May 01, 2023
According to nearly all harvest reports, most spring gobblers are killed on private land—in most cases by a large percentage. It only makes sense. There is far more private land than public, and most hunters know the private land they hunt—and the turkey flocks on it—far better than they do public land. Due to various agricultural, forest and other land-use practices that can benefit turkeys, good private land typically holds more birds than good public land.
In many ways, hunting public-land turkeys is often like hunting a completely different bird. A lot depends a great deal on hunting pressure, but generally speaking public-land birds tend to be less vocal, especially when there seems to be various calls ringing out from behind every other tree or on the other side of every hill. Public-land gobblers are also apt to hang up more and frequent fields and forest openings less than their private-land counterparts. There are always exceptions, but all this calls for hunting public land outside the box at times, changing tactics when needed, if not breaking many of the rules typically associated with hunting spring gobblers.
SCOUT EARLY, SCOUT OFTEN
Unless your luck is riding high, it is difficult to hunt public land without knowing it well. To get to know a piece of land means putting boots on the ground a month or so before the opener. Prior to that, turkeys are still in large winter groups and will most likely be found in different areas than where they’ll be on opening day, so concentrate on getting to know the lay of the land. Walk ridge lines, identify open areas and water sources and see what’s on the other side of every distant hill. Get to know any trails, old roads and other routes that allow easy and fast access.
Generally speaking, a couple weeks before opening day, toms will have gathered their harems and separated from the winter flocks. This is the time to start looking for roosting sites, strut zones and feeding locations and to listen for distant gobbling and roosting activity—ideally early and late in the day when turkeys are most active and vocal. Looking for droppings, scratch zones, feathers and dusting areas right up to the day before the opener will help you pinpoint recent turkey activity and areas to concentrate your hunting activity.
GO DEEPER THAN DEEP
All too often, hunters concentrate their efforts along the edges of public ground, perhaps setting up within a few hundred yards of where they park their vehicle. This might work on opening day, but after a couple days, as cumulative pressure increases, the birds quickly seek sanctuary in deeper haunts. It may require hoofing it a mile or more, but hunters willing to get away from easy-access areas—and the competition—will not only have the area to themselves, but very often will encounter birds that are more willing to cooperate.
HUNT EARLY AND LONG
Conventional wisdom dictates getting in the turkey woods early, typically long before sunrise. It's easy to pinpoint roost locations by listening for limb chatter, and the first hour after fly down is one of the best times to score—but it is hardly the only time. On public ground, especially public ground where there is considerable competition or when gobblers are preoccupied with hens and play the silent game, late-morning and afternoon (where legal) can be equally productive. By late morning, many hunters have left the woods or are looking elsewhere, so there is less competition. Just as important, often by 10 or 11 a.m., hens typically nest or otherwise disperse for several hours, leaving the toms to wander in search of willing partners. During this female down time, lovelorn toms can be extremely susceptible to calling, especially around known strut zones and travel corridors that should have been discovered during scouting forays.
TARGET SMALL PARCELS
Many spring turkey hunters seem to prefer hunting large public properties, apparently thinking they hold more birds. That is sometimes true, but turkey flocks on large tracts are also more widely dispersed and have more areas to take refuge when pressured. In many cases they are often better educated and more challenging to kill due to the attention they get. Smaller public properties of just a few hundred acres or less can hold just as many birds per acre as larger ones. Plus, because these smaller public tracts often draw fewer hunters, it is not unusual to have them to oneself or to share them with far less competition. In turn, you'll be hunting birds that have seen less pressure and, in many cases, are more willing to respond to calls.
GO ON GOOD DAYS AND BAD
We all like clear and sunny spring mornings, but staying home on windy or rain-soaked days can be a major mistake. Although such conditions are less than pleasant, and can make hearing birds reply to calls difficult, turkeys often head for open ground during periods of inclement weather. These areas offer a reliable source of bugs, worms, seeds and other foods turkeys relish. Plus, birds are able to see and hear better in open areas on rainy, windy days. By moving to more open ground, turkeys are better able to keep tabs on any potential dangers.
Many states have created food plots on wildlife management areas to benefit wildlife, or they lease sections to local farmers to grow various crops. Some state forests, wildlife areas and parks also have natural openings, old reverting fields and orchards. These are the areas to pinpoint during scouting forays and to hunt on wet or high-wind days.
FOCUS ON WEEKDAYS
It's difficult to get away to the turkey woods during the week, but Tuesday through Thursday can be great days to hunt public land. Weekends typically see the biggest crowds, and depending on whether hunting stops at noon or around sunset, many hunters extend their weekends by a half or full day during turkey season, so Fridays and Mondays can be busy as well. Waiting until Tuesday gives birds time to calm down a bit after a pressured weekend. By Wednesday and Thursday, birds should be back to their normal routines.
Top public hunting areas across the region.
- VIRGINIA: According to Mike Dye, an upland bird biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, wild turkey numbers are strong in the southwest region of the commonwealth, and spring prospects on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests should be excellent. Numbers are also strong in the southeast region, although there is less public land. Dye suggests one of the military establishments, in particular Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Pickett.
- MARYLAND: Bob Long, wild turkey and upland game bird project manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says above-average reproductive success the past two summers should translate to plenty of opportunity for spring hunters. In the western mountains of Garrett County, Long says turkeys have always been abundant on the 50,000-acre Savage River State Forest, and a good hatch in 2021 should produce a high number of two-year old birds this spring. In the east, Long suggests Pocomoke State Forest or one of the various Chesapeake Forest Land tracts.
- NEW YORK: In DEC Region 4, hunters might want to consider Partridge Run State Forest and Partridge Run WMA in Albany County or the Capital District WMA in Rensselaer County. To the west, in DEC Region 9, the Rattlesnake Hill WMA in Livingston County is a good bet. Josh Stiller, a wildlife biologist with New York’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, also suggests the Catskill Region, including any of the New York watershed lands open to turkey hunting. Hunters are reminded that a first-ever spring turkey season will be held in Suffolk County on Long Island May 1 to 31 to help control the turkey population that currently numbers more than 3,000 birds. For information on what state, county and municipal lands will be open, hunters should contact the local DEC office.
- VERMONT: According to Chris Bernier, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Division of Fish and Wildlife, hunters shouldn't have trouble finding birds throughout the state, which now number in excess of 45,000. Units B, J2 and O are typical leaders in total spring harvest, while units F1 and F2 are among those with the highest in numbers of birds harvested per square mile. With sufficient scouting, hunters should find plenty of opportunity on any of the public lands in these units.
- MAINE: Turkey numbers are stable in northern and eastern Maine and "abundant" in the southern and central regions of the state, says Kelsey Sullivan, migratory and upland game biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In the southern region, Sullivan recommends the Vernon S. Walker WMA in Newfield and Shapleigh. The 5,500-acre property consists mostly of upland habitat and is located in an area with a high turkey density. In central Maine, Sullivan points to the 6,000-acre Bud Leavitt WMA 30 minutes from Bangor. The property offers a mixture of woodlands and fields in another high-density area.