March 13, 2023
With shed hunting nearly in the rear-view mirror and morel mushroom picking just over the horizon, it's that time of year when most outdoorsmen and -women begin to turn their attention to chasing longbeards. If you are anything like me, your diaphragm call has taken up residence in your truck's cup holder for the past few weeks.
You have been watching all of the turkey hunting shows, dreaming of your opportunity to someday complete the North American Grand Slam of turkey hunting. Maybe you spent a couple of days bopping around Opryland at the annual NWTF convention. And, as is tradition, you read Col. Tom Kelly's Tenth Legion cover to cover for the umpteenth consecutive spring. However, none of this will matter unless you can successfully locate and set up on a gobbler.
March is prime time to be scouting the turkey woods to increase your hunting success in April and May. I've had great success over the last several seasons refining my approach to scouting for turkeys by using trail cameras on both private and public land. Instead of packing up your trail cameras from deer season and storing them in the barn until summer, consider repurposing them to aid in your turkey hunting success.
The intel collected by trail cams can be the difference between an opening morning double and a long season full of heartache and disappointment as you continue to get outsmarted by a bird with a brain the size of a peanut.
I'm a wildlife biologist and habitat consultant by trade, and my clients often assume I have the "secret sauce" when it comes to turkey hunting. While understanding turkey behavior and physiology certainly helps, the truth of the matter is I put just as much effort into scouting for turkeys as I do whitetails.
Although nothing beats the depth of knowledge gathered from having boots on the ground, you can use Google Earth or any of the current mapping apps on the market to do a little virtual reconnaissance to maximize your time afield.
Look for potential roosting areas, cliffs, food sources and agricultural fields, as well as likely strut zones and possible dusting locations. Utilizing the 3D feature on many of these programs makes finding these locations much more obvious. Look for abnormally large trees overlooking a pasture or food plot, ridgetop logging roads, high bluffs, cattle pastures and any terrain features that would funnel a loafing bird’s movements. Mark these potential camera locations on your phone and hit the woods.
TAKE A HIKE
Once afield, trail cameras in tow, I like to keep my eyes glued to the ground. A set of tracks in the mud, a J-shaped dropping or a stray feather hung up in the vegetation are all easily overlooked when your eyes aren’t diligently scanning the earth for recent sign. Start piecing the puzzle together as you go.
Do you see the potential roost tree you marked on your phone? Can you envision those birds pitching down to the field you’re standing in? How tall is the grass in the field? Can a turkey see over the top of it? Perhaps a cattle pond is low, exposing dried pond substrate and a possible dusting location. Does the sign confirm this? Maybe you’re on a logging road on the spine of a ridge. Are strut marks visible? If not, move on. Don’t overcomplicate this scouting mission. Place your camera where the sign is instead of where you think the sign should be. Consider getting to the property before daylight and listening for gobbles, then marking the approximate location in your phone.
THE HIGH SET
Of the two camera sets I employ for turkeys, I use the high set about 75 percent of the time. By getting your trail camera up off the ground, the small-statured birds are more likely to trip the motion sensor. Set the camera head height or higher. The high camera set is ideal for open areas, including food plots, hay fields, picked agricultural fields, cattle pastures and fly-down zones.
Anyone who has watched a group of turkeys slowly meander across an open field knows how agonizingly slow these creatures can move when they are not spooked. It’s like they have complete disregard for punctuality. Because of this, my favorite trick for high sets is to set the camera to time-lapse mode with a 5- or 10-minute interval, ensuring that the camera is programmed to take photos from dawn until dusk. The timelapse mode does an incredible job of tracking their movements from afar.
With wild turkeys being creatures of habit (especially the Eastern subspecies), don’t be surprised to find the birds entering and exiting the field from the same location. Consider bringing a stool or a lineman’s belt to assist in getting your cameras high enough. Depending on the size and shape of the field you are trying to scout, it may be necessary to use multiple cameras to effectively cover the whole thing. If you are setting the camera over a smaller area, such as a clover plot or a possible dusting location, set the camera for traditional motion detection.
THE LOW SET
I reserve the low camera set for tight quarters. It might be a strutting zone, a logging trail or a creek crossing. I’ve even set my camera over a random puddle that turkeys seemed to have an affinity toward (perhaps they were feeding on the wood frog tadpoles). Set your camera 1 to 2 feet off the ground. With the resolution of the current cameras on the market, you will end up with some extraordinary images at this angle. There are few things in the world as beautiful as the iridescence of a tom in full strut in the morning sunshine. Once the photos start rolling in, it’s up to you to determine if there is a pattern, rhyme or reason for the activity.
SCOUTING QUICK HITS
Here are some other things to keep in mind when scouting for gobblers using trail cams.
- Pay attention to the height of the vegetation in the field you are scouting. A turkey relies heavily on its sense of sight, so if the grass and vegetation are higher in that field than in years past, the birds might not feel as confident in that location this spring.
- Cattle pastures are my favorite places to hunt spring gobblers. Turkeys love scratching in the hay and pecking at the bugs attracted to the manure.
- You can sex a turkey by its droppings. If it is “J” shaped, it’s probably from a tom or a jake.
- You can also sex a turkey by its print. If it’s 4 1/2 inches or larger, it is from a tom; 3 1/2 inches or smaller, it’s from a hen or a poult.
- The substrate will dictate how much sign is left behind. Sand is always great for fresh tracks. Clay and mud can be, but if it has been dry, a turkey doesn’t weigh enough to leave a track.
- Don’t get too close to a roost tree while scouting. I like to hang back 100 yards or more.
- During fall, take note of what mast trees are producing heavily, especially the beech trees and red oaks. There will always be some leftover acorns and beech nuts in the leaf litter, and the turkeys will continue to scratch around these trees until they are all consumed toward the end of April.
- With enough hard work and intel, you can enter turkey season with confidence. Don’t overlook the value of running trail cameras to scout for patterns to place yourself in a position for success.
This article on turkey hunting is featured in the East edition of March's Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.