March 22, 2022
Every turkey season, my opening day typically begins on a small 70-acre tract my family owns. The thing with small properties and turkey hunting is the birds are either there or they aren’t.
On this property, they usually are—at least at flydown time. But, while my day typically starts with me sitting along the same stretch of woods between the field where the birds like to go and the beaver swamp where they typically roost, I still scout the property every year prior to the opener.
Why? Because the exact trees where they roost, the route they take to the field and the number of birds, particularly gobblers versus hens in the mix, can all play a huge role in determining exactly where I need to be sitting when I make that first call each season, as well as how I approach my calling. It’s often the difference between a successful hunt and one that falls just short.
Scouting turkeys doesn’t need to be an overly time-consuming affair. It really depends on how familiar you are with the property. Is it one you have hunted season after season or is it a new place you just locked down?
If it’s the former, and since most of us hunt spring turkeys on land on which we also hunt deer or small game, think back to where you saw birds or heard them roost during the fall and winter months.
While flock makeup is certainly different then, with gobblers hanging together and hens and first-year birds in their own flocks, the two will begin to mingle as spring approaches.
They will also tend to mingle in the same places that made for good roosting locations when it was cold. Whether hunting new or familiar lands, follow these steps to improve your odds on opening day.
The Digital Scout
I’m a huge fan of onX, HuntStand and similar apps that allow me to mark property boundaries, view up-to-date satellite images of a property and record landmarks such as trails, roost sites, strut zones and blind locations. Bring your scouting into the 21st century by downloading one of these apps and marking your property lines and viewing the satellite images to determine likely terrain features such as creeks, fenced pastures, swamps and overgrown cutovers that might affect how turkeys approach your setup. Then, a month before the season, grab your phone and go walk the land.
Take an Early Hike
Again, even if you’re hunting woods and fields you’ve hunted for years, remember that things change. Favorite roost trees get cut. Clear cuts grow up, making for great nesting cover but lousy strutting and travel areas. Beavers dam waters that back up on once-dry land, creating water that will impede a gobbler’s approach. Meanwhile, rain can be scarce for periods, creating dry areas where creeks had once hindered a gobbler’s approach. Even downed trees can alter how a tom might come to your calls. Activities on neighboring properties, particularly agricultural production, can impact how birds move on and off your land.
With phone in hand, walk the property and note downed trees, dried-up creek beds and, conversely, flooded areas. If you find strut marks or dusting bowls, spot birds loafing or find abundant turkey tracks in soft soil, mark the locations so you can look for patterns in the birds’ activities. You may even spook some birds while walking around. That’s why I like doing this walk well before the season, so it doesn’t impact bird behavior when the season opens.
On The Ground
No more than two weeks before the season, maybe just a week before, you’ll want to get out there early on a still, quiet morning and listen. Flock dynamics are changing rapidly as the season nears, with the pecking order having been established and dominant toms breeding hens and subordinate toms hanging on the periphery and wanting in on the action. That means birds will be roosting in different areas, and often toms will suddenly pop up in areas where they weren’t just a month prior.
Get to your property before sunup and find either a high spot, such as an open hardwood ridge or hilltop meadow, or an open spot such as the edge of a large field where you can hear a good distance. Listen for and pinpoint gobbling birds and then determine where they go after flying down by glassing fields and listening for calling throughout the morning. The key is to identify as many huntable gobblers as you can to provide options should a bird suddenly go quiet on opening morning or someone beats you to him and is already set up on the tom when you get there.
Later in the morning, keep to the shadows of the woods and glass open fields for strutters, wandering hens and any other turkey activity. A good binocular is essential gear for turkey scouting (and hunting). You want to minimize your presence to avoid changing the local flock’s habits, which is why sticking to the treeline, using optics to see far and listening are all vital now. Rainy days are great for glassing birds in fields, as the dripping limbs and additional noise in the woods drives birds out into the open. It also makes it easier for you to sneak about undetected since wet leaves don’t crunch.
Leave your calls at home; you don’t want to educate birds to your calling now. Let the local turkey activity unfold organically. Mark your key findings on your chosen hunting app, noting in particular where gobbling birds are roosting. Later in the day, if you’re able to get to areas where birds roosted, note large trees that will be good to set up against. You want to pick a tree that is wider than your body to break up your silhouette, is along the path the bird moved after flying down and that doesn’t have large obstructions such as downed trees blocking the turkey’s approach. These spots are going to be where your hunt starts at sunup on opening day.
With opening day finally here, you’re ready to go fill your first tag of the season with intel gleaned from pre-season scouting. Hopefully, you’ve identified at least two gobblers to hunt. So, which one do you go after?
Let’s pick the gobbler that is in the easiest spot to get to and has the most predictable pattern. Never walk past potentially gobbling birds to get to another lest you risk bumping them. Turkey hunting is already challenging enough—don’t make it harder.
This is the one day you don’t want to be running late. If there is competition with other hunters on the land you hunt (and if you hunt public land, there certainly will be), you’ll want to be there well before daylight to stake out your spot. Under the cover of darkness, use trails and fields (it’s usually quieter than walking through woods) to get within 100 to 200 yards of where your bird has been roosting. Ideally, your destination is a tree you identified as a good setup spot near the roost.
Hang out and listen as the sun begins to rise. If you’ve done your homework well, the tom will gobble from where you expect him to, and you can simply sit where you are and allow things to unfold. Avoid calling too much while the gobbler is on the roost. Maybe hit him once or twice with a soft tree call just to let him know you’re there, then wait for him to hit the ground. Don’t freak out if hens start calling around him. If you are set up in an area where the birds typically go after fly-down, sit tight and let the hens fly down and walk past you, ideally with the gobbler in tow.
Pay close attention to other nearby gobbling as well, as it can sometimes hail from younger satellite toms that might gobble a time or two once on the ground. If the hunt falls apart, your target tom doesn’t gobble, hens bust you or another hunter blows your setup, you’ll know where to head next. Or you can move on to the back-up bird that you identified during scouting. Either way, you have a plan for success that you built during the preseason.
The Importance of Patterning
Stock up on your favorite load and hit the range now.
From an ammo usage standpoint, turkey hunting is a fairly economical pursuit—most turkey hunters won’t shoot more than a shell or two in a season. That said, you need to put in some time before the season patterning your preferred load. And considering how hard it is to locate ammo these days, if you’re late buying your favorite turkey loads, they may not be available and you’ll to have to resort to using one you’ve not tried before.
Even if shooting a familiar load, you still want to pattern your gun prior to opening day. The most important reason is it will give you confidence that you can make the shot at the moment of truth. It also allows you to confirm that your point of aim is still good since you put the gun away at the end of last season and the choke you have in your shotgun pairs well with the load. Plus, practice is always a good thing—especially when done close to go time.
To get the most from a patterning session, dress in what you’ll wear when hunting, sit on the ground (not a bench) and shoot at targets at varying distances between 15 and 50 yards away. Learn how your pattern spreads as it travels and where the point of failure is. Make sure the shot is striking the vital area on your turkey target evenly, with multiple pellets in the kill zone. Even practice shooting up and down hills. Do this and you’ll be ready when a real gobbler is standing in front of you.