Beat the Crowds
Four simple steps to public-land gobblers.
Public-land gobblers know that an overzealous hen is probably packing a 12-gauge. Most fools are culled from the flock when they’re jakes; these high-pressured longbeards are skeptical old rascals who probably comment among themselves about the seductive qualities of box and slate calls. As a result, taking a gobbler out of one of these hard-hunted public forests requires a different set of techniques from those used when hunting lower-pressured, private-land toms. The four steps listed below represent my time-tested approach to scouting and hunting public land. The area illustrated here is a composite of many of the areas I’ve hunted around the country.
1. Scout It Out
Use an Aerial Assault: When I’m planning to hunt a public area I haven’t hunted before, the first thing I do is download aerial photos and topographic maps of the area. You can find topographic maps at www.topozone.com, www.delorme.com and www.maptech. com. One good place for aerial photos is www.terraserver.homeadvisor.msn.com.
I always start by marking the hunter access points on the maps-patterning people is almost as important as patterning turkeys. I look for large islands in swamps, clearings on ridgetops and other difficult-to-access areas that I think turkeys will use.
Seek Isolated Areas: I go for a drive and look for small, out-of-the-way access points. I avoid “drive-up” gobblers. Gobblers that hang near roads attract a lot of visitors. I drive deep into the public area, because many hunters simply don’t have the time to get far off a main road. I also look for isolated areas that may be near roads but not parking areas.
Next, I get out of my truck and seek out areas that ha
ve an obstruction, like a swamp, a deep creek, a tangle of blowdowns or a steep ridge. Search for Sign: Once I’ve found remote areas with obstructions, I go deeper and search for feeding areas. I look for freshly turned leaves, droppings around hardwoods, feathers under roosts and dusting areas in dry sand on dirt roads or on ridgetops. I also look for funnels that may direct a gobbler’s travels. On the map the funnel between the field and the swamp is good, but it’s too close to the parking area. The funnel between the cliff and the swamp is better. It connects roosting and strutting areas and is tough to reach.
In my experience, Osceola-strain birds have no problem wading in shallow water to get to swamp islands, and the Eastern subspecies will fly to roosts over water. In steeper terrain, I seek hardwood ridgetops and saddles, since turkeys, like deer, will travel these routes.
Keep Them Ignorant: After I complete my scouting and the map is marked (as it is here), I stay out of the woods. Birds on WMAs that get spooked a few times become difficult to hunt. On quiet evenings and mornings before the season I find high perches from which to listen for gobblers sounding off.
2. At First Light
The parking area I choose is on the west side near the washed-out road. With hip waders on, I cross the stream and begin the morning by using a locator call and by listening for a gobbler in the roost area east of the swamp. If I don’t get a bird fired up there, I begin moving and calling on the jeep road toward the swamp.
Because gobblers strut where hens can see them from a distance, I travel slowly and keep my eyes open. Strutting areas include open woods with no undergrowth, jeep trails, green patches, clear-cuts and open ridgetops.
If a gobbler does answer me, I avoid making him gobble again. A lot of aggressive calling on public lands, answered by lots of gobbling, will nearly always attract another hunter. I call only enough to keep the bird coming.
If I don’t have any luck calling from the trail to the roost sites on the west end of the swamp, I’ll head into the swamp arouund 8 a.m.
3. Private Strut Zones
Swamp islands and other isolated patches of open cover make great strutting areas. Once I’m near the island, I’ll call softly to see if there is an active bird in the area. If a gobbler answers, I’ll approach the opposite end of the island and look for a good position to set up. If I don’t hear anything, I’ll take a position in the strutting area that I’ve found while scouting. I could stay there for the rest of the morning or I could move on after a few hours.
Hit the Ridge
I don’t believe in a 10 a.m. departure. Hens often leave gobblers mid-morning to sit on their nests and thereby leave toms forlorn. If I become restless I’ll move out of the swamp and up the ridge to the strutting zones on top. Again, I’ll call softly once I get within hearing distance to see if there is an active strutter. At this point I’ll either stay put in one of these strutting areas and call occasionally until the end of legal hunting time or I’ll go back the same way I came in looking for an active bird.