My son and I were out trolling, walking slowly, stopping every hundred yards or so to rap on a box call in hopes of eliciting a shock gobble. “Was that …?” I said, turning quickly toward my accomplice. He responded with a tentative nod. “I think so.”

I hit the box again and got a confirming gobble. “That way,” I pointed, and we raced off to cut the distance.

A hundred yards later, I rapped out some sharp cuts, and gobbles boomed from just over the nearby rise. “Set up over there,” I told Ben, pointing to a pair of hemlocks joined at the base. He plopped down and propped up his gun while I settled in at his shoulder.

I switched to a softer mouth call and was answered immediately by a thunderous volley of gobbles. “Point your left shoulder that way,” I urged in a loud whisper, “and get ready. They’re close now.” The next gobble came from our left so Ben slowly shifted his gun barrel toward that direction.

He saw them before I did. Three gobblers topped the rise and headed straight toward us, the first in full strut. The sun in our eyes made it difficult to tell if they were toms or jakes. An experienced ear can usually tell the difference between a jake and a tom by the gobbling. The gobbling I heard sounded like a mature bird, but you can get fooled. And I’d heard jake yelps. I wanted to be sure, and so did my son.

The birds were well within range before I confirmed. “They’re jakes. Take one if you want.” I waited, and no shot came. Once I realized he wasn’t going to shoot, I decided to have some fun. With some sharp cutting and purring, I got the trio fired up to the point they all gobbled loudly at my every call. When they finally drifted off we lowered our face masks and smiled broadly at each other. “That was cool,” Ben said. I had to agree.

Jakes are the spikehorns of the turkey world. Born the previous spring, they lack the true diagnostic characteristics of a mature bird, instead sporting stubby, 4- to 6-inch beards on their chests and blunt hobnail spurs on their scaly legs. Like adolescent boys, they have the desire but lack the experience needed to charm the ladies. They also seem more naive and curious and less wary than their older, longer-bearded and longer-spurred counterparts, often coming to the call eagerly.

In every state but one — Mississippi — they’re fair game, so it’s the hunter’s choice, which I think is a good thing. Jakes are great confidence builders for young or new turkey hunters. They also eat better than a rutted-out old limbhanger.

I’ve also noticed New England jakes are lot more precocious than those from the roughly two dozen other states I’ve hunted. They gobble aggressively, just like a 2-year-old, then strut boldly into the decoys, providing all the sights, sounds and thrills that make for a great turkey hunt.

Despite this, many hunters practice voluntary restraint. Even folks who wouldn’t hesitate to drop the hammer on a spike buck in the fall adopt a “let them go so they can grow” philosophy, opting to pass up a jake in hopes of bagging a longbeard. While I would never criticize anyone for taking a legal bird, I tip my camo hat in respect to those who elect to hold out for a longbeard.

And even if their restraint is not rewarded this year, it could pay off in spades next spring.

Last year’s two-bird limit took a heavy toll on longbeards, so they’re a little sparse this spring. Thanks to decent hatching conditions, though, there are plenty of jakes, which definitely bodes well for the future. If left to grow, those that survive will all be long 2-year-olds next spring. The bread and butter of turkey hunting, they sport the long beards and spurs of a mature bird but haven’t quite developed the caginess of an older bird. When the mood is right, they can be almost as naive as jakes and quite willing to come to the call, which can be a real confidence booster, particularly for a novice hunter.

 

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

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