Taking The 'Hunt' Out Of Turkey Hunting

Proper pre-season scouting can put you in position to do some shooting on opening morning -- instead of hunting something to shoot. These expert tips will aid in getting the job done right. (March 2008).

If a husband has to find his wife on a Saturday morning, should he look for her at a shopping mall, at her best girlfriend's house, or at a power tool sale at the local hardware store?

He'll do best to seek her out in the places that provide her with the things that she wants -- that make her feel comfortable.

Veteran turkey hunters follow the same strategy on scouting trips in preparation for spring turkey hunting season. Experienced turkey taggers scout for places rather than for birds.

"Scouting specifically for birds in late winter can be deceiving," said Jim Jansen, a wildlife biologist who has more than 20 years of turkey hunting experience. "They may spend the winter feeding and roosting in certain areas, then just about the time spring turkey hunting season opens, warmer weather changes their food sources, and breeding season changes their behavior.

"I know guys who watched and followed turkeys all winter, figured out exactly where they were feeding and roosting," he continued. "But when they went out to hunt in the spring, the birds were gone.

Jansen and other savvy turkey hunters expect turkey behavior to evolve as spring weather develops and breeding season progresses. Jansen does minor scouting during the winter to confirm that turkeys are in a general area, then temporarily ignores the birds and focuses on identifying and locating food sources and habitats the birds will use once spring arrives.

"If I'm hunting in a new area, where I'm not familiar with the terrain, I'll get a topographic map and identify the major ridges, because gobblers generally prefer to be on higher terrain," he said. "If I can, I'll get an aerial photo of the area, and look for openings in the timber along the tops of those ridges, maybe see if I can identify some brushy areas near the openings. Brush or heavy cover near an open area on a ridgeline is a good thing."

Jansen explained that in the spring, toms want to strut in open areas so they can see and be seen. During that same time, hens look for good nesting habitat. So heavy habitat near open areas makes both toms and hens happy, and therefore a prime location to find springtime turkeys.

"Even if they aren't using those strutting and nesting areas in late winter, if turkeys are in that general area come spring, they'll use them once the weather changes," said Jansen. "After while you get so you can look at maps and walk through timbers and just feel the sort of places that turkeys will use once spring arrives."

Jansen also factors in the availability of food sources. "If you're in farm country and there are cornfields nearby, that's great," he said. "Corn is king when it comes to turkey food. They'll feed on waste grain in crop fields all through the winter and into spring. Those fields won't necessarily be the places to hunt in the spring, but they're good to identify because they'll keep turkeys in the general area."

Another food source in agricultural areas that can encourage turkeys to linger, or even attract them, is manure from beef cattle or dairy operations. Jansen noted that cattle manure often contains large quantities of undigested or partially digested corn. Turkeys aren't squeamish -- they happily feed in fields where cattle manure has been spread atop snow in the winter, or on bare fields in early spring.

Greg Schmidt is another wildlife biologist and avid turkey hunter. He agrees with Jansen that the key to spring turkey-hunting success is to scout for turkey habitat rather than turkeys.

"I'm real fortunate that I've had access to the same private lands for a number of years, so I pretty much know where to find turkeys every spring," said Schmidt. "The scouting I do is in midwinter, and then again just before turkey seasons open. The midwinter trips are to find the general areas where the turkeys are actually wintering. The late-winter/early-spring trips are to identify places where those turkeys will be when it comes time to hunt."

Schmidt's midwinter scouting combines face-to-face visits with landowners and farmers to discuss renewing hunting privileges on their property with chats to glean information about the location of turkeys on each farm.

"Farmers usually have a pretty good idea where turkeys are spending the winter on their property," said Schmidt. "I do a little checking to see the general location of the birds, get an idea of how many there are and how they're distributed. From then on, I'm looking less at birds and more at terrain and habitat to identify where those birds will be during hunting season."

Schmidt also uses the visits with landowners to check on their plans for crops to be grown in the coming year. Turkeys view fresh greenery such as alfalfa, clover and especially winter wheat, winter rye or spring-seeded grasses as all-you-can-eat buffets. Advance knowledge of where those crops will be planted helps Schmidt pinpoint prime turkey feeding areas.

Agricultural practices play a big role in Schmidt's hunting plans because he hunts in areas where densely timbered narrow ridges are separated by isolated farm fields. He's learned that farm fields in those situations are very attractive to turkeys. While gobblers generally prefer to strut and display on ridges and high ground to increase their opportunity to see and be seen, those lowland farm fields between narrow wooded ridges often attract more turkeys than the neighboring highlands.

"They're opportunists," he said. "If there are no openings in the timber on the ridges, the borders of the fields down in the bottoms look pretty good to them. They're close to cover if they get spooked, and they can see in all directions, which they like."

Lowland farm fields also attract the attention of Schmidt and turkeys on windy days.

"If the wind is really howling up on the ridgetops, I've noticed that they're more inclined to use the open areas down between the ridges," he said. "It's certainly more comfortable for me, and probably more comfortable for them, but I think the big thing is that they can hear better out of the wind, and that makes them more comfortable.

Turkey hunters are very aware of turkeys' legendary eyesight, but often overlook how well the big birds hear. John Burk, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, recounts an experience that illustrated turkeys' aural abilities.

"At one time I had some penned turkeys in my yard," he recalled. "I was out working in the yard, and one of the toms started gobbling nonstop like crazy, all excited. Maybe 30 seconds later, I heard an ambulance way off in the distance. It never came real close, so it was never really loud, to my ears. That turkey kept gobbling for as long as I could hear the ambulance, and kept gobbling for another 30 seconds after I couldn't hear it anymore.

"Considering how far an ambulance traveling 70 miles an hour can travel in 30 seconds, that impressed on me about how well turkeys can hear," said Burk. "I've noticed on windy days they're a lot more spooky -- maybe because they don't feel as comfortable because they're working with diminished senses."

Burk is also impressed by the ability of turkeys to quickly locate in three dimensions the exact source of sounds.

"Humans need to hear sounds several times, and sort of swing their heads around to pinpoint where it's coming from," he noted. "Turkeys seem to be able to hear something once and know exactly where it came from. That's one reason I'm not a fan of a lot of calling: They know exactly where you are after your first couple of clucks on the call."

Because Burk often hunts on large tracts of public land, he works with birds that have potentially large ranges and often experience heavy hunting pressure. He's learned that gobblers are surprisingly loyal to their home territories. And sometimes mute.

"We've done studies of turkey movement during hunting seasons, and nine out of 10 times toms don't move (out of an area) because of hunting pressure as much as they just go quiet," said Burk. "We've had radio transmitters on birds and followed them, and about the only thing that will move them long distances is if they get wounded by a hunter. Then they may take off and really move. But most of the time they stayed in the same area as long as hens were around to keep them interested. They just moved around to stay away from hunters."

All three of our veteran turkey hunters agreed that adaptability and constant awareness of changes in turkey behavior brought on by hunting pressure, weather and/or the progression of breeding season combine to help them keep tabs on the birds until spring hunting ends.

As both a researcher and a hunter, Burk has seen gobblers subjected to hunting pressure drastically alter vocal behavior. "We tracked a few old gobblers during breeding season that quit gobbling and actually moved away from a real hen that was calling," he said. "They either had been shot at or caught some lead, and had learned that a hen call was a bad deal for them. If you get into that sort of situation, your only hope is to figure out where they roost, where they feed, and where hens hang out, and then set up and ambush those quiet gobblers traveling to or from those spots."

Burk has also noticed that toms are more patient later in the spring. He scouts continually while hunting, carefully monitoring changes in behavior and movement related to the progression of the breeding season. Gobblers that would have scrambled to chase down a lonesome hen during the early phases of breeding season are inclined to let the hens come to them after the "new has worn off."

"There is truth to the idea that toms will move to strutting areas, and that the hens will go to those areas to be with the toms," he said. "Those are some of the nuances about how turkey behavior changes during the breeding season. What works during the first week or so may not work so well during the last weeks, because their attitudes and behaviors change."

Behaviors change not only over the course of breeding season, but almost daily, according to Burk, Jansen and Schmidt. All three hunters have lost some of their enthusiasm for crack-of-dawn turkey hunting trips because they've enjoyed equal or better success on mid- or late-day hunting trips."If the law allows all-day turkey hunting in your area, 9 a.m. isn't a bad time to start hunting," said Schmidt. "We have multiple spring seasons in our state, and I call the last two seasons the 'Breakfast Seasons' because those are good times to get up, go eat a nice, leisurely breakfast, and then hit the woods around midmorning.

"In the past few years, I've killed more birds after 9 a.m. than before 9 a.m. I think there are a couple of things that make it work that way. Other hunters banging around in the woods are certainly a factor that makes the birds a little more edgy. But the big thing is that toms are with hens first thing in the morning and really hard to work with a call. But once those hens are serviced, toms are more inclined to check out any lonesome hens they hear calling. I've had real good luck working gobblers right up until the end of hunting hours."

That's where pre-season scouting of habitats and terrain, coupled with constant awareness of behavior changes during hunting seasons, helps Schmidt set up and maximize his chances of luring toms within gun or bow range after other hunters have gone home for the day.

"If I'm bowhunting, I use a ground blind, and have spots picked out based on strutting areas, food sources, terrain and nesting habitat," he said. "I want all those factors to be in close proximity to where I set up my blind."

Many hunters have blind confidence in their ground blinds. Schmidt thinks that even the best blind can use help, and scouts for locations to optimize concealment.

"First, I try to look at my blind placement from the point of view of any turkeys that will be approaching," he said. "My preference is to have my blind backed up by a big tree, or a couple of smaller tree trunks, or a plum thicket, to break up the outline. Then I'll lean some fresh-cut branches up against the sides, maybe lay a light branch on the top, to break up the straight lines and make it less obvious."

Whether a bowhunter uses a ground blind, or a camouflaged gun hunter merely sits with his back against a tree, scouting the surrounding terrain is critical. Burk scouts to identify and avoid any "barriers" that might inhibit the approach of a gobbler,"Gobblers will hang up on the strangest things," he said. "I've learned to scout around before I decide where to set up, and I look for fences, big thickets, fallen trees -- even creekbeds.

"I once had a gobbler hang up on a dry creekbed that wasn't more than a couple feet across," Burk recalled. "I really thought I had him. The first time I heard him he was so far away that I didn't actually recognize that it was a turkey calling. But I kept working, and he kept coming, until he came to that darned dry creekbed that was just out of gun range. He stopped and wouldn't cross that no matter what I did. He eventually just kept walking down his side of the creekbed until he lost interest and I couldn't see him anymore.

"So now I scout around any area where I plan to set up, and look for anything that might be a barrier to a turkey. If there's a fence or a creek that for some weird reason might stop him, I set up close enough to that potential barrier so the bird will be in gun range if he hangs

up on the far side."


All three of our veteran turkey hunters agreed that adaptability and constant awareness of changes in turkey behavior brought on by hunting pressure, weather and/or the progression of breeding season combine to help them keep tabs on the birds until spring hunting ends.

"If you've scouted the terrain and habitat in advance so you know all the good spots, you won't be following the turkeys to those spots, you'll be meeting them at those spots," said Schmidt. "You've just got to be flexible and let the birds tell you which spots they're liking. If I'm hunting down in a field in the morning and notice that they're doing all their calling from up on the ridges, I'll move up to those spots I scouted on the ridges if I hunt in the afternoon.

Remember the case of the husband trying to find his wife on Saturday morning: Once he's identified the places she likes, his chances of figuring out exactly where she is -- or isn't -- are much better.

Which is why I'd start my search at the power tool sale.

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