Banking On Bankhead

This rugged patch of national forest in northwest Bama gives up some good gobblers every year. For a successful hunt on this expanse of public land, put these tactics into play. (March 2007)

A key to getting your gobbler at Bankhead: Get off the roadways and strike out into the back country.
Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh.

No matter where you hunt them, eastern wild turkeys are the same bird. They are cagey, wary and sneaky, and they may or may not respond to the best of manmade turkey calls. Unfortunately, the longer the hunting season goes on, the sneakier gobblers get. As hunters learn their habits, the birds are in turn are patterning hunters.

Being a glutton for punishment is a hallmark of spring gobbler hunters, who travel far and wide in their masochistic pursuit of the chance at hearing a gobbler sound off . . . and then hoping the tom will offer a shot. Because I'm guilty of being hopelessly addicted to the blooming of dogwoods and the hooting of barred owls at dawn, part of my sentence in 2006 included hunting at the William B. Bankhead National Forest in northwestern Alabama.

Well into the second day of my hunt, I had been beset by some of the worst luck a hunter can encounter. That included wee-hours thunderstorms complete with golf-ball-sized hail, followed by dawn deluges so saturating there was no choice but to sit them out in the cab of the pickup. Loud noises, especially thunder, can force toms to shock-gobble even during the night. The conditions I was facing probably had the birds cobalt-blue in the face from sounding off, which would go along nicely with their natural war paint of wattle-red and gypsum-white. In turkey hunting parlance, the toms were "gobbled out."

Still, there was nothing else to do but hunt, in spite of the tough conditions. Turkeys also have no choice. They are in the forest all the time. The best philosophy to hunt by is that as long as there is daylight and turkey season is open, you have a chance. I was banking on Bankhead to give me that chance.

Even scouting had been difficult with torrential rains washing away most of the turkey sign. Still, anyone who wants to be successful in springtime Alabama has to play the course as it lies. The tracks I did find were fresh in the soft red clay soil.

Finding a logging road winding away from State Route 33 made passage into the dripping gloom easy once the rain stopped. While much of Bankhead NF is composed of mature timber, it is the places that man's hand has altered that often draw the turkeys. That was obvious along the corridor I followed.

The logging trail, planted partly in wheat and partly in rye and clover, wound for nearly a mile. There were feathers on the ground and hen tracks were left soon after the end of daylight's deluge. If there was a hen around, might there not be a gobbler nearby?

A log deck 30 yards in circumference had once acted as a turnaround for heavy equipment. With clover growing green in the cul-de-sac, it appeared to be the perfect strutting area for a stage-struck gobbler to show off for a hen. To add to its potential, the forest was relatively open for acres in all directions. Selective timber harvest had opened the canopy as well as the forest floor, making perfect habitat for turkeys to collect some sunlight and dry their feathers after enduring the chilly overnight rain.

Burrowing into the overhang of the limbs of an oak tree that had obviously been felled the previous autumn, I began making soft clucks and purrs with several kinds of calls. Glass surface friction calls and diaphragm-style mouth calls were my choices, because wood strikers and boxes' lids would have been rendered mute by any errant drop of water getting on them.

With this game delayed by rain, my opening play began at around 9 a.m. Calling where you have a commanding view with a 300-degree arc of visibility can instill lots of confidence even when the surrounding forest's only response is silence. But hours of silence can wear patience thin.

At Bankhead NF, turkey hunting hours end at noon. I called sporadically, but I mostly watched and waited, occasionally checking my watch to gauge the passing hours as I kept trying to convince myself to keep my eyelids open. At 11:55, I finally dropped my gun from my knees, straightened them to ease the cramps in my thighs, and laid the barrel across my ankle with the muzzle projecting beyond my boot sole.

Whether the gobbler was attracted to the tiny movement or just decided to get a look at the hen calling in the downed treetop didn't matter. What did matter was that he had approached from the 60-degree arc behind me where I did not see him. I now realized he was directly in front of where my gun muzzle was pointed and just 40 feet away!

His head was lit white-hot, his super-long beard stood erect, and his eyes were as black and shiny as licorice jellybeans. Heck, he was close enough that I was already sizing up his spurs.

The tom peered at the gun muzzle as I wondered if I could elevate the gun a few inches and get off a shot before he bolted.

The stare-down seemed to last an hour, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of seconds. Then the gobbler discovered his error.

The tom dipped his head so fast the motion was hard to follow. He craned his neck low to get a closer look in my direction, and then he made his move -- a fast disappearing act back the way he had come. Had it not been for his tracks in the wet clay, I might have believed I had fallen asleep and he had been a dream.

My first hunt in the Bankhead National Forest sent me home with an empty game bag. But you can bet I'll come back to try again.

HOW TO PLAN YOUR HUNT

My hunt had begun with a search for information about the 180,000-acre Bankhead National Forest. I quickly learned that a permit is required for hunting Black Warrior Wildlife Management area, including the Sipsey Wilderness. Black Warrior WMA is located at the northeastern part of the national forest, while Sipsey Wilderness is located at the northwestern part. The southern part of Bankhead NF is not included in the special wildlife management area and can therefore be hunted without a permit.

The permit costs nothing. But you must read it, sign it and have it in your possession, and you must conduct your hunt in accordance with the rules and regulations on the permit. The permit also has an excellent map, which shows roads, streams, boundaries, trails and other points of interest. With only the permit in hand, any hunter has the basic tool for planning a successful hunt.

However,

finding a permit during turkey season was difficult. Most hunters obtain the permit for deer hunting during the fall, and few permits remain by spring. During fall, they are usually available at the Bankhead Ranger District office, located on State Highway 33 just north of Double Springs, and at nearby sporting goods stores. But my hunt for a permit took most of a day, ending at the Double Springs courthouse, where I found a stack. It was disappointing upon reading the rules on the permit to discover that I would not be able to hunt that day because turkey hunting is only allowed until 12 noon.

Spring gobbler season in the counties where Bankhead NF is located is open April 1-30. The statewide bag limit is one gobbler per day and five gobblers per season. Decoys are not permitted for the fall season but are allowed during the spring season. Turkeys may be taken with shotguns of 10 gauge and smaller with shot sizes of No. 2 or smaller.

After reading the rules and regulations, I headed to the Bankhead Ranger District office. Forest Service biologists Tom Counts and Joe Brewer were helpful in describing locations of food plots, prescribed burns and recent timber operations. They also told me where they had recently seen turkeys.

Bankhead NF has a very dense wild turkey population, so a hunter might find a gobbling bird almost anywhere. But the manmade anomalies throughout the forest attract the most turkeys. Also, logging roads, trails, burns and firebreaks provide easier foot travel than the expanses of old-growth forest.

Many trails provided easy hiking for that first afternoon's scouting and on subsequent hunts. The Sipsey Wilderness Trailhead, off road 6, provides access for freebooting hunters as well as for those who have canoes. The parking area requires a small fee. Envelopes and a drop box are provided for paying the $3 fee.

Sixty-one miles of the Sipsey River are designated Wild and Scenic. However, while most springs are wet enough to provide canoe access to the Sipsey Wilderness, water levels can be too low for canoes. Hunters can call the district office for water level information. The best canoe runs are between the Sipsey River Picnic Ground and State Highway 33. Another good place for canoe access is Brushy Creek in the Black Warrior WMA.

Canoes provide transportation, but the only way to go from the river bottoms is up. Hunters will have to hike up some steep terrain to get on the same or higher elevation as a gobbler to have a chance at success.

There are a number of hiking, horseback and birding trails throughout Bankhead, as well as gravel roads entering the perimeter of the national forest. Hunters can use the trails designated for other uses and vice versa. But hunters should be aware that there are other users throughout the forest who may interfere with their hunting, so it's best to use the trails for access and then move away from them while trying to work a gobbler into range with a call.

Some good turkey hunting access to the main block of Bankhead NF is located off Brown Road near Ashridge, in the southwestern corner of the forest. There are also many smaller outparcels located south of the main block of national forest land that could easily be overlooked by visiting hunters, and they have plenty of road frontage for easy access. Land practices on adjoining private properties may boost turkey numbers on the national forest outparcels, but they do receive a lot of local hunting pressure.

Numerous turn-offs and gated trails off the major roads in the main block of Bankhead, such as State Highway 33 and paved roads 6 and 60, lead to food plots or fields. Anytime a hunter sees a turnout, it's worth investigating. Many of these trails are planted with food sources for turkeys and have relatively easy walking, so they offer some of the best opportunities for hunting during the early season. Standard practice is to park at a gate, with your vehicle announcing to other hunters that someone has already ventured ahead of them into the woods. It is only courteous and safe to allow anyone parking at a gate to hunt without interference. Most hunters end their hunts early after prime gobbling time. But that does not mean hunters going down the same roads later in the morning cannot have good success.

Sipsey Wilderness has a system of long trails that provide access to those who want to get away from the roads. Turkeys are not found in the wilderness in the numbers that can be found in areas with habitat manipulation. But Sipsey can offer good chances for success because the gobblers have heard fewer turkey hunters' calls, or even none.

Higher concentrations of gobblers in the Black Warrior WMA attract the most hunters. Pine Torch Trailhead is located off State Highway 33 by turning onto road 246, which is also called Pine Torch Road. Farther along Pine Torch Road near Pine Torch Church, road 254 provides access to the Brushy Loop Trail on the east side of the road. Brushy Creek, Key Mill Creek and Owl Creek, located in the lower elevations, are accessible by Brushy Loop Trail, and the creek bottoms have excellent turkey hunting. Continuing along road 254 to the intersection of road 249, Leola Road, and turning right and then making another right onto gravel road 262 will bring a hunter to Key Mill Loop Trail, which provides access to Key Mill Creek on the west side of 262 and Brown's Creek on the east side.

While Bankhead consists of mountainous terrain, a hunter doesn't have to be a rock climber. Many of the trails are easy to walk, and staying on them is enough to make most hunts successful. The trails typically follow the ridges and other lines of least resistance. However, it is still big, rugged country, and disappearing into it to follow a gobbler going in the other direction can cause a hunter to become disoriented. A map and a compass or GPS unit are essential when heading deep into the forest.

There are numerous amenities hunters can use to their advantage. There are several recreation areas within Bankhead NF offering camping, drinking water, RV hookups, sanitary facilities and a shooting range for hunters who want to test-fire a few shotgun patterns.

Primitive campsites are located at Brushy Lake, Clear Creek and Owl Creek recreation areas. Camping for a fee is available at Corinth and Houston recreation areas. Drinking water is available at Bushy Lake, Corinth, Houston, Clear Creek and Sipsey River recreation areas. Trailer spaces are available at Brushy Lake, Corinth, Houston and Clear Creek recreation areas.

For those who want a better map of the area that has much more detail than the map printed on the Black Warrior WMA permit, there is such a map available. The Bankhead National Forest map, which costs $5, is published by the Forest Service and is available at the Bankhead NF Ranger District office or can be ordered online.

For more information, call the Bankhead National Forest Ranger District office (205) 489-5111 or visit the Web site.

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