Everyone knows that turkeys gobble best on calm, clear mornings, right? And that while a classic fly-down hunt at daybreak is memorable, midmorning, after hens go to nest, is the more productive time to kill a tom. And, of course, the best time to hunt is the early season, before the weeds get too tall and the turkeys are finished gobbling for the year.

Yet we see exceptions to every rule during every season. Just a few days ago, I had an awesome hunt in Tennessee in the pouring-down rain, with turkeys gobbling everywhere. Sure, studies have been done to show that there are peaks and valleys in the gobbling activity throughout the spring as the breeding cycle progresses, but those studies don’t always answer the simple question every turkey hunter wonders in the predawn. Will the birds act right today, or not?

There hasn’t been a scientific study to answer that question—and probably never will be—and so savvy turkey hunters have to rely on experience and observation instead. Many of us used to keep journals to detail the daily conditions in the field. Today, we have smart phones with cameras that make it way easier. I’d lay odds that there’s at least a photo, and often a larger digital trail, of nearly every turkey tagged these days. Which got me to thinking….

A Survey of Gobbler Fanatics

Collage of six turkey hunters, each one posing with a harvested tom turkey.
A handful of the hardcore turkey hunters who participated in our survey. Top row from left: Josh Smith, TN; Arliss Reed, NY; Nancy Jo Adams, AL. Bottom row: Ali Johnson, MN; Nate Metcalf, PA; and the author, Will Brantley, KY. Field & Stream

After looking through my own detailed records of toms taken over the last several years, I decided to survey a group of serious turkey hunters, including guides and call makers, from all over the country. Each was asked to review the photos in their phone’s camera roll over the past three seasons (and farther back if they had it), to see how many photos they had from successful turkey hunts. From those photos—and this is key—they were then asked to separate out only the birds that came in gobbling and strutting. Then they filled out a survey of those toms specifically.

Maybe you’re wondering, Who the hell can remember all that? But the better question is probably, How could a serious turkey hunter ever forget?  

I included my own results in the survey. I hunt 30-plus days in three to five states each season. Including my own entries, I ended up with a data set of nearly 300 harvested turkeys—all of which came in gobbling and acting right—taken by multiple hunters in 17 states over the past few springs. Each bird had a date taken, notes on the time of day, the general location, weather conditions, and anything notable about the hunt. I pored over the notes, researched season dates in various states, looked up archived weather data, jotted down trends, and extrapolated the key findings below. A lot of what I learned was exactly what I expected—but there were a number of surprises, too, and definitely some regional differences that can help you hunt get more toms that want to gobble, strut, and come to your calls.

Survey Results: 4 Key Findings

1. Clear Days Actually Are the Best for Turkey Hunting

Two tom turkeys strut and gobble amid a flock of birds milling in a field
Our survey respondents tagged anywhere from 42- to 65-percent more gobbling longbeards under sunny skies compared to overcast. John Hafner Photography

It rains plenty in the spring. And there’s no doubt that I’ve had some great hunts on rainy, cloudy days, and so had many of the survey participants. Nate Metcalf, who owns Wrecking Machine calls, recalled a Kansas gobbler that he and a buddy hunted on April 13 a few years ago. “The winds were blowing 25 miles per hour, and it was a crazy, rainy hunt. But we called this gobbler right off the limb and all the way across the field. It was awesome.”

Still, that rainy day hunt, and others, seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. The survey showed an undeniable trend of more cooperative gobblers being shot on clear, warm days. In March, respondents killed 65% more gobbling longbeards on sunny days than on cloudy days. In April, it was 42% more, and in May, it was 57% more. From Florida to Pennsylvania to Texas to Oregon, it didn’t seem to matter—gobblers worked to the gun best under blue skies.

Graphic showing gobbling toms turkey and data on sunny and cloudy day hunting success
The breakdown by month was as follows: March – 52 sunny-day birds, 16 cloudy-day birds; April – 64 sunny-day birds, 35 cloudy-day birds; May – 73 sunny-day birds, 31 cloudy-day birds.  John Hafner/Adobe Stock / Field & Stream

Of course, a biologist would say, “Well, this data is flawed because more people go turkey hunting when it’s sunny and clear.” I’ll tell you, I spend a lot of time interviewing biologists, and they can be depressing to talk to. I will concede that personal preferences do play a hand in hunting participation. I’m sure most people are indeed more apt to hit the woods when the forecast is good. But I’d also argue the gobbler fanatics I interviewed are like me in that they’re apt to go hunting no matter what weather.

Respondent Josh Smith, from Sweetwater, Tennessee, put it well when he said, “The perfect conditions are whatever April has to offer. That’s one of my favorite parts about turkey hunting. It often doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. Either the birds are going to cooperate, or they’re not.”  My personal favorite time to hunt is during rainbow weather—warm, bright sunshine and calm winds immediately following a moderate to heavy downpour. But when spring turkey season is in, I’m going to hunt whenever I can, and maybe a little harder when the sun is shining.

2. The Early Season is Best, But Not by Much

A tom turkey struts between saplings in the open early-season woods
The head of a strutting tom is a splash of color you want to see in the gray early-season woods. John Hafner Photography

Regardless of gobbling activity, it makes sense that more turkeys are killed in the early season than any other timeframe, and the results of my survey certainly reflect that. Anticipation is high for opening day, in every state, and more hunters are in the woods then there are than at any other time. There are also more gobblers to hunt, and they haven’t been pressured yet. Those are all key ingredients for success and, sure enough, nearly half of the turkeys in reflected in our survey were shot during the first third of the season.

But if you don’t fill your tag(s) early, there’s still plenty of good hunting. While the success rate among our survey respondents plummeted during the mid-season phase—which accounted for just 19% of the overall take—it ticked back up dramatically in the late season, when 29% of the turkeys were shot. That trend definitely squares with what I’ve seen in Kentucky and Tennessee, where I hunt most. I usually start hunting around April 15, and though I’ve taken a lot of turkeys during the first few days, the stretch from about April 18 to 26 is usually slow. It’s a timeframe when gobblers say little on the limb and even less on the ground. I’ve always chalked it up to turkeys being henned up and heavily pressured.

Chart showing turkey hunting success rates during early-, mid-, and late-season periods.
Success rates among our survey respondents plummeted during the mid-season phase. John Hafner Photography / Field & Stream

But like clockwork, the action picks up the last few days of April and into the first week of May; in fact, that is when I’ve had many of my best hunts the past few years. I definitely don’t hear as many gobblers late in the season, but those that I do hear are much more responsive to calling.

Though most of the survey participants still liked the early season best, several did praise the late season. A call maker, who asked to be anonymous, said of the late season, “I wouldn’t want to give up the gobble-one-time-and-then-try-to-run-you-over-after-you-have-covered-10-miles-on-foot-without-hearing-anything-scenario that can be typical of the late season.”

Arliss Reed, a turkey guide for Basswood Lodge in New York, added, “If I had to pick a time, it’d be the late season in the eastern hardwoods, when the leaves are on, hens are on nests, and most guys are either tagged out or sick of it.”

3. Get it Done Early in the Day

Graphic showing that 78 percent of harvested tom turkeys were taken before noon, and 22 percent after.
The vast majority of toms taken in our survey where wearing a tag before noon. John Hafner Photography / Field & Stream

Hunters provided the time of day for each turkey taken, and I broke that down into four time frames: Early morning, which covered from fly-down to 8 a.m.; mid-morning, which covered 8 a.m. to noon; midday, which covered noon to 3 p.m.; and evening, which covered 3 p.m. to the end of legal light (note that a few states close hunting at noon or 1 p.m.).

No surprise that most of the turkeys—78% actually—were killed before noon. But the success rate on fly-down hunts seemed to increase in the mid-season (49%) compared to the early season and late season, both of which were around 40%. That makes sense to me. This is a survey of turkeys that came in gobbling, and daybreak is the likeliest time to hear a turkey gobble, regardless of the phase of the season. But they tend to gobble for a little longer after hitting the ground early and again late in the season, and are more responsive to calling, too.

The takeaway for mid-season hunters? Don’t get caught sleeping in, because the action might be over an hour after daylight.  

4. Go Ahead, Take a Nap—Unless You’re Hunting Out West

Two Merriam's top turkeys strut in a spring green field.
Merriam’s turkeys, along with Rios, seem to be more cooperative late in the day compared to Eastern toms. John Hafner Photography

I expected that hunting during the midday heat, from noon to 3 p.m., would be less effective. It’s definitely the time when I kill the fewest birds. But the rate at which hunting success fell at this time of day was staggering. Our survey respondents only shot 15 turkeys during that timeframe in the past three years!

Of course, those are traditionally the hours when we’re taking a break for lunch and a nap, too. For hunting eastern gobblers in the hardwoods, my takeaway from this (and the above point) would be to hit it hard every morning before noon, but don’t feel guilty about catching up on chores or taking naps later in the day.

But things are different out West. In the past several seasons I’ve personally called up gobblers in Wyoming, Texas, and Nebraska in the last hour of the day, and they were red hot. Of all the turkeys in the survey’s data set that were taken in the midday and evening hours, nearly half (44%) were taken in just four states, all of which are in the West—Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Texas. In my experience, the key difference in Rio Grande and Merriam’s gobblers, compared to Easterns, is that they are roamers. When they’re moving around in that open country of the West, they’re more visible. Combine that with the fact that they also seem to be more vocal throughout the day, and you can see why midday and evening hunting is so productive for them.

I hunt Texas every spring, and a buddy of mine from Colorado, who usually hunts with me, always complains about getting up early. “We never kill a turkey here before 10 o’clock,” he says. Although that’s not entirely true—I killed one in Texas right at daybreak this year—we have called up a bunch of turkeys there in the searing sunshine. I know of a couple turkey guides in Nebraska who make it a point of sleeping in, eating breakfast, and then hunting gobblers from mid-morning through the rest of the day.

Of course, potentially missing a flydown hunt is like missing the day entirely to an eastern gobbler nut. If you’re traveling west to end your season, remember that the sun rises early and sets late in May—and turkeys can be killed at all hours in between.

You might have to sleep after the season’s over.