Turkey Tactics For Missouri'™s Public Lands
September 30, 2010
The heavily-hunted gobblers in these much-accessed areas are wise to approaches that work on birds haunting private woodlots. What should you do — and not do — when afield in the Show Me State's public venues?
Perched 20 feet off the ground on a gnarled red oak branch sits a healthy, mature Missouri gobbler. It’s 20 minutes before good light and he’s already awake. He’s stood up and paced the limb once or twice, and even contorted himself for a morning stretch. His anticipation of the spring dawn is probably just as intense as that of the 10 hunters within a half-mile of the lofty roost.
As the big bird sits impatiently, the urges of lust and other things primal cause him to stretch his neck to let loose with a gobble so resounding that he nearly unseats himself. The ungainly noise emanating from the tree bounces around the hills and hollows, and without a lag, 10 hunters’ heads whip in its direction, their eyes widening — or narrowing, depending on just how many times they’ve heard that sound before.
Depending on that bird’s mood today, he might repeat that action once more, 50 times, or not at all. But the hunters have heard what they need to hear, and begin wading through the timber and morning darkness, fixed on finding him. All the while he remains perched until day dawns bright enough for him to hit the ground.
The less experienced of the pursuers tromp wildly through the woods, crunching last fall’s leaves beneath their boots and generally making a ruckus. The veterans, by contrast, ease down a logging road or work a ridgetop, making a few steps and then stopping to listen. Either way, the gobbler is alert to the advancing threat, and though he may continue his salute, he’ll do so hesitantly. The gobbler has heard this before. More than once he’s heard the commotion coming from that same direction, not knowing why it always comes from there, but nonetheless aware. The hunters, each of whom parked along the road bordering the public land, are halfway to him.
As the day grows light, some hunters abandon the search. They’ve heard another bird, or realized that others are already there — maybe even stumbling across each other on the way. The bird, ready to pitch down, has heard a chorus of owl hoots and hen calls. He hits the ground, gobbles a few times, and then starts his travels — in the opposite direction. After heading a quarter-mile down the ridge toward the huge public area’s interior, he hears the soft, sweet sounds of love beckoning him onward. He stops, only to strut momentarily and gobble. Very near the hen of his dreams, he finds that the open timber reveals nothing.
Pausing to investigate his surroundings, staring around in an effort to locate his prospective lady love, he hears a subtle click coming from a strange form that looks more or less like any other large oak trunk. He doesn’t know that it’s the flick of a shotgun safety — nor does he hear the thunderous shot whose echoes reverberate back toward the many disappointed faces of the other expectant gobbler chasers.
This story of a typical turkey hunt portrays the mortal game of hide-and-seek game that’s played annually in venues ranging in size from massive national forests to the smallest of public tracts — wherever turkeys call home and turkey hunters give pursuit.
Long gone are the days of light pressure on public birds and weak competition among those who hunt them. It’s possible to get far enough off the beaten path to be alone, but the chances become slimmer with each passing season. It’s become the hunter’s duty to work harder and be smarter when the going gets tough.
Public lands across the state of Missouri harbor plenty of birds; in fact, many credit our state with the best hunting in the nation. But that’s not going to guarantee a gobbler that’s yours for the picking. Legwork, scouting and smart hunting are the tickets to success.
You might as well face facts: If you hunt public land, you’re going to have to outthink not only the turkeys but other hunters as well. This on its own is not such a depressing idea. Accomplished hunters love a challenge; otherwise, you wouldn’t be dueling with the wise old birds, anyhow. In today’s woods, you’re going to contend with every possible situation — everything from meeting up with other folks in the woods all the way to having your turkeys hunted at the same time by people that might be less experienced than or twice as savvy as you.
Knowledge is your best asset. You must know the area that you intend to hunt, which includes getting there and walking it, and looking at it closely by means of aerial photos and topographic maps. Get familiar with its borders and its most inaccessible spots. You can’t be too familiar with your hunting spot — a principle that’s even more important when you’re afield on one of huge tracts of land scattered about the state. You can hardly hunt the Mark Twain National Forest or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands that surround lakes such as Mark Twain, Truman, Pomme de Terre, Stockton, and Bull Shoals without having in hand a good map showing the boundaries.
I can say from experience that public land can be the site of the most fascinating and rewarding hunting you’ll ever be a part of — and that it can also be downright aggravating. There’ll be days that’ll make you want to pull your hat off and stalk away cussing. However, when your plan comes together and the hard work pays off in 20-something pounds of gobbler on your shoulder, you’ll feel like the happiest person to walk the earth for the next half-hour.
Learning from your mistakes can make all the difference — and we all make plenty of mistakes. Take time to review foiled hunts, and you’ll see improvements that you can make your next time out. Becoming a hunter who errs on the side of caution puts you ahead of the game. Reflect on typical missteps, and turn them to your advantage.
THE WRONG DIRECTION
To start off right, you have to do something that’s a little different from the average hunter’s drill. Around the Mark Twain National Forest, it’s easy to park on the road or in the lot nearest to the area in which you plan to hunt and start your trek there just before sunrise. This puts your course on the same plot as most everyone else, and though I don’t give turkeys a lot of credit for problem solving, conditioning is another story. It’s not surprising that after a few days of the season, and exposure to a few dozen hunter
s all working turkeys from the same direction, the toms might start to get a little resistant to believing that that’s where the hens are.
So work out a plan to circumvent the standard course, and get on different angles that most others won’t work for. If that entails showing up a little earlier and hiking a little farther, so be it. You can certainly expect a gobbler to head in a direction that seems to promise reduced pressure. This gives the bird one more reason to give in to your calling.
LOOK TO THE LITTLE SPOTS
The counties north of the Missouri River don’t contain the massive expanses of public land that the southern part of the state can boast. The Missouri Department of Conservation has done well with acquiring hunting areas, but many are small and thus not highly regarded. Units between 40 and a couple of hundred acres are frequently passed on by hunters. Big mistake: I’m a firm believer that if there’s a stand of timber in Missouri, there’s probably a turkey in it.
Use the small spots to your advantage, covering them thoroughly cover them with mini run-and-gun tactics. The odds are fairly high that you’ll end up locating a bird and won’t have to work your tail off. Plan a drive that’ll take you past several tracts in the course of a morning, so if one doesn’t pan out, you can try another.
REGARDING BIG TRACTS
Hearing a turkey and getting close are integral steps in taking one home, but they shouldn’t be rushed. If that bird’s gobbling from the roost at daylight and you approach too hastily, you’re sure to give away your location; it’s not proper turkey etiquette for hens to move halfway across country before most birds even come off the roost, Thus, using a hen call can have detrimental effects. Better to locate the bird by letting him gobble naturally, or by using an owl hoot.
After locating a public-land tom, put on a stealthy, silent stalk. Get close to his location before you ever make a peep on a call. (If it’s past morning roosting hours, this rule of not calling doesn’t apply.) Your stalk should still be cautious, but hens talk and walk. Keep in mind that they don’t cover ground as fast as an approaching hunter does. Try not to rush in on a bird as you hail him with hen calls. Instead, make your approach in lackadaisical turkey time.
DON’T GIVE UP
I can’t count the times that I’ve heard the woods go silent and had my patience run out. Too often I’d pack it up to head back to the truck only to get halfway there and hear that turkey fire up the gobbling again. Chances are good that the bird was always coming in slowly, looking; I just didn’t wait long enough, and he arrived after I’d gone. No hen found, he’d just start looking for love again.
Public-land birds have almost all but given up the suicidal rush to hen talk that many private-land birds will undertake, the school of hard knocks having given them cause to take it slowly and carefully. That’s why patience pays off: Birds often go silent when working their way to you, and waiting it out will put you in prime position when he finally shows up.
THE WRONG BIRD
The obvious choice isn’t always best when it comes to hunting public turkeys. This is often the problem around reservoirs such as Truman Lake. It never fails that one loudmouth gobbler makes a habit of sounding off excessively at sunup near the end of a point. For whatever reason, he defies the norms of cautious, wary birds under pressure. Don’t overestimate these vocal birds, though. It’s just the thing to attract lots of notice from all hunters. Such a bird has probably seen it all and buys none of it. Boat hunters can congregate on these birds daily.
This type of bird, which rarely reacts well to calls or advances, can have you spending your whole season chasing after something you may never get. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and keep searching. The upside is that less-experienced hunters will be attracted to him and open up less pressured birds for you.
WORK THE HENS
Knowing that spring is the time for breeding turkeys to court and spark gives you plenty of avenues for odd tactics on hard-to-hunt days. The most overlooked and underestimated: Stop focusing so intently on the longbeards and learn more about their ladies. Hunt the places in which many of the hens spend their days. Gobblers are often in tow; if they’re not, they’re looking to be.
Compared to toms, hens are still somewhat predictable. A flock of hens will feed and move on many of the same routes day in and out. To find them, listen at sunup for their cackling and cutting. Their noisy flydowns also make good locators. Spend a little time getting close to them and matching their movements. It’s a sure bet that a gobbler’s holding nearby, if not already displaying silently for the group.
CALLING FOR THE GOBBLE
A huge mistake that almost every one of us has made at one time or another is that of calling to get the bird to gobble. You always want to make sure he’s still there, to hear him one more time, or to get him fired up. But every time he makes a peep gives another hunter one more chance to pick up on his location. This is especially damaging if pressure’s high or many roads cut through the tract. A bird that makes its presence widely known in response to your calling can be approached from any direction and thus put you in a tight situation.
After locating a bird, plan a thoughtful approach, and lay off the calls until you’re truly close enough to work the bird. Calling too often and too loudly just to get a reaction really does more harm than good. The bird has already decided that you’re a hen, so keeping him vocal does nothing but reassure you that he’s still interested. Call sporadically if you feel you must, but once his location is pinpointed, concentrate on getting properly positioned.
Well into the morning, it’s not at all uncommon for an old bird to respond to your calls, and for you to work hard to get set up only to find that the gobbler has moved off farther, requiring you to do it all again. This process can seem never-ending — the bird answering and getting farther away. Ozarks hunters experience this more than anyone else does.
The national forests are endless expanses of hills and hollows. A bird can crest a ridgetop and, by the time you catch up, be on the next. Sometimes it pays to follow the bird and catch up a couple of times, since gobblers peri
odically change their minds and turn back toward you. If, after several attempts, the bird keeps moving, change your plan of attack. Instead of trailing the bird, anticipate his reaction — get in front of him. Don’t call until you think you’ve made it past him in the direction he’s already traveling. Although difficult to do, this is one of the most effective tactics to use on a pressured public bird.
It’s a longstanding tradition for some hunters to go out of an evening and try to listen closely for the birds gobbling from the roost. This takes the hassle out of trying to find them in the morning. But just listening for a gobble is rarely enough. By boat, this is a valuable way to hunt any lake surrounded by Corps.
If the weather’s conducive to it, you can often hear birds from long distances as they make their night flight to the trees. At dusk, they make plenty of noise flapping their way to the roost. Listen closely and position yourself at vantage points to hear them. Owl hoots will sometimes cause them to sound off at dusk, but you can’t always depend on that, so make extra efforts to find common roosting places; be sure of their nightly perch.
Just because turkey hunters and turkey calls are capable of making so many sounds doesn’t mean you that you have to use them all. Often, less is more. The simple cluck of a hen is often enough to lure any wary gobbler into gun range. Long series of yelping and cutting can be overwhelming at times; a tom’s natural instinct will sometimes have him gobbling his fool head off at calling like that, but that doesn’t guarantee that he’s going to drop strut and sprint your way. Using the utmost of modesty during calling can be as enticing as the most raucous calling.
Missouri is graced with heaps of public land. The Mark Twain National Forest covers some 1.5 million acres of land, and the MDC has holdings scattered all about the state, not to mention the Corps lands that surround our lakes and reservoirs. The fact is that you don’t have to go far in our state to find a prime place to turkey hunt. With such a promising outlook for hunters, it’s no wonder Missouri ranks No. 1 for turkey hunting.
It’s easy to see just how many places our state offers hunters by viewing the following link to the Conservation Atlas: mdcgis.mdc. state.mo.us/website/quickatlas/ viewer.htm. By clicking on any of the red stars you can locate an area and learn more about what it has to offer.
Although you won’t be alone on your public land hunts, there are plenty of turkeys and places to go. Keeping in mind a few tips and tricks this spring will help ensure your success and make the quality of your hunt that much better. Take your time and investigate you favorite haunt this year, and you just might be surprised at how turkey hunting turns out for you.