April 18, 2023
Turkeys learn to avoid hunters on public land because avoiding hunters is easy when they do the same thing year after year. Most public-land hunters do what works on less-pressured private land. and they keep doing it even as they continue to strike out. To improve your odds on a public-land turkey hunt, you must hunt differently than other hunters. You need a plan, and the plan needs to take into consideration what the turkeys are doing at any given time of day as they attempt to elude you and other hunters.
Turkeys start an April day with a morning fly-down from the roost, followed by the flock sorting itself out. The dominant tom will want nearby hens to assemble on him, and the hens will be reminding each other of flock hierarchy. Pressured birds are far less vocal than turkeys that have never been hunted. Thus, on morning hunts on public land, your calling should be restrained.
Extended, aggressive calling sequences (and frequently repeated shock calls) do nothing other than convince real birds that you are not one of them. There are three things you can do to improve your early-morning odds:
- The first is to set up very close to known roost trees well before light.
- The second is to set up between a roost area and a known feeding and/or strutting area.
- The third is to get deep into the public land, away from roads or trail access, so that your calls come from a place where turkeys aren't used to encountering hunters.
The fastest way to get your bird is the first option. Walk in silently to a spot near the birds' roosting trees (but not so close you bust them) before light. Sit down against a big tree and wait. When you hear birds waking, make a fly-down noise and a relatively quiet hen call (or more than one with different calls) and wait some more.
When the real turkeys fly down, softly make an assembly call. If you're fortunate, one or more toms in the flock will come to you to round up their "hens." If this happens, you'll be tagging your bird at sunrise. The obvious limitation to this plan is that if you don't know exactly where the birds are roosting, then you don't have the information you need to set up properly.
So, if you don't know exactly where the roost trees are, finding evidence of feeding and strutting zones is much easier. Feeding turkeys leave a lot of tracks and scratched-out areas when they grub for pine nuts or seeds in a feeding area.
A strut area is also easy to notice because turkeys will spend time walking around there on multiple days. If you see an abundance of turkey tracks of various ages in an opening or the intersection of two dirt roads that are closed to traffic, you're in business.
When you find a strut zone or feeding area, give some thought to where the turkeys might approach from. If you can tell the direction the turkeys come from in their morning approach to a feeding area, you can set up in cover between it and the roost. After fly-down, do feeding-call sequences every few minutes.
You don't have to be too aggressive if you're in the right area because you're only trying to get the turkeys to veer to you on their way to where they want to go.
Like many public-land deer hunters, turkey hunters are often out of the woods by 11 a.m. Midday hunters have two advantages.
- First, though dominant toms have gathered hens and bred them, subordinate toms—many of which are adult 2-year-olds—are still looking for hens.
- Second, after the morning festivities, turkey groups separate, often by sex, and forage for food.
To lure in gobblers still looking for hens, find a small feeding area that other hunters have overlooked. Many of the gobblers you are trying to attract have been thrashed by older gobblers any time they've so much as looked at a hen, so they will want to sneak in and look things over. They won't want to cross large, open areas where they would reveal themselves.
The feeding area you are looking for can be a small, green opening in the woods or an area under pine trees where turkeys have been grubbing. It should have good food but be small enough that by the time a gobbler sees there are no hens it'll be too late.
Set up facing the feeding area with your back toward the direction that is least likely to be the direction from which a turkey would approach. The goal is to get the turkey in front of you. Once positioned, do nothing for a while. Once you are confident that any turkeys in the area don't know you are in their world, begin with very quiet calling sequences of contentedly feeding hens.
Since most public-land gobblers are quiet by this time of day, there might be birds nearby that you don't know about, and this first sequence or two is for them. After calling, wait at least 15 minutes but remain alert.
Cautious public-land turkeys are not in a hurry and are likely to come in silently. Repeat your sequence every 20 to 30 minutes. You are calling to lone gobblers that are wandering around the area; some that were not within hearing distance at first may hear later calls. If hens come in, do nothing. There is no better gobbler attractor than a live hen.
Finally, about half an hour before you want to leave, put in a mouth call and take up your favorite slate or box call, and mimic two hens getting in a loud argument about who is the real boss. You've been subtle until now, but this is a go-for-broke effort to reach out to gobblers that are at some distance. Even if no gobbler fires off, wait about a half hour to see if a bird sneaks in.
By late afternoon, most public-land hunters have been out of the woods for hours. This might be the hardest time of day to kill a turkey, and is certainly the hardest to call in a tom. But there are few hunters around and the turkeys are still there. In fact, turkeys move around a great deal at the end of the day, transitioning from feeding areas as they begin drifting back to their roosting trees. So, it is a good time to cover some ground and find them.
Look in openings, regenerating controlled burns or timbered areas and creek bottoms. If you come across some birds, you have a choice to make. You can either follow them to see where they roost, thereby giving yourself a leg up for the following morning's hunt, or you can attempt to close within shooting distance of them.
If the group you see is all hens, follow them at as great a distance as you can while still keeping track of them. Eventually they will go to their roost trees, and they will roost near gobblers.
If you see toms and want to make something happen right then, you can either try to get ahead of them and ambush them, or you can sneak within gun range. Ambushing them is risky because it requires you to move in a loop around the turkeys and successfully predict their course.
If it works, you tag a gobbler; but if the birds change course, they'll disappear. Sneaking up on turkeys is also risky and normally very hard to do. Your best bet is when you come across birds feeding their way through an opening or powerline right-of-way—one that is surrounded by a sharply defined edge.
Often, the brush is heavy where the woods start because sunlight reaches the ground there. But back in the woods 15 yards, where the trees shade the forest floor, it will be more open. If you spot turkeys before they see you, you have a chance to slip in close. However, be prepared to fail, as turkeys have every advantage over you.
If the cover in the woods is just too dry to move in complete silence, the best strategy with feeding toms is to let them know you're there. The trick is to make them think you are a feeding hen or two. Make contented feeding noises softly, and scratch pine straw with your boots as you move.