The tom was gobbling hard from the timber as my friend and I hunkered inside a ground blind along a field edge, yelping to coax him in for a look at the decoys. Suddenly, the skies opened, and the downpour hammered the ground-blind roof so loudly that we could barely communicate.
Fortunately, the episode lasted just 15 minutes, and things picked up again. The tom resumed gobbling and soon appeared in the field on a beeline toward our decoys. I drew when he was 15 yards away, but he stopped just shy of the decoys. No problem. I swung my bow, acquired the bird and released an arrow, anchoring him instantly.
Over the last 21 years of bowhunting turkeys, I’ve dealt with everything from sunshine to tornadoes. If given the choice, every turkey hunter I know — including me — would choose a bluebird day with balmy temperatures and maybe a gentle breeze. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, cherrypicking the best weather days to hunt isn’t practical for most turkey hunters. You hunt when you can.
Whether you’re a weekend warrior or sneaking in 1-hour hunts before work, filling a tag sometimes hinges on your ability to persevere through adverse conditions. Here’s how to make the most of crummy conditions this turkey season.
1. Don’t Skip
I always review the weather the evening before a morning hunt and also midday before an afternoon hunt. It’s tempting to skip when rain, snow, sleet or high winds are forecasted, but I remind myself that turkeys must make a living during daylight hours regardless of the weather. Toms might not be gobbling, strutting and coming to calls, but they’ll be on the ground and feeding. As tempting as it is to hunker deeper into the blankets, take a ground blind and stake it out.
Of course, safety comes first. I was faced with possible life-or-death decisions during a late-May bowhunt in Kansas several years ago. Tornado watches and warnings were issued daily, so other hunters in camp and I had to pick and choose when to hunt. Sometimes, it meant skipping the morning hunt and heading out mid-morning once tornado activity had subsided. Other times, it meant hunting the morning and skipping the afternoon. We played it safe, and we all managed to take birds.
The combination of high winds and driving rain will keep me from hunting. I don’t need to kill a turkey badly enough to endure rain coming down sideways. Other than that, if the forecast is crummy yet free of natural phenomenons like hail, lightning and tornadoes, get out there.
2. Find Shelter
I’ve seen turkeys in fields during gentle or even steady rainfall and occasionally in higher winds. But, turkeys don’t love these conditions and will often seek shelter when weather goes from bad to worse. In the Midwest, I’ve seen turkeys head for red pines, hemlock swamps and the backsides of ridges to evade high winds and/or heavy rains. On the prairies, creek bottoms often have the majority of tree cover, and turkeys will head to those low areas to find shelter.
Finding sheltered areas is sometimes as easy spotting a stand of red pines or considering the wind and then heading for the backside of a ridge shielded from the wind. But, if you’re working with ground you’ve never hunted, a good map session on HuntStand Pro is a wise move. Use the Terrain and Tree Cover maps to identify sheltered pockets a short distance from likely feeding areas, and then hunt those spots when the weather turns south.
3. Hunt Fields After a Downpour or During a Gentle Rain
As the hunt I referenced earlier suggests, turkeys often head for fields and clearings following a soaker. Why? Well, that’s when all of the creepy crawlies come out. Snacks like worms and crickets are usually on the menu. Even if a tom isn’t coming to feed, hens will have food on their minds, and a tom or two will likely follow.
I also like to hunt fields during a gentle to steady rain for the same reasons. The bugs and worms bring out the birds. I don’t love to clean a soaking-wet turkey, but if the alternative is eating my tag, I’ll happily clean a wet bird.
4. Hunt Swampy Areas in the Heat
Florida, Texas and Oklahoma turkeys are used to hot temperatures, but heat can be detrimental in states that are generally cool during April and May. While gobbling and breeding activity usually still happens at first light, I’ve seen turkey activity substantially slow down or even shut off as daytime heat reaches unseasonable proportions. Still, I’ve successfully hunted turkeys in said weather.
You might not catch birds on fields, but the lack of sightings or gobbling rarely mean they vacated the area. Some of the best bets when the mercury climbs are cool areas. Think swamps or river bottoms where shade and dampness cool the air. With leaf cover, big open hardwoods also can provide birds with shade. Find cool spots to find birds in the heat.
5. Dress for the Conditions
One of my favorite things about bowhunting turkeys in the Midwest is nice weather, but April in Wisconsin and many other states can range from summer-like to wintery. Nonetheless, I’ve bow-killed a handful of April gobblers with temperatures in the twenties. It isn’t ideal weather, but I’ve found toms to be very vocal despite cold weather.
Whether it’s hot, cold, rainy or snowy, hunters often skip because they don’t want to be uncomfortable. If that’s you, I suggest evaluating your current turkey camo and seeing what holes you can fill in.
In cold weather, layering and warm footwear are crucial measures. I can’t emphasize how a cold morning feels even colder right as the sun breaks the horizon. Numerous times, I’ve reached this point in the morning and was already freezing my butt off. Believe me, it really detracts from the hunting experience. Now, I dress in my Sitka Fanatic Gear, or I wear a heated vest and heated pants.
When it’s smoking hot, dressing down keeps you comfortable. Even an uninsulated jacket can get you too warm when moving on birds, especially given high humidity. I love Sitka Gear’s Equinox Guard Hoody featuring Insect Shield, which is ultra-lightweight and breathable with a built-in face mask. I’ve tried a lot of camo apparel, and it’s the most comfortable I’ve found for hot-weather turkey hunting.
Finally, a rain layer is a must. I have a handful of such pieces from Sitka Gear. Staying dry will keep you comfortable for a longer period, which means more time afield. Obviously, a good ground blind can shield against the elements, which further boosts your comfort. Do everything you can to stay comfortable.
6. Make Your Shot
While rain has little bearing on shotgun hunters throwing a head-crushing pattern, it can affect bowhunters. How so? Well, even a lethally-hit gobbler is liable to run before crashing in a heap. Rain can wash away clues like blood and feathers, or at least make them more difficult to spy.
Wind can also make it difficult to locate a wounded gobbler. Spotting a turkey hunkered amidst a brush pile — arrowed birds hide incredibly well — is already difficult, but vegetation swaying in the breeze multiplies the challenge. Make your best effort to drop the bird in his tracks, especially in bad weather.
In Wisconsin a decade ago, two toms skirted my setup one afternoon. Once they roosted, I moved my blind 80 yards to a logging road I believed they’d use the next morning. That night, a rain storm became an ice storm by morning.
Just before daylight, I crawled into my stiff, ice-coated blind as the nasty stuff continued to spill from the sky. The toms gobbled twice from the roost. That was it. They weren’t fired up, so I made two or three calls, then waited in silence. Eventually, I spotted a tom out the back of the blind. He was approaching silently. When he hit the logging road, I hit full draw. I nailed him at 10 yards, and he ran 20 before collapsing.
I can’t overstate how miserable conditions were as I took photos and packed up. But, I filled my tag because I didn’t let freezing rain stand in my way. We all love to hunt bluebird days, but sometimes success comes in horrible weather. The question is, will you be in the blind?