By Jeff Johnston, American Hunter
Go ahead and bet your autographed Lynch two-tone that most of the hunting shows don’t film turkey hunts on public land. I’m not writing anything negative about hunting shows or public land, but as long as Sunday night viewers tune in to see Bubba and Co. whack two or three longbeards per segment, public-land hunting is bad for business. Even if you’ve won more calling championships than Ray Eye, most times you visit a well-used public parcel you won’t come back with a gobbler in the sack if you rely solely on the strength of your yelps. That’s because a public-land turkey, a pressured turkey, is a different animal.
Pressured turkeys are tough quarry because they must adapt quickly if they are to survive. I use the term “educated”sparingly. Birds, like all animals, can learn to avoid danger, but they are hardly graduate students who analyze changing information like a Vegas sports bookie. Generally, there are not as many birds on public land—the population is thinned each year—and the ones with an above-average propensity to gobble vigorously and march into the teeth of 12-gauges are quick to be snuffed.
The easy route to success on pressured birds, then, is to find them before the season starts. Get a good idea of where the turkeys roost, where they feed and how they get to and from those points. Scout from a distance, mainly using your feet and ears. When opening day comes around, beat the crowd in, get where you know the birds like to hang out and get out with a bird on your back. In essence, be the culler. If you can do that, you might not need the advice that follows. But if you arrive at the local wildlife management area and can’t find a parking spot—much less a virgin-eared turkey—you’ll need skill, luck and these tips to deliver a bird to the cooker.
1. Rain Is Your Friend
The majority of hunters hate rain more than the turkeys do; after all, birds still have to eat, and for once, they can breed and eat in peace. God made Gore-Tex possible for a reason, and even a raging torrent won’t phase a shotgun pattern of No. 6’s. This is the time to call less and stalk more, since your movements will be cat-like.
2. Ambush Them
Get between a gobbler and where he wants to go. Some pressured birds will actually move away from calls. There is no shame in marching back to the parking lot with a bird draped over your back, even if you bushwhacked him. Ambushing toms actually takes more woodsmanship.
3. Change Your Attitude
Instead of thinking, I’m a failure if I don’t get a bird today, think, I want to hear a bird today or tomorrow so I can get him the next day, the next weekend or next season.
4. Depend On Your Eyes
Even if a gobbler doesn’t answer you, don’t assume he is not there and is not interested. The birds are likely in the same areas, they are just being more cautious. Probe the woods with your eyes, not just your call, before moving to call from a different location.
5. Move Like a Stalking Indian
Don’t just run and gun. Stay in one place longer, listening, looking and calling; when you move, do so with moccasin-like feet.
6. Get In Early, Stay Late
Try to find a place with a decent ratio of turkeys to hunters, and put in time.
7. Have A Backup Plan
When you arrive at your surefire spot and find out that it is five other hunters’ surefire spot, you need an alternate place to go.
8. Hike Long And Far
It’s very tempting to sit down next to the road, but most hunters have that mentality. On public land it is best to hunt the far stuff in the early morning and work your way back to civilization after the other hunters have packed up.
9. Hunt Weekdays
Most hunters work during the week. Promise the boss a Thanksgiving turkey in exchange for a Wednesday off—now there’s real pressure! If you’re the boss, head to the woods on Tuesday morning and trust you’ve hired a competent assistant.
10. Use Hunters To Your Advantage
If you get the feeling most of the hunters are working the same area, the birds definitely do. Go to the opposite area; cover your tracks when you do.
11. Hunt The Thick Stuff
Fields of green and gold look lovely, and it’s tempting to stake your decoy right out in the middle of one, but toms didn’t get to be 3 years old by running to every decoy that pops up in a pretty field. Bury yourself in the deep, dark woods.
12. Be Aggressive Early
On private land you have the luxury of hunting conservatively, then getting more aggressive as the season wanes. On public land do the opposite: During the first few days of the season, call aggressively while covering ground to strike up a gobbler. If someone’s going to bump birds it might as well be you. If you luck into a hot bird, shoot him and consider it a blessing, but if you don’t, at least get a feel for what the turkeys—including the other hunters—are doing.
13. Slow Down After The Initial Blitzkrieg
After a few days of bloodying the birds’ ears with calls they can become wary, so be more conservative with your movements and calls. Loud, telltale, repeated cutting can drive away a spooky gobbler, so try soft, short series of hen yelps and the simple clucks and putts of feeding hens.
14. Don’t Insist On Hearing Gobbles More Than Twice
If you hear a gobble and are reasonably sure which direction it came from, get over there! Otherwise, you might have to get in line.
15. Try A Different Locater Call
Every yahoo in the woods has an owl hooter and a crow call. Sometimes, for some reason beyond this yahoo’s capacity, gobblers respond better to other sounds—like a pileated woodpecker or a howling coyote call.
16. Find Where Not To Go
This is almost as important as the inverse on public land. If a bunch of turkeys are roosted near a creek near the parking lot, then a bunch of hunters are probably roosted under the tree near the creek, near the parking lot; that’s probably a place you shouldn’t go. Instead, circle far around behind the roost and set up in an area that has good turkey sign. The birds might migrate off the roost and right to you.
17. Hunt At Odd Times
Late in the morning—10:30 to noon—after hens have left the gobblers to go to their nests, is a great time to score.
18. Float Your Boat
Hunters don’t do this because most don’t have a boat, but if you do, it makes perfect sense. You can cover a lot of ground, er, water, very silently, and a river bottom is the place pressured turkeys like to roost. When you strike one, park your boat and get him. If you miss him, get back in the boat.
19. Do Odd Things
Instead of hunting the same piece of land near the creek that looks so good, change up on a whim and go to the most unlikely of spots. You’re down to Tip No. 19: What do you have to lose?
20. Do Not Overcall
Pique a tom’s curiosity by calling sparingly on your own terms and refrain from calling much while he’s on the roost. Most people overcall. Most people don’t go home with a public-land turkey. Strive to be different.