There is no finer sight than a Dogwood in full bloom, no finer meal than a basket of fried Crappie, and no better adversary than a Volunteer State Tom Turkey. These majestic birds can be found in all their glory in the Spring of the year when old man winter loosens his grip just a little, the first signs of spring take root, the snow begins to melt, and hibernating critters begin to stir; no longer the victims of a long winters slumber. At this time, the little Brookies in the creeks methodically rise to the first Mayfly hatch of the year and thunderous gobbles can be heard from every ridge top. It's spring time in East Tennessee; a turkey hunters dream!
Mature male turkeys, known as Toms or Long Beards to those of us in the hunting ilk, are known to gobble throughout the year but, researchers don't know why they gobble in the fall and winter. Although, they think it may be a display of dominance or the announcement of a claim on territory. I, for one, think they do it simply because they feel good. Either way, even though they periodically make their presence known during the cold months of fall and winter, it is during the warmer spring months that they begin their crescendo of mating calls that so many turkey hunters long to hear.
But, Turkey hunting in the mountains isn't easy. First, just getting from point A to point B can be a workout since a turkey hunter in the hills of East Tennessee can reach elevations of over 3,000 feet! Plus, after a long winter of fattening up on Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas leftovers, the first jaunts of a spring turkey hunt can be laborious. Also, the weather can be a big challenge when hunting the mountains. However, unlike low country storms, these mountain squalls can roll up on you unseen and bring everything from snow to tornadoes. In fact, I once watched it snow on the ridge across from me as it blanketed the valley below and, all the while, the sun shined right in my face and the birds on my side of the ridge continued to gobble their fool heads off; while the birds in the weather shut down.
If unpredictable weather and the potential for extreme exhaustion aren't enough, knowing that most of the turkeys at elevation are able to watch for danger at long distances should definitely influence your hunting style. You see, wild turkeys in the mountains generally roost at the top of the ridges nearest to the peak. There, they can look down on their adversaries from great distances as hunters approach. Thus, doing your homework and knowing where to set-up in the inky blackness of night are important steps to hunting hill-country birds until the leaves come out.
Also, it is important to be aware that there are two, distinct, periods to the Turkey season in East Tennessee. First there is the off season when the leaves are just starting to grow but have not filled in yet. It can still be very cold in this part of the season and the birds can be hard to hunt. The second half of the season, or the on season, is when the leaves have grown out and visibility drastically drops. During this part of the season, the hunter has a lot more concealment and it is much easier to move around unseen and to hide. However, hunting wise old mountain Long Beards during the off part of the season can be very difficult. Not only are you dealing with henned up birds, but you are also hampered by the necessity of sitting absolutely still for hours on end, turkeys being the visual critters they are, make the idea of sneaking up on them or even making a move in their general direction pretty near impossible. Thus, because of the difficulties of hunting in the early season, I advise most novice, spring-time, adventurers to wait until the leaves start to grow so you don't end up educating the whole flock about your presence.
But, with all the hardship and tribulations of the first part of the season stored away, the second part of the spring turkey hunting season can be fantastic! With warmer weather and birds that are easier to get close to, your chances of bagging a true monarch of the mountains goes way up. Getting to high ground and calling to birds on their level or slightly above is the ticket to success. Remember, wild turkeys don't like walking downhill. Instead, they prefer to fly down and walk up. So, remember this when you are setting up; never call up to turkeys. Also, if you find yourself below a saddle or ridge where a bird is hanging out for extended periods of time, don't try to move on him because you have found a strut zone where that bird is comfortable and where he calls to hens. Instead, take the time to jot down the location either on a map, GPS, or in your mind. Then, remember where his strut zone is and beat him there later on in the season. It is a heck of a lot easier to call birds into gun range if you are already sitting where they want to be!
As with any type of turkey hunting, intimate knowledge of the land is the most important tool a hill country hunter can have. So, take the time to study the area you are going to hunt and make notes of any logging roads or openings in the hard woods. These can be great places to intercept old Toms as they are looking for hens. When you do head up on the mountain in search of North Americas great game bird, consider packing a fly rod. That way, if that old Tom gives you the slip, Brookies on dry flies will surely cure what ails you.