The Turkey/Water Connection

You'll be a better gobbler chaser when you understand the relationship between turkeys and the water sources -- or lack of them -- on the property you hunt. (March 2006)

Wherever you hunt, find the water sources and you'll find turkeys. The birds utilize water for their daily moisture needs, they roost over water and follow creeks and streams as travel routes, among other uses.
Photo by Jim Casada

I've always considered Gary Sefton, who handles public relations for Woods Wise Calls, one of the most interesting and astute guys in the wonderful world of turkey hunting. The one-time Nashville songwriter has a real way with words and is also a skilled hunter. In addition, he has a CD out featuring songs celebrating the wild turkey that he wrote and sings. Certainly he's a man well worth listening to, not just when it comes to songs but on any aspect of turkey lore.

Years ago, while we were together in a hunt camp, a bull session turned to the subject of the way wary longbeards would hang up on the opposite side of almost any stream, even if it is just a tiny branch.

"You know," Sefton said in his easygoing yet insightful way, "no matter where you hunt turkeys, water always enters into the equation in a big way."

Those words should figure prominently in every turkey hunter's mindset.

Water is an essential aspect of suitable turkey habitat, whether in low country swamplands, stock tanks in arid regions, streams in the high country of the Appalachians, or elsewhere. The big birds' need for water in terms of daily moisture is obvious, but that's only one of many ways it figures in the life cycle of the wild turkey. Water plays a prominent role in many aspects of their behavior, daily habits, and habitat as well. Indeed, an understanding of the interaction of turkeys and water should be an integral part of every hunter's stock in trade. With that thought in mind, we've put together a closer look, a sort of primer if you will, on turkeys and water. We'll also look at how to shape your hunting strategies with water-related factors in mind.

Fairly early in my turkey-hunting career, an established master of the sport with whom I have subsequently spent many a pleasant day in the field, Hunter's Specialties pro staffer Eddie Salter, was kind enough to share some of his wisdom with me. Specifically, as we eased along a game trail paralleling a sizable river, he made a comment that always stuck with me.

We were doing some afternoon scouting along with the hope we might find a vocal tom or at least roost a bird for the following morning. Repeatedly, we found fresh turkey sign and eventually I remarked on the fact. Eddie replied, "Yeah, creeks and rivers are turkey highways, especially in the spring, and it's always a good idea to give them special attention."

HUNTING TURKEY HIGHWAYS

What he meant was that anywhere in turkey country there are waterways -- from tiny rivulets to large rivers -- that will be attractive to the birds. This is true throughout the year but is particularly true in the spring. There are a number of reasons for the magnetic qualities of streams, and understanding them will unquestionably make you a better hunter.

The first and most obvious point is that streams furnish turkeys with water to drink, although in most areas they can also get moisture from other sources, such as springs, mud holes or even dew. Still, in drier regions or during times of prolonged drought, this is a factor that should not be overlooked. Likewise, trees invariably line watercourses, and such places make favored roosting areas. The waterways may support the only vegetation tall enough to be used for roosting in some places, but even in areas where there are mature trees everywhere, turkeys dearly love sleeping over a stream or swamp.

I once heard Ernie Calandrelli, a skilled hunter of the old school who believes in relying on wisdom and woodsmanship as opposed to the aggressive, take-it-to-'em tactics so popular with many of today's hunters, sum up the linkage between water and roosting sites in a pithy, pointed fashion.

"An old gobbler," he said, "is most comfortable at night when he can hear his droppings from the roost hit water."

There's a world of truth in that thought.

Just as water offers safety on the roost -- predators are far less likely to approach by water than by land, and when they do they make more noise -- so is water utilized as a protective device in other ways. Turkeys routinely fly back and forth across larger streams and rivers, seeming intuitively to know that by doing so they are placing a security barrier between themselves and potential threats. Likewise, in the extreme wetlands of the South, turkeys fly from one island or elevated bit of ground to the next, and they can manage quite well even in vast swamps as long as there is some ground available for feeding. Almost all swamps have some hammocks or slightly elevated spots that offer food and security. When turkeys can fly to and from the roost in such spots, they have a highly advantageous situation.

In times of flooding, even those small areas slightly above the water level are not essential, as the birds will eat tree buds and similar vegetation until such time as they can get back to the ground. Incidentally, wet feet mean nothing to a turkey, and they wade through 3 or 4 inches of water without so much as a second thought.

These are considerations the hunter should know, and at times they may figure in his strategy. He also needs to be aware of the many ways in which he can utilize waterways to his advantage.

For starters, streams and riverbanks, along with lake edges and the dams impounding farm ponds, are favored spots in the spring. Tender new vegetation appears there first as the days lengthen and grow warmer. That draws turkeys to feed on tender young grass and sprouts, along with insects, tadpoles, lizards and the like. Similarly, the margins along streams and rivers frequently feature just the sort of areas where toms like to strut -- large sandbars, open hardwood flats in flood plains, or in farm country, bottomland pastures. Add those considerations to the fact that the trees in or on the perimeter of the same areas are attractive as roosting locales, and you have a number of arguments in favor of paying careful attention to water.

TAKING THE ADVANTAGE

Moreover, rivers and streams can be utilized to good advantage in your hunting in a number of ways. Without question, one of the most overlooked approaches to turkey hunting is that done by boat. A canoe or johnboat, perhaps powered by a trolling motor, is an effective and quiet way to gain access to turkeys that are not otherwise easily reached, or in some c

ases flat out inaccessible.

This may involve probing the depths of a swamp in a canoe. Use one made of flexible material, not aluminum, if possible, in order to keep noise to a minimum. That means using the river route to hunting areas that lie well beyond reasonable walking distance, or easing along the shores of large lakes in a bass boat pushed by a trolling motor while listening for gobbles. In the latter context, it should be noted that sound carries exceptionally well across water; you can hear distant gobbles much farther than is possible on land.

When hunting in wetlands or areas interlaced by small streams, I usually wear a pair of l6-inch-high LaCrosse rubber boots. They let me wade many waters and shallow swamps while staying dry.

Yet another approach, and it's one that I personally have utilized effectively on more than one occasion, is to wade deep into swamps where most hunters simply will not go. If it's warm, you will have to deal with mosquitoes for certain and perhaps cottonmouths as well, but turkey hunters are a hardy lot who do not have the word "impossible" in their vocabulary.

A pair of lightweight chest waders will work perfectly well if the weather is moderate, while you can always resort to your waterfowl gear when temperatures are chilly. If you know there will be much high ground to cover once you've finished wading, wear a daypack and carry a pair of hiking boots in it. That way, once on dry land you can shed your waders.

The banks of streams, no matter where they're located, offer exceptional opportunities when it comes to finding and reading sign. Tracks in clean sand (don't mistake the tracks of great blue herons for those of turkeys) are readily visible, and if they're crisp and clear with little sand having tumbled into the prints, you'll know they've been left recently.

Strut marks also are easier to discern in sand than in almost any other situation. Furthermore, clearly defined strut marks in sand should put you on red alert, because they indicate recent usage. Your bird may be close at hand.

In higher altitudes, where streams in mountains or foothills drop quite rapidly and are thus noisy, water can sometimes be used to hide the sounds of your approach. For example, if you're high above a roaring creek and hear a turkey gobble near it, you can pinpoint him, course the bird with a compass, drop down to the stream, and then ease quite close without fear of being heard. The flip side of this, of course, is that you will not be able to hear well, so forget detecting drumming. And even gobbling may be difficult to discern unless the bird is quite close.

WATER AND THE HUNTER

Turkey hunters often view water as an impediment, and that's particularly true in situations where creeks or branches are plentiful. There is no doubt that toms will hang up because of a stream being in the way, although it's equally true that they will, on occasion, fly even large waterways to get to your calls. They seem to do that without so much as a second thought. You never know.

But when a bird won't cross a stream, the obvious alternative is to go to him. With a bit of preparation, that should not pose a major problem. When hunting in wetlands or areas interlaced by small streams, I usually wear a pair of l6-inch-high LaCrosse rubber boots. They let me wade many waters and shallow swamps while staying dry.

If perchance you come to a stream that is deep enough to come up over the tops of your boots, you might want to consider removing your boots and socks, rolling up or even taking off your pants, and wading across. Only a brief pause on the opposite side will be required, and once you re-dress, you can proceed on your mission.

For that matter, in warmer weather, getting wet is well worthwhile if a fine tom is in the offing. I first got such a soaking when I shot a fine bird on the opposite side of a creek that normally ran only inches deep. At the time, it was rushing right along, thanks to heavy overnight rains. However, I got my reward, and rest assured, I didn't give a second thought to wading to my prize.

STREAMSIDE HUNTING STRATEGIES

The points made already suggest some of the effective strategies that can be employed around water, most notably approaches by watercraft. However, there is one matter that deserves much closer scrutiny. Choosing that setup spot in either swamps or along a stream can be crucial. In swamps, for example, you want to make sure you are in an area that is easily approached by birds, and you are much better off if you nestle down on dry ground. How well I remember a hunt in my home state. My host mentioned a supposedly "impossible" bird that consistently roosted deep in a sizable swamp.

I discussed the matter with him in some detail. And then, with the aid of an aerial photograph of the area, I decided that an old dike running through the heart of the swamp might provide a solution to getting close enough to the old tom for meaningful calling.

The dike gave me a way of getting to him without getting wet, and I also felt reasonably certain he would fly to the dike upon leaving the roost or at least use it as a strutting area. That proved to be the case, and he came readily within gun range for the friend I was calling for that morning. It was all a matter of getting into a place where the bird felt comfortable. That's often the case when you're dealing with turkeys in watery situations.

Along streams, your setup should be reasonably close to the edge of the water, and in the case of smaller creeks, I like to get right on the bank if feasible. Often this will allow me to cover ground on both sides of the creek.

Sometimes in river bottoms, cover can be a problem, as towering hardwoods and a clean understory are often the norm. In such situations, it's usually a good idea to seek out a pile of driftwood or a downed tree where you can create a blind in fairly short order.

When hunting areas of fast-flowing, noisy streams, I generally prefer -- what I said above about using the water's roar to mask my approach notwithstanding -- to stay well away from the water. Ideally, I walk along ridgelines above streams and "throw" my calls down into the hollow. The main advantage here is that my own hearing is improved, and there is at least some validity to the old saw about it being easier to call a bird uphill than downhill.

Although it involves a somewhat specialized situation, a few words about stock tanks and farm ponds are in order. Quite simply, in places where water is scarce, you want to know the whereabouts of every tank, and even in areas of normal rainfall, ponds are turkey magnets if there are no streams or other sources of water nearby.

Birds are likely going to visit them sometime during the day, and choosing a setup spot nearby, if you have the patience to stay in place for hours, is certainly an effective approach. Moreover, longbeards love to strut on pond dams.

Wherever you hunt though, be it swampland, steep hills, deep hollows, or more typical turkey country where stre

ams wind across the landscape like laughter lines on an old man's face, make it a point to give a lot of attention to water. Where there is water there will almost always be trees as well as abundant food. Or, to put it another way, water is a key ingredient of prime turkey habitat, and no matter where you hunt, it should be a carefully studied part of that equation Gary Sefton mentioned and that you are attempting to solve. l

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Casada is a widely traveled turkey hunter who has written two books and hundreds of articles on the subject. An avid collector of sports memorabilia, he also sells out-of-print turkey books. For more information on him and his books, visit his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.

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