March 30, 2021
Editor's Note: This timely article is featured in the South edition of the April issue of Game & Fish Magazine, currently on sale at newsstands across the country. Learn more about the April issue. Interested in a subscription ($8 annual)? Click here.
The rains had come hard the previous week and the open-timber swamp where most of the gobblers were on the 470-acre tract I had access to was under water. The rest of the land was a grown-up clearcut with pines, briars and thick underbrush that had been growing for roughly five years.
Turkeys would walk the narrow logging roads, but they were hard to set up on and hunt. Gobblers were reluctant to walk right down the paths to a call. The odds weren’t looking good going into the first week of the season. In fact, they weren’t looking good for the entire season.
About 25 minutes away, my dad owned another tract. It was a mere 75 acres in size, half of which was a front field along a country road where turkeys never hung out. That made the truly huntable area only about 50 acres, and half of that was open crop fields that a run-and-gun turkey chaser could walk through and call in roughly 20 minutes.
If nothing responded, the only option was to just set up with decoys and call in hopes that something would eventually come along—basically deer-hunt for turkeys. Not exactly what most turkey hunters dream about, but a productive tactic nevertheless.
Seeing that it was my only option, I made the drive over, parked near the road, walked down the short path to the two fields in the back and didn’t even get a chance to call before I heard a gobble. The bird was in the field off to my left.
I ducked into the edge of the woods, put a large tree to my back and offered up the softest of yelps. The tom responded with a hearty gobble and in moments I could see his white head and fanned tail feathers steadily vibrating their way my direction. Less than five minutes later, my shotgun roared and my season was off to a grand start.
The small property had paid off in a big way. My brother later bought a similarly size tract across the street. Again, despite half of it being either swamp or front field where a house is, the other half produces memorable hunts year in and year out. Between the two tracts, I have enjoyed more turkey hunting success there than on any other place I typically get to hunt. But to be successful, I need to be smart about how I hunt (more on that in a bit).
FIND A LITTLE PARADISE
The challenge for turkey hunters is finding room to roam. It isn’t like deer hunting, where multiple hunters can choose stands several hundred yards apart and sit there all day waiting for a deer to walk by. If turkey hunters tried that, they’d be calling all over each other and working each other’s birds. For instance, on many military bases that allow hunting, they accommodate one deer hunter for maybe 20 to 30 acres, but for turkey hunting it’s one hunter for every 200 acres. It’s a totally different style of hunting that requires more land for a hunter to properly work.
For this reason, when it comes to turkey hunters, most of us aren’t going to waste time leasing (or buying) lands that are less than, say, 70 acres in size. And even if someone deer hunts the land, there’s a chance they won’t turkey hunt it and may be willing to let someone hit it in the spring…particularly if that someone offers to help them offset their lease expenses with a little financial assistance.
There are several hunting and property apps, such as onX Hunt and LandGlide, that make it easy to identify potentially overlooked parcels, even in heavily leased areas, and get information on who owns them and how to contact them. Many counties also have that information online now as part of their tax records. It also doesn’t hurt to go old-school and simply drive country roads, search for potential parcels that aren’t posted and knock on some doors.
When looking for an ideal "small" tract, don’t just identify those that are neat rectangular blocks. I love the ones that are narrower and stretch out, even winding between multiple properties. Another piece my dad owned in the mountains of Virginia was only 50 acres, but the odd way it wound up a mountain and then J-hooked back down another slope made it hunt like 300 when it came to working birds that were on neighboring properties.
That’s the beauty of these little tracts. Even if the birds aren’t roosted or strutting on your land, that doesn’t mean you can’t hunt them. Hear one on an adjacent property, and with some calling skill and luck, you may well be able to work him across the line to where you can shoot him.
A word of caution and consideration here: Make sure you know where the property lines are and don’t shoot a bird until it is clearly on your side. Also, be cognizant and respectful of any potential hunters on those neighboring properties, both for safety’s and civility’s sake. It’s the neighborly thing to do.
HUNT SMALL, WIN BIG
Hunting small properties might call for a change in your turkey hunting mindset. You can’t just run and gun all over the property. Besides, there’s no need to. Pressure birds on a small tract and they may be gone for the season. You must operate in total stealth mode at all times.
Even if you have other tracts to hit nearby, the name of the game here is minimizing pressure at every level. Walk in; don’t drive your truck or ATV. As soon as you arrive, approach it like you are already hunting. Walk slowly and gently and avoid snapping branches or unnecessarily rustling leaves. Prospect as you ease along by offering up soft yelps or locator calls. Be careful not to blunder into openings or fields.
If you hear hens calling or turkeys gobbling, set up quickly to avoid bumping them. If they are already working your way, go with the flow. This is not the time to bust out your calling competition routine; less is more. Hunting small tracts is about tuning into what the birds are naturally doing to ensure they remain there for future hunts should the current one not pan out.
With a few of these overlooked properties and a slight adjustment in your turkey hunting approach, little lands can pay big dividends this season and for many to come.
How to salvage your hunt after bumping a bird
Whether you hunt small properties or large ones, at some point you’re going to accidentally bump a tom you planned to work. This can be particularly gut-wrenching on a small parcel, as that may be the only tom you have to work. But don’t just walk away disgusted. With a little patience and strategy, you can still save the hunt.
Turkeys have incredibly sharp eyesight, and a hunter will sometimes bump a tom when he’s still gobbling from the roost without realizing he’s strayed within the turkey’s field of view.
If the tom bails from his roost, he usually won’t go more than a few hundred yards. Back out of the area, loop around as much as the property lines allow and try to come in from a different way. Odds are, when you bumped the tom from the limb you also pushed him away from hens roosted nearby. He’s going to want to rejoin them. If you approach from a different direction, he may just assume you are one of his girls and come strolling in after he has settled down.
Another common scenario is you toss out a hen yelp, a tom responds several hundred yards away and you try to close the distance. Problem is, he had the same idea and the next turkey sound you hear is the dreaded putt as a red head goes bobbing off through the trees. This scenario requires more patience to let the bird settle down, but the approach is similar. Loop around, give it a half hour to an hour, change the call you were using as well as your cadence so you sound like a different hen and try to strike the longbeard back up. He’s not likely to come in roaring; in fact, he’ll most likely slide in silently this go-around. Give it time, call sparingly, keep your eyes peeled for movement and listen for his footfalls as he approaches through the leafy understory.
Good gear to help you bag your next tom.
Turkey hunters are the ultimate gear junkies. We spend countless pre-season hours searching for the latest and greatest calls, decoys and other products that will give us an edge when hunting cagey gobblers.
When it comes to small tracts, the underlying strategy is all is about going low-impact, being patient and often sitting tight until the birds come to you. With that in mind, certain pieces of gear are more crucial to our success than others. The following products will make your small-parcel setups more comfortable and more productive.
You can only sit for extended periods if you’re comfortable, and that’s not likely no matter how padded your vest cushion is. Get off the ground with a low-profile seat that lets you hunker down and still use your legs as a gun rest.
Not every setup requires decoys, but no visual triggers a dominant tom to come running like a squatted hen and a nearby jake that looks like he’s about to breed her.
- Top Picks: Avian-X LCD Quarter-Strut Jake and LCD Laydown Hen ($99.99 and $79.99, respectively; avian-x.com)
Portable Ground Blind
Often times, keeping it simple can be the difference between connecting with a bird and whiffing completely. A simple fold-out cloth wall blind that stakes into the ground quickly provides rapid concealment anywhere.