Take Your Arkansas Turkey by Water!
September 24, 2010
The path to great Arkansas turkey hunting doesn't always involve a hike. Sometimes you need a boat.
By Jim Spencer
It was one of those common but angst-causing situations that occur so often in turkey hunting: I had two birds gobbling well at first light, but they were on separate ridges with a deep, wide creek in between. Going to one of the turkeys meant I'd have to cut myself off from the other. After listening indecisively for a few minutes, I eeeny-meeny-miney-moed my way to a decision and started the short but steep climb to the gobbler on the north ridge.
You can guess what happened. By the time I got where I needed to be to join the contest with the north gobbler, he'd flown down and dummied up. Despite my sexiest yelps, clucks and cutts, I couldn't get a peep out of him.
Meanwhile, the gobbler across the creek on the south ridge had also come to the ground. Instead of going silent, though, he was burning the woods down over there. He answered every noise I made and a lot of other noises besides - late owls, crows, the go-to-work-time steam whistle of a distant sawmill.
In a "normal" turkey hunting situation, I'd have been out of luck. But this time, I merely dropped off the ridge, got in my boat, used the electric motor to swiftly and silently cross the creek, and climbed the south ridge to get level with the gabby gobbler. Less than an hour later, I was speeding back across the lake to the boat ramp, giving the south-ridge gobbler his first and last boat ride.
Hunting midsized and small streams from a canoe can put you in territory that's rarely hunted by others. Photo by Jill J. Easton
BOAT YOUR WAY TO MORE BIRDS The word "normal" is in quotes in the above paragraph because, in my experience, a large majority of turkey hunters seldom (if ever) use boats to gain access to their turkey hunting territory. There's a legitimate reason for that, of course: a lot of today's turkey range is far from navigable water and impossible to reach by boat - particularly if the turkey range in question is on private land.
But much of the excellent public-land hunting in Arkansas and other states is found near or on large artificial lakes. Many of these lakes are bordered by wildlife management areas or national forest land, and even those that aren't almost always have a fringe of public-domain land surrounding the lake where hunting is allowed. Still, most hunters on these lakeshore areas stick to dry land, and, even here, turkey hunters who boat to their birds are in the minority.
The biggest reason for this is probably because hauling and launching a boat adds one more complication to an already pretty complicated undertaking. It's impossible to deny that fact, but in my opinion, it's beside the point. Hunting by boat offers so many advantages that it's hard for me to believe so few hunters do it.
First of all, using a boat offers the turkey hunter a chance to stretch out, to expand the area he or she can cover in a day's hunt. Many public-land hunters like to "run and gun" - that is, to move from place to place and listen for gobbling or try to pull a response out of a responsive bird. By doing this from a boat on a large lake, you can hear into a lot more territory in a lot less time than you can by driving along forest service roads and stopping to listen and hoot. That's extremely important during that all-too-brief window of early-morning roost gobbling, when turkeys are most talkative and easiest to hear.
Public-land turkeys wise up quickly to the run-and-gun method as practiced by road-running hunters. It's a viable hunting technique, sure, but most of the birds susceptible to it get to visit the check-stations early in the season. The survivors quickly learn to associate the sound of gravel popping under tires, followed by turkey calls, owl hoots or crow calls coming from the same direction, with hunters. These wary birds may be within easy hearing distance of a road-running hunter, but most of them will never betray their presence with a gobble.
A LESSON LEARNED I boated to a gobbler on Lake Norfork one late-season morning several years ago, and engaged him in conversation. He was working slowly toward me when we both heard gravel crunching under the tires of a vehicle on a road 200 yards from the gobbler's position and a quarter-mile from mine. He'd been gobbling three times a minute, but he clammed up when he heard the approaching vehicle.
A few seconds after the gravel stopped crunching, the sound of a crow call split the April morning. The gobbler remained quiet. I didn't call, either, because I didn't want him to gobble at me and give away his presence to the other hunter. Then the guy on the road cranked out some very good yelps and cutts first on a slate call, then on a diaphragm and, last, on both in concert. The calling was good. If I'd been the gobbler, I'd have probably answered it. However, this late-season bird wasn't so inclined.
The hunter stayed on the road two football field lengths from this fired-up turkey for the next quarter-hour, calling every two or three minutes, and the gobbler uttered nary a peep. Neither did I. Finally I heard a door slam, then the sound of a vehicle starting, and then, again, the crunching of gravel, fading away this time. Then silence. I figured the jig was up, but I didn't have anything else going, so I sat there. After five minutes, I sent out a series of tentative yelps. The gobbler answered from the same place he'd been in when he shut up, and 15 minutes later I pulled the trigger on him.
I'd like to be able to tell you that turkey was a hook-spurred old veteran of four or five spring hunts, but he was a two-year-old with spurs the shape of Hershey's Kisses. Still, even at his tender age, when he was supposed to be a pushover and come galloping to the call, he'd already learned to associate the sound of a vehicle on gravel with danger. He wasn't a particularly wary turkey, as evidenced by the fact that I easily finished him off after the other hunter left, but his behavior clearly indicated an immunity to standard run-and-gun tactics.
Practicing those same run-and-gun tactics from the water side of a gobbler is usually a higher-percentage play. For one thing, you'll be calling to the gobblers from the direction opposite that from which they hear most of the calling. For another, your calling won't be associated with the sound of popping gravel; there's the sound of the outboard approaching and then being shut off, of course, but a lakeside turkey hears this sound every day of his life. It's been my experience that an outboard doesn't bother turkeys at all.
A water-based turkey hunter also has the advantage of acoustics. You can hear a turkey a lot farther from a boat than you can on land, regardless of whether he's in a tree or o
n the ground. Sound carries farther across water, and in most situations there won't be as many trees between you and the bird to muffle the sound of his gobbling.
It's also much easier to maneuver into a good calling position on a gobbler before setting up. If you're ground-bound and you hear a gobbler at the top of a steep bluff, it's a simple matter to move up or down the lake to find an easier route to the top of the ridge. You can also usually get there faster, and every experienced turkey hunter is painfully aware of the advantage of setting up quickly.
Using a boat for turkey hunting is made to order for those who enjoy tent camping. Cool, scenic, secluded campsites are common along the shores of most large lakes, and it's a rare pleasure to wake up in the middle of your hunting area and hear that first gobble while you're still sipping the last cup of coffee around the fire.
For those turkey hunters who like to fish (and who among us doesn't?), there's another obvious advantage to hunting by boat. Many times I've heard gobblers while I was casting for bass along the shores of a lake. Even if you don't care to mix turkey hunting and fishing, you have the option to fish after you tag that lakeside bird.
GOBBLER HOTSPOTS WITH WATERY ACCESS There are quite a few large lakes in Arkansas that provide good public-land hunting. Here are three of the best.
Lake Ouachita At 40,000 acres (more or less), Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in the state, artificial or natural. Located north of Highway 270 between Hot Springs and Mt. Ida in Garland and Montgomery counties, this island-dotted lake is almost completely surrounded by the sprawling Ouachita National Forest. There are a few marinas, resorts and boat ramps scattered around the shoreline, as well as Lake Ouachita State Park, but development has been held to a minimum, and most of the shoreline looks as pristine as a Boundary Waters lake.
As is the case everywhere, turkeys are where you find them. However, the lake's west (upper) end is the least developed and the hardest to reach, and hunters looking for solitude and less-pressured turkeys could do worse than to concentrate their efforts here. Launching at the Little Fir access at the end of Highway 188, 12 miles northeast of Mt. Ida, will put you close to a lot of turkey-rich, road-poor national forest land on the Ouachita River arm of the lake. Launching at the Denby Point, Tomkins Bend or Joplin accesses (off Highway 270 eight, nine and 10 miles from Mt. Ida, respectively) will put you in the same kind of country on the South Fork arm of the lake.
However, don't overlook the big stretch of roadless shoreline around Crystal Springs Public Use Area and Brady Mountain Public Use Area on the south shore of the lower end of the lake. These are also reached via access roads off Highway 270, just west of Royal.
Camping is pretty much unrestricted around the lake, but don't forget that you're on national forest property, and that firewood cutting is restricted to dead, downed stuff. The numerous islands (most of them are in the lower half of the lake) provide plenty of secluded, scenic campsites.
Free maps of Lake Ouachita are available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 700 West Capitol, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 324-5551, or from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, (501) 223-6351.
|SMALLER BOATS FOR SMALLER WATERS|
A water-based turkey hunt doesn't have to take place on a big lake. Using a canoe or shallow-draft johnboat can put you into some pristine country and first-rate turkey hunting along many small to moderate-sized streams throughout the Arkansas hill country.
One of the most remote expanses of public turkey hunting country in the state lies along the lower 22 miles of the Buffalo River in Baxter, Marion and Searcy counties. This stretch of river flows between Lower Buffalo Wilderness Area and Leatherwood Wilderness Area, and there's no road access between the last put-in place at Rush (off Highway 14 south of Yellville) and White River.
There's a 10-horsepower limit on outboards on this section of the Buffalo, and no glass containers are allowed. In low-water conditions this is an easy float, but if the river is up, only experienced canoeists should attempt the trip. A high-quality map of the river and updated water conditions are available from the National Park Service at 402 North Walnut Street, Suite 136, Harrison, AR 72601, phone 870-741-5443.
There are many more scenic streams in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Among them are the upper Ouachita River, the Fourche la Fave River above Lake Nimrod, Piney Creek and Mulberry River in the central Ozarks, and Lee Creek in southwest Washington and northwest Crawford counties.
Lake Winona Although the lake and most of the land immediately adjacent to it are owned by the city of Little Rock, this municipal water-supply lake is completely surrounded by the national forest lands of Winona Wildlife Management Area, about 40 miles west of the capital. Except for a relatively small area around the lake's only public boat launch (off F.S. Road 114, a dozen miles west of Highway 9 north of Paron) and a public park at the dam site, the city-owned lands surrounding the lake are open to hunting.
Since Lake Winona is only about four miles long, it doesn't have anywhere near as much shoreline as does huge Lake Ouachita. But that doesn't mean that the hunting is of any lower quality. The ridges and points that ring Winona are home to a healthy turkey population, and this is the best public turkey hunting area within easy driving distance of Little Rock.
Because this is a water-supply lake, no body-contact sports like water-skiing are allowed, but that's an advantage rather than a disadvantage for a turkey hunter, because it cuts down on the boat traffic and the noise.
Almost all the human activity here is concentrated around the dam site at the lower (east) end of the lake, with a lesser amount at the boat ramp near the upper (west) end. Camping along the lake's shore is prohibited, but there are many good campsites on national forest property nearby.
There are Forest Service roads fairly close to both the north and south shores of Winona, but the road on the south side is rough, and veers away f
rom the shore about halfway up the lake. Therefore, the hardest-to-reach portion of Lake Winona is the upper half of the lake, particularly the south shore. However, don't overlook the more-easily accessed lower section, because several times I've heard turkeys gobbling while I was standing in the dam site park.
Beaver Lake Located in northwest Arkansas in Benton, Carroll and Washington counties, Beaver Lake is midway in size between Lake Ouachita and Lake Winona, but since it's close to the densely populated Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville corridor and has no national forest land to buffer it, suburban sprawl comes close to the lakeshore in many places.
Still, there's a buffer of Corps property almost completely encircling the lake, and although this strip of public land is only a couple of hundred yards wide in places, it provides good opportunities for turkey hunting. In addition, the main body of Beaver Lake curls around 11,700-acre Hobbs State Management Area in southeast Benton County, and several tendrils of the lake extend into the management area.
Aside from Hobbs SMA, there's no outstanding "best" area of Beaver for turkey hunting: Just pick a spot and go. Free Beaver Lake maps are available from either the Corps or the AGFC at the addresses given earlier.
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