Longtime friend and hunting companion Bobby Knight and I have shared quite a few turkey battles together over the years, and less than a week into the 2008 turkey season, we were smack dab in the middle of another one.
Bobby and I, along with another good friend and hunting partner, Cal Marsh, had been successful on a quota drawing at Piedmont NWR and had decided to camp and hunt a few days there.
We were dug in deep, our backs against the same tree, facing totally opposite directions. Two gobblers were hammering every step of the way, and they were closing fast. It would take some impeccable timing to pull off a double, but neither bird was in sight yet, so we were more concerned with one at a time. We were at the point in the hunt where you hear your own heartbeat, and the last gobble we’d heard was just inside 50 yards in a brushy cutover, right in front of Bobby. Then, it was over, just like that.
Bobby slid around my side of the tree and pointed uphill toward a hunter he’d spotted just after the last gobble. We had heard him call earlier and had no problem with the man working either bird from there. If he had called one up and away from us, so be it, but when he decided to walk in, through open woods, it just didn’t make a lot of sense. He no doubt heard us calling. I’m just not sure why he felt like he had to press so close to us and the gobbling bird. We whistled, he stopped and then turned and walked away.
Now let’s clarify a few things. I think we can all agree that hunting public-land birds is quite a challenge. They are a tough bunch and will stretch the best of hunters to extreme limits. We should all agree as well that hunting public birds means we have to share the property. Now, when you put those two facts together and add a third ingredient, such as a confused member of the human race who doesn’t share well with others, you’ve just created the hardest turkey to kill known to man. That’s what makes public birds a different breed of bird altogether. They endure more in one season than many private-land turkeys do in a lifetime. Perhaps Melleagris Gallapovo Educatus would be a fitting label for this “other” subspecies of wild turkey.
The above hunt was a rare opportunity with a public-land bird with an all-too familiar ending. I don’t know how many times I’ve had hunters bump a bird I was working. I would imagine I have returned the favor a time or two over the years, but not on purpose, and I have never tried to walk up on a bird that someone else was working.
I spend most of my seasons hunting public ground. It can sometimes be a struggle for me to stay positive, but I long ago accepted the challenge of hunting on public land. I know the birds there are educated and tougher to
kill. I know there will be other hunters out there in the same neck of the woods with me, sometimes working the same bird, making the bird tougher to kill. Sure I’d rather have access to thousands of acres of private property with hundreds of unmolested turkeys that I could chase, but I don’t have that luxury. The truth of the matter is most of us don’t. So we need to learn how to hunt together, alone.
How can we address the problems that are presented to us on public property and still enjoy the hunt? There are several things we can employ in our turkey-hunting arsenal that’ll improve our hunt quality on WMAs, which should increase success.
Strike-Out: The best way to avoid hunter-populated areas is to hunt the remote, harder-to-reach areas. Not only will you be dodging the crowd, but you’ll be working some birds that have received less pressure. Get your walking boots on, and strike out for turkey woods well off the beaten path.
However, finding these remote areas can be quite a chore on public ground. Many WMAs and public-hunting areas have so much road access that it is difficult to walk too far in before you’re walking out. In other words, a place you think is a long way off the road might not be too far from another road.
Maps: A map will help you find those remote areas where access is limited from other areas. With turkey hunting gaining popularity in the last decade, maps become increasingly important to me.
It’s very difficult to walk every square inch on the WMA you’re hunting, so a map just makes sense. I have uncovered a few spots that were unknown to me before I obtained a map. They really help you find some tucked-away places way off the road, while eliminating the amount of turkey-hunter interaction you have to deal with.
On that same Piedmont hunt last year, after Bobby and I had our hunt interrupted, we decided to strike-out to some deep woods. We had done some map studying and found a closed road that appeared to venture off the beaten path. Boy did it ever. We walked well more than a mile and a half before we hit the end of the road, and eventually, we found more birds. After much calling, maneuvering and wading through jakes, I was fortunate enough to amputate the head of a good 3-year-old.
GPS: These little gadgets are extremely popular now. They allow you to enter coordinates to those off- the-road hotspots, making them easy spots to return to. Saving coordinates will also allow you to access the area from another direction, a trick that could paint a better picture of where the birds you’re hunting are at during other times of the day.
For example, you may hear a gobbling bird wearing it out several mornings in a row in one particular area. However, he does very little gobbling once he hits the ground. Accessing this roosting area from a different direction could show you strut zones, scratchings and loafing areas.
Have Some Backup: There are several ways to minimize hunter encounters and improve your chances of success as well. I always try to avoid areas where some- one else is hunting.
If I pull up to one of my favorite spots and see that someone else is already there, I’ll generally go to another spot. I will occasionally hunt there if the area is large and there’s more than one group of birds behind the gate. But if it’s an entrance to one good area, I’ll hunt it another day.
If you’ve properly scouted your WMA turkeys, you should have four or five places in mind.
About-Face: It can be difficult to get far enough away from a road sometimes. With that being the case, you’re bound to run up on someone else from time to time. When this happens, once we see each other, I’ll throw up my hand and do a 180 out of there. You’ll often encounter this if you’re headed to a gobbling bird. Always keep your eyes peeled when moving quickly to a bird that’s letting it rip from the limb. If I see someone headed to that bird, I’ll go find another tom talking.
Also, if I’m going to a bird and I hear someone already setup and calling, I’ll leave the bird alone.
Bobby and I had been lucky enough to roost a bird late one after- noon on our Piedmont hunt. The next morning we were in position well before daylight and were set up 50 yards apart along a finger of hardwoods that had been spared when the property had been cut over. Visibility wasn’t really good past 50 yards, but the birds had been scratching in the area. It was barely daylight when the bird we’d roosted began announcing his arrogance, and a few gobbles later he was on the ground.
It was 40 minutes before the old boy gobbled again, and when he did, he was dead on top of us. I could hear him drumming, but I couldn’t see him. Bobby, however, was looking straight down his gun barrel at him as he was fixing to step into range.
I expected the next sound to be Bobby’s gun, but it was his voice of disgust I heard instead. I looked toward him and was more than a bit puzzled as he sent a loud string of verbal displeasure up the hillside. When he got up, it hit me what was going on. It was the same guy from a couple of days ago that had walked in on our hunt. He had done it again, this time walking through an open cutover. Again, the guy turned and hightailed it out of there.
What this hunter should have done was do an about-face and looked for a different bird.
Sit-Tight: It’s a little different, however, when you strike a bird, go to him and sit down to begin calling. When you begin working the bird, you may hear another hunter calling from another location. In this situation, I’m
not likely to pick up and leave. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to leave just because they hear me calling to a bird they’re working either. You just want to keep a safe distance from an area you think another hunter may be calling. Turkey sounds travel several hundred yards, especially in the early spring before the foliage is full on the trees.
If someone else is around when I’m working a bird, the bird is going to come to where I am, to where the other hunter is, or he’s going to live to see another day. I’m not fixing to get up and start maneuvering around when other hunters are close by.
When the gobbler is dead or gone, leave the opposite direction in a big loop from where you believe the hunter was calling.
Go Away, I’m Working A Bird!: If someone walks in on you during the hunt, let him know you’re there. If you are working a bird when this happens, use the distance the hunter is away from you to determine how you’ll let him know. If he is out of sight and a safe distance away, you might try calling and hope he understands. One trick that works really well, if the bird isn’t right on top of you, is to blow a crow call. It seems like many crows calls on the market don’t sound like authentic crows, even though they’ll make a turkey gobble. On several occasions last year I heard hunters blowing on crow calls, and I went the other way.
If the hunter keeps coming, holler at him to avoid getting into a dangerous situation. No gobbler is worth having a hunter walk into shotgun range with an earful of gobbles and no clue you’re anywhere around.
Hunt When They Leave: Many turkey hunters go into each new season with the intent of hunting every available moment of the season. We vow to stay in the woods all day if need be. The truth is, few of us will spend all day in the turkey woods more than a handful of days in the season. So, with that in mind, we should realize that even when we repeatedly find people parked at the entrance to one of our honey holes, there’s likely to be an opening at some point of most any day after the first few weeks of the season.
Most hunters will get in early and will leave too early. By 10 or 11 in the morning, most turkey hunters are through. That’s when you need to be waiting in the wings.
Cal and I had a particular spot we loved to hunt a couple of seasons ago. The only problem we had was every morning we wanted to hunt there, someone else would either be there or they would dive in there on top of us. Cal decided to try something a little different one day. Instead of going that morning, he slept in.
Around 2 that afternoon, with the temperature near 90, Cal thought he just might have the woods to himself. He drove to our spot, and sure enough nobody else was there. Within an hour, Cal was walking back to his truck with 20-plus pounds of gobbler thrown over his shoulder.
Play the Weather: Cal killed the bird I mentioned above on a scorcher of a day. As I mentioned before, there was nobody else in the area. It could have been the time of day, or it could have been the temperature. The point is, there is a lot less traffic in the turkey woods on rough-weather days. High winds, thunderstorms, hot or cold temps are all good times to head to the turkey woods.
Yes, the hunting conditions will present a different challenge, but you’re likely to have more areas to hunt all by yourself. Bobby and I jumped from spot to spot one afternoon and never saw another hunter while thunderstorms came and went. We took a bird home with us and learned a little bit about what dictates crowd control.
Hunting Manners: It all boils down to having a good dose of hunting manners. If you hunt public land, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced similar disgruntlement. Rude hunters can be a big turnoff for ethical hunters just trying to go about their business of turkey hunting.
One such person is my friend Cal. He’d been scouting heavily prior to the ’08 season and had located a good group of gobblers. He wanted to check out the area one last time before the opener, so he headed over there to listen and pattern about two days before opening day. When he got to the gate, he was surprised to see that someone had parked a camper there. He was even more surprised when the man inside it came out to greet him with a serenade of profanity. The man proceeded to tell Cal that nobody else was hunting “his” birds.
Cal tried to be diplomatic with the man as he headed on into the woods toward the area he’d been scouting. After all there were several groups of birds in the area and plenty of room to share this particular closed gate. The man followed him all the way to the listening spot and was still spouting off when the turkeys began gobbling.
Long story short, Cal didn’t even hunt there on opening day. Yes, he could have, and certainly had every right to, but who wants to spend opening day with a profanity-spitter in tow every step of the way?
If we all had manners, I can’t imagine a situation like this would ever arise.
In summary, we should all be able to enjoy chasing longbeards on public properties without creating a safety hazard or wearing an attitude when we approach other hunters. Most of them are doing the same thing we are, and that’s trying to kill a mean-old, public- land gobbler. There’s no need to get upset when someone beats us to our favorite spot. Also, there’s no need to waste time with someone who thinks they own the property and the birds.
For those of us who have little choice but to hunt these public proper- ties, and for those of us who simply want the challenge that these birds provide us, we can all do our part to improve public relations.