How To

Strategies for Hunting Public Land Turkeys

Scott Ellis Turkey Hunting

The spring gobbler is without a doubt one of the most sought after game animals in North America. Turkey hunters and the turkey hunting industry has boomed in recent years with the advent of filmed hunts. It has become one of the fastest-growing sports and for good reason. The wild turkey’s gobble will inflict such an addiction that it will leave the hunter in a frenzy, anticipating the next time they can get in the woods for more.

Another reason for its huge popularity is that most states offer plenty of acreage to hunt that do not require a quota. Simply purchase your license (along with a state land permit) and you can begin your journey. Public land is in great abundance but with abundant land comes other hunters. Remember there are several variables that you do not have control over which may hinder your hunt–mainly other hunters. Here are some guidelines that may aid you in pursuit of your public land gobbler.

Scouting

As with any other type of hunting, the key to consistent success is scouting. Take the time to learn the land you are attempting to hunt. Use of topographical maps can pay dividends. Begin your scouting as early as possible, generally at the start of the gobbling season. I would highly recommend to try to locate birds as far from the beaten path as possible. The easier the access, the more chance another hunter is going to spoil your hunt. A GPS unit is worth its weight in gold when hunting public property. It will allow you to map your route in and out of your “honey holes.” If decent paths are available, a bicycle will also allow you to cover a lot of ground with speed and minimal noise. Keep in mind most public land hunters will not travel far from their vehicles, leaving vast expanses of timber available for the taking.

Pick an area that you feel will sustain a decent population of birds and start your day with some basic owl hooting and crow calling. Document the places you’ve heard birds respond with little dots on your map. Try to relocate those same birds on other scouting trips to verify the birds are consistent in their roosting areas. Always have a minimum of three to five birds located so that you have options if your area has been flooded by hunters. If you’ve done your homework and have multiple birds located in places the average hunter will not travel to, it will definitely increase your odds of having a quality hunt. Also keep mental notes of the birds and their patterns while your hunting. This will definitely increase your odds late in the season if the toms become less vocal.

Searching for turkey sign is also going to play a key role in your scouting. The mornings you have chosen to scout may not have been a period the birds were gobbling well. Do not discard the area just because you have not heard any vocalizing. Scour the area for tracks, strut marks, scratching, droppings, and feathers. Also factor in food sources and water. Be aware of burned areas that hold insects and oak hammocks that may still yield acorns on the ground. Fields and more open woods will often hold turkeys more so than thick areas. Turkeys will travel the path of least resistance. It also allows them to utilize their best means of defense–their eyesight.

Phases of the season

If your places to hunt are limited and your season will consist of only hunting public land, your strategies will change with the progression of the season. There are a few simple techniques to follow throughout the season.

Early season is of course going to be your best bet due to lack of hunting pressure. This will allow you to call more freely and engage the bird without the possibility of the gobbler already being called in and spooked. Hopefully you’ve been successful at finding birds away from the normal areas that are frequented by other hunters. Now is your time to call more often and with intensity. This is going to be your best chance to hammer him with more aggressive cutting and yelping to try and seal the deal. Just remember: only call him as much as he needs to hear. Once he is fired up and on his way, quiet down. You do not want to him to gobble every breath as he may attract other hunters.

Mid-season will hinge on the amount of pressure your “honey holes” have received. Even if you’ve have found birds in places off the beaten path, they aren’t immune to hunting. But a little pressure is definitely going to up your odds versus a heavily pressured area. The gobblers should still be somewhat susceptible to the lure of a call, although I would tone it down. You may encounter some of your normal problems with mid-season gobblers, that being a gobbler with hens. Do not fret, the hens will soon begin to nest, rendering him more call-receptive. If you are consistently working him with no luck, remain persistent but do not apply too much pressure. If he is hanging up on you, just back out and leave him to try another day. Do not hunt him too aggressively, as you may eventually make a mistake and spook him. Know when he has won, accept the defeat and “live to fight another day.” If all else fails, attempt to pattern him after fly-down and position yourself in the areas he is frequenting. Putting yourself in his path with some very sparing calling can yield success.

Late season will sometimes offer great hunting and sometimes offer poor hunting with little gobbling. There are two possible scenarios.

One, there are gobblers still looking for hens and most of the hens have already bred. Therefore, you may encounter a new bird on the block or just find that the tom you were hunting is hot to trot and ready for action. If you draw a response, just assume that he has heard a lot of calling throughout the season and start soft and subtle with him. If he begins working in, just continue to give him the soft stuff–two to three note yelps, purring and clucking. If he needs a little more coaxing, give him a little cutting mixed with some excited yelping.

The other scenario is that the birds are nearly bred out and don’t have much interest in any hen sounds because they have been hunted all season. They then become silent. Here I would rely on the scouting and patterning you made note of while hunting throughout the season and in your preseason scouting. It may come down to you knowing where he is headed after he flies down. Set up on that route and wait. Also, any strut zones you may have observed them using throughout the season can prove productive. Extreme situations call for extreme measures. Sometimes calling the bird simply will not get the job done.

Safety

I cannot emphasize how important it is to be completely aware of your surroundings on public land. There is always going to be a chance that “Joe turkey hunter” is going to be in your area. One of my main points is to take great effort in finding places less used by hunters but there’s always that chance that someone else has that same idea.

Unfortunately some hunters will stalk turkey sounds. These are the people that are most dangerous. If you are watching a hunter slip into your set up, sit motionless and get his attention in a loud clear voice, “HEY!” Do not wave your hat or move your arms. You do not want him to key in on movement. Some hunters will shoot first, ask questions later. Also be very careful when employing decoys. Amazingly enough some hunters cannot distinguish the difference between live birds and the “fake” version.

Another good idea is to purchase some type of bird bag in blaze orange to pack your bird out of the woods after your hunt. Many hunters have been shot or shot at while carrying their bird over their shoulder after a successful hunt. I know, you’re saying “how could that be?” Well friends, it is what it is. In saying that, there are a lot of hunters in the woods these days that have learned their hunting from television shows. They have not been taught proper safety and ethics. If you know someone that is interested in the sport of hunting take the time to give them some basic knowledge and safety guidelines to follow. Who knows, you could be saving a life down the road.

In closing, just remember be safe and be ethical. If you hear another hunter working a bird do not ruin his chance at a great opportunity. It can also be very dangerous. Do your best to distance yourself from the other hunters and it will pay dividends down the road.

Image courtesy Scott Ellis

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