In the hardscrabble world of public-land gobbler getting, our local expert pinpoints great public options throughout the Bluegrass State. One is surely near you! (April 2010)
The author, pictured here, does a lot of his turkey hunting on public land with much success.
Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
My son could barely sit still during the long pre-dawn drive to the isolated regions of the Daniel Boone National Forest. This area consists primarily of hardwood ridges, laurel thickets and jagged cliff lines. You're definitely not going to find manicured fields and lush green food plots here, but certain hard-to-reach pockets of cover are still loaded with loud-mouthed gobblers nonetheless.
The winding gravel back road finally ended at the point of an overgrown clearcut that joined a mature stand of open timber. The leaf litter on the ground looked as though a team of wide-bladed bulldozers had pushed it around, and the turkey sign was red-hot. We stood motionless outside of the truck waiting to hear the first sounds of the morning, but the faint song of a whippoorwill was the only sound in the woods.
My son, James, decided to take out his owl call and make some noise. The second series of throaty hoots triggered a limb-shaking gobble from the deep hollow just below the strip of hardwoods. Quietly, we eased into position and patiently waited for things to really start breaking loose.
All of a sudden, several pesky hens from across the ridge began tree yelping and cackling from their lofty perches, causing the fired-up gobbler to absolutely lose his mind. Double and even triple gobbles were powerfully erupting in rapid secession. At this point, I could actually hear my son breathing just about as loud as the echoing gobbles. Within seconds, a chestnut brown tail fan that was stretched out like a sail appeared just below the back corner of the woods.
A few soft yelps were all it took to generate a thunderous double gobble from the poor lovesick fool. The longbeard paused every few feet to break into a stunning full-strut stance, which only added to the intensity of the moment. My son took one last deep breath before squeezing the trigger and ending one heck of a public-land hunt.
Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to chase longbeards all across the country, but my home state of Kentucky is second to none when it comes to public-land turkey hunting. On that note, let's take an in-depth look at some of the Bluegrass State's best public-land destinations, including some high-impact strategies that will allow you to tag a pumped-up gobbler this spring.
2009's PRIME PUBLIC LANDS
As you've probably already heard, the Commonwealth recorded another record-setting spring turkey harvest last year. In addition, Steven Dobey, our state's leading turkey biologist, is predicting another outstanding season for Kentucky hunters this April.
Without question, the seemingly endless acres of prime public-land hunting destinations that are scattered across the state have played a pivotal role in our overwhelming success. Many of these public-land areas are covered up with turkeys and are expected to generate high harvest numbers once again this season. Pay close attention because at least one of these red-hot harvest locations is probably near your neck of the woods.
Last season, the Daniel Boone National Forest, of the Southeast Region, led the pack in public harvest totals. This 670,000-acre public-land destination offers a variety of terrain features and is expected to provide hunters with another productive spring.
The 60,000 acres of Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA) are located in the Green River Region. This WMA sealed second place harvest honors. Third place went to the Lake Cumberland WMA, which encompasses nearly 40,000 acres within the Southeast Region.
Hunters on the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center of the Green River Region were able to knock down enough birds to claim fourth place recognition. The Green River Lake WMA of the Southeast Region rounds out the top five public-land harvest list; hunters should definitely not overlook this 20,500-acre tract of ground this season.
OTHER REGIONAL HOTSPOTS
Fortunately, all of our state's five distinct regions offer multiple public-land hunting destinations that turkey hunters can take advantage of during the spring. Now, let's break down some other hotspot locations from each region that didn't make the top five harvest list, but still offer excellent hunting opportunities.
Longbeard addicts living in the Purchase Region need to take a closer look at the Pennyrile State Forest and the legendary Land Between The Lakes National Recreational Area this April. Residents of the Green River Region should also place the Barren River Lake and Nolin River Lake WMAs at the top of their hit lists. The Bluegrass Region's Taylorsville Lake WMA and the Bluegrass Army Depot are both predicted to yield high harvest numbers this April as well.
Furthermore, hunters of the Northeast Region should also find plenty of gobbling action inside of the Paintsville Lake and Clay WMAs. Both of these locations boasted excellent harvest numbers last season, and this year the hunting is only expected to get better.
Finally, we end our must-hunt public-land destination list with the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area and the Beaver Creek WMA of the Southeast Region. Hunters reported seeing a lot of jakes last season from these two areas, which should translate to plenty of mouthy 2-year-old gobblers this April.
For additional information regarding any of these locations, log on to fw.ky.us, or simply call 1-800-858-1549 to request a Kentucky Public Land Hunting Guide. Hunters can also review recent harvest statistics and view area maps online.
THE ULTIMATE PUBLIC-LAND GAME PLAN
There is no doubt the Bluegrass State has been blessed with some of the best public-land turkey hunting around. However, tangling with veteran longbeards that have evolved into master escape artists over the years can be a challenge. Let's face it: Turkeys that have been overcalled, spooked, bumped and shot at are a completely different breed of bird. Learning how to consistently outsmart these bad boys will inevitably transform any hunter into one tough turkey-tagging machine.
This extreme environment forces hunters to adapt, adjust and modify their individual hunting strategies to meet a number of different challenges. Fine-tuning your individual hunting skills is exactly what it takes to make things happen when the woods are full of hunters and the pressure is turned up. The real secret to success
is formulating and utilizing a public-land game plan that will produce regardless of what is going on around you or the current circumstances. The following public-land playbook has enabled me to punch all of my tags, season after season, from areas that generally receive intense outside hunting pressure.
STEP 1: DEAL WITH PRESSURE
Despite popular belief, hunting pressure is not always a bad thing during turkey season. In fact, it can even be used as an advantage with the proper planning. Most public-land hunting areas share common characteristics that can make patterning the daily patterns of turkeys easier than you think. For example, these tracts of ground can often be broken down into two separate parts: (1) sections that offer quick and easy access and (2) remote and hard-to-reach areas.
One way of dealing with hunting pressure is to simply try to avoid it by targeting isolated pockets of cover that are off the beaten track. Over the years, flocks of turkeys have learned to utilize these secluded tracts of land as sanctuaries to escape periods of intense hunting pressure. It's amazing how a creek, river, clearcut, swampy area, cliff line, or steep terrain will keep turkeys out of reach from hunters. In many cases, these safe havens will attract and hold large numbers of birds after the first day of the season.
The trick is to focus on out-of-the-way locations that are often overlooked by other hunters. In the past, I have even used small canoes to float creeks and rivers to reach public-land turkeys that rarely see other hunters during a typical season.
A mountain bike or just a standard bicycle is also great for hitting locations that prohibit any form of motorized transportation. Some public-land areas encompass endless miles of these roads and distance can be an ally to both the turkeys and hunters who are willing to peddle just a little. Another high-impact strategy is to be dropped off near isolated areas that do not offer suitable or safe parking for other hunters. These locations may hold several gobblers with beards that drag the ground because of the lack of seasonal hunting pressure. In many cases, burning a little boot leather and going the extra mile is all it usually takes to generate some intense gobbling action from a public-land area near you.
STEP 2: HIGH-IMPACT SCOUTING
In order to stay ahead of the competition, it's critical to do your homework and gain detailed information about the public-land area you're hunting. Unfortunately, things like work, deadlines and commitments keep many of us out of the field throughout most of the year. However, there are some quick-hitting scouting tips that will save you a lot of time and give you the upper hand over most of the competition out there.
First, contact the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to have a map of the specific public-land area you are planning to hunt sent to your address (Google maps on the Internet is another option). Second, study the map from the comfort of your home and try to pinpoint isolated pockets of prime turkey habitat that are difficult to reach. Lastly, take an evening after work or the weekend to comb these areas for fresh turkey sign and possible spring setups a few weeks before opening day.
Another scouting possibility is to strategically hang a trail-cam near high-traffic areas to monitor the daily patterns and habits of longbeards in the area. You can also utilize multiple trail-cams to determine the exact times of day a gobbler is visiting a particular location and his preferred travel route. A wireless camera that automatically sends the pictures to your cell phone or home computer can save a lot of time and keep you up to date on the turkey movement in your hunting area.
High-impact scouting surveillance like this can also provide you with invaluable information relating to the current transitional phase of the birds you will be hunting. These pictures may reveal the longbeards are henned-up, visiting a particular food source or hitting a dusting site during the midmorning hours. Understanding daily habits and knowing exactly when and where to hunt a setup can definitely give you a head start on the other turkey hunters.
STEP 3: RUN & GUN STRATEGIES
At one point in time, hunters across the Bluegrass State simply didn't have the turkey-hunting opportunities that are available today. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to hear a single gobble during the spring in many areas. Back then making a mistake on one longbeard could cost you for the rest of the season. However, rapidly expanding populations of turkeys throughout the Commonwealth have basically made every county a target-rich environment.
It seems like every few seasons we experience another record-setting harvest and turkeys continually appear to be popping up just about everywhere you look. This is exactly why hunters can now apply more aggressive hunting tactics in the spring woods to target multiple longbeards and really get things cranked up.
For example, strategies that push the envelope and allow hunters to run-and-gun are perfect for public land, especially during tough calling conditions. Moving and covering a lot of ground is what the run-and-gun technique is all about; it can create a lot more opportunities with stubborn longbeards.
Again, your scouting efforts will dramatically increase your chances of closing the deal with this aggressive strategy. Knowing the terrain and exactly where high-traffic areas are located will inevitably add to your overall success in the field. Mapping out several prime locations and planning a strategic route to cover these specific areas can help keep you in the red zone for longer periods. The key is to quietly ease through these hotspots while utilizing a shock call to trigger a response from a gobbler at close range. Excited cutts and assertive yelps from a hen call can also be used, but you better be ready to set up quickly.
STEP 4: CALL-SHY TACTICS
Consequently, any veteran public- land turkey hunter will be able to tell you all about call-shy longbeards and how difficult these bad news birds can be on any given day. Running and gunning techniques may not always be your best option when the gobblers have been bombarded with a lot of calling pressure.
During extreme pressure periods, hitting super sensitive birds with stealthy and subtle tactics will probably be more productive. Setting up near high-traffic locations and toning down your calling can be just what the doctor ordered for wary longbeards. Calling strategies that depend on soft clucks, purrs and muffled yelps can coax a call-shy gobbler right into your lap. Placing a full-strut decoy set like the Carry-Lite Peep'n Tom and hen combo in areas that offer good visibility can also create a close encounter with a hardheaded gobbler. With this technique, minimal or even no calling at all may be required to get the job done.
Well, what are you waiting for? Right now is the perfect time to check out some of our state's prime public-land turkey-hunting destinations. Many of these areas are loaded with loudmouthed gobblers each spring and are probably located within a short drive from your home. You already have a complete list of the top public-land harvest locations and a full-proof game plan tha
t will help jump-start your season. This April, hit the woods with the confidence that you don't need an expensive hunting lease, intensely managed private property or a guide to make a longbeard eat some dirt! Now, get out there and make something good happen.