While every turkey is a trophy, public-land turkeys are the most remembered because they’re often the toughest to take.
The bird was hot, fired up and gobbling on his own, about 150 to 200 yards below. I bore down on the stock of the little 20-gauge, with the red dot glowing bright against brown and green foliage. Another gobble. I couldn’t resist; I yelped. Still unseen, the gobbler roared, again and again. Then, there was nothing but silence for 30 seconds, a minute and longer.
My plaintive yelps were met with nothing but quiet. Give him time, I thought; he’s coming. But he wasn’t. He never did. I packed my gear and headed back to camp, where I ran into a young man who hadn’t been there when I left in the pre-dawn darkness. Like myself, he had made the long walk in to sprawling expanse of state ground hoping to leave whatever crowd might be following behind. He asked how I had done, to which I came back with a little white lie that it had been pretty quiet.
“I got close,” the boy said. “Man, that bird was fired up. Gobbling and gobbling. Got between him and a hen. Then nothing. Don’t know why he shut up.”
When I asked about where, he said it was at the base of a ridge to the east — the block I’d just vacated. At least there was an explanation. I smiled and wished him good luck, and reminding him to be safe, as you never know when that hen might just be another hunter.
That true story is one that repeats itself across the country, as camo-clad hunters step into the field. Public land is pretty much open to anyone willing to walk in and set up shop. And in many parts of the nation, public land provides some of the best turkey hunting opportunities, but with those opportunities comes pressure, which can make hunting very difficult.
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A Pennsylvanian by birth and world turkey calling champion by way of dedication and devotion to his craft, Hunter Wallis knows about hunting pressured gobblers on public land.
Wallis has been a member of the Zink Calls (zinkcalls.com) community for the past eight seasons, offering up expertise in product development, educational seminars and, most recently, in front of the camera.
Wallis has won the National Wild Turkey Federation’s prestigious Grand National Calling contest six times, the World Championship twice and the U.S. Open Senior Division championship once. He’s been around, too, with birds from all corners of the United States to his credit.
“The big word — the key — that comes into play when you’re talking public land is pressure,” said Wallis. “Hunting pressure, regardless of whether we’re talking Arkansas, Florida, Virginia — it doesn’t matter — is what’s going to determine my choice of tactics.”
Scouting is an integral part of any successful hunting experience; however, in no situation is scouting more vital than in the public land turkey equation. Wallis suggests bringing in 21st century assistance to start, particularly if you’re new to the property.
“If you’ve never been on the public land, then something like Google Earth is definitely a plus,” Wallis said. “It can help you pinpoint hardwood bottoms, open fields or access routes before you ever step foot on the ground. This can tell you where you need to be before you’ve ever been there.”
But Wallis advises taking technology a step further by bringing interpersonal communication skills into the mix by talking to locals, such as area managers.
Turkey scouting, like reconnoitering for whitetails or waterfowl, is a relatively self-explanatory process. Get into the field in advance of the season and learn the land, as well as the birds themselves. Find the roosts. Locate the food, water and strut zones.
But if scouting is so elemental, is it possible to go about it wrong? Wallis says yes, as people often put pressure on birds when scouting.
“People forget, and they put pressure on the birds while they’re scouting,” said Wallis. “And pressure is the thing you’re trying to avoid on public land. It’s important not to interfere with the birds’ daily routine. Figure out what they’re doing. Where they’re going. But don’t mess up their routine, and no calling.”
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THE ART OF PATIENCE
Most longbeards fall to a combination of three elements — patience, persistence and self-discipline, especially when public land is a factor.
“Public land is where patience truly comes into play,” said Wallis. “This is where you take your regular hunting style, and you change it. Stay in one spot longer than usual. Practice to become a better caller. Set up the most natural scenario possible in terms of what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. You’ve got to bring your A-Game when you’re hunting public land.”
Staying after other hunters have left for home is one of Wallis’ key strategies. He recommends taking a pack with everything needed to stay comfortable, because after hunters leave, things usually settle down in the woods. And after hens sneak off to nest, gobblers start looking hard for hens to breed.
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CALLING IN A CROWD
Though Wallis confesses to a fondness for running and gunning, he suggests a switch for those working public land in the spring.
“Instead of running around haphazardly, I’ll walk 200 yards and sit for an hour, calling very sparingly,” Wallis said. “Then I’ll move another 200 yards, and sit for an hour.”
He says that gobblers get conditioned to hunters’ routines — the same sounds from the same locations from daylight until noon. As such, he recommends doing something different, such as changing cadence, and calling light and quiet. But above all, have patience. Give that gobbler time.
Like calling, Wallis claims decoy use needs to be taken into special consideration when working in a potential crowd.
“If you’re seeing a strutter, a jake and three hens in a field, then put three hens and a jake out,” said Wallis. “Don’t just throw a decoy out on a stake and hope for the best. Do what the birds are doing. And face the strutter or jake decoy toward where you think the birds are going to come from.”
Now there’s no denying that gobblers can be tough customers, even for a world champion caller. Throw in the challenges of pursuing North America’s largest game bird on public land, and you’ve transformed the mildly difficult into, quite possibly, the downright impossible. But, with a good dose of patience and a break from the routine in terms of calling, scouting and decoy use, these pressured longbeards can come a bit easier.