Well before daylight on the opening morning of turkey season a convoy of pickup trucks already occupied just about every back road, dirt trail, and pull-off. Undoubtedly, the pre-dawn silence was about to be broken by a chorus of deep-throated hoots, whiney yelps, and intense fly-down cackles. Many of the gobblers within earshot were probably going to be bumped, thumped, or shot at during the first few hours. However, I still felt confident about my chances of punching a tag from this heavily pressured tract of public land in southeastern Kentucky.
It was an extremely long hike down the sloping hardwood ridge that dropped into the flat river-bottom country of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Upon reaching the bottom, I quickly scratched out the loose sticks and leaves beneath a smooth barked beech tree and sat down. My first soft series of sleepy tree yelps triggered an aggressive response from a fired-up longbeard that was roosted on the next ridge over.
There was barely enough shooting light to see when a heavy thud hit the ground about 50 yards to my left. The bird gobbled twice before breaking into a steady drumming sequence that seemed to make the woods rumble all around me.
A few muffled yelps from my mouth call coaxed the swelled-up butterball right down my gun barrel. One deep breathe and a gentle squeeze of the trigger sent a storm of No. 5 shot screaming toward the gobbler’s brightly colored head. The echoing shotgun blast knocked my longbeard into the dirt and caused at least two more mouthy birds to gobble off in the distance.
Hunts like this is exactly why I love chasing gobblers across the seemingly endless acres of heavily wooded land that make up the Bluegrass State’s Daniel Boone NF.
With that being said, let’s take an in-depth look at this public-land hotspot and breakdown some strategies that will enable you to punch all of your tags there this spring.
As you may have already heard, the turkey tele-check totals recorded during the 2010 spring season shattered all previous statewide harvest figures. Hunters across the commonwealth bagged more than 36,000 birds in the spring. With each passing season, it seems the turkey hunting in our state just keeps getting better.
Gobbling longbeards appear to be popping up on every corner of the state and most hunters don’t have to travel very far anymore to find a fired-up "thunder chicken." In fact, there is a really good chance that a primetime public-land hunting hotspot is located within a short drive from your home. Consequently, hunters busted gobblers on nearly 100 different public-land hunting locations in Kentucky last season alone.
Our state contains five separate regions that are packed full of public-land hunting grounds and wildlife management areas. Many of these tracts of land are intensely managed for wildlife and are absolutely loaded with turkeys. Funds from hunting and fishing license sales have been used to pay for wildlife management programs on more than 70 percent of these areas. The Bluegrass State currently has 1,602, 978 acres of public land that offers some top-notch turkey hunting opportunities.
According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the top five public-land turkey hunting areas during the 2010 spring season were the Daniel Boone NF, Peabody WMA, Lake Cumberland WMA, Taylorsville WMA, and Beaver Creek WMA.
All of these locations are capable of holding and sustaining solid numbers of turkeys. The right combination of cover and consistent food sources allow flocks to flourish throughout these areas, which helps create a target rich environment for hunters. These same locations should be at the top of your turkey-hunting list, because each one is expected to be red-hot again this season.
However, you really owe it to yourself to check out Kentucky’s top-ranked public-land hunting destination. Once again the Daniel Boone NF led the entire state in total turkey harvest. This has been a recurring fact in the Bluegrass State and all pre-season indicators are pointing toward another productive spring. The KDFWR strongly feels that solid hatch reports from the area and two straight years of good mast production will help produce excellent hunting opportunities again this April.
DANIEL BOONE NF
Over the years, the Daniel Boone NF has consistently yielded impressive harvest figures season after season. This vast public-land hunting destination encompasses more than 700,000 acres of prime longbeard habitat that stretches across 21 separate counties. Here hunters find a variety of terrain consisting of hardwood timber stands, steep mountain ridges, wildlife openings, and some relatively flat bottomland along the numerous creeks and rivers that cut across landscape.
The turkey hunting can be action-packed and intense throughout this heavily wooded region. According to Steven Dobey, the wildlife program coordinator for KDFWR, several key factors are responsible for making the Daniel Boone NF a top harvest location.
"The relatively large size of this area provides turkeys with abundant and productive habitat, Dobey explained. "Turkeys have direct access to good brood rearing cover, roosting sites, and a variety of food sources. There is more than enough room for flocks to grow and expand here, which helps produce consistently high harvest numbers. The overwhelming size of the national forest also gives hunters plenty of space to spread out and chase longbeards."
The Daniel Boone NF and many of the other public-land hunting destinations across the commonwealth are crammed full of gobbling longbeards. On the other hand, this does not mean that punching a tag is going to be easy. Tangling with highly pressured gobblers that probably know the name brands of the calls you’re using can be extremely hard to handle. This is exactly why you need to hit the woods with a six-step game plan that enables you to beat the competition. The following steps should enable you to fill all of your tags from the national forest or any other public-land hunting location this season.
Utilize High-Tech Scouting Tactics
When dealing with hunting pressure and stubborn longbeards, you really need to take your scouting techniques to a whole new level. Large tracts of land like the Daniel Boone NF can be difficult to scout and figure out.
In order to cover more ground, study topographic maps and aerial photos to pinpoint prime locations that a
re off the beaten path. Next, hang a series of trail-cameras near potential roost sites, food sources, dust bowls, and strut zones. This strategy allows you to quickly find gobblers and accurately piece together daily patterns. Knowing exactly when and where a longbeard is going to be can give you an edge over every other hunter in the woods.
Avoid Easy Access Areas
You really need to stay away from areas that offer quick and easy access when hunting public land. These locations are likely to be bombarded by other hunters throughout the entire season. In addition, many hunters also focus on areas where turkeys have routinely been seen from major roadways.
After years of chasing gobblers on public land, I have learned to avoid these high-traffic areas. In most cases, focusing on isolated pockets that are out of the way can place you right in the middle of the action. It’s amazing how creeks, steep terrain, cliffs, or thickets hold large numbers of birds, while keeping most hunters out. Hunting these secluded sanctuaries can be all it takes to connect with a wary public-land longbeard this spring.
Find Alternate Routes
Sometimes finding a backdoor route or alternate entry point to heavily pressured areas helps keep you one step ahead of other hunters. When hunting the Daniel Boone NF, utilizing a small boat or canoe to access hard to reach locations can be the trick to punching your tag.
Another option is to simply grab a mountain bike and peddle your way to a longbeard’s safe haven on the many cleared paths and designated trails that cut across large sections of the forest. Off-road vehicles are banned from most of these areas, which makes the mountain bike a very valuable public-land hunting tool.
Locate Multiple Longbeards
My late-grandfather always used to tell me not to put all of my eggs in one basket. Ironically, this life lesson can also be applied to hunting tough public-land turkeys during the spring of the year.
Basically, you better have a backup plan in place when hunting any area that receives is open to the public.
The key is to pinpoint multiple gobblers and several locations within a short drive of your primary hunting area. Being able to quickly switch hunting spots can save your trip when things start getting crowded or a particular gobbler is refusing to cooperate.
Mix Things Up
The majority of public-land hunting pressure takes place during the early morning hours of the weekend. Many hunters target birds right off the roost and are out of the woods well before noon.
This creates a window of opportunity for savvy public-land hunters who know how to exploit call-shy longbeards in the middle of the day. Henned-up gobblers often lose the ladies during the mid-morning hours and can become extremely vulnerable. Secondly, hunting pressure also can break gobblers away from the hens. With both scenarios, a hunter is likely to connect with a lonely mid-day longbeard that is desperately looking for some companionship.
Go Soft & Subtle
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest obstacles to contend with on public land is dealing with call-shy gobblers. By the second day of season, most of these birds have heard and judged all of the local calling talent.
This is when you need to break away from the pack and dramatically tone down your calling. Soft and sweet sounding yelps coupled with muffled clucks and purrs can really crank up the action on a slow day.
With this strategy, I like to push the envelope and setup extremely close to pressured gobblers. Getting inside of a turkey’s comfort zone and using subtle calling techniques can coax a swelled-up gobbler right into the back of your hunting vest.
Without question, the state of Kentucky has some of the best turkey hunting and public-land access that can be found anywhere. Also, last year’s record setting season gave the commonwealth the No. 1 harvest among surrounding states based on turkeys taken per square mile.
Good news like this coupled with a favorable statewide spring harvest prediction should make you want to grab your shotgun and calls right now.
This season be sure to check out the Daniel Boone National Forest and utilize the deadly public-land hunting strategies covered here to bag your toms.