February 20, 2017
Judging from the last gobble, he was right where he should be. Well, almost. Taking a deep, nerve-settling breath, I began a slow spin to my left; a move interrupted by another ear-splitting gobble, this one considerably closer than the tom's previous announcement.
Hurriedly, I finished what seemed like the seven basic gymnastic movements, did my 180-degree relocation, settled the Encore onto my knee, and cut loose with what I considered my sexiest rendition of a cute little hen turkey.
Instantly, I was rewarded with a gobble that vibrated the trees to my left and right. Movement ahead caught my eye; a fan, a full glistening fan, crested the leafy rise first. Thumbing back the single shot's hammer, my breath stopped at the ear-numbing "click." The longbeard, oblivious to everything but the hen he'd heard, stepped once, twice, three times — and stood in full view, not 25 yards from my perch. Slowly, he slicked down, his feathers falling into perfect alignment, his head periscoping, searching, picking the timber apart.
Seemingly of its own accord, the red-and-green fiber optics slipped into place. By the time the deep hollow BOOM finished echoing off the east ridge, I had my hand wrapped just above the gobbler's needle-sharp hooked spurs.
"Just where I thought he'd be," read the text sent to my wife, along with a photograph of the tom's spurs. "Be home soon."
It was another perfect spring turkey hunt. However, this one, for me, had a slight twist. I'd located the property and gained permission via the Old School method — friend of a friend, introduction, a handshake, and a polite, request to hunt. That wasn't the novel part of the equation. The novel part was how I'd found the precise spot on this new-to-me 180-acre mix of hidden pastures and hardwood timber.
What was this "new" scientific method? Google. Or more precisely, Google Earth.
A PLACE TO HUNT
Before we delve into the science of scouting online, let's take a look at that oh-so-important first step in the hunting process — finding a place to hunt. Back in the Golden Days, this step involved first physically locating a parcel of ground with potential, and knocking on the door of the closest farmhouse. Chances were if those folks didn't own the property, they knew who did. Though often effective, at least in my experience, this Old School method was a long, tedious process complete with hours of windshield time, sore knuckles, and the inevitable, "Sorry, but we don't allow hunting."
Today, I approach the process of locating new hunting ground a little differently. And, I'd like to think, a lot more efficiently. Over the past several years, I've come to rely on the county tax assessor's Web site as Step 1 in the process. Some sites — and most, if not all, can be found via a Google search for County X Tax Assessor — are more user-friendly than others.
My favorites are those that are map-driven. That is, you click on a satellite image of the property in question, and the site returns not only with the approximate property boundaries, but also additional click-through pages including the name and address of the property owner.
True, it's necessary to initially locate the property you want to research. I do that in one of two ways, one of which is the Old School drive-by visual method. Or, No. 2, by wandering what I'll call "my area of interest" from miles overhead, thanks to Google Earth.
Once I've researched an area, and having obtained the name, and best-case scenario, the address of the landowner, I'll then decide on how best to make first contact. Often, I'll opt for the direct approach. That is, armed with the address, I'll resort to a door knock, an introduction, and a handshake. Other times, a telephone call or a letter of introduction explaining who I am, what I seek, and asking if I might call on them at some point in the future. Technology, when it comes to locating potential hunting property, certainly does have its advantages. Still, there are times when it's best to resort to the Old School methods.
SCOUTING FROM SPACE
OK, let's say you've found a place with potential, done your research on the tax assessor's Web site, located the landowner, made contact both by phone and in person, and — congratulations! — obtained permission to hunt during the whole spring season.
Computer work over? No.
Actually, and before I ever step foot on a new property, I scout it, per se, via Google maps (Google.com/maps) or Google Earth (Google.com/earth), with Earth being my first choice. But, when confronted with an above-the-world view of my newfound gobbler mecca, just what should I be looking for?
My fledgling Google research into our pet 180-acre parcel, once I obtained permission, consisted of several steps. Step 1, where were the property lines? This actually served two purposes. First, I could be positive my wife and I were staying where we were supposed to be staying. And second, using the assessor's Web site, I could research the adjoining landowners, with the intention of expanding upon my holdings.
Once I had determined the property lines, the next step was deciding how I would access the property. Would I drive in? Could I drive in without causing a disturbance, or would it be necessary to park on the fringes and access the interior of the property on foot? In our case, Google Earth showed a farm lane running north into the center of the parcel near a grove of oaks, along with a half-acre depression. That would be perfect for hiding the truck, both from game and from anyone passing on the main road.
Once you've determined access, the in-depth work begins in earnest. Using Google Earth, I study the property closely, looking for four principal points of interest — water, roost sites, travel routes, and strut zones. Turkeys need water every day, and that basic need becomes more vital in times of dry weather. I look for creeks, small stock ponds, or seeps, anywhere a gobbler and his harem might find a drink.
Second, potential roost sites. Our property had two mile-long ridges running north-to-south on both the eastern and western fringes. Google Earth revealed several potential roost sites prior to my first scouting trip. Hardwood-studded bowls stretching from a narrow hidden bottom pasture upward to the spine. On a print-out, I marked these locations for further investigation. Audio surveillance, otherwise known as listening, proved a handful to be active roosts.
Is luck involved? Absolutely, but the Internet saved me time by helping eliminate some nonproductive locations.
To the turkey hunter, travel routes are (or should be) very important areas of concentration. Logging roads, ridgelines, creek or fence crossings, grass edges where the timber and pasture meet, all of these can be excellent travel routes, and all can be seen from above via Google Earth.
Turkeys, like deer, are creatures of habit, of the routine, and hunters can take advantage of these habits first by pinpointing the areas of potential, and then situating themselves accordingly.
Like travel routes, strut zones are oft-overlooked hotspots, the locations of which can be viewed in two dimensions via Google. A hidden meadow, no more than a living room in size, at the end of a valley surrounded by timber, certainly warrants a closer look. A bend in a logging road, a pasture corner invisible from anywhere but above; these, too, can be seen with the help of a satellite and a laptop computer. Guarantees? Absolutely not. But successful scouting begins with Step 1, and the Internet has made this process more convenient, not to mention efficient.
The technological view from above afforded by Google Earth can provide clues as to where to begin when it comes to locating hunting property, and scouting property. Still, nothing beats boots on the ground for determining where to hunt opening day. It's true that we hunters don't enjoy the home field advantage. It's Old Mister Gobbler's turf, and we need all the help we can get.