The 7 Best Days of the Strut, 2021
Wouldn’t it be great to know which days spring turkeys will gobble, strut, and come to your calls? Well, we’ve got you covered. Using a secret algorithm, our hunting editor picks the 7 best days of the 2021 turkey season. Guaranteed.
Have you ever stepped out to start your truck in the predawn of an April morning and been stricken with that they’re-gonna-gobble-today feeling? Me too. So with that in mind, I’ve looked ahead to choose the seven best days to hunt turkeys this spring—days they are gonna gobble and strut and walk right in to your setup. You can sleep in or work or do something really awful like play golf any time. But on these seven sacred days, you’d better have your butt against an oak tree while yelping at a turkey, because the hunting is not going to get any better.
How do I know these days will be the best? Because I’ve developed an algorithm rivaling Facebook’s in complexity. I started by leaning on my own near three decades of turkey hunting experience across the country. Then I called up a bunch of fellow gobbler-chasing maniacs for their regional input. And finally, like any good algorithm, I made a good bit of it up as I went along. Still, I’ll make you a guarantee: If you hunt on one of these seven days and don’t kill a turkey, I’ll give you your money back. Let’s dig in.
1. Best Day: March 20
The Spot: Florida
The Turkey Nut: Rob Keck, former NWTF CEO
March 20 is the official start of Spring, but both it and the turkey season have already been going for a while down in Peninsular Florida, where hunters have been at it since March 6th and still have another three weeks of the season remaining. The Sunshine State’s North Zone opens this Saturday. In both areas, the latter half of March is a fantastic time to kill an Osceola gobbler.
“With Florida being the first to open, everyone wants to hunt early,” Keck says. “But as with many other places, some of the best hunting in Florida happens a little later in the season.”
Osceolas can gobble as hard as any of them, but they can be notoriously tight-lipped, too. “Patience pays in this game,” Keck says. “Plan to hunt all day. Your odds increase as the day goes on, and, in fact, if I could only hunt a few hours in the day, it’d be in the afternoon. Some of the best action happens right before fly-up time.”
Keck doesn’t change his decoy strategy much from one subspecies to the next, but he rarely hunts without a fan, which he says is deadly for finishing stubborn gobblers. “I’ve got a fan glued to a .300 WSM casing, which fits perfectly over a broken arrow shaft,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll put it out as a decoy, and it’ll move in the slightest breeze. Other times, I keep it close by and work it slowly by hand.” Keck advises hunters to be cautious when doing this. Of course, that goes for any turkey decoys, and it goes double if you plan to add motion.
Gear Pick: Ol’ Tom Meshback Flyweight Shirt
I don’t care for most hunting wear with pads sewn in, because the pads are never in the right spots. But I’ve been wearing this Meshback Flyweight Shirt for three seasons now, and I love the back pad on the shirt. (The knee pads on the pants aren’t as good, but they work.) The shirt is made of lightweight polyester that’s vented, so it’ll keep you cool, even in Florida.
2. Best Day: April 1
The Spot: Great Plains
The Turkey Nut: Justin Simmons / Nebraska Outfitter
It’s no April Fool’s joke that some of the best turkey hunting I’ve experienced has been on single-digit mornings during Nebraska’s early archery season. At this stage in the hunt in this area, you’re targeting giant winter flocks full of longbeards that are eager to get their spring on. “It’s pretty incredible to be sitting in the dark listening to a hundred turkeys gobbling at once,” says Simmons, who regularly books a full camp of archery hunters.
These big flocks are vocal, and so heavy calling and good decoys are part of the program. But Simmons says you need to be sitting in the preferred travel routes because the turkeys are still mostly on their winter routines. You might pull a satellite gobbler a few hundred yards off the main flock, but running and gunning in hopes of blind-striking a bird isn’t very effective right now. “They’re feeding in fields and using the same roosts they’ve used all winter,” he says. “They don’t really start busting up and moving until mid-April.”
Patience rules the day. Pop-up ground blinds are perfect for this style of hunting—that’s where Simmons puts most of his clients—but if you can’t stand being confined (I can’t), you can kill a turkey with a bow by sitting against a big tree and using natural cover to your advantage. My wife, Michelle, was doing just that when she killed the gobbler in the video below at just 4 steps. We were hunting at Simmons’ place.
Wherever you hide, put a strutter decoy right in your best shooting lane, inside 15 yards, and place a couple hens around him, with nothing beyond 20 yards. Keep your bow shots close and aim for the thighs. Turkeys have a small vital area, and they’re easy to kill if you hit it—but notoriously difficult to anchor if you don’t.
Gear Pick: Leupold BX-2 Alpine HD Binos
Binoculars are mandatory for this hunt, but not for extended glassing sessions. Instead, you’ll be looking over flocks from afar to pick out longbeards and also scope out good setups. I’ve been using Leupold’s new BX-2 Alpine HD line (the 10×52 pair) lately, and they’re tough, lightweight, with good glass, and at a nice price.
3. Best Day: April 10
The Spot: Mid-South Region
The Turkey Nut: Kerry Wix, call maker, pro turkey photographer
Tennessean Kerry Wix says that if the weather is good and you’re not killing turkeys during this week in his part of the world, you’re doing something wrong. April 10 is the second Saturday of the Volunteer State’s turkey season, and the opener for Virginia and North Carolina, as well as the Arkansas Youth Season. At the Mid-South latitude, there may be no finer day to hunt.
“Opening week is good, but that second week is the one we live for,” Wix says. “Bugs are flying everywhere by then, so the turkeys are hitting fields. That week, the dominant birds have taken over the flocks of hens, but you still have satellite birds running in pairs and small groups.”
Wix says the variety of experiences makes it fun right now. Run-and-gun hunters can strike satellite birds, especially at midday, and call them up in the timber, gobbling hard. But this is also the time to get in tight to an older bird, and challenge him. That’s Wix’s favorite type of turkey to hunt. “That time of year, when they fly down, they’re going to the fields,” he says. “If you can get tight to the roost in the dark and put a jake or a strutter decoy in an old bird’s bubble, you can kill him while he’s flogging it at 10 yards. For those few days, right around April 10, if you challenge them with a gobbler decoy, they’re coming to it nine out of 10 times.”
Gear Pick: DSD ¾ Strut Jake
Wix’s favorite decoy—and one of mine too—is the Dave Smith ¾ Strut Jake. Something about it just pisses longbeards off. I’m sure it’s partly because the fake is so realistic. Another good thing about the DSD decoy is that it’ll take a hit. A buddy broadsided mine with a dozen spray pellets a couple springs ago (though she killed her turkey, too). That decoy wears those holes to this day like No. 5-sized badges of honor.
4. Best Day: April 15
The Spot: Southern Plains (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas)
The Turkey Nut: Brenda Valentine, NWTF Spokesperson, Tennessee Turkey Hunter’s Hall of Fame Inductee
As good as April 10 can be in Tennessee, things are changing by Tax Day. Tennessee pro Brenda Valentine says the day is a bummer in general, what with gobblers henned-up and the IRS expecting money. “If I was going to sleep in, I’d do it on April 15,” she says. “But what I’d rather do is head west and hunt a Rio.”
Valentine has hunted Rio Grande gobblers all over the west, but she especially loves Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. “It’s argued back and forth, the differences in the subspecies, but I just find them easier to hunt in general than the Easterns around here,” she says. “They don’t seem to hen up as bad, they roam more, and they answer the call.”
Sometimes, they answer a little too fast. Rios usually live in open, windy country, where they can be hard for you to hear and vice versa. Valentine likes to strike birds with a big paddle box call or a metal-surface pot call. “It may not sound good, but it’s a turkey noise they can hear—and that can be all it takes,” she says. “I’ve guided out there some, and I’ve learned that when a Rio answers you, he’s not lying. They won’t give you time to change your mind or adjust much. Strike a bird out there, and you better get set up, with your gun ready, because they’ll come in on a run.”
Gear Pick: Permethrin Tick Spay
Bass Pro Shops
“I’ve had about every tick-borne illness there is,” Valentine says. “Even though I treat my clothing and vest with permethrin, I also carry an old towel in my vest that’s saturated with it. I throw that on the ground to sit on, and I’ve seen ticks crawl to within a few inches of it, and then turn around. It seems to keep more of them off me.”
5. Best Day: April 28
The Spot: Mid-South, Lower Midwest
The Turkey Nut: Yours Truly
The sands of time are trickling away on southern turkey seasons, but that means the weekend warriors are mercifully putting away their owl hooters and box calls until next year. That’s good for folks like us, because for the past several years, the last few days of April have become my most productive for hunting big expanses of public timber in Kentucky and northern Tennessee. The foliage is summertime-thick, allowing you to move around easily without being seen. Most of the hens are nesting, too.
For a few magical days around that time, lonesome gobblers, including those old big ‘uns, are searching the woods in hopes of one last breeding opportunity, and they’re gobbling hard while they’re at it. It’s the deer hunter’s equivalent of the “pick-up breeding” phase of the rut, when the action isn’t as steady as it is earlier in the cycle—but incredible when it does happen. The 28th is a Wednesday, the day when statistics suggest you should mostly have the woods to yourself. I’ve found that to be true enough to include in the algorithm.
I’ll tag a gobbler any way I can and be happy about it. (One time I reaped a turkey in a farmer’s yard and had to wait for him to clear the tractor to shoot). But given the choice, my favorite is easing around hardwood ridges with no decoy and calling a bird to me, one-on-one. I like to cover ground, but I don’t do a lot of locator calling in the traditional “run-and-gun” fashion this late in the season. Instead, I prefer to hear a turkey gobble on his own and work my way to him as he sounds off. I don’t call until I’m within 100 yards of him (50 is better), but when I make those first sounds—usually on a double-reed mouth call—my gun is on my knee, because I expect to kill that turkey in a few short minutes.
Gear Pick: Houndstooth Custom Logo Mouth Call Pouch
One of my single favorite pieces of turkey hunting gear is this simple mouth call pouch from Houndstooth. It’s made of heavy-duty Cordura, and it snaps shut with a pair of magnets strong enough to black a nail. It holds half a dozen calls, and I keep my three primaries on the bottom side for easy access, even in the dark.
6. Best Day: May 10
The Spot: Northeast
The Turkey Nut: Bob Fulcher, Grand National Champion Call Maker, Ohio Turkey Guide
It’s the northeastern turkey hunter’s Manic Monday. With seasons wrapped up down south, there are still weeks of good hunting ahead farther north, and Bob Fulcher says May 10, or thereabouts, is an especially good time to kill a turkey. He’s killed 304 of them himself, and so he’s a guy who knows.
“I love the last two weeks of our four-week season,” he says. “By May 10, I don’t expect birds to come in right off the limb and die like they do when they’re heavily into the breeding, but we still kill a bunch of turkeys then. It might be 10 o’clock before a gobbler really wants to come in and play. So I fill my vest with enough water and snacks to keep me out there either until it’s dark, or I’ve killed a bird.”
Fulcher doesn’t use decoys often, and he likes to stay in the timber when he can, and on the move. “If I don’t hear birds early in the day, I don’t expect them to be there later in the day. I keep moving until I know I’m around a turkey—but when I find one, I stick with him.”
Even if a vocal bird goes quiet, Fulcher likes to settle into a good hiding spot, get comfortable, and wait him out. “I’m going to blind call every 20 minutes, whether I’m hearing him or not, and keep watch. I’m expecting silent birds most of the time. When they get quiet, you always wonder if they’re still around—and most of the time, they are.”
Gear Pick: Shadetree Callers Custom Scratch Box
A little different sound can work wonders in the late season. Learn to run a scratch box, like one of these custom ones from Shadetree Callers, and you’re almost guaranteed to be making turkey music the competition isn’t playing.
7. Best Day: May 17
The Spot: Upper Midwest
The Turkey Nut: Josh Grossenbacher, world champion caller, Rolling Thunder Game Calls
Josh Grossenbacher likes to wrap up his turkey season in Wisconsin, and he says May 17 in particular is his favorite day. “For the last four or five years, I’ve killed a bird on that date up there,” he says. “And I haven’t forgotten because the first year, on May 17, I was working a strutter in a field and got a text that my sister had had a baby boy, at around 9 in the morning. That turkey was stubborn; after two hours, I made a move on him, got in tight with a little hill between him and me, and finally called him up to 15 yards and killed him.”
Grossenbacher says he’s killed a Wisconsin turkey on his nephew’s birthday every year since, save for 2020, when he didn’t travel. “The turkeys are still doing their thing up there at that time,” he says. “They’re still looking for hens and coming to the call,” he says. “But some gobblers are regrouping, too.”
Late in the season that far north, Grossenbacher plans for long days with early sunrises and late sunsets. “Usually, we scout in the evenings, and then get set up in the dark the next morning,” he says. “There’s a lot of broken terrain with fields and wood lots, but the woods are so dense that the turkeys don’t stay in them for long. So we set up on the field edges, and most of the time, since we’re filming, we’re hiding a few people. Decoys still work great, either a strutter or quarter-strut jake, with a standing hen next to it.”
Gear Pick: Rolling Thunder Game Calls Josh Grossenbacher Collection
I’ve used a bunch of Grossenbacher’s signature calls over the years, and they always sound good. I lean on double-reeds for a lot of my calling, but that shouldn’t influence your own call selection any more than the color of my eyes. If you’re shopping for new mouth calls, buying a combo pack with various reed cuts is the way to go. Chances are one of the three will sound just right for you.