laced dirt on their bodies, neck, face and antlers. If they are with cows, the bulls then usually begin checking the cows, and beds of the cows, for the presence of urine and estrogen, which tells the bull whether or not there is a cow in estrus. If the bull finds evidence of an estrous cow it will often pursue the cow until she either runs off or allows the bull to mount her.

My studies on elk show that bulls without cows are quite active, agitated and aggressive toward each other in the morning and evening. They often scrape, bugle, and participate in dominance displays, spar with each other, or with a tree between them, and chase subdominant bulls. Bugling is usually most frequent in the morning from 45 minutes before to 45 minutes after sunrise, with a peak within a half-hour of sunrise, depending on whether or not there is cloud cover; on cloudy days bugling generally increases and peaks later than normal.

The cows meanwhile usually get up and begin to feed, and they may begin to feed in several different directions. This is when the bull begins to go after some of the far ranging cows and push them back toward the herd. Sooner or later one or more cows or calves begin to move in the same direction, and the rest of the herd begins to follow, with the bull keeping the stragglers and wanderers with the rest of the herd. The herd may feed in open areas for up to an hour or more after daylight; before usually moving into the cover of trees for most of the day.

One study shows that, during September, elk lay down within an hour of daylight (probably to chew their cud) then they intermittently travel, bed and feed until about noon, when they bed and feed for an hour or more. They then travel, feed and bed until late afternoon; when they usually begin to feed an hour or more before sunset. The bulls may continue bugling infrequently throughout the day, with a small bugling peak around noon, usually when the cows begin to get up and feed. When the bulls get up in the afternoon they begin to bugle more frequently, and they may begin scraping. The behavior of bulls with cows in the evening is similar to the morning activity described above.

In the evening, bulls without cows behave like they do in the morning, except that they may be more active, agitated and aggressive in the evening. There were times when I was watching the older bulls when it appeared that they just couldn't stand still; they had to scrape, run, spar, chase, thrash a tree, or participate in dominance displays with other bulls. This activity can probably be attributed to increased testosterone levels, and frustration from lack of breeding. This increased activity usually subsided by an hour after sunset. Evening bugling peaked from 45 minutes before to 45 minutes after sunset, again depending on cloud cover. If it was cloudy, increased bugling began earlier and peaked earlier than normal. By about an hour after sunset the cows are usually on the move again, traveling, feeding and bedding throughout the night. The Daily Bugling/15 Minutes graph shows how many bugles I heard from 60 bulls in fifteen minutes during peak daily bugling in September. It also shows when peak daily bugling occurred.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

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T.R.'s Tips: Elk Hunting

T.R. Michels with 346" 6x6 white elk

Elk Scents 10/1/03

Scents are one of the most widely used methods of attracting deer species. Manufacturers have responded to the demand by archery hunters who know scents work on deer by providing hunters elk scents. Wildlife Research Center first came out with elk urine at my prompting about ten years ago. They now offer Bull Rage bull urine and Elk Fire cow estrus urine scents. I have had excellent success with both products while elk hunting. Many hunters use fox, coyote, mink, raccoon and skunk scents as either cover or curiosity lures. Some hunters use unnatural or human scents to block game from using escape trails. This vast array of scents can be confusing if you don't know which ones to use and when to use them.

Elk scents fall into different categories based on how they are used and how elk respond to them. These categories are: Recognition and Trailing, Territorial and Dominance, Sex, Food, Curiosity and Blocking. Sex scents are most prominent during the rut and can be used during any part of it. Recognition and Trailing scents are present all year long and can be used any time. Territorial and Dominance scents are most prevalent during the rut and should be used at that time to be most effective. Food, Curiosity and Blocking scents can be used all year long. Many of these scents fall into more than one category and can be used for different purposes. They can all be used effectively to attract elk, if they are used properly and at the right time.

Elk Pheromones

Elk pheromones, the scents given off by the glands of elk, are used as a means of communication. Pheromones serve to stimulate a behavioral response in another animal. Elk pheromones are present in the preorbital, tail, anal, belly, tarsal and metatarsal glands, while estrogen and testosterone are found in the urine. Elk may also have cheek glands that emit pheromones. Elk do not have interdigital glands between their hooves like deer. Many elk scents used in combination during self impregnation (scraping and wallowing) and sign post marking (rubs and bark chewing), and they are interpreted by individual sexes and age classes differently. When they are used by themselves these scents may be interpreted differently than when they are used in combination with another scent or scents.

Recognition and Trailing Scents

Urine and its associated scents of testosterone and estrogen are probably used as recognition scent in elk, especially when you consider that bulls wallow in this scent as a means of attracting cows during the rut. Because bull elk have such a large body area covered with urine and testosterone, other bulls and cows know the smell of the most of the other bulls in their areas. Elk encountering urine, and testosterone or estrogen, in combination with tail and anal gland scent from another elk, may be able to determine the sex and the age of the animal by its scent. Since elk don't have interdigital glands between their hooves to leave scent on the ground for other animals to track they rely primarily on other scents, and sight and sound to locate each other.

Dominance and Territorial Scents

Because of their wide-ranging nature, individual bulls use scrapes and wallows infrequently. However, different bulls may use the same scrape and wallow when they are near it. While the scrape and wallow are used to place the combined urine, testosterone and belly gland scent on the bull, they are also used to remove parasites and cool the bull in hot weather. This urine/testosterone/belly gland/dirt scent is a sign of a mature dominant breeding bull. Cow elk are attracted to the smell and sounds of bulls when they are in heat. It has been suggested that cows can determine the physical health of the bull by the amount of protein in its urine, and that cows may choose a bull with a high protein content in the urine to associate with. There is also evidence that older cows will return to the sound and smell of dominant bulls that treat them gently. They may be able to associate gentle bulls by the combination of the protein, testosterone and belly scent from wallowing, and the familiar sound of the bull's bugle.

Urine and testosterone from the bull's neck and antlers may be placed on rubs when the bull comes in contact with them. There may also be forehead and preorbital scent on the rubs. These same scents occur on branches that are thrashed by the bull when it rubs the branch with its head and antlers. This combination of scents may be a sign of dominance to other bulls.

The complex combination of scents left at the signposts of the scrape, wallow, rub and the animal itself occur primarily during the rut. The scents of the scrape, wallow and rub occur as soon as bulls begin to shed their velvet. The scents of the scrapes and wallows begin shortly after the elk begin rubbing, but may occur earlier during hot weather. These scents can be used to attract bulls anytime after the rubbing phase begins. They become less effective after the first breeding phase, because the bulls are not as aggressive. Because a dominant bull makes rubs, scrapes and wallows as a proclamation of dominance, it is impelled to check out the smell of any unknown bull intruding on its territory.

Sex Scents

Sex scents contain hormones, and may also contain pheromones. High amounts of testosterone in the urine signal a bull's sexual readiness. Estrogen in the urine signals a cow's sexual readiness. Both bull testosterone and cow estrogen levels rise during the rut. Bulls readily respond to estrogen (cow in heat scents) soon after they shed their velvet through the second and the third estrus, which may occur in November. Because bulls are curious cow urine and estrogen can be used anytime of the year to attract them.

Food Scents

Food scents can be used anytime and anywhere. Because these scents do not contain pheromones there is nothing in them to alarm the animals. Whitetails, mule deer and elk readily eat apples and fruits in the mountains, where apples and other non-native fruits do not occur. The elk on the farms I study eat corn, silage, peas and carrots. Once elk are accustomed to finding these foods you can attract them by using similar scents, even if baiting is not allowed.

Curiosity Scents

Because the elk need to be, and are, familiar with their home range, they want to know about anything new. Much of the response of big game animals to Recognition, Dominance and Territorial, Sex, and Food scents can be attributed to curiosity. In that respect all these scents attract game out of curiosity. Elk, deer and moose will investigate urine and pheromone scents of fox, coyote, raccoon, skunk and other animals, as long as the concentration is not too high to alarm them. While most of these scents are used as cover scents to avoid detection they can also be used to attract elk. I once watched a bull elk walk across my trail ten minutes after I had been there. I had placed Wildlife Research Center's' Bull Rage bull elk urine on my boots just before I walked across the area. The bull stopped and sniffed my trail long enough for my hunter to take a shot and drop him to the ground.

Blocking Scents

A few knowledgeable hunters use scent blockers to move game to their position. While this is not actually attracting game it is a means of getting game to come to you by blocking all trails but the one you choose. By strategically placing human scent on clothes or socks; predatory scents from dogs, coyote or wolf; or large amounts of metatarsal scents associated with alarm, on the trails you don't want the game to use, you can direct the game to the trail you do want then to use. Blocking works especially well in areas with numerous parallel trails, near bedding areas, or in heavy cover. You can also keep animals from using normal escape routes and avoiding you by blocking the trails you don't want them to use. Blocking scents can be used anytime.

T.R.'s Tips: Elk Scent Setups

Most hunters use scents to attract bull elk. Remember that bulls responding to scent invariably try to get downwind to check the scent and detect danger. Be constantly aware of the changing thermals and currents as you use techniques to attract elk in the mountains. Also remember that the elk often try to remain in cover. You can setup in the cover if you are sure you won't be detected. Try to position yourself crosswind of the animal's travel route to avoid detection. If there is nearby heavy cover the animal will use, and more open cover crosswind, setup in the open cover. Give the animal the cover while you wait in the area it won't use, and where you won't be detected.

You can also setup downwind of the animal's approach while luring it to a position upwind of you. If you are archery hunting be sure to place the scent close enough for a shot. If you have to setup upwind of the animal's approach, take extreme precautions to avoid detection. Try not to be in a direct line with the animal's travel route; you may be seen. For the same reason you should stay a short distance from the trail, or where you expect the animal to walk; far enough to avoid detection but close enough for a shot.

I always use Elk Fire cow elk urine when I am hunting elk, because I cow call to attract bulls at close range. I place two felt pads hung in a tree upwind of my position, ten yards on either side, so that any bull coming in will follow the scent trail, before it gets to my smell directly downwind. When I use a Bugle or Gurgle, and if the bull is willing to come to these calls, I use the scent of a bull. Any bull coming to the sound of another bull expects to smell another bull. I use Bull Rage the same way I use Elk Fire, making sure the bull smells the elk scent before it gets directly downwind and detects me.

T.R.'s Tips: Elk Scents and Calls; Where, When And What

When you are using calls and scent to hunt elk don't forget that elk use sound as the primary means of locating each other. But, elk do use scent to identify each other by sex, age and social status when they are near each other. When you are using scent to attract elk during the rut, get as close to the bedding sites and feeding areas as you can, or setup along the travel routes between the two in the morning and evening. In the late morning and early afternoon you can setup near wallows. Prior to the rut, and when the weather is hot, wallows are used somewhat regularly, depending on how many animals are in the area and their proximity to the wallow.

Pre-Rut (mid-August to the first week of September)

When you are hunting before or during the rut in hot weather, expect the elk to move and feed for a couple of hours during the day if it cools off, or just before or after a rain. I've seen elk move and feed at 9:00 AM on hot days as it got cloudy and started to drizzle. I've also seen them begin feeding after it quits raining but when it is still cloudy. When these conditions occur, hunt near food sources, travel lanes, watering sites and bedding areas. Elk seek relief from late summer/early fall heat on high open slopes, in low areas holding cool air, in shaded forests, or near water. On hot days look for elk on east facing slopes, in conifer trees with the bottom branches gone allowing cool winds to blow through, and in shaded creek bottoms. Because bulls are establishing dominance at this time they may be willing to fight. Use the sounds and scents of a cow, or a bull challenging another bull. You can use the bugle to locate and attract the bull. Once the bull comes in you can use cow calls, grunts and glugs to convince him there is a young bull with a cow by using estrus and bull scent.

Primary Breeding Phase (first to third week of September)

During the primary breeding phase the bulls are hard to attract because they are with the cows. You can locate them by sight or sound, and setup to call near travel routes and feeding areas. You may have to move to the bull while you cow call to get him to come to you. Use estrus and bull scent. If the bull is willing to come to bugling you should sound like a small bull, not a dominant. Most bulls will respond to the challenge of a small bull. But, generally speaking, only enraged dominants will respond to the sound of another dominant. A combination of cow estrus urine and bull scents can be used at this time to convince the bull that there is a small bull with an estrous cow nearby.

Rest Phase (third week of September to first week of October)

After the primary breeding phase the bulls still answer calls but they generally will not come to bugling. Unlike whitetail bucks, that may not be seen because they often retreat to their bedding areas during the rest phase, bull elk often remain with the cows at this time. Some subdominant bulls may start to try to sneak into the herd at this time; hunt them on the fringes of the herd. Some bulls may be driven away from the herds by this time; look for them near secure bedding areas and food sources, often well away from the cow herds. If you know where the bull bedding areas and available food sources are, setup between the two to intercept a bull. By this time the bulls are not as willing to fight but they are still interested in breeding. Cow calls and estrus scents may work best.

Late Breeding Phase (first to third week of October)

Three to four weeks after the primary breeding phase occurs you can expect a late breeding phase. This is when some cows come into estrous for the first time, and those that did not conceive the first time come into estrous again. The bulls may respond to bugling and cow calls, but they are generally much harder to attract and less willing to fight, unless they are an older dominant that did not participate in breeding earlier. These bulls can be found near bedding, staging and feeding areas. Use estrus scents to hunt them.

Post Rut (after the third week of October)

Hunting elk after the breeding phase can be extremely frustrating, because the bulls may not be with the cows. They may become solitary or form small bachelor groups that remain together through the winter, or until they migrate. After all the fighting, chasing and breeding of the rut, the bulls are worn out, hungry, and in need of food to supply enough fat to get them through the winter. They look for secure places to rest, and can be found near secluded bedding and feeding areas, where they seek high quality food sources. Unless you know where their bedding and feeding areas are you may not be able to find them. One study shows that bulls often winter at higher elevations than cows. When you are hunting after the rut in cold weather expect elk to move and feed for a couple of hours if the weather warms, or after any strong wind, rain or snow lets up. Hunt near food sources, travel lanes, watering sites and bedding areas. During inclement weather look for elk in protected areas of valleys, drainages, thick coniferous forest, or the downwind side of forest and hillsides. Use curiosity, food and estrus scents.

Blocking Scents

Blocking scents can be used effectively during any phase of the rut. They work well in large patches of brush or woods where the elk can move freely. In dense cover there may be numerous trails with few animals using each trail. By blocking some of the trails you create a bottleneck, funneling the game past your stand. If you are hunting a food source with numerous trails leading to it, block some of the trails several yards from the food source to force the game to use the trail where your stand is placed.

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips

 

This article is an excerpt from the Elk Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Elk Hunting Tips

 

TURKEY ARTICLES

Turkey Biology & Behavior (top of this column)

Turkey Hunting Tips (bottom of this column)

 

 T.R.'s Turkey Biology & Behavior

Photo courtesy US FWS

Understanding Turkey Habitat 2/26/04

Roosts

The availability and location of roosting sites is a determining factor in turkey use of the habitat. If few or no roosting sites are available turkeys may leave the area or not use it. They prefer to roost in heavy timber in ravines if possible; where they can be out of strong prevailing winds in winter, but they will roost in trees open to the wind. Roost sites are often located over or near water in the south.

Scientific studies have shown that turkeys often roost on an east or south facing slope, about a third of the way down the slope where the winds are calm. East and south facing slopes also receive the earliest sunlight, allowing the birds to warm-up and be able to see early in the morning. In one study roost sites were often within one half mile of water, and five hundred yards of a meadow. This could be attributed to the fact that turkeys often feed before going to roost in the evening, and they don't travel far at dusk. The preferred roosts in the study were mature trees with open crowns giving the turkeys room to fly into the trees and move around. They also preferred trees with large horizontal limbs to roost on.

In western areas turkeys use fir, pine, spruce, cottonwood and large aspen trees as roosts. Eastern birds often choose pines, elm, maple, box elder, large oak, and cottonwood. Mature toms often choose pines because the pines can reduce wind speeds by 50-70 percent. Eastern turkeys generally have several roost sites in their home range, and they may use different sites on successive nights. In limited and poor habitat, Merriam's turkeys often roost in the same trees on a regular basis.

 

Turkey Habits 11/11/03

By T.R. Michels

Winter Behavior

During the winter turkeys separate into flocks of different sexes and age groups; the old and young hens remain in their own flocks, the jakes in other flocks, and the toms in yet other flocks. This flocking instinct is strong in most grazing animals that depend on their ability to see and hear for defense. Because they spend so much time eating they can't always be on guard. Therefore, the more animals there are together, the more time each one can spend eating while others watch; there is security in numbers.

Spring Behavior

With the approach of spring the weather gets warmer, daylight hours become longer and turkeys get the urge to mate. The jakes may join the toms and begin forming small groups that search for hens. Both the jakes and toms begin to associate with the hens as they all look for new spring growth, succulent grasses, forbes and insects that appear near stream beds and on south facing slopes that warm up first. They look for leftover agricultural crops, mast crops of nuts and acorns, and pick through cow chips, cattle feeding areas, and old and new plowing for insects and leftover food. Where turkeys inhabit hilly or mountainous terrain they may even change home ranges, seeking higher elevations as snow depth decreases and new forage becomes available. They may travel from as little as a quarter mile, to as many as several miles between their winter and spring range.

Daily Activity

Turkeys normally roost in trees at night, wake up about an hour before daylight, begin calling about a half-hour before daylight, and fly down from their roost from a half-hour to ten minutes before daylight. Once they are on the ground they usually look for food. If they land in wooded areas they may look for nearby food; they generally move to an open feeding area within a half hour. Whether they are in wooded, shrub or open areas they search for seeds, nuts, grasses, forbes and small insects on the ground.

I've seen a wintering flock of turkeys spend four hours in a cornfield in early spring, prior to the breeding season. However, the normal amount of time spent by large flocks or groups feeding in open areas is about an hour to an hour and a half. Then they move to a new opening or into the woods. During mid-day the turkeys may loaf in wooded areas and fly up to roost. They generally begin to feed again in the late afternoon, and fly back up to roost at about sundown.

Habits

Turkey habits vary greatly by region and even local areas. Some Eastern and Merriam's turkeys become accustomed to human activity and inhabit cities and towns, while a few miles away the mere sight of a car will send birds into cover. In some western areas turkeys may frequent farmyards, use farm groves and buildings for roost sites, exhibit no fear of humans, dogs or livestock, and become pets.

Reaction to Danger

Wild turkeys are extremely wary, with excellent eyesight, but they don't hear much better than the average human. However, they are very aware of suspicious noises and their first reaction to possible danger is alarm, and when they are alarmed they usually run away or take flight. Turkeys have better eyesight than humans, but, because of their widely spaced eyes they have poor binocular vision and depth perception. They see very little in front of them with both eyes at the same time, which makes it difficult for them to determine relative size and distance of objects. Any unexpected movement makes them alert.

While the first response of a turkey to danger is an alarm call and then flight, it will not usually leave its home range. Because of the small size of their brain turkeys don't have the ability to learn as well as animals with larger brains. With limited ability to learn, and because they inhabit a traditional home range, fleeing turkeys usually do not leave their range but flee back into it; or if they do leave they return soon after. Because they have not been outside their home range, the risk of danger is greater outside the home range than in it. Turkeys seldom vacate their home range because of hunting pressure; they may be hunted out of an area, but not driven out. They do not even avoid places that have been dangerous to them in the past. I have shot turkeys in the same area where they were shot at and missed the day before.

Click here for more Turkey Hunting Tips

 

Fall Turkey Vocalizations 10/1/03

An understanding of the different calls that turkeys use in the fall will help when you are trying to call turkeys. Turkey researchers have described as many as 20 different turkey calls. They fall into six basic categories: Agonistic, Alarm, Contact, Flying, Maternal/Neonatal and Advertising/Mating.

Alarm Call

When a turkey becomes aware of danger it makes a loud, sharp Alarm Putt of from one to five notes that is used to warn other birds of danger; TUT, TUT, TUT. The call is a sign that a bird has seen a potential predator, and is usually followed by the bird running or flying away. Do not use this call when hunting turkeys.

Agonistic Calls

Turkeys make a number of soft Putts, Purrs, and Whines while feeding. These calls are referred to as agonistic (as in agonizing) because they help keep the flock in contact, while keeping them apart when their heads are down and they can't see each other. The birds are uncomfortable when they get too close; thus they are in agony, so to speak. When they make these calls they are saying, "This is my space, don't get to close." The Feeding Whine or Purr sounds like the call made by a feeding chicken; a soft errr. It may be followed by one or more Feeding Putts; a soft contented putt, putt. I use these calls shortly after I use a flydown cackle, to convince a tom that there are hens on the ground and feeding. I also use it on toms that hang up out of range, to calm them down.

Fighting Calls

Fighting turkeys use an Aggressive Purr that is louder and more insistent than the feeding purr; the call is often interrupted by flapping wings, kicking and neck wrestling. Other turkeys hearing a fight often come running to see which birds are fighting, and which birds win and lose. The loser often drops down in the flock hierarchy, leaving room for the birds beneath it to move up. Any bird that has a chance to move up in the hierarchy will do so. The sound of birds fighting will cause dominants and groups of toms, even hens, to come running, so they can see which birds are fighting in their area. I use this call to bring in dominant toms or hens when everything else fails. I've heard toms use a churrt - churrt as a threat. This is probably one of the most aggressive forms of an agonistic call.

Contact and Maternal/Neonatal Calls

Because the Contact Calls are used most often between the hen and her poults they are basically the same as the Maternal/Neonatal Calls. When turkeys use these calls they are saying "Here I am, where are You?" The contact calls of young turkeys are the Lost Whistle, Kee-Kee and the Kee-Kee Run. These are all high pitched calls that change as the young turkey grows.

The Lost Whistle is the sound very young birds make. It is a high pitched whistle; peep, peep, peep, peep. As summer advances the voices of the poults change and the Lost Whistle becomes the Kee-Kee; a lower coarser kee, kee, kee. It usually has three unevenly spaced notes in about a second, with each note .10 to .15 seconds in length. Many callers fail to recreate this call correctly by using only two notes, or by using up to five notes. Maybe the name of the call should be changed to the Kee-Kee-Kee.

As fall approaches the young turkeys begin to add yelps at the end of the Kee-Kee and produce the Kee-Kee Run. The Kee-Kee Run is the basic Kee-Kee followed by several yelps; kee-kee-kee, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp. The notes of this call are unevenly spaced, with each note from .05 to .10 seconds in length. All three of these lost calls are used by the young to tell their mother they are lost and to trying to get back together. I use these calls in the fall, after I have scattered a flock.

Adult turkeys use many different yelps and clucks to keep in contact in different situations. Most Yelps are the same as the "Here I am, where are you?" call of geese and other flocking birds, which is used to keep the birds in contact with each other.

The Tree Yelp is often the first sound of the day, a soft, nasal, three to five note call performed while the birds are on the roost before daylight. It is a soft chirp-chirp-chirp ... chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, or a variation. There are usually three to four notes per second, with each note being about .08 seconds in length. This call is used by a bird when it is telling the others it is awake and asking if there are other birds nearby and awake. This is the first call I use in the morning, to see if there are toms in the area and still on the roost.

The Plain Yelp is performed when the turkeys are within seeing distance of each other. It often consists of three to nine notes, all on the same pitch and of the same volume, with three to four notes per second, and each note lasting .08 to .10 seconds; chirp, chirp, chirp. I use this call when toms are up close, or within seeing distance of the decoys.

The Lost Yelp is much like the Plain Yelp but may contain twenty or more notes, and it becomes louder toward the end of the call. The bird's voice may "break" as it tries to make the call as loud as possible, which causes it to have a raspy sound. There may be from three to four notes per second, with each note lasting .10 to .15 seconds.

The Assembly Yelp is used by the hen in the fall to regroup the young. It usually consists six to ten or more evenly spaced yelps that are loud and sharp, with two to four notes per second, and each note lasting from .12 to .20 seconds. I often hear hens make a loud, long series of yelps while they are on the strut during the breeding phase. I am not sure if this is an Assembly Yelp or a Lost Yelp. But, I do know that toms often show up in areas where hens are making this call. I use Lost Yelps and Assembly Yelps to get a tom fired up on the roost, and to keep it coming once it is on the ground.

The Plain Cluck is used by turkeys to get the visual attention of another bird. It is primarily a close range contact call, again saying "Here am I, where are you?" A bird making this call wants to hear another bird make the same call so they can get together. It is a sharp, short sound, similar to the alarm putt but not as loud or as insistent; tut...tut. The notes of the cluck are often separated by as much as three seconds, which distinguishes it from the faster, closely spaced Fast Cutt. I often hear hens use several soft Clucks and Purrs while they are feeding. It sounds like putt, putt, putt, errr, putt .... putt, putt, putt, errr. I use this call when a tom hangs up nearby, or to stop it for a shot.

The Fast Cutt, or Cutting, is one turkey using the "Here I am, where are you?" but telling the other bird "If we are going to get together you have to come to me." It is a loud insistent call, and the notes are strung together in bursts of two's and three's, with about a second between bursts. It sounds like; TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT. TUT .TUT, TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT...TUT... TUT, TUT... TUT, or any variation of clucks. The rhythm is somewhat like the Flying Cackle, and I have used a Flying Cackle to get a tom to "shock gobble." I also use this call to bring in a tom that hangs up.

Flying Call

The Flying Cackle is the sound a turkey makes when flying up or down from the roost, or when flying across ravines. Many hunters have difficulty with the correct tempo of this call. Actually, it's quite easy; the calling of a bird in the air is directly related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, it's when the bird contracts it's chest muscles and exhales, it's the only time the bird can call. If you are trying to imitate this call visualize the action of the turkey as it takes off, first with slow powerful wing beats, then faster, and tapering off slowly before gliding and landing. I often use this call to get a "shock gobble" from a tom before daylight, so I can locate the tree it is in. I also use it to get a tom to come off the roost in my direction.

Advertising/Mating Calls

Tom turkeys Gobble to express social status, telling other males they are ready to fight to prove their dominance, and to attract hens. The Gobble is most often heard while the bird is on the roost early in the morning. Studies show that most gobbling occurs from about a forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise. Individual toms also call most frequently at this time. Gobbling is a means of long distance communication and the tom may expect the hen to come to him, if she is ready to breed. However, I often see toms arrive at the strut where the hens are already calling. Whether the toms are responding to the calling of the hens or not I am not sure. Use a gobble only when you are sure there are no other hunters in the area, because they may mistake you for a turkey.

Hens in the presence of a tom may Whine, causing the tom to begin strutting. The medium pitched single drawn out errr of the Whine or Purr may be used by the hen to get the male to prove how large, colorful and healthy it is. I use this call when toms are close, to convince them there is a hen nearby. It has been said that hens make a whut churr - whut churr when they are ready to breed, and a prrrt - prrrt while being bred.

This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Turkey Hunting Tips

Daily Activity 9/1/03

Turkeys normally roost in trees at night, wake up about an hour before daylight, begin calling about a half-hour before daylight, and fly down from their roost from a half-hour to ten minutes before daylight. Once they are on the ground they usually look for food. If they land in wooded areas they may look for nearby food; they generally move to an open feeding area within a half hour. Whether they are in wooded, shrub or open areas they search for seeds, nuts, grasses, forbes and small insects on the ground.

I've seen a wintering flock of turkeys spend four hours in a cornfield in early spring, prior to the breeding season. However, the normal amount of time spent by large flocks or groups feeding in open areas is about an hour to an hour and a half. Then they move to a new opening or into the woods. During mid-day the turkeys may loaf in wooded areas and fly up to roost. They generally begin to feed again in the late afternoon, and fly back up to roost at about sundown.

Habits

Turkey habits vary greatly by region and even local areas. Some Eastern and Merriam's turkeys become accustomed to human activity and inhabit cities and towns, while a few miles away the mere sight of a car will send birds into cover. In some western areas turkeys may frequent farmyards, use farm groves and buildings for roost sites, exhibit no fear of humans, dogs or livestock, and become pets.

Reaction to Danger

Wild turkeys are extremely wary, with excellent eyesight, but they don't hear much better than the average human. However, they are very aware of suspicious noises and their first reaction to possible danger is alarm, and when they are alarmed they usually run away or take flight. Turkeys have better eyesight than humans, but, because of their widely spaced eyes they have poor binocular vision and depth perception. They see very little in front of them with both eyes at the same time, which makes it difficult for them to determine relative size and distance of objects. Any unexpected movement makes them alert.

While the first response of a turkey to danger is an alarm call and then flight, it will not usually leave its home range. Because of the small size of their brain turkeys don't have the ability to learn as well as animals with larger brains. With limited ability to learn, and because they inhabit a traditional home range, fleeing turkeys usually do not leave their range but flee back into it; or if they do leave they return soon after. Because they have not been outside their home range, the risk of danger is greater outside the home range than in it. Turkeys seldom vacate their home range because of hunting pressure; they may be hunted out of an area, but not driven out. They do not even avoid places that have been dangerous to them in the past. I have shot turkeys in the same area where they were shot at and missed the day before.

This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Turkey Hunting Tips.

 T.R.'s Tips: Turkey Hunting

 

T.R. Michels with #19, 11 1/2" bearded Merriam's Turkey

Spring Turkey Calling; Family Relationship and Social Status 2/26/04

Much of the calling hunters hear in the spring is used to keep the families, and the flock together. Many of these calls fall into the Social Contact and Maternal/Neonatal Calls category. Let's review some of these calls.

Hen "Family" Calls

The Yelp is often the first sound of the day, a soft, nasal, three to five note call performed while the birds are on the roost before daylight. It is a soft chirp-chirp-chirp ... chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, or a variation. There are usually three to four notes per second, with each note being about .08 seconds in length. This call is used by a bird when it is telling the others it is awake and asking if there are other birds nearby and awake. In the case of spring turkeys, it is often one of the female family members asking if the other family members are still there. I use this call in the morning to see if the birds are still on the roost.

The Assembly Yelp is used by the hen to regroup the young, and this probably carries over to some extent in spring calling. This call usually consists of six to ten or more evenly spaced yelps that are loud and sharp, with two to four notes per second, and each note lasting from .12 to .20 seconds. I often hear hens make a loud, long series of yelps while they are on the strut during the breeding phase. I am not sure if this is an Assembly Yelp or a Lost Yelp. But, I do know that toms often show up in areas where hens are making this call. I use Lost Yelps and Assembly Yelps to get a tom fired up on the roost, and to keep it coming once it is on the ground.

The Lost Yelp is much like the Plain Yelp, but it is often used by female offspring to locate their mother in the spring, particularly after the hens have been bred and begun nesting. When they return to traditional feeding/strutting areas they often try to regroup with each other. This may call contain twenty or more notes, and it becomes louder toward the end of the call. The bird's voice may "break" as it tries to make the call as loud as possible, which causes it to have a raspy sound. There may be from three to four notes per second, with each note lasting .10 to .15 seconds.

Hen Flock Social Contact Calls

Adult turkeys use many different yelps and clucks to keep in contact in different situations. Most yelps are the same as the "Here I am, where are you?" call of geese and other flocking birds, which is used to keep the birds in contact with each other. These calls are basically variations of the hen "family" calls.

The Plain Yelp is performed when turkeys are within seeing distance of each other. It often consists of three to nine notes, all on the same pitch and of the same volume, with three to four notes per second, and each note lasting .08 to .10 seconds; chirp, chirp, chirp. I use this call when toms are up close, or within seeing distance of the decoys.

The Plain Cluck is used by turkeys to get the visual attention of another bird. It is primarily a close range contact call, again saying "Here am I, where are you?" A bird making this call wants to hear another bird make the same call so they can get together. It is a sharp, short sound, similar to the alarm putt but not as loud or as insistent; tut...tut. The notes of the cluck are often separated by as much as three seconds, which distinguishes it from the faster, closely spaced Fast Cutt. I often hear hens use several soft Clucks and Purrs while they are feeding. It sounds like putt, putt, putt, errr, putt .... putt, putt, putt, errr. I use this call when a tom hangs up nearby, or to stop it for a shot.

The Fast Cutt, or Cutting, is one turkey using the "Here I am, where are you?" but telling the other bird "If we are going to get together you have to come to me." It is a loud insistent call, and the notes are strung together in bursts of two's and three's, with about a second between bursts. It sounds like; TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT. TUT .TUT, TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT...TUT... TUT, TUT... TUT, or any variation of clucks. The rhythm is somewhat like the Flying Cackle, and I have used a Flying Cackle to get a tom to "shock gobble." I also use this call to bring in a tom that hangs up.

Male Groups; Family and Social Contact Calls

Hunters may also not realize that the males in a tom or jake group may also be related. Since dominance, or social status, is often established when the birds are growing up, and because there is very little squabbling for social status between family members (because social status is already established), it is easy to see how male turkeys who are brothers may stay together as long as the live. Again this means they know the voices of each other. So, they often use the same social contact calls the hens use, except they generally have deeper voices. And because they are males and do not separate to go off and lay eggs, they rarely use the "family calls" such as the Assembly Yelp and the Lost Yelp, or the Fast Cluck. The may use Tree Yelps and Plain Yelps to help them remain in contact with each other.

What this all boils down to is that it is difficult for a hunter to convince a turkey it is a member of its family or flock. However, this doesn't mean calling won't work, because you can use hen calls to call toms, and you can use aggressive hen calls, such as a Fighting Purr, to call in hen groups. What it does mean is that hunter should "think" about what they are trying to simulate when they call, and use the appropriate calls to accomplish their task.

If you are interested in more turkey hunting tips, or more biology and behavior, click on Trinity Mountain Outdoor News and T.R.'s Hunting Tips at TRMichels.com. If you have questions about turkeys log on to the T.R.'s Tips message board.

This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

Click here for more Turkey Hunting Tips.

 

Spring Turkey Hunting

After you have spent time and effort understanding, locating, observing, recording and patterning the turkeys you can put everything you have learned into practice. You have chosen the state you want to hunt, the unit and the property. You have spent hours scouting and watching the birds and know where the roost is, the travel route the birds normally use, the time they usually come off the roost, and the time they arrive at their favorite feeding spot, and where the toms gobble and strut to attract a receptive hen. Now you are ready to hunt.

Roosting A Bird

To be sure which roost the tom is using I go out the night before the hunt to "put a bird to bed." I stop near the area where I expect the tom to be roosted and crow or owl call, trying to get the bird to "shock gobble." Tom turkeys often shock gobble in response to a loud noise; a dog barking, door slamming, coyote, crow, owl or Pileated Woodpecker calling, even thunder. I prefer a crow or Pileated Woodpecker call during daylight, and a Barred Owl call during dusk and dark, when these animals are most often heard. If I don't get an answer I move to the next likely roosting site, one where I have observed birds before. I continue moving until I get a response, then I get close enough to tell exactly which ravine and which group of trees the bird is in, so I can set up near the bird the next morning.

I know several hunters who did not determine the exact roost site, and then set up too near or right under the roost tree the next morning. When this happens the bird may flush out early; watch as you approach under cover of darkness and remain on the roost; or fly away from you instead of coming to your calls and decoys. Once I have put the bird to bed and determined its location I leave the area as quietly as possible, so I don't spook the turkey off the roost. On my way out I take note of the surrounding terrain and mark certain features in my mind, so I can find the roost the next morning.

Choosing A Setup Site

Before returning to hunt the next morning I review my knowledge of the land and look at my topographical maps and aerial photos. I check the weather conditions for that day knowing that clouds, rain, snow or heavy wind may keep the birds on the roost longer than normal. Then I look for the feeding and strutting area closest to where the bird is roosted, and the nearest water. Turkeys often go to the nearest feeding area when they fly down shortly after daylight, or head for water if it is close. With the knowledge gained during my scouting, observing and patterning I know the route the bird is likely to take after it flies down. If I have observed the birds under the current weather conditions I know what they do, and where the best areas to setup or ambush them are. If I am not sure what they will do I make an informed guess, and hope they come my way, or respond to my call.

Before I go to my hunting site I use an owl call to get the tom to shock gobble, to be sure it is still on the roost. I make a point of getting to my hunting site before dawn so I don't spook the birds. If I do spook a bird going in before daylight, and I am there long enough and out of sight, it usually forgets I am there. When I get to my setup site I decide where the bird is likely to appear, where to place my decoys, and where to sit. Then I get in front of a large tree to break up my outline. Many hunters choose a large tree to lean against to protect their back.

Spring Calling

When I hear the first sounds of the turkeys in the spring, just before daylight, I tree yelp softly to get their attention. If there are hens roosted nearby they may respond with their own tree yelps, toms often gobble. If you aren't fully awake yet the sound of an early morning gobble can really get your heart pumping. From here on it's a matter of experience and personal tactics. I try to imitate all the sounds that are normally heard. In the morning the tom expects to hear the sounds a hen or flock makes on the roost; the tree yelp, pit and cluck. When the birds fly down they yelp or do the flying cackle. If the tom is close enough he expects to hear flapping wings. I use all these sounds to convince the tom there is a hen or flock in the area, and to get him to come my way.

My first call is a tree yelp, and if I get a gobble I yelp a little louder. I may or may not get a response, either way I have to make a decision to do something. I usually wait until I hear the turkeys moving, then I use the flying cackle and the Flapp 'n Tom or Wing Thing flapper to simulate the sound of a hen flying down. The combination of these sounds usually gets the attention of the tom and gets him fired up enough to gobble, and often to come in.

If the tom doesn't answer, or is reluctant to come, I make the sounds of birds feeding on the ground. I start out slow and easy with soft yelps, purrs, whines and clucks. I rustle the leaves, simulating birds scratching and feeding. If I get a response I keep doing it, letting the tom set the tempo of the calling. When he gobbles, I wait awhile then gobble back. As long as he keeps answering and seems to be coming my way I keep it up. My motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

More times than not the bird will "hang up" and not come in. Maybe he is with a hen, maybe he is detouring around some obstacle, maybe he is spooky or alerted, maybe he just doesn't want to come. This is when I try something different or get aggressive, when experience helps and the game begins. There is no set routine to get a reluctant tom to come. This is the time to experiment, fail and learn. When a tom hangs up I first use a loud assembly yelp or lost yelp, trying to imitate a hen looking for other hens. These calls work well on most toms and jakes, because it means there are hens nearby. If that doesn't work I use a series of loud hen clucks, imitating a bird trying to get another bird to show itself. If that doesn't work I use the fast cluck or cutting, the sound of a bird telling the other bird that if they are going to get together the other bird will have to do the walking. This call is very effective on reluctant dominant toms; it does not work well on subdominant toms and jakes because it may scare them. When I use the fast cutt I make sure the call is loud and insistent, telling the other bird "come on over here." If the tom still won't come in I use the deep cluck or yelp of a jake along with the hens cluck, to get the tom to think there is a young male with "his" hen. Often the tom will come in to establish dominance, ready to fight the jake for the hen.

If these calls fail, I resort to the fighting purr of two birds. This call appeals to a turkey's curiosity, it wants to know which birds are fighting and why. Just like teenage boys after school in the parking lot, they just have to go and watch. Turkeys watch to see if a dominant bird is defeated, leaving room for them to move up in the hierarchy and gain dominance. The fighting purr works especially well on dominant toms because they want to know which birds in "their" area are fighting, and why; the fight may be over a receptive hen and the tom wants to have the chance to breed her.

This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 s&h), by T.R. Michels. It is available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products Catalog.

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