Wanna step outside? Wild turkey season opens April 8

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 2, 2023

By Dan Kibler

As far as opening days go, nothing gets my juices running like the first day of North Carolina’s spring wild-turkey season. Hunters under age 18 get a week’s jump on the rest of the crowd, getting into the woods on Saturday, April 1. We adults have to wait until Saturday, April 8, to begin the season, which stretches through five Saturdays before ending on May 6.

If nothing else, it is soul-stirring to be outside well before daylight, to see and hear the woods wake up: the whip-poor-wills, the cuckoos and owls, and finally, roosters on nearby farms and crows. It might be pitch-black dark, or the sky will be turning pink as dawn approaches, when the turkeys start to stir, hens with their soft clucking and yelping from their perches in trees, and finally, the gobblers with their unmistakable, throaty shouts.

I have heard turkeys gobble at roosters, crows, the scream of a hawk, even the chirring screech of a peacock who ruled the roost on a Stokes County farm. And especially, they gobble at other turkeys.

Nothing matches that first gobble, on that first morning of turkey season. I can probably count on one hand the turkeys I’ve killed or helped kill on opening day — sometimes, the hunting is much better a week or so into the season when hen turkeys have gone on the nest and the big boys have to hunt for female companionship. But that first gobble still sends chills up the spine of almost any hunter.

I will be about 20 yards off a logging road on the side of a hill in northern Forsyth County next Saturday, shortly after 6 a.m., sitting with my back to a stump, in a makeshift blind, listening intently for any sounds, trying to gauge direction and distance when the first gobbler sounds off. That’s when the season really begins.

North Carolina hunters have had their three best seasons in history since 2020, when they set a record by taking 22,426 birds. Some credit goes to the statewide flock, which is estimated at north of a quarter-million birds. Some credit that year went to the COVID pandemic, which got a lot of hunters out of their offices and into the woods an inordinate number of extra days, resulting in a record kill.

But the 2021 kill followed at 20,882, and last season, hunters took 20,576 more birds. It was barely 10 years ago that northern Piedmont and northwestern counties led the annual harvests — Ashe, Alleghany, Stokes and Caswell counties were always close to the top of the leaderboard. But the biggest part of the harvest has shifted 200 miles to the southeast, the last part of North Carolina that the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked with turkeys. The flock in that area is still expanding in the fertile farmland and timber that accounts for the habitat. Last season, Duplin County led with 748 birds reported, followed by Bladen County (569), Pender County (565), Columbus County (541) and Brunswick County (518).

Historically, a lot of turkeys are killed on the first couple of days of the season, just because of the sheer number of hunters in the woods, and because nobody in full camouflage has been bothering gobblers for 11 months. The best hunting, however, usually takes place during the second “peak” of gobbling, when hens start to go on the nest. This has typically been between April 13 and 20. Some seasons, that’s opening week; some seasons, it’s the second week. Whenever it falls, it’s a wonderful time to be working a box or slate call, because you have less female competition in the woods — and the real hen turkeys rarely ever come in runner up to a guy resting the fore-end of his shotgun on his left knee, while he operates a call of scratches in the leaves with his left hand.

The last two weeks of the season can be dull or dynamite, depending on the percentage of hens that are living on the nest and ignoring gobblers, and the hunting pressure gobblers have received. I have killed birds on the last day or two of the season more than just a time or two, but they’re usually tough birds to come by, having turned into strong, silent types.