Bag Your Bird Against The Odds

Despite less-than-impressive forecasts, your spring turkey season can still be successful in Arkansas. Employ a tactical alternative to improve your odds of harvesting a spring gobbler. (April 2008)

Improving your calling skills can increase the odds of bagging a longbeard. Arkansas turkey hunter Steve Stoltz runs a box call near a pond.
Photo by Jim Spencer.

Despite less-than-impressive forecasts, your spring turkey season can still be successful in Arkansas. Employ a tactical alternative to improve your odds of harvesting a spring gobbler.

In April, thousands of Arkansas turkey hunters will trudge into the spring woods, scattergun or bow in hand, with the same mix of hope, excitement and anxiety they've felt each year for decades. Only this year, the exhilaration is apt to be dampened for many by a nagging addition to that repertory of emotions -- pessimism.

Reports of poor poult counts and declining turkey harvests across the state in recent years have cast a restless sense of foreboding over many of the Natural State's turkey hunters. It's as if many of them are defeated before they've loaded the first shell or nocked the first arrow.

Make no mistake: Arkansas turkey hunters will face a challenging task in 2008. But it's not one that can't be overcome with the right combination of attitude and strategy. Employ the following tips to maximize your chances of bagging a longbeard -- even when the odds are against you.

Face it: Fewer mature gobblers are likely to be in the woods this season, and those there will be harder to find.

After Arkansas hunters harvested a record-breaking 19,947 birds in 2003, a five-year string of poor hatches and a liberal hunting season structure began to translate into lower harvests. Hunters checked in 16,750 turkeys in 2004, down more than 19 percent from the record-setting harvest a year earlier. In 2005, the number of bagged birds fell yet again, this time to 14,183. The downward spiral continued in 2006 and bottomed out with a 2007 harvest of 11,069 turkeys -- slightly more than half of the annual harvest just four years earlier. That's why it is more important than ever to scrutinize your hunting grounds and plan out your strategy well in advance of entering the woods.

Realistically, it's getting pretty late to begin this aspect of putting together a successful turkey hunting strategy. If you haven't already spent some time on the ground you're planning to hunt -- not just driving the roads and listening for turkeys to gobble, but getting away from the roads and actually scouting for turkeys and turkey sign -- you're already behind the 8-ball. Talking to field biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can yield valuable intelligence regarding turkey concentrations and food sources.

An additional benefit of on-the-ground scouting is that it helps a hunter become more familiar with the lay of the land. In fact, this may be even more valuable in improving your chances for success than learning about the habits of the birds you're going to hunt. It's not easy to fill your turkey tags if you don't know there's a fence, creek or gully between your calling position and the gobbler you're trying to work. Scouting your turkey hunting territory as often as possible will help you learn the landscape better. And the better you know it, the better you can hunt it.

Will Primos, president of Primos Wild Game Calls, is a firm believer in knowing the territory. "For the turkey hunter with average or below-average calling abilities, I think knowing the terrain is 70 to 80 percent of playing the game successfully," he said. "If you can't (call well), then knowing the terrain is the most important thing."

Frankly, most turkey hunters aren't good at calling birds. There's a reason for that: We don't practice enough. Most turkey hunters have practiced their calls enough to sound more or less like a turkey, but that's it. The average turkey hunter doesn't run any of his calls from the last day of spring turkey season until about a week or so before the next season opens. After a few seasons, it doesn't take much practice to retain a minimal level of calling skill. A few 5-minute sessions of running a slate or a box on the back porch, a few mornings of diaphragm practice while driving to work, and most hunters can quickly get back to their own personal level of mediocrity. And that's where the average hunter stops. He's called in turkeys at that skill level. Why practice any more?

Because of what Will Primos said, that's why. For one, very few hunters do all of their hunting on familiar ground. If having better calling skills will give you a better chance to kill a bird in a strange place, why not try to improve?

All it takes is practice -- a lot of practice. It might not take long for an experienced hunter to get back up to his natural calling level, but climbing up to the next level requires some work well before the season opens. Competition callers like Steve Stoltz and Ricky Joe Bishop practice every day of the year, often several hours per day. That's an unrealistic schedule for non-competition callers, but the fact remains that most of us could make ourselves more effective turkey hunters if we did more pre-season practice with our calling instruments.

Much of the good public turkey hunting in Arkansas is adjacent to lakes and large rivers. Lake Ouachita, in the middle of the Ouachita National Forest, is a prime example, as is the lower White River running through the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Using a boat to hunt these areas can give the hunter a triple advantage.

First, a hunter using an outboard-equipped boat can cover a lot more territory than can a hunter on foot. This isn't an advantage in actual hunting, obviously, because in order to hunt, it's necessary to get out of the boat and onto dry land. But a boat allows a hunter to cover a lot more territory in those precious minutes between first light and fly-down time, when turkeys are most vocal and you're trying to find one to hunt.

Second, sound carries better over water, which amplifies the first advantage. A larger audible range translates into more land scouted.

Finally, most adult turkeys are not accustomed to being approached by hunters from water. While the landward side presents the danger of encountering hunters who have used wheeled vehicles to make their initial approach, a border of water offers turkeys the perception of safety. Sometimes throwing a turkey a change-up is the best way to strike him out.

In addition to the two hunting areas mentioned above, here are a few more public areas in Arkansas that can be hunted by boat:

'¢ The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' public land surrounding lakes Bull Shoals and Norfork.

'¢ Ouachita National Forest lands bordering Blue Mountain Lake in Logan County.

'¢ Cache River NWR lands bordering Cache River and Bayou DeView between Clarendon and Grubbs.

'¢ Felsenthal NWR lands bordering the Ouachita and Saline rivers between El Dorado and Crossett.

'¢ Ozark National Forest lands along the Mulberry River and Piney Creek (canoes only).

This and last year's shorter 21-day season structure is designed to reduce Arkansas' overall turkey harvest. If you don't want the season limitations to reduce your turkey harvest, get out there every chance you get. Most hunters can only hunt on weekends; miss a weekend this season, and you've cut your chances by a third.

Extending that philosophy a little farther: Hunt as long as you can each day you get out. If you're hunting before work, there's not much you can do in this regard. But if you're on a two-day weekend turkey hunt, don't come back to camp at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning -- stay out there. The more time you spend in the turkey woods, the better your chances of trading a tag for a broiled turkey breast are going to be.

By now, you'll have figured out the overall thrust of this article: In a year of diminished opportunity, it's up to the individual hunter to maximize the chances for personal success. This can be done in many ways beyond those we've discussed here; we've only scratched the surface. Think it through, and you'll be able to come up with many more ways to improve your odds.

The bottom line is that approximately 10,000 to 12,000 Arkansas turkeys are going to ride out of the woods on somebody's shoulder this spring. If one of those shoulders is going to be yours, you've got to get out there and make it happen.

(Editor's Note: Jim Spencer's book, Turkey Hunting Digest, is now available at a discounted rate of $15, plus $4 postage and handling. Send check or money order to Treble Hook Unlimited, P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)

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