May 01, 2023
Property lines can be a private-land turkey hunter’s worst enemy. You strike up a spring tom strutting in the neighbor’s creek bottom, he cuts the distance quickly, but hangs up on the wrong side of the fence. It happens to all of us, particularly on small farms (40 acres or less) that turkeys don’t often roost on but will travel through. The trick is enticing them to cross onto your property, but it’s not easy.
In the Midwest, it’s quite common for turkey hunters to be confined to just a few acres of private property. There simply aren’t as many never-ending expanses of public land here as there are out West. Plus, corporations are increasing their stranglehold on farmland, which makes it difficult for the average hunter to door-knock for access. And, invariably, the turkeys are always roosted in a stand of pines you can’t get close enough to. So, how do you kill one?
It often takes years of experience and an extraordinary amount of patience. You’ll likely fail more than you succeed to start. But there are some key tactics that can stack the odds in your favor.
Showing up on opening morning with no intel on where turkeys roost or travel typically won’t result in a dead tom. You need to know as much about the turkeys that are on (or close by) your property as possible. Private land surrounds the family farm I usually hunt. In the weeks leading up to turkey season, I walk our fence lines to look for turkey sign—tracks, feathers and droppings. Bring a set of binoculars when you walk your property, too, so if you spot what you think is a turkey in the distance, you can confirm it by glassing.
Listening for gobbles at daybreak as the season approaches is critical to success. However, also try locator calls—hen yelps, owl hoots and crow calls—midday and in the evenings when turkeys are flying up to roost to see if you can elicit a response. In some states, this isn’t legal before the season gets underway, so always check regulations before heading out.
Closer to the season, I also sit near food sources for an hour or two to see if turkeys are using it. Where I hunt, these are mostly whitetail food plots planted with alfalfa, beans and clover, in which turkeys scratch to find grubs and bugs. Since my family hunts deer on the property, I’ll also check trail cams to see if turkeys are in the area. And in fall and winter, I’ll ask those who deer-hunt the farm more than I do if they are seeing any longbeards from their treestands. Habits may change once spring hits and flocks scatter, but I have found that food sources are a reliable place to find turkeys all year long—they must eat, just like the rest of us.
TARGET LIKELY SPOTS
Because I grew up hunting small farms in Illinois, I killed turkeys by hunting them where I thought they would be. Many turkey hunters roost birds and set up as close as they can (without getting busted) the next morning. Never having that luxury, I would sit next to strips of harvested soybeans and along deer trails, waiting for gobblers to feed or hoping to simply catch one in a transition area.
Most properties have a creek bottom or low point that rainwater runoff has carved out over the years. Almost every longbeard I’ve killed on small plots has come from below, walking up to a flat or the top of a ridgeline. It typically happens between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. My best guess is that the tom has bred a hen, needs a drink and goes into the bottom; then, he hears my timely yelp and walks up the hill to find another hen. But what he finds instead is my jake decoy, which ticks him off. He comes in for a fight, and I close the deal with a 12-gauge chip shot.
Deer trails, meanwhile, are a great place to sit in the afternoon to intercept a tom—especially if it’s warm. On a 70-degree day, gobblers are on the move, and because most animals usually take the path of least resistance, a worn trail is an ideal place for killing a turkey. I like to set a few hen decoys just off the trail (you can also use a lone jake or pair the jake with a hen) and sit on the opposite side of the decoys. If you sit on the same side as the decoys, that tom might bust you. His attention will be on the birds, but if he’s a smart gobbler, he’ll be looking for danger—and you will be in his sight line.
If possible, I never put the decoys right out in front of where I am sitting. There have been too many toms that have looked at my decoys, then looked right past them and seen me. And on small properties, you’re likely to only get one chance per hunt to kill a gobbler, so don’t be lazy about decoy placement.
MAKE SOME MOVES
There aren’t as many places to hunt on small properties, but that doesn’t mean you anchor in one spot the entire hunt. You don’t have to move hundreds of yards, but you do have to move. It’s unnatural for a hen to stay in one place for hours at a time, and if you’re calling with your back against the same tree the entire day, chances are you won’t punch a tag.
One time, I was hunting a two-acre woodlot and struck a bird around 6 a.m. It was across the road and continued to gobble every time I called, but it was not cutting the distance.
I walked about 15 yards closer to a field edge and began calling. He started firing off gobbles and closing in. Then it began pouring rain, and I thought for sure my chance had passed. Nope. He came into the field with three hens in tow, bristled at the jake decoy and charged. I shot him at 15 steps.
When my brother and I hunt together, we typically start by sitting opposite one another hundreds of yards apart on either side of a ravine and calling. For the sake of safety, we always remain in sight of, and do not face, each other, ensuring we have clear, safe firing lanes. We have piqued the interest of many gobblers this way. My guess is the toms think we are at least two different hens, or that he’s hearing a single hen that has changed positions a little bit.
That’s why I feel it’s critical to move every so often when hunting by yourself or with a partner, even if it is only a few yards. In my experience, hens don’t often stay in the same place for long periods of time, and toms are quite adept at pinpointing the sound of a hen yelp. So, calling from the same stationary position for too long might seem suspicious to wary gobblers, which is why having calls coming from two different positions—or more, if you’re moving—can work so well.
You can also walk the entire property and periodically call. This is a tactic used mainly by public hunters when toms are henned-up and won’t gobble. Keep your gun loaded, start walking and yelp. If there is a tom nearby, he might just come running. But it’s likely he won’t gobble, so you better be ready.
GO EARLY, STAY LATE
Patience is crucial to killing turkeys on small properties. You must put the time in, which can be hard when you’re not hearing gobbles. Many hunters, regardless of where they hunt, give up if turkeys go silent. But you’re not exactly targeting gobbles. You’re trying to pattern turkeys and kill them where they travel and eat. To do that, you must be in the field as much as possible.
I haven’t killed a single longbeard before 9 a.m. on a small property, but I am still out there before sunrise. I want to know where those turkeys are on a given day. Once the last gobbles of the morning are through, move as close as you can to where you last heard them. That’s a good starting point.
Give it an hour or more and then start making the moves I’ve laid out. Try every tactic you can for as long as you can. And don’t get upset if you never fire a shot. Killing a tom on a small parcel is not easy. At the very least, you’ll become a better turkey hunter, which will pay off when you have the chance to hunt a big property with scores of spring toms.