Out of all the gear the average turkey hunter packs in his vest or backpack, there is a very good chance the most valuable and overlooked tool remains stashed away in a closet waiting for deer season — the trail camera.
For 10 years I have used trail cameras religiously for deer, but three years ago I finally discovered their value in the spring woods. A trail camera is an extra set of eyes in the woods that does not sleep for months. It is the ultimate tool for answering questions about when, where, how often and what animals are responsible for leaving sign.
Most turkey hunters are weekend warriors. Work schedules force them to be. The weekend warrior is granted two mornings a week to try to kill a longbeard. That’s just not enough time to figure out what the birds are doing.
Most weekends come to an end with a frustrated hunter who feels all he needs is one more morning to close the deal. Most weekend warriors find themselves in this position just about every Sunday of the season. Sunday ends, and a foundation of knowledge has been laid for the next weekend. However, that foundation begins to crumble the moment you leave. It completely caves in five days later upon your next arrival.
This process repeats itself throughout the season, because turkeys are constantly establishing roles in the pecking order, claiming territorial rights and dispersing as the nesting season progresses. What was learned the weekend before might be useless a few days later. This is part of the game that makes turkey hunting such a challenge.
It is sheer cruelty to make a passionate turkey hunter sit in his office for five days straight looking out the window at beautiful weather, knowing the birds are lighting up the woods each morning. I was not able to handle it well myself, so I began setting trail-cams out each Sunday on my way out of the woods in hopes of capturing evidence to aid me the next weekend.
I discovered that not only did trail-camera evidence help me figure out how much activity went on in the area during the week; it helped me target individual gobblers and obtain an understanding of their daily rituals. While I was stuck in the office, the cameras were in the woods helping to keep my foundation from caving in.
Imagine this scenario: it’s Friday evening, and you’re rolling into turkey camp for the weekend. You immediately slip in to your trail-cameras to remove the cards. Back in camp, you pop the card into the viewer, and bam! There’s a photo of an old longbeard just 45 minutes before fly-up time that day. This information is worth more than gold to a weekend-warrior. It speaks volumes on where you need to be waiting at daylight. The chances are good the old gobbler is roosted in close proximity to where the camera snapped his image. What happens next is up to the hunter’s skill and the turkey’s attitude the next morning.
Now imagine other ways in which it can apply. Apply it to daybreak pictures, strut-zone pictures, road pictures, etc. Take note of the times the photos were taken, and you will have a stronger foundation to build upon for two full days. A foundation that otherwise would take all weekend to rebuild rather than strategize off of. Your data will likely reveal a trend in routines, and this information could sky rocket your odds of putting a bird over your shoulder during the limited time a weekend offers.
There is no reason trail cameras should not revolutionize turkey hunting like they did deer hunting. There are many new models that literally fit in the palm of your hand, which makes them an easy item to pack in your vest. The new models of compact cameras such as the Scout Guard, Bushnell Trophy Cam and UWAY all feature an incredible video mode which is preferred over still images by many hunters. Hundreds of videos from one to 60 seconds in length can be stored on these tiny cameras, and they can also be left in the woods for months before the batteries die.
The upcoming models are going to blow turkey hunters away with their newest feature. The next big thing in trail-cam technology is the audio-recording feature. Imagine setting a camera up on the way to where you are starting the morning off and then checking it later to see if there were any birds gobbling in that area. It’s an extra set of eyes that never sleep, and it’s soon to be an extra set of ears.
Trail cameras have even helped me to target individual birds. I have an obsession with targeting particular gobblers that have left me scratching my head on more than one occasion. I claim to hate them for what they put me through, but deep inside I’m grateful for the challenge and would fight that losing battle every day of my life if I could. These are the birds we, as turkey hunters, sometimes break down and deem “unkillable.”
A particular bird comes to mind when I look back over the years of battling hard-headed longbeards. His name was Big Boy, and I swear he had the smallest range of any turkey in history. He always used the same few roads, fields and roost areas.
He earned the name when I first drove past him in my truck on the day before opening weekend of the 2009 season. He took flight and soared into the next county while his wingman, a nice 3-year-old that looked like a poult by Big Boy’s side, meandered off into the pines where he began feeding as if nothing had happened. It was love at first sight for me, because I knew he was a wily old warrior who had learned to flee danger.
I could easily identify him by his pumpkin-sized head and distinct beard that hung off his chest like a horse tail. He was always in the same few fields along his short stretch of stomping grounds. He was not a big talker, which made him that much more difficult.
He became my plan B each weekend, because I knew I could hunt harder gobbling birds at first light and then resort to locating him around mid morning in the same field.
I had an unusual hunt with Big Boy and his partner the third weekend of the season. It involved lots of crawling, awkward setups and extreme confusion. I located the two birds right where I expected them to be and watched for almost two hours as they strutted behind four hens in the field. I had slithered up a gravel road like a snake and rolled into a ditch that concealed my outline. Eventually, I peeked up over the rise, and they were just 35 yards away on the edge of the field.
My plan was to pop up like a jack in the box, locate the red, pumpkin head and shoot. Well, I popped up, and much to my surprise there was nothing in sight but four hens. This confirmed my suspicion, which turkey-guru Tom Kelly often mentions, that turkeys burrow underground. I spent the next 45 minutes motionless looking for the ground dwellers to emerge.
I had settled back in the ditch until a red-tail hawk let out a shrill scream and the raspiest gobble of all time sounded off 35 yards away, right where I had seen the birds last. It sounded like he must have smoked a carton of Marlboro Reds every day of his life. I was relieved the gobblers had resurfaced from their tunnel, and I planned the same pop-up attack as before. I sat up again, and there was nothing in sight — not even the hens.
I heard a putt, followed by another and another. I stared a hole in the spot where the sounds had come from, and there was nothing. I thought I had officially gone insane just as a red head emerged from a small cluster of shrubs at the base of a pine in the wide open.
I then saw the big, red pumpkin rise from beneath the shelter of the shrubs, and I swung my barrel to get a bead on the rapidly departing gobbler. Next thing I knew, Big Boy was flying up into the clouds, and his buddy was setting all kinds of land speed records as he ran out of sight. I had three empty hulls by my side. It was sheer chaos. I had blown my chance at Big Boy, which meant the war was on.
“The war” brings me to the next technological tool that will give the weekend warrior an upper hand over wise old toms. Trail-cam data can be applied to a map source in order to lay out an organized visual. These visual aids are excellent learning tools, and aerial and satellite imagery is easily accessible for free on the Internet.
A few years ago I was introduced to a computer program called Google Earth. I would be willing to bet that if I had spent a quarter of the time studying history, math and science as I do working with maps, I could have graduated from Harvard with a 4.0 GPA and invented a time machine on the side.
Not only do I study these maps to understand the lay of the land, I use them to enter data observed in the field and obtained by my trail cameras. I log every location where I have collected any information or seen sign on the birds I’m hunting. I also identify natural obstacles that would detour a gobbler in his route to my setup.
It does not take long for the data on your map to reveal trends in the location and terrain preferred by turkeys. Gobblers roam a good bit during the spring, but they typically return to their preferred roosting locations every evening. Most of the distance a gobbler covers takes place within the parameters of a loop that consists of daily check points where gobblers go to search for and attract hens. These particular areas are easy to identify based on sign. Roosts, strut zones, feeding areas, dust bowls and tracks are all indications that a bird was there, but they do not tell you when; a trail camera does that.
These trends even tell me what I need to look for when scouting property I’m unfamiliar with. There is a reason turkeys frequent some areas more than others. The eastern wild turkey does not differ in instinctive behavior based on property lines. No matter what type of timber and terrain makes up land, turkeys will exhibit similar preferences in their patterns.
Whether it’s the flat terrain of south Georgia agriculture land or the diverse terrain of the Piedmont, there are reasons birds are drawn to certain areas. Gobblers in southwest Georgia like to roost over wet areas, which often means you should look for cypress trees. They often congregate along river bottoms and cypress bays to roost and then disperse toward fields to strut and linger throughout the day. They will often use drop-offs from upland timber to bottomland hardwoods as take off ramps for roosting.
These rules apply to hilly terrain just as well. Turkeys will often roost over water or bottomland drains. They will take advantage of hillsides to pitch up into the tree tops below for roosting. They will disperse into fields and other open areas where they can attract hens with their impressive displays. If there are no fields, expect them to use the next best thing — interior roads, logging roads and firebreaks.
They will travel up hill and along ridges, but practically never will they be seen traveling straight down steep slopes. There are no set rules to their behavior, but there are trends a hunter can use to his advantage.
Understanding the turkey’s use of geographical features will result in far more success than top-of-the-line camo and a vest full of gear. Calling is a vital skill to being a successful turkey hunter, but it will not help if you are not in the right place at the right time. Trail cameras combined with data maps are the perfect tools for determining the right place and the right time to have a run-in with one of these stubborn birds.
I had other close encounters with Big Boy during the following weeks last season, and a buddy sealed the deal on Big Boy’s wingman. But I had to give up on him for the sake of my own health and sanity. On a weekend I had invited some friends to come hunt with me, I assigned one of them the task of murdering the tough, old bird.
During the pre-hunt briefing, I supplied my friend with a folder of maps and all kinds of data that I suspected he would find useful in outwitting the pea brain that rattled around inside Big Boy’s massive noggin.
By Saturday evening I had not heard any shots, so I was shocked when I pulled up to see a turkey lying in the road with a vest and gun rested over its back. The moment I laid eyes on it, I knew my friend had killed the legendary bird that was on the verge of killing me.
My friend had studied his materials well. He killed the bird late that afternoon as Big Boy spat and drummed down a road littered with notes on the maps I had given him. Big Boy was killed right where he was supposed to be killed, in his own backyard.
My friend had set up according to the concentration of purple dots indicating roosts and the yellow dash marks indicating the road trampled with this bird’s tracks.
Big Boy was a bird that was on the brink of being unkillable. Most hunters have encountered these types of birds at some point in their careers; few have conquered them. This bird died because of a map, an obsessive data collector and a friend that’s a heck of a turkey hunter.
There are perhaps birds that are not killable when it comes to calling, but there is no such thing as a bird that cannot be killed. Turkeys spend most of the day covering ground. Anything that walks around all day can be killed; all it takes is being in the right place at the right time. This is much easier said than done when it comes to turkeys, but using all the tools and technology at your disposal can certainly increase the odds.