Ontario Spring Turkey 2016
In the spring of 2016, I was offered the wonderful opportunity to hunt my first Canadian gobbler in Southern Ontario, and I couldn’t accept quickly enough. My family and I are now obsessed with hunting wild turkeys and it has become an annual passion to chase them south of the border in Maine, but this would be my first chance at one north of the border.
We have featured hunts, videos, and pictures of my friend Ray before on Wilderness Obsession. He lives in Newfoundland now, but lived much of his life in Southern Ontario, and he would be my host for this hunt through his connections he made there. A man after our own hearts, he is one of the few people I have found who is as outdoor obsessed as I am. Spending time with him is always fun regardless of the outcome so I was ecstatic for the chance to share the woods with him for an Ontario turkey hunt!
The wild turkey is so difficult to hunt (ethically) that in many states and provinces they are considered a big game animal. The communication between the bird and the hunter is easy to liken to that of moose or waterfowl hunting. Much has been written on our site about the tremendous advantages in eyesight and hearing that a wild turkey has over the hunter, and as some hunters have put it, “if they had a sense of smell we wouldn’t kill any of them.”
The term “gobbler” signifies the gobbling sound made by a male turkey that many of us are aware is made by their domestic cousins on farms. In Ontario, the spring turkey harvest is limited to bearded birds, which are mostly male. The beard on a turkey is actually special feathers that protrude from the chest, and it is one of the easiest ways to tell a male from a female (although there are rare bearded female turkeys, much like an antlered female deer). Hunting a spring bird is done during the breeding season, so the goal is to fool the gobbler into thinking you are a very interested hen, looking for love and bring them into shooting range.
Typically a spring hunter tries to scout and locate birds and get them to answer a bit off the roost. Wild turkeys fly up to the top of trees to stay in there overnight, protecting them from threats and predators in the darkness. Attracting a gobbler happens slightly before first light as a hunter calls and attempts to draw in that bird before he gets paired up with a female. Mistakes are frequent as they are a very wary bird, and if they get together with a hen before you can convince them to come, it is very hard to draw them away.
My preparation for hitting the Ontario woods started months before the hunt was to happen. In Ontario, turkey hunters up until changes in the fall of 2016 were required to complete a turkey hunting safety course before they were able to purchase a license. The course was administered by outdoor organization OFAH (Ontario Federation of Fishers and Hunters) and was filled with good information. Having previously hunted in the United States, the course served as a simple refresher, but it was a necessity to pass in order to hunt last year. (see notes below – this course is no longer required)
The course was actually offered through a study at home option, and non-residents could then schedule an exam remotely via skype with a certified examiner. It seemed to be a well-run and beneficial program, but the problem came when I attempted to buy an Ontario Outdoors Card remotely. This card is required to purchase hunting/fishing licenses. Although the fishing-only card is able to be purchased remotely, you must appear in-province at a licensed vendor in order to purchase the hunting version, because you need to provide proof of out-of-province training you have done. If I had one suggestion for the province it would be to streamline this process, and perhaps allow non-residents to fax proof of their training to MNR in order to purchase the card without having to appear. This card (valid for three years) can be renewed remotely but not purchased. The requirement to appear forced me to drive through the night to arrive early to avoid missing my Monday morning hunt while waiting in line to buy my Outdoor Card and license. There is definite room for improvement there. I would recommend anyone who is looking to possibly go to Ontario to hunt in future years to purchase their outdoor card in advance if you should visit the province…
After purchasing my license early in the day, I was scheduled to meet my friend Ray for supper after 7pm. In the spring turkey season in Ontario, hunters can pursue turkeys only until 7pm. The birds normally would head to the roosts shortly after that anyways. Ray is a great friend who lives in Newfoundland but used to reside in Southern Ontario where we would be hunting. You can read about me spending a week of his moose season with him in NL here, and watch the video here. Ray arranged my entire hunt and after hunting and calling turkeys for nearly 30 years himself, he wanted to call for me and give me the opportunity to shoot my first spring gobbler. Interestingly, Ray used to judge calling contests for the NWTF years ago when he lived in Ontario, so he definitely isn’t a newcomer to turkey hunting. I would be spending three full days hunting wild turkeys and staying outside Kemptville hosted by my new friends Danny and Dianne, local farmers and obsessed deer hunters who don’t happen to hunt turkeys.
The first day started out rising at 3:30am and heading out to the woods shortly after 4am to set up a ground blind for the day’s hunt. Ray has permission to hunt on several different properties that he has scouted and hunted for years, knowing the area and the birds that are here. The first morning brought chilly temperatures and a thick fog for much of the morning. As the sun rose we were disappointed to hear no gobbling, but it wasn’t long before numerous birds came in to us. We had six hens (females) and two jakes (immature males) come in through the morning but none made a sound, perhaps due to the foggy conditions. The two jakes didn’t respond much to our calling and didn’t get any closer than 64 yards, which is just too far for an ethical shot from my 12g shotgun so I let them go.
One of the biggest pieces of advice we can give any turkey hunter is to be sure to pattern your shotgun so you know your ethical range with the shotgun with the ammunition and choke that you intend to use. Patterning typically involves purchasing a target of a turkey, and testing the performance from various ranges and counting how many pellets are in vital areas to determine your lethal range. Performance can vary greatly from one ammunition to another depending on the choke that you use, so it is important to be aware! Nobody likes wounding any animal and not recovering it, so this is essential.
As the fog burned off, we spent the afternoon of day one at another location where we had three different birds gobbling back at us from different directions, but couldn’t convince any of them to come in. One seemed to circle us for a bit but never got closer, so our feeling was that they were likely already paired up with hens. Changing positions or tactics didn’t improve our results and day one ended without a bird.
We set out to the same property for day two, only to be met by even colder temperatures. Temperatures were below freezing to start the morning. On this hunt, we had several birds gobbling on the roost, and they seemed excited as they flew down after, filling us with promise. Shortly after there were hens answering us as well, as if to insist that their gobblers stayed by their side. Before seeing any birds come out however, an eerie silence set over everything as an incredibly thick fog blew in, to such thickness that we could barely see the decoys we had set up 10 yards ahead of us! One of the fields around us had large flocks of Canada geese in there, and even they didn’t make a sound. We didn’t hear another sound from a turkey and calling didn’t result in anything at all. We wouldn’t have been able to see a turkey or other animal cross in front of us. It would be interesting to find out what the reaction is of a wild turkey to the thick fog, but our thought is that they likely quieted down and hunkered down to avoid being in danger of predators. My friend Ray said in nearly 30 years he had never seen a morning like this in Spring turkey hunting. Eventually we decided to move on and headed in to town for a coffee to wait for the fog to burn off. The afternoon became very hot, and although we saw a couple of hens and had one answer from a gobbler, the day also ended without a harvest.
Day three just seemed like it was going to be different right from the start. Finally, we had a clear morning, and had gobbling off the roost. It wasn’t long before action started and we had numerous hens cross the field, but we were still waiting to see a male. As three hens fed in the field in front of us, two jakes arrived to spend time with them. We watched as they did some strutting to try to impress the females to no avail. Unfortunately, with three females to draw their attention, they didn’t come to investigate our calling or decoys. They did plenty of looking our way but didn’t come within range.
We moved on to a new spot after they moved away, and this would be our first time there. We had just received permission to hunt there, and although we knew there were birds in the area we hadn’t been there. We headed over and quickly found that it was a great looking area with lots of open hardwoods, tons of sign, and lots of promise. We set up a single decoy in a good looking area and sat on the ground with our backs against an enormous downed dead tree to break up our outline and offer a measure of safety. We waited and Ray called for around 30 minutes, experiencing a great visit from a whitetail doe and fawn who paid little attention to us and came within 15 yards of us. We had just whispered about possibly moving on a bit when we heard a response… a faint gobble in answer to Ray!
Within a minute we heard a second gobble that was much closer, giving a sign that the bird was on his way. Ray whispered in my ear that this was going to happen, and I slid up my knee into position to provide a rest for my gun. I could see the excited gobbler come into view at about 55 yards, and I was already set for him. His waddle (the loose skin just above where the neck turns to feathers) was engorged with blood and bright red and his head was brilliant blue and white. His iridescent feathers glistened in the sun, and he was moving with purpose. As he moved within 30 yards he gave a final gobble and I took my shot, which found it’s mark and I had my first Spring Gobbler! He was a big jake, with a very long beard for an immature bird.
I have had other experiences in the spring turkey woods in Maine, but there is always something special about a first experience! I will always remember vividly my first spring gobbler, and always be thankful for my friend Ray who hosted and called for me. Next time, he says I can do the calling and he will coach me… something I look forward to!
If you have never tried wild turkey hunting, I would encourage any obsessed hunters out there to give it a chance. If you have opportunity to learn from a veteran it will be much easier for you, as they have been beaten by many wily gobblers and learned from their mistakes. Most importantly, stay safe and try to take in the wonders of the outdoors and this amazing bird… appreciating every minute spent outdoors!
NOTE – as mentioned in the article, for spring 2017, the wild turkey hunters safety course has been incorporated into the Ontario hunters safety course. As of this spring, neither residents nor non-residents will have to take the online turkey specific course in order to hunt wild turkeys in Ontario. Please be sure to be informed of the regulation in the region you wish to hunt as an absolute necessity.
Contact us and let us know!