I’m seriously asking: Did your turkey season suck? If no, then this piece isn’t for you. But say yes. Please, say yes. I really don’t want to be the only one.
My third spring turkey season has come and gone, and for the second season in a row I’ve got nothing to show for it. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I hunted more days than any of my previous spring seasons and I was on a bird (or birds) every day I went out except for one.
I spent opening day over three hours from home, hunting some private land near Albany with a buddy. That’s the day I learned what it means for toms to be henned up. We spent all morning chasing two gobblers that would respond to our calls but wouldn’t commit to our decoy. We were constantly on the move, and I swear I lost a couple pounds.
I also learned that toms don’t naturally make their way to hens. Instead, they often expect us “hens” to go to them. Aren’t the ladies supposed to play hard to get? I wish someone would’ve let me in on that little secret last year. I wouldn’t have felt so bad about how my first solo season turned out.
But my worst experience this season was the day I neither heard nor saw a single turkey. My buddy and I were climbing a mountain to get to a spot where I knew there were turkeys. We’d met super early to beat any other hunters there. But as we made it halfway up the mountain, we were stopped dead in our tracks as we saw two other hunters ahead of us. I was pissed. Out of respect for their hunt, we did an about-face and headed back down the mountain. And wouldn’t you know it? As we were heading down, we came across a third hunter. Sheesh—talk about hunting pressure.
The rest of my season consisted of me calling, the toms gobbling in response, and them being smart enough to stay just out of harm’s way. My lack of success was frustrating. But even worse was seeing the success of my fellow hunters on social media. The way people were posting pics, you’d think turkeys were dropping in their laps.
I did find some comfort in knowing there was a small contingent of folks having the same experiences I was. (What, never heard the saying “misery loves company”?) Even OG’s in the hunting community, like Cuz Strickland, weren’t having the success they were accustomed to. You can hear Cuz on his own podcast say that he was ending his season early because the birds just weren’t gobbling for him. Although Cuz didn’t hunt anywhere near New York, I heard the same complaints from hunters in my area.
Don’t let my bitterness fool you. I really did have a great time each day I hunted. But while turkey hunting is fun, it’s still difficult. This difficulty is easily reflected in the success rates of the past seasons here in New York. In 2021, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimated that 80,000 spring turkey hunters made it into the woods. The DEC also estimated that only 16,982 birds were harvested in 2021. Now, I hated word problems as a kid. (Who am I kidding? I still do.) But let’s do some math.
Let’s say that the nearly 17,000 turkeys killed in New York were taken exclusively by hunters who filled their two tags (the DEC doesn’t specify). That would mean that 8,491 0f 80,000 hunters were successful. That’s a success rate of about 11 percent.
But let’s say I wanted to be generous and spread the wealth. So let’s assume each of those harvested gobblers went to a different hunter. That only bumps the success rate of New York spring turkey hunters to 21 percent. I know: These numbers are not impressive. That means only one in five turkey hunters were successful in New York last spring. I was not one of those hunters.
We don’t have the numbers in yet for the 2022 season, but 2021 is still illuminating. That low success rate would tell you to just keep your butt at home and save yourself the headache. But 80,000 people giving it a try signals just how much fun you might have.
I’d be wrong if I didn’t acknowledge one other factor in turkey hunting, and that’s the turkey population. As I mentioned, some hunters said they hadn’t even heard any gobbles. To that I say, it’s difficult to hear something that’s not there. (Actually, that’s not true—I can hear turkeys gobbling right now. My wife thinks I have a problem.)
After the state experienced poor poult production in 2019, the DEC wasn’t surprised to see lower success rates in 2021. The 2021 spring turkey harvest is a staggering 21 percent decrease from spring 2020. Yes, there were some Covid-19 factors that the DEC may have caused a higher harvest in 2020, but the 2021 numbers are also below the 10-year average spring take, which averages about 19,600 birds annually.
As a spring turkey hunter—and a bowhunter, no less—I know the odds are forever stacked against me. Just as they will be stacked against you, unless you’re lucky to live in some magical state with a success rate of 50 percent or more.
But since I’m still relatively new to this, I honestly don’t have to kill a bird every year. I killed my first turkey two years ago and I’m still riding that high. I’ve learned how to roost gobblers. I’ve learned how to turkey call. I’ve learned about the nature of turkeys in the spring. I know it’s going to take more patience, a little cooperation from the birds, and some more time—but hopefully not too much more time.