Hints For Preseason Turkey Scouting

The gobbler season is drawing near, so it's time to hit the woods to see where the toms are hanging out. But first you'd do well to consider these ideas for effective scouting.

Bringing home a tom often depends on having done your fieldwork properly before the season opens.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

Every February and March, popular sporting magazines run stories about the need for turkey hunters to do pre-season scouting. Although these articles often make for entertaining reading -- some scribe details how he found a longbeard in February that he called in and killed on opening day of the season -- I find such claims dubious.

After all, the vast majority of mature birds have no individual identifying characteristics that help us distinguish one gobbler from another. And, second, the wintertime behaviors of toms -- what they're doing, where they're locating -- will bear little to no relationship to the activities they'll be into when the season commences.

Let's take a look at the folly of scouting too early and discuss more-effective ways of preparing for the season.

Just what are the gobblers and hens up to, right now, in the middle of winter? Well, both sexes are actually going about their daily routines pretty much as they did in the fall, when you would see a flock meander by while you were on that deer stand.

The males really have only three things on their primitive minds now -- and none of those is mating. The first is survival: A turkey's senses of sight and hearing are exceptional, and this bird's wariness is legendary; those survival senses never shut off. The second is to establish dominance over other males in his flock -- a drive that begins immediately after hatching and never wanes or ceases. The third is simply to find food.

The females, of course, are driven by the two of those same motivators: survival and food. But their other instinct is to protect the jennies that remain with them. As many turkey enthusiasts know, the jakes have long since left the flock and are engaged in sorting out dominance issues in their young male gangs.

So at this time the birds are sorted out into what amounts to four separate flocks: the mature males; mature females that don't have young, having lost their broods for whatever reason; gangs of jakes; and assemblies of jennies with their maternal hen.

Especially during the late-winter period, these various flocks travel epic distances to find food. Telemetry studies have shown that some flocks trek 25 or more miles from their starting points in the course of a month. Prior to the opening of hunting season, turkeys will range great distances in order to find food, in particular when mast both hard and soft is scarce.

Thus, February scouting forays on properties that you plan to later hunt may yield sightings of turkeys, but these birds may or may not be the ones that are around come opening day. And their flock dynamics will definitely have changed by then, as more mingling of the sexes will obviously take place as the opener draws nigh.

Additionally, turkeys may be in certain general areas now, but even if they remain in the vicinity, their specific habitat needs will have changed by opening day; by then, for instance, hens are more likely to be in locales near top-quality nesting areas such as clearcuts with deadfalls and brushpiles.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't scout in mid-to-late winter. I'm just stating that any information gained now is at best irrelevant and at worst totally useless -- unless it's interpreted correctly.

So, all of the above in mind, when should we begin scouting? My answer: Start 10 or so days before turkey season. Biologically speaking, flock dynamics will from that point be basically stable until the hens begin to incubate their eggs -- a period of roughly six weeks.

While mature toms gobble lustily on the roost, jennies and mature hens will be roosting nearby. At flydown time, when gobblers commence to strut, hens will almost always be feeding in proximity. During this 10-day stretch I've occasionally observed some mating occurring, although the peak of that is likely yet to come. Often fighting, seldom gobbling, jakes and subdominant gobblers will be flitting about the perimeters of the assemblages of hens.

This is an exciting time to be in the woods, and any information gained now will prove exceptionally relevant to opening day. Chances are very strong that the roosting areas, woodlots and fields in which you locate birds now will turn out to be the same places in which they'll be on opening morning.

Two additional reasons to wait to start scouting until about a week and a half before the season begins: First, unless you're retired or independently wealthy, you have job and, probably, family responsibilities; if you're limited in your scouting time, it'd be better to save it until it'll do the most good. Second, if you're a turkey fanatic, the fatigue factor shouldn't be discounted; spend six weeks scouting and (unless you limit out earlier) two months hunting, and you can get worn down by the process.

Yet another mistake that spring gobbler hunters often commit besides scouting too soon is scouting incorrectly. Some individuals even brag about calling in birds before the season begins. This is a huge mistake, as all this does is educate gobblers, making them less likely to be duped again in the same area and with the same calling strategy.

My basic pre-season scouting plan is to venture onto the land I plan to hunt well before dawn. In mountain and hill country I go to the highest points available; in flat and swamp habitats I seek out places enabling me to hear for long distances. Then I just wait for dawn. I don't call at all at this time, and that includes using locator calls such as owl or crow calls. Ideally, a gobbler or gobblers will sound off on their own -- mission accomplished.

If, however, a silent dawn comes and goes, I'll then employ a barred owl call and perform the "who-cooks-for-you" refrain. If that fails to elicit a response, I move on to a crow and sometimes to hawk or pileated woodpecker call.

Is there ever a situation in which you should utter a few hen clucks or yelps? One case comes to mind: If you have to travel a long way to scout a place that you'll be unable to return to until the season begins, I think it'll be necessary to vocalize some hen talk so that you can definitely determine if a place is likely to have birds when the season starts.

Sometimes work or family commitments limit our early-morning scouting trips, or weather conditions, such as heavy rains or high winds can prevent you from going as many mornings as you'd like. For happenings such as these, consider going afield in the middle of the day.

A wealth of information can be gained from midday scouting. For instance, I once arrived at a hunting property around 10:00 a.m. one pre-season morning. No birds responded to my crow or other locator calls, but the habitat -- a pleasing mix of mature forests, creek bottoms and regenerating clearcuts furnished with a spring, a stream and old logging roads -- indicated that turkeys should be present. So I began walking one of the logging roads, and soon located a dusting bowl; there, fresh feathers and wingmarks were in evidence.

Traveling on, I noted some "J"-shaped droppings of gobblers, as well as some of the popcorn-like scat of the hens. I entered the forest and soon found numerous areas in which scratchings dotted the forest duff. Importantly, the scratchings were of various ages, indicating that turkeys had been using the area for some time.

Several weeks later, I was able to hunt the area for the first time and heard four gobblers sound off. As a result, a tom traveled to a check station with me that morning.

If midday scouting isn't practical for you, go after work. The same type of information can be gathered in the evenings, and you have the additional possibility of hearing or seeing turkeys fly up for the night. Barred owl calls also can come into play for evening roosting excursions.

So the 10-day pre-hunt scouting "season" has concluded, and you've located birds on a number of properties. What's the best way to exploit this information? My most urgent advice is to use only the data that you've gained from this particular pre-season.

For instance, many make a mistake in feeling compelled, even after all their scouting, to hunt areas that they've always hunted, that they've killed birds on in the past, or that they have a tradition of going afield on with buddies and/or family members on opening day. Loyalty to the past may be good for camaraderie, but it's a major error to let it influence hunting decisions. Just because birds used to dwell in some woodlot doesn't mean that they're still there.

I have permission to hunt seven farms within an 11-mile radius of my workplace. One of those farms has in particular been a longstanding early-season hotspot for me; I've killed five turkeys there during this decade, and I hunted there on the opening day of the 2007 season. Yet when I visited it during the 2008 pre-season, I only heard one gobbler, and he was always with hens.

In a chart that I make after the pre-season has concluded, I labeled the tom as "difficult to kill" and ranked the farm at seventh among my seven choices -- and despite the success I'd experienced there in the past, I never visited the farm the entire season. A buddy who shares hunting rights with me for the place gave it a try several times but never once came close to killing the aforementioned longbeard. "He just won't come," my friend would lament to me every day after he'd failed to call the old boy in; I'd already determined that during the pre-season. It's no shame to admit that sometimes we just can't kill certain birds.

Once the pre-season is over and I've ranked my hunting properties as likely hunting sites, I plan out my season's regimen. In the first three days of the season I go to the three places in which I've found the most-vocal longbeards. After those hunts, I then make a decision to return to one of those locales or move on to properties four and five. At the end of every week, I evaluate the past week for success and failure and devise itineraries and strategies for the following week. The pre-season reconnaissance still plays a part, of course, but I give greatest weight to the most recent actual hunting trips.

There are all kinds of reasons to visit hunting tracts many weeks before a season begins -- enjoying exercise and reestablishing contact with landowners, to name two -- but gathering information that'll prove valuable during the regular season isn't likely to be one of them. Wait until that 10-day period before the season begins, and your success rate will probably improve.

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