Your Crash Course In Arkansas Turkeys

Ours is a quick-fix society, geared to instant gratification and guaranteed success. Maybe that explains why there aren't all that many turkey hunters.

With just about any other big-game animal (and no matter what anybody says to the contrary, turkeys are big game), a hunter with adequate finances can substitute money for expertise and expect to do pretty well. If you can afford the dues of a Mississippi River deer lease, for example, you're going to get a chance at some pretty good bucks.


That same high-dollar hunting club may have a good turkey population, too, but turkeys aren't very respectful of bank accounts or stock portfolios. If you don't know at least a little bit about what you're doing, it won't matter how many turkeys are on the place you're hunting, or how much you paid for the privilege of hunting there. Turkeys are great equalizers.

Fortunately, it isn't all that difficult to learn a little bit about turkey hunting. As proof of that, I offer the fact that hunters legally took approximately 20,000 gobblers in Arkansas last spring, from an estimated statewide population of 150,000 to 175,000. Clearly, the birds can be successfully hunted. But when a first-time turkey hunter steps into the woods, it becomes equally clear that there's more to it than just sitting down, calling one up and shooting him in the head.


WHERE ARE THE BIRDS?

No matter where you live in Arkansas, you're not far from turkeys. Because of a scarcity of public land, gaining access to those turkeys can be problematic in some counties and some regions, but spring turkey hunting is legal in at least part of every county in the state.


The Ozark and Ouachita regions in north and west-central Arkansas have the greatest acreages of public land, mostly in the form of national forests. Most of this public land has huntable turkey populations, although some of it is heavily hunted.

The Gulf Coastal Plain, that triangle of rolling piney woods stretching south from Little Rock to the Louisiana line, has a spotty but regionally dense turkey population and offers excellent hunting in places. The problem here is one of access: Most of this region is carved up into hunting club leases, and the land is posted. Deer club members and their guests can find some excellent opportunity here. There are also decent turkey populations on the relatively few public areas in the region, including Cut-Off Creek, Beryl Anthony and Poison Springs WMAs and Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

The east Arkansas Delta has possibly the best turkey hunting in the state -- and, paradoxically, maybe the worst as well. Most of the land has been cleared and farmed for decades, and there's very little turkey hunting opportunity on a soybean or rice farm. But most of the land that's left in timber is privately owned or leased, and some of it, particularly inside the levee along the Mississippi River, offers some of the best turkey hunting in the South for those who have access to it. There's a little more public land in the Delta than in the Gulf Coastal Plain, and some of these areas have decent if crowded turkey hunting -- Bayou Meto WMA and White River NWR, for example.

Crowley's Ridge, which runs through the Delta from the Missouri bootheel to Helena, has a growing turkey population. Most Crowley's Ridge turkeys are on private land, though, and only two public areas on this landform provide any opportunity for turkey hunting: Bill Brewer/ Scatter Creek WMA near Paragould and St. Francis National Forest between Marianna and Helena.

Over the entire state (making exceptions for the inevitable holes in the doughnut), turkey populations are pretty good. Although nesting success was probably below the desired level last spring as a result of wet weather in May and June, there's still a healthy turkey population over most of the state, with a good carryover of last year's substantial jake crop -- this spring's 2-year-old gobblers. Regardless of the part of the state in which they're afield, hunters willing to do their homework should have little trouble finding gobbling turkeys to hunt this spring.

MAP YOUR WAY

Just as someone who's never made the trip before will need a highway map to get from Paragould to Mountain Home to El Dorado, you need maps of your hunting area to help you get around better in the woods. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good map sources.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has excellent maps of some of its wildlife management areas, but the agency's maps for some WMAs are pretty rudimentary and aren't much help to the turkey hunter. Contact the AGFC at (501) 223-6300 to inquire about the availability of maps for the WMAs you're interested in.

The AGFC also publishes a set of county road maps in a volume titled The Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, which is currently available for $18 from the agency at 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205. This reference is at too small a scale for in-the-woods work, but is invaluable for helping you get to where you want to park your rig and start hunting. It shows national forest boundaries, WMA boundaries, camping areas, boat ramps and much more.

National forest maps show the road networks, and they're well worth the nominal cost ($6 at the time of this writing). For Ozark and St. Francis national forest maps, contact Ozark/St. Francis Forest, P.O. Box 1008, Russellville, AR 72801; phone, (479) 968-2354. For Ouachita National Forest maps, contact the supervisor's office at P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR 71901; phone, (501) 321-5202.

Each national wildlife refuge publishes its own maps and distributes them free, but these are small-scale and don't help much once you get off the roads. However, a detailed topo-type map of the entire White River NWR is available from the Friends of White River NWR at St. Charles. Contact them at (870) 282-8200 for pricing and shipping information.

Topographical maps are the best choice for actual in-the-woods hunting use. These are available from the Arkansas Geological Commission, 3815 West Roosevelt Road, Little Rock, AR 72204; phone, (501) 296-1877. The AGFC's Web site is www.state.ar.us/agc/agc.htm. Topo maps (both paper maps and CD-ROM map sets) are also available from several dot-com companies, including TopoZone, MapTech, National Geographic, DeLorme and MyTopo. Run an Internet search to find these companies online; each has an easy-to-navigate Web site. Overall their products are reasonably priced and of high quality.

START WITH THE BASICS

Assuming you've done your pre-season scouting and located birds to hunt, there are other things that need attention before the opening of the season. Let's talk first about guns.

In most cases, a turkey hunter will be best served b

y using a 12-gauge shotgun chambered for 3- or 3 1/2-inch shells. Small-framed women, children, and elderly or disabled hunters may opt for the lighter and less punishing 20 gauge, and veteran hunters seeking an extra degree of difficulty and challenge may go to blackpowder shotguns or even archery tackle. But for most turkey hunters of average stature and health, the Magnum 12 is the proper medicine.

Some sort of repeating shotgun is best for most of us. The majority of hunters of my acquaintance use pump guns, and looking over my own inventory of turkey guns, I spy five pumps and two autoloaders. The idea is that a repeating gun gives you more firepower, and while that notion is true enough, it still doesn't travel well when you try to put it to practical use. In the vast majority of cases, a successful turkey hunt is a one-shot hunt, anyway: If you don't kill your bird with the first shot, the followups are usually just noise, so a single-barreled shotgun is in most cases plenty of gun, and it's lighter besides. Even so, most hunters prefer pumps and autos.

Whatever your personal preference, don't make the mistake of hunting without patterning your gun. Almost every shotgun handles one shot size, load and/or brand of shells better than it will the rest, and the only way you're going to find out which is the one for your gun is to try different loads and shot sizes. Try several; shoot several times with each to make sure you're getting an accurate idea of the pattern.

While a few turkey hunters prefer size 7 1/2 shot, the vast majority of today's turkey hunters shoot size 4, 5 or 6. Any of these three will deliver adequate power out to 40 yards, which is about as far as most shotguns will hold a good lethal pattern.

The best way to pattern your shotgun is to shoot at a large piece of white paper (30 inches or more) with either a bull's-eye or a turkey head silhouette on it, but most hunters use smaller paper. Smaller is fine, as long as your gun shoots true to the point of aim, but some shotguns don't do that. Instead, they throw most of the pattern high, low or to one side or other of the aim point, and if your target paper is too small, you're not going to be aware of that.

Also, practice shooting at targets from a sitting position, with your knees up -- the same position from which you'll probably be shooting at turkeys. Becoming comfortable with that position -- or at least familiar with it -- is important.

SEE TO YOUR CALLING

Most experienced turkey hunters agree that woodsmanship and patience are more important to turkey hunting success than is good calling; that's not to say, however, that calling isn't important. Besides, it's one of the few things connected to turkey hunting that you can practice and get better at during the off season.

There isn't room to discuss the specifics of calling here, but there are dozens of tapes, videos and other instructional materials available on the subject. There are also plenty of up-close, in-person opportunities to listen to the experts use turkey calls in seminars and calling contests. Two such are upcoming: the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention (Feb. 17-20 in Nashville, Tenn.) and the Arkansas Wild Turkey Expo (March 12 at the State Fairgrounds in Little Rock). Numerous experienced and expert turkey callers and turkey hunters will be on hand at both events, and these folks are notoriously free with assistance and advice for hunters who want to increase their calling and hunting skills. Attend events like this -- they'll make you a better turkey hunter.

Of the many styles of turkey-calling devices, the most popular and widely used is the diaphragm mouth call. Some hunters are simply unable to get the hang of using mouth calls, but most of us can eventually learn to make reasonable turkey sounds with them. And, of course, the more you practice with a mouth call, the better you're going to get.

The advantage of using mouth calls before the season is that they're hands-free calls, so you can practice with them while you're driving, working in the yard or whatever. The advantage of using mouth calls in the turkey woods is exactly the same: As they're hands-free, you can make turkey sounds with them without moving.

Despite that advantage, other types of calls are equal in effectiveness to, or even better than, diaphragm calls. No turkey hunter should overlook the extremely realistic sounds that come from a well-tuned friction call in the hands of a hunter who knows how to run it. Pot-and-peg calls (known generically as "slate" calls, although the surface materials are made of everything from aluminum to Plexiglas) and hinged-paddle box calls are fairly easy to master and should be in the vest of every serious turkey hunter.

The serious hunter will make a reasonable effort to achieve proficiency with several different types and styles of turkey calls, and will carry them on every hunt. Nobody knows beforehand what's going to turn a gobbler's crank, so it's best to have a number of options on hand.

BLEND IN

Camouflage clothing is nothing new. Armies around the world have been using camo for decades, and hunters started using the stuff in the years following World War II. Today there are so many camo patterns that if you had one garment printed with each, your biggest closet couldn't hold them all. Several years ago, I tried listing all the commercial camouflage patterns, but gave it up when the list passed 80. I'm sure that more than 100 must be on the market today.

And no question about it: Camouflage is important for the turkey hunter. It doesn't make us invisible the way some companies claim, but it does break up a hunter's outline and makes his movements less noticeable.

That's the real bugaboo for the turkey hunter: movement. The trouble is that you can't hunt turkeys without making some, and every time you move, you run the risk of being spied by a sharp-eyed, paranoid turkey.

Camouflage can help with this problem; choosing the correct pattern for the conditions at hand can help even more. A green-leaf pattern won't blend as well into the winter-like woods of opening day as well as will a brown pattern, and a sage-brush desert pattern won't work quite as well in the woods as will something that looks more, well -- woodsy. Give some thought to the terrain and cover you'll be hunting before choosing the pattern you're going to wear.

Pay particular attention to your face, hands and feet. Some hunters use face paint -- not a bad idea for the hardcore hunter, because you'll never get caught with your facemask out of position. However, paint isn't such a good option if you're making a short pre-work hunt; a headnet and gloves are more commonly used. Make sure your pants legs or boots cover your shins and white socks; test this while you're sitting down with your knees raised. More than one gobbler owes his survival to the white flash of a hunter's shinbone or sock.

Of course, you can take this whole camo thing too far. The old-time turkey hunters "nearly wiped 'em off the face of the earth wearin' blue bib overhauls," as one old-timer told me nearly 30 years ago. "If y'can set still," he went on, "y'don't need a suit that looks like

a tree."

Or, as another old-timer put it to me just last summer: "Sure, I wear camo -- doesn't everybody? But I wouldn't trade being still for all the camo you could pack in a truck."

(Editor's Note: Jim Spencer is the author of Turkey Hunting Digest. With 336 pages, 47 chapters and more than 300 photos, the book covers the subject of turkey hunting in considerable depth. Personalized, autographed copies are available from the author for $24.95 plus $4.00 shipping and handling. Send check or money order to Jim Spencer, P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)

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