There was a brief moment in my life when I thought I had turkey hunting all figured out. With a few seasons under my belt, I was learning the ropes and getting pretty good at filling my two tags in my home state of Kentucky each spring. Most of those birds were taken on low-pressured private lands I had gotten permission to hunt, but I had managed to scratch out a few on the more heavily pressured WMAs. I even went as far as taking a trip to Kansas with a couple of friends to tag my first Rio Grande turkey with a bow. This turkey hunting stuff was a piece of cake… or so I thought.
A career change brought me to Georgia where finances dictated that my hunting would be confined to public lands. What I quickly discovered was that Georgia birds are a whole different beast, an evil bird created by the devil to make even the most righteous turkey hunter cuss. It became very apparent that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about killing turkeys.
It took four seasons of getting schooled by Georgia longbeards—roughly the equivalent of a college education—to finally turn my luck around and get the upper hand on those public-land birds. During that first turn-around season, I was able to put a tag on two birds myself, watched as a buddy of mine tagged his first tom in years, and I had a couple of close calls that should have yielded my third and final bird—all on public land.
Killing birds on high-pressured public land can certainly be a challenge, but I have learned that it doesn’t have to end in unfilled tags and frustration. With a little preseason scouting, a lot of persistence and some alternative hunting techniques, it is possible to get away from the crowds and have a safe and successful turkey season.
Preseason Scouting: Preseason scouting is an all too familiar practice for many deer hunters, but it doesn’t seem to get near as much attention when it comes to turkey hunting. In addition, for those who have access to good private land they’ve hunted for years, preseason scouting typically isn’t necessary to ensure a successful season. When it comes to being successful on public land, however, preseason scouting is paramount and probably one of the biggest factors in my success.
Most of the turkey hunters who spend time preseason scouting hit the woods early in the morning during the weeks leading up to the season opener in order to hear where the birds are roosting and gobbling. This is a great first step, but only hearing birds gobbling on the roost and right after fly-down time probably won’t do much to tip the scales in your favor. Unless you bust a mouthy bird ready to come to the gun on opening morning, chances are better than average that hunting pressure will soon disrupt any preseason roosting and travel patterns you may have discovered.
I would encourage you to get out there as soon and as often as possible to not only determine where the birds are roosting and traveling, but more importantly, to learn the lay of the land. Knowing where the WMA roads and openings are, which way the ridges and fingers run and the various habitat types in the area will go a long way in being able to move on a bird during the season.
Take a map and pen along with you on these scouting excursions, or you can use one of the many phone apps available to map out what you find. Also, be sure to scout out multiple locations on the WMA, as it is inevitable that someone will eventually be in the spot you were planning to hunt. By the time turkey season rolls around, make sure you at least have plans B and C.
Timing Is Everything: For a bird with a brain the size of a peanut, the Eastern wild turkey never ceases to amaze me. Their ability to survive from year to year in areas that get stomped around on as much as some of the public lands where I hunt is a true testament to their ability to adapt and survive under extreme conditions. In fact, I am thoroughly convinced these birds can actually “pattern” public-land hunters and change their routines accordingly.
As a former public-lands manager for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, I have watched numerous WMA gobblers brazenly strut in open fields where hunters were set up just hours earlier. When you’re hunting high-pressured turkeys, timing can be everything. Setting up on a roosting gobbler and trying to work him into your setup is probably the most exciting and ideal way to kill a spring turkey. However, on public land, circumstances are rarely ideal, and persistence and patience are often the difference between failure and success.
I was reminded of this last season when my hunting partner and myself had another hunter run right into our setup and bump a bird one morning that we had been working for close to an hour. Frustrated, we packed up our gear and headed to another spot on the WMA, putting a few miles on our boots but failing to strike up another bird. Back at our trucks, just about to call it a morning, a bird fired off just across the gravel road and over on the next ridge. It was right at 11 a.m., and all the other hunters had already left for the day. We were able to slip down into the bottom below the bird and get set up. By 11:30 a.m., my buddy had shot his first public-land gobbler. We actually ended up calling in three birds, and we should have doubled, but that’s a story for another time…
There’s nothing wrong with getting out there before daylight and trying to bag one in a traditional fashion, but when things don’t work out by mid-morning, don’t pack up your gear and head for the house just yet. Once the majority of other hunters have called it a day and those pesky hens have gone off to sit on their nests, there is often a short resurgence of gobbling, and the birds can be found back in their favorite strutting areas looking for love. If you have done your preseason scouting and located some of these mid- to late-morning strutting areas, it is just a matter of setting up and waiting them out.
Two final thoughts on timing, and I am probably stating the obvious here. First, your odds of success—especially on public land—is directly tied to the amount of time you spend in the field. If you truly want to fill your turkey tags, take every opportunity you can to be out there chasing them. This is one of my keys to public-land success. I hunt every day I can, even if it is just for a couple of hours in the morning or a few hours in the evening. If you spend enough time in the field, the odds of coming across a lonely, love-struck gobbler will tip in your favor.
The second tip on timing, closely tied to the first, is to hunt weekdays when possible. While a few diehards will be out there throughout the season, the majority of public-land hunting pressure occurs Friday through Monday. So, if your schedule permits, hunt the middle of the week for a little more solitude. Also, the farther into the season it gets, the less company you will generally have, which is good because sometimes the best hunting comes near the end of the season when the majority of hens are sitting on their nests.
Alternative Techniques: Besides preseason scouting and spending as much time as you can in the field, there are a few other public-land hunting strategies to tip the odds in your favor. Keep in mind that by the third day of the season, most public-land birds have already seen and heard it all. At this point, you have to think and act differently than the average hunter.
Start by getting off the beaten path. Despite the fact that most turkey hunts you see on television take place on a nice, big field or an old logging road, these areas aren’t high-odds spots on a WMA—at least not after the first few days of the season. I know this because those are exactly the types of spots I focused on my first few years here in Georgia. It’s also the spots where most other WMA hunters focus, as well, which is why the birds quickly learn to avoid them.
I often hunt at Big Lazer Creek WMA. Big Lazer has a great system of internal WMA roads, and most are closed to vehicle traffic during turkey season. So many hunters, like myself, use those roads to walk, set up and call from. While I was finding a few birds on these closed roads, I was having zero luck getting them into shotgun range.
It was getting late into my 2016 season. I had already taken one public-land gobbler, and I was ready to take some risks to fill my second tag. On April 23, I set up on a bird that was in a bottom that ran parallel to the WMA road I had been walking. He was gobbling at every call I made, but he wouldn’t budge. Fortunately, I had done a lot of preseason scouting in the area and had a pretty good idea how I could close the distance without bumping the bird.
I slowly made my way down the side of the ridge and into the bottom. I would occasionally stop and wait for the bird to gobble again, so I could keep him pinpointed and not risk getting too close. I finally got to a small rise in the bottom, where I sat down and made a few soft yelps on a slate call. The bird fired off just on the other side of the rise. It was thick and not the ideal place to set up, but I knew trying to move at that point would bump the bird and end my hunt.
A few more soft calls brought the bird around the rise to my right, giving me an easy 30-yard shot. I never would have filled that second tag if I hadn’t put in the time preseason scouting and if I hadn’t got off the beaten path and gone after the bird.
Killing public-land birds can also require a change in calling techniques. First, I would advise public-land turkey hunters to resist the urge to overcall, especially to birds on the roost. In fact, if the season is over three or four days old, I think you are better off not calling at all to a roosting tom. Even though I should know better by now, I still occasionally give in to the urge to just let the bird know I’m there. And time and time again, I have listened as the bird flies down off the roost and heads in the opposite direction, gobbling as he goes.
Your best bet is to slip in as close to the bird as possible, set up between him and the thickest cover around, and wait him out. If he does head off in the wrong direction after fly down, then try to cut him off by making a sweeping circle around him and setting up in the path you expect him to travel. Keep in mind that it’s a lot easier to call a bird into a location he wants to be, than it is to call one away from that location. Keep your calling soft, call sparingly, remain patient, and be ready for anything. Pressured birds will often slip in silent and slowly. I have been reminded of this numerous times by the all-to-familiar sound of an alarm putt just when I decided it was time to get up and move.
Public-land turkey hunting can make for some of the most challenging of any of the outdoor pursuits. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has to be a lesson in frustration. With some preseason scouting, a lot of patience and persistence and some alternative hunting techniques, you can beat the odds and bring home a Georgia public-land longbeard this season.