March 27, 2023
March is prime time to scout for spring turkeys, and if you can't physically be afield searching for birds, trail cameras will make a big difference. Trail cameras are your eyes and ears in the woods; set up properly they'll reveal a lot about turkey behavior, population densities, even sounds turkeys make.
March is when a great deal of breeding takes place among turkey populations throughout the West. Being able to see when the turkey rut commences and how it progresses is just one benefit of running trail cameras.
Another plus is that trail cams show what time of day turkeys are moving, when they stop to preen, what new toms show up and what predators are in the area. I've had a number of hunts not come together as planned, only to learn from trail camera videos that coyotes and bobcats were in the area. Predators can put turkeys on edge and change their daily routines.
As the month progresses, trail cameras will make known the number and age class of toms in an area. Two springs ago, I had 13 trail cameras on a 1-mile by 3-mile wooded ridge. I was picking up just one lone tom for a solid month before the season. I called that tom in on opening morning and filled a tag, but another tom I'd never seen came in with it. I returned in the heat of the day to check all my trail cameras and found seven new toms had moved into the area in the previous 24 hours. I filled my two remaining tags on subsequent days.
I run trail cameras year-round for all kinds of wildlife, and I always set them on video mode. My camera of choice is a Stealth Cam DS4K Ultimate, as it records in 4K and performs perfectly in a range of extreme conditions. Being a former science teacher, I base much of my hunting not only on sightings, but also the sounds animals make.
A 10-second video clip of a hen walking up a trail might seem trivial, but crank up the volume to hear her purring and offering soft yelps, and gobbling toms responding in the distance off camera, and you'll be a believer.
When setting trail cameras for turkeys, I like hanging them about a foot off the ground and pointing them straight down a game trail. If a trail makes a turn, hang two cameras on the tree, one pointing each direction since turkeys sometimes exit trails on the corners. If there's no tree on the edge of a game trail, get a rock or a chunk of wood to strap the camera to and set it there.
If multiple trails branch off and you know turkeys are in the area, run cameras on each one, even though they might only be a few feet apart. Toms don't always follow hens down a trail, often skirting to the side, strutting in silence, and multiple cameras will capture this.
The number of toms I get on trail camera spitting and drumming every year always surprises me. These toms might not be in frame, but either a hen or jake triggers the camera when a tom was within inches of it.
Another reason I like hanging trail cameras so low is because they allow a close look at a tom's beard and a closer look at its plumage, which helps identify it on a hunt. There's one tom I've been chasing on a ridge for two seasons. It always shows up during the first two weeks, then vanishes. This year I'm hoping to outwit the longbeard, as I continue expanding the number of cameras I'm using and where I set them based on the bird's movement.
I often saturate horizontal ridgelines with trail cameras so I don't miss anything. One spring, I caught a very light plumed Rio hen in early March. Two weeks later she was nearly 3 miles away on another trail camera, likely moving to higher ground to nest. Nine weeks later she was back at the original spot with nine poults. Interestingly, none of the toms that were with the hen followed her to where she nested. Instead, they stayed on the initial ridge, strutting and gobbling. I eventually tagged two nice toms there.
If predator numbers are high, I'll move my cameras into timber and thick cover. I've found many toms quietly lurking all day in timbered habitat when predators are near, rather than going out in the open to strut and gobble.
Since I hang trail cameras so low, I take a machete and clear the trail, as I don't want ferns, berry vines or other foliage blowing in the wind and triggering the camera. I don't use cellular cams for turkeys because I want to be in the woods every two to three days, checking the cameras. Forcing myself to head afield allows physical scouting to be done, and I do a lot of listening and learning at that time.
I might check cameras early Monday morning, midday on Wednesday and late in the afternoon on Friday. As I hear toms or see hens in different areas at different times of day, I'll add more cameras or move some that aren't producing.
When spring temperatures heat up, setting trail cameras near creeks and under shaded trees where turkeys take dust baths is wise. Many newly arriving toms head to water and shade. I'll also target food sources like grass and clover in my hunting areas.
Turkeys don't always use primary deer and elk trails. They'll walk through thick brush, so look for loose feathers or scratch marks on the ground and set a camera there.
If you're serious about learning all you can relating to turkey behavior, run trail cameras. Not only will you receive an education, you'll know exactly where to be on opening day.
This article on turkey hunting is featured in the West edition of March's Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.