Get Ready for your Arkansas Gobbler
September 24, 2010
Few hunters hitting the woods on opening day are lucky enough simply to walk out with a nice tom. Follow this Arkansan's advice, and you'll be ready for success.
Preseason scouting may not be absolutely essential, but it greatly increases the chances that you'll find yourself in this situation. Photo by Jim Spencer
By Jim Spencer
It was opening day in Arkansas, and the sun was still just a promise over the ridge to the east when he gobbled the first time. He was less than 100 yards away, just off the lip of the wide Ozark bench where I was standing. It wasn't a surprise when he gobbled that close; in fact, it would have been surprising if he'd been much farther away than he was.
This was a backyard bird. The bench was less than a half-mile from home, and Jill and I had been listening to him for more than a month. He was pretty predictable. About four nights out of five, he roosted somewhere along the downhill side of the quarter-mile-long bench, and although his midmorning habits were variable, he almost always flew down onto the bench itself and pottered around there for 30 minutes or so before choosing his route for the day.
Patterning a gobbler as well as we'd patterned that one isn't a common thing. Nor, really, is it all that desirable - at least, not if you have access to more than one gobbler, and most turkey hunters do. It takes a lot of time and attention to learn a gobbler's habits as well as we'd learned his, and in most cases that time can be more profitably spent looking for other vulnerable gobblers. Knowing something about the habits of four or five gobblers is usually more valuable than knowing a lot about the habits of only one.
But this bird was so close to home, and so prone to gobble, that it was almost impossible to resist stopping to listen for him on our daily scouting trips. Either Jill or I would usually take a few minutes to get a reading on him every morning as we went to listen for other gobblers. Twenty minutes into legal shooting time on opening day, that bird was riding on my shoulder.
START BY SCOUTING Pre-season scouting is an important part of getting ready for turkey season. That's why it's surprising that so few hunters go to the effort to do any of it. It's even more surprising that of those hunters who do scout, only a small percentage of them actually do it effectively.
"Scouting for turkeys is a year-round job if you really want to do it right," said Mike Widner, private lands biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. As the AGFC's turkey biologist for more than a decade, Widner spent thousands of hours in high-end turkey habitat around the state at all times of the year. His job required him to be good at turkey scouting, since he was routinely required to estimate turkey populations in various regions and to evaluate potential turkey stocking sites. Coupled with years of experience as an avid turkey hunter, this on-the-job training has given him a perspective on the importance of scouting that few hunters will ever achieve.
"I know it's not realistic for most turkey hunters to get out there and take a look at their favorite turkey hunting spots 12 months a year," Widner said. "Summer days are hot and winter days are cold, and many hunters live a long way from where they do most of their hunting. But still, most of us could do a little better job of scouting, and it would improve our success rates if we did."
MAP YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS Widner recommends using maps for scouting purposes whether you're going over familiar ground or planning a hunting trip in new territory.
"Map-scouting won't tell you what the birds are feeding on and where they're roosting and loafing and watering," he explained, "but once a hunter begins to acquire a little turkey savvy, it becomes fairly simple to use a topographical map to pick out likely roosting areas and listening spots."
In hilly country such as the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and Crowley's Ridge, turkeys tend to roost in tall trees off the sides of ridges or benches, or in the heads of hollows surrounded by high ground, says Widner. In bottomland areas, turkeys generally prefer to roost over water when they can - in flooded beaver ponds, cypress brakes, and similar places.
Fortunately for the armchair scout, the above-mentioned terrain features are easy to pick out on topo maps. Find two, three, four or more of these likely roost areas within a half-mile of an elevated place within earshot of and with an unobstructed line of sight to the potential roosts, and you'll have found a listening spot worth an actual on-the-ground visit.
"After you've hunted turkeys for several years, you'll eventually find several of these good listening spots, anyway," Widner said. "But using maps is a lot quicker."
Jim Ronquest, who each spring chases turkeys almost as hard as he chases ducks each fall and winter, is also a believer in using maps to help himself get ready for spring turkey hunting. Ronquest does most of his turkey hunting in the bottomland hardwood forests of southeast Arkansas, but he's also logged his share of hunts in the Ozarks and Ouachitas and in the Gulf Coastal Plain portions of the state.
"Scouting is scouting, regardless of the terrain," Ronquest observed. "You can learn a lot about the lay of a place with a good set of maps, but there's still no replacement for getting out there on the ground every chance you get. I like to combine scouting with some other activity such as squirrel hunting. It gives me a good excuse to get out there more often."
HILL COUNTRY IS EASIER Ronquest believes that effective turkey scouting is harder to accomplish in lowlands than it is in hill country. "Turkeys don't move as much in the bottoms as they do in the hills," he explained. "Maybe that's because it's usually easier for them to find water in the bottoms; I don't know. But their travel routes as they move around in their home ranges aren't as easy to predict in flat land, so it's usually harder to find turkey sign or make contact with turkeys in the bottoms."
Even so, Ronquest says, looking for typical turkey sign - feathers, droppings, tracks, dusting places - is worth the effort in bottomlands or amid steep mountains.
"Find a good bit of turkey sign in the winter, and you'll be close to turkeys if you go back there in spring," he said. "It always makes me hunt harder and hunt better if I know I'm hunting where there's a good flock of turkeys."
Most of us hunt in familiar territory at least part of the time, and there's a lot to be said for that. The more you hunt a particular property, the better you come
to know it. And the better you know it, the better you'll hunt it.
But that still doesn't relieve you of the need for scouting. Conditions change. Mast crops come and go, and shift from one species to another. Logging operations are undertaken; roads get built through prime stretches of turkey woods. Turkey populations shift and fluctuate in response to all these stimuli, and if you don't take a look beforehand, you're betting into a blind hand.
I've done it, though; I'll bet that you have, too. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, it's usually a result of my failure to have scouted the place.
If the place you need to scout is unfamiliar to you, the odds of failure are much higher if you don't gather at least some intelligence about the place. Obviously, on-the-ground scouting is difficult or impossible if your destination is several states away. But there are other ways.
MINE THE MINDS OF OTHER HUNTERS "Pick the brains of other turkey hunters," advised Bismarck's Harold McAlpine, a veteran turkey hunter with intimate knowledge of big chunks of the Ouachitas, and an experienced and effective long-distance scout. Last spring, he and a friend took eight gobblers during a week-long hunt in New Mexico and western Oklahoma - all eight on public land that neither hunter had ever seen before.
"We all like hunting familiar territory, but it's fun to look at new places, too," McAlpine said. "I probably wouldn't go hunting very often if I had to go back to the same place every time. But a place that's brand-new to you is familiar territory to some other hunter somewhere, and all you have to do is find him."
This, according to McAlpine, isn't as hard as you might think, especially when you're trying to gather intelligence on unfamiliar territory here in Arkansas instead of three states away in New Mexico.
"Talk to people who work in the woods," he suggested. "Biologists with the Game and Fish Commission and U.S.D.A. Forest Service are out there a lot, and they're also knowledgeable about the habits and requirements of wildlife. They can usually give you some pretty good information, and many of them are turkey hunters themselves. They're probably not going to send you a map with their favorite hunting places circled, but they'll give you enough information to help you get pointed in the right direction."
McAlpine also recommends that hunters ask these biologists if they know local hunters who'd be willing to talk about general hunting conditions and prospects in the area being scouted. These hunters won't give away their secret places, either, but turkey hunters like to talk turkey, and you'll probably be surprised at how much they'll tell you. Most hunters are sympathetic to other hunters who need information and who ask for it in the right way.
Keep your questions general, not specific. Don't try to impress the person you're talking to; you're trying to gather information, and the best way to do that is to be humble and downplay your abilities - no matter how good you are. Ask about recent hatches in the area; the one you should be most interested in will be the one for the spring before last, since that determines the number of 2-year-olds in the population. Ask about hunting pressure. Ask about the availability of campsites, motels, or whatever other accommodations you want. And ask this: "If you were me, what area would you concentrate on?"
GETTING PHYSICAL However you go about it, scouting is only a part of getting ready for gobblers.
If you're a flatlander preparing for your first hunt in the Boston Mountains, physical conditioning will turn out to be a lot more important than you might think. Trust me here. I grew up in the east Arkansas delta, and had very little experience with rough country before I started turkey hunting. Those mountains in northern Franklin County very nearly did me in the first time I hunted there.
If you're a hillbilly planning a first hunt to the delta, give some thought to equipment you might need. Knee boots might prove handy; a compass almost definitely will be necessary (get plunked down in the middle of the White River bottoms on a cloudy day and you'll quickly learn why).
ORGANIZE OR SUFFER Organizing your equipment would seem like a no-brainer in the getting-ready phase of turkey hunting - but, evidently, it's not, judging from some of the things I've witnessed on turkey hunts. One fellow I used to hunt with showed up at a week-long turkey camp with boots that had no laces and a total of two shotgun shells. Each morning he taped his boots shut and borrowed two extra shells from me.
Keeping an equipment list is one good way to make sure that you have everything you're going to need. Keep the list from year to year, adding and subtracting things as you discover you need them or can do without them.
Get your turkey vest equipped with the stuff you like to carry - calls, clippers, etc. - and organize it in whatever way suits you best. Then leave it alone between turkey seasons. Don't use it for squirrel hunting, duck hunting or anything else, or you'll find yourself in the turkey woods some opening day without some crucial item of equipment.
THE CATCH-ALL CONTAINER In addition to carrying the vest along on your turkey hunts, it's not a bad idea to take some kind of bag that's filled with small items that might come in handy. Over the years, I've put together quite a collection of such stuff that I carry around in an old Samsonite three-suiter, and it saves the day several times every spring. In the suitcase are such items as electrician's tape, several sizes of flashlight batteries, scissors, extra face masks and gloves, several shotgun shells, boot laces, insect repellent, camo duct tape, toothpicks, pliers, needle and thread, an extra compass, plastic bags, a deck of cards, a small stash of emergency money. It's all in a big mess in there, but I can usually root around and find something to help get myself out of whatever pickle I find myself in on a turkey hunt.
PATTERN YOUR SHOTGUN AS WELL AS YOUR TURKEYS Turkey loads are evolving at a rapid pace, and hunters are always trying new shells and loads. But before you take a new shell, shotgun, barrel or choke tube on a hunt, you should spend some time punching holes in paper.
"There's no substitute for it," asserted Jim Ronquest. "Pattern your gun with a new shell before you take it hunting. Shoot several times, not just once, and shoot from a sitting position like you usually do when you shoot a turkey."
CALL AND CALL SOME MORE Most of us are not contest-caliber callers, and we never will be. That's OK - you don't need to be Don Shipp or Walter Parrott to call turkeys to the gun. But if you find that you call better at the end of turkey season than you did at the beginning, then you're not doing enough pre-season practicing with your calling.
It's not hard to find a few minutes each day to work on your calling, and that few minutes, multiplied by 30 to 40 days in February and March, will make a big difference in the way you sound when the season opens. It'll be time well spent.
MAKE THE MOST OF WHAT YOU HAVE Your getting ready for turkeys can be as elaborate - or as simple - as you choose to make it. Plenty of good turkey hunters never scout their woods before opening day, and never pick up a turkey call until they're in the woods on the first hunt of the season.
But if you want to be the best you can absolutely be, practice your calling and scout your territory. As Jim Ronquest says about patterning a shotgun: There's no substitute for it.
(Editor's Note: One additional way for Arkansas hunters to get ready for the season and help pass the time until April is by purchasing a copy of Jim Spencer's new award-winning 336-page book, Turkey Hunting Digest. For an autographed copy, send $28.95, check or money order, to Jim Spencer, P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)
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