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June 2012
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Double crunch time

By Steve Vantreese

Turkeys are moving shallow to spawn and crappie are gobbling.

Check that. It's the other way around. But in a way, it's sort of interchangeable.

These very different species exhibit very different behaviors. You'd expect that since one is an upland bird and the other is a fish. Neither could survive where the other is found.

This, however, is a red-letter period for both wild turkeys and crappie. It's also a magical time for both turkey hunters and crappie anglers. It's about this time every year when both turkeys and crappie take important steps to see that their species are perpetuated â “ they are focused on reproduction.

As it so happens, the spring turkey hunting season is set now to allow hunters to take advantage of the reproductive behavior by tom turkeys. Somewhat similar, most crappie anglers â “ who can fish year-round â “ consider this the prime time to pursue crappie because of where they go and what they do to make baby crappie now.

The common thread is that the once-yearly breeding throes of both turkeys and crappie avail these birds and fish to increased harvest by pursuing sportsmen and women.

The spring turkey hunting season is set now â “ April 12-May 4 in Kentucky this year â “ to put hunters out there at the most beneficial time. Crappie fishermen can go when they want, but what's happening nowadays makes this the period that they relish.

For turkeys, this reproductive mandate of nature drives the males to seek out willing female mating partners. Hormones raging through the boy birds (triggered by the length of daylight and to some extent by spring temperatures) prompt them to advertise and show off. The toms make their namesake gobble calls to air their availability, and they huff, puff and strut to display what big, fine, virile fellows they are.

The males' calls to attract female attention, their gobbling, is a primary element in turkey hunting. Hunters very much want to hear a tom gobble, using the vocal cue to locate him and to move fairly close, set up and then attempt to call him to the gun.

Hunters mimic hen calls to attract the gobblers. That's almost a direct reverse of the way nature likes to do it: More often, hens come to the gobblers' calls. Those hunters who are able to frustrate and entice an impatient gobbler, however, can turn the tables and lure him to replicated hen talk.

It's a pretty good trick when you can do that, but it's one that almost never works outside of the breeding season. That's why the turkey season is set at this time of the year. Gobblers are gobbling far more now, and often during this period they will go to yelps, clucks and other vocalizations of the hens.

Nobody hears crappie vocalizations. I don't believe there are any. But this same period of turkey talk is when most crappie fishing efforts are made because the fish move shallower. Crappie spawning is triggered mostly by water temperatures, the species of black crappie starting the active spawning business when the warming water in the spring hits about 57 to 58 degrees. White crappie wait a bit longer, getting into baby-making when the water reaches about 60 degrees.

Black crappie may spawn as shallow as about 2 or 3 feet deep off shorelines in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. White crappie there are a little more light sensitive and rarely spawn shallower than 3 or 4 feet and often deeper in bays and creeks.

The male crappie moves in first and prepares a nesting site â “ usually a spot around piece of brush or the roots of a remnant stump or some other cover. When the time is right, a male moves back deeper, finds a cooperative female and escorts her back to his love nest. There, she'll release some eggs and the fellow crappie fertilizes them with milt.

The female crappie moves back out, perhaps repeating the process with another male or two. They certainly aren't monogamous. The daddy of a nest stays with the fertilized eggs, guarding them until and for a time after the eggs hatch out tiny fry.

Earlier this week, crappie were in pre-spawn mode, moving shallower with Kentucky-Barkley water temperatures in the mid 50s. The early week cold front likely slowed the progression before a warmer recovery sent temperatures rising again.

The sharp chill inflicted by the front probably put a temporary damper on some turkey gobblers' breeding behavior, but life goes on. If anything, the cold probably retarded the crappie spawn more than turkey breeding festivities.

Crappie again are moving in for spawning, a surge of egg- laying and fertilizing likely to come within the next several days, perhaps delayed but back on track. The peak of turkey courting also may have been slowed somewhat by the chill, but the birds are taking care of business now.

The timing of all this is pretty near standard to what it is every year. And it troubles some folks in a good way: Hunt turkeys? Fish for crappie? Options are complicated when crunch times overlap.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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