As my truck rolled down the gravel road I turned to the fellow I was guiding and let him in on a little secret.
“This is one of the heaviest hunted spots in the area,” I said. “The road ends up ahead and there’s a field off to the left. At dawn it looks like a parking lot.” No response was necessary. The look on his face said it all: “If that’s the case, then what in the heck are we doing here, and at 10 a.m.?”
The road dead-ended in a spot as deserted as a professional football stadium on a Monday morning. Fresh tire tracks and boot prints covered the ground, revealing the flurry of hunter activity just a few hours before. But now the place was empty—hard to believe it was still opening day of turkey season. And it was even harder for my client to believe me when I told him there was a strutter in the field.
I learned to hunt turkeys on land open to the general public, and I still do much of my turkey hunting on such land today. That means, with little exception, I’m hunting pressured birds. I’ve also learned during the past 25 years that being successful means beating the competition, which includes both pressured turkeys and other hunters.
One tactic that’s served me well, as illustrated in the opening passage, is to hunt turkeys late in the morning. Everybody wants to be in the woods at dawn, especially on opening day because that’s when the birds are most vocal, and seemingly most vulnerable. And given the choice, I too will take first water any day.
However, it doesn’t take much hunting pressure to shut things down. Before long, the sun comes up, the woods go quiet and folks go home or to work. Whether they score on a bird or not, a good many of those early bird hunters will leave the woods after the first hour or two of daylight. The birds will still be there, and they can actually be more vulnerable.
Most spring turkey seasons are timed to begin after the majority of hens have been bred. They might still be flocked up at dawn, but hens will peel off and leave the flock to lay and incubate eggs as the morning wears on. By mid- to late-morning the hens are gone and the toms redouble their efforts at looking for love. Most of the hunters are gone, too, so you’ve got a much better chance of calling in a bird without interference.
The same is true, to a large extent, of hunting late in the spring. The older, dominant toms that were henned up earlier in the spring had what they wanted (hens) and had no reason to leave them. Suddenly, however, they find themselves alone late in the season. Meanwhile, with a good many early season hunters having tagged out or given up by this time, you might also find yourself alone in the woods.
I’ve observed a phenomenon at this time of the season I call the “shuffle.” After all the hens in a particular area have been bred, a dominant tom will sometimes leave his home turf and strike out in search of more hens. Seemingly overnight, longbeards begin showing up in areas they haven’t been in all spring—sometimes even leaving un-huntable private land for huntable public land. They’re eager to mate and on unfamiliar ground, which makes them twice as vulnerable.
AVOID OBVIOUS BIRDS
One of the most obvious ways to avoid hunting pressure is to avoid hunting the most obvious turkeys. It took me a while to learn this, partly because of naiveté, but mostly due to my own stubbornness. Scouting from the front seat of my truck, I’d find a tom, study his habits, stake my claim and assume because I’d been watching him every day that he was mine. Come opening day, however, I’d quickly learn that he “belonged” to a half dozen other hunters as well.
I still do a lot of pre-season (and in-season) scouting from my truck, but I take a slightly different tack than most of the competition. First, instead of scouting turkeys during late afternoon and dusk, I scout them at dawn. Second, I do far more listening than I do looking while employing a technique known as “triangulation.”
It works like this. I hit the road before dawn, stopping at frequent intervals and listening for unseen birds gobbling from the roost. When I hear one, I draw a pencil line on a topo map from my location to where I think the bird is. Then I try to drive around the block of woods he’s in, stopping at several more locations and drawing at least two more lines on my map. The intersection of these lines is a reasonably good estimate of where the bird actually is. If I do this for several consecutive days with the same results, that bird moves to the top of my list of prospects.
My principal advantage is that the birds can’t be seen from the road. Most hunters scout from the road and nothing seems to draw a crowd like a visible gobbler. The farther away you can get, the less competition you’ll have.
One spring, while hunting turkeys in northwestern Connecticut, I tagged out in 2 days. Rather than go home, I drove across the state line and hunted some state forest land in Massachusetts. By wearing out some shoe leather and getting a half-mile or so back into the hills, I was able to tag two birds in two states in one morning.
LIGHTLY PRESSURED AREAS TO TARGET
On a much broader scale, you can avoid competition almost entirely by hunting large rural states. States west of the Mississippi River have some of the largest federal land holdings and some of the best public land turkey hunting in the country. A successful do-it-yourself Merriam’s hunt in a state such as South Dakota can be relatively easy to plan and inexpensive.
My grade school guidance counselor used to tell me to not be afraid of being different. At the time, she was probably talking about peer pressure rather than hunting pressure, but her advice has turned out to be applicable to both.
That heavily hunted parcel in the opening passage of this article serves as a good example here as well. All the locals hunted it first thing in the morning and by 9-10 a.m. they were gone and I’d often have it all to myself. Over time, I also noticed most hunters set up along field edges. By going a quarter-mile back into the woods I could sometimes work a bird without interference, for a while.
I’ve also applied this philosophy to my calling. Despite what some of my peers say, I firmly believe turkeys can become call-shy. If everyone’s walking around the woods doing loud, plain yelps, the birds are going to become conditioned to it and they’re going to become less eager to approach.
When hunting public land I’ll often use a much more subtle calling approach. I might still call a lot, but I use more soft purrs and scratching in the leaves to simulate contentedly feeding turkeys. If that doesn’t work, I’ll set out my decoys and not make a sound.
DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT DECOY TACTICS
Speaking of decoys, hunting pressured birds sometimes calls for some radically different decoy tactics. Most guys use one, two or three decoys, usually including a jake and hen(s). Pressured birds, especially toms with hens, might overlook or even avoid such a setup.
That’s when I use my “confidence spread.” I’ve put as many as eight or 10 decoys out at one time. My reasoning is that if it works for waterfowl, why wouldn’t it work for turkeys? And it does seem to work.
A special note of caution is advisable here: In order to appear more realistic, my confidence decoy spread includes at least one strutting tom or jake. But on heavily hunted public land this can sometimes attract the wrong kind of attention. For that reason, I only use this decoy setup on larger fields where I have a good view of any approaching hunters, and they of me. It’s hard to imagine anyone could mistake plastic decoys for the real thing, but it happens.
You can apply this “dare to be different” philosophy to the hunting tool you choose as well. The reason there are so many hunters where I live is because there are so many people; and those people live in developed areas. So do turkeys. The birds have adapted quite well to living around the trappings of man in my part of the world, and many of these suburbanite birds go largely un-hunted, unless and until a bowhunter comes along. One of my best birds came from a small parcel of state-owned land that was too close to houses to discharge a firearm, but not a bow.
Bad weather can be a bane or boom to your spring turkey hunting, depending on whether you use it to your advantage. I used to hate hunting turkeys in the rain, but then I began to take notice of a few things.
First, there’s an inverse relationship between weather severity and hunting pressure. The worse the weather, the fewer hunters in the woods. Second, turkeys tend to prefer open areas, like fields, on rainy and windy days. The real revelation for me, though, was when I discovered pop-up ground blinds. That’s when I realized if I set one up on the edge of a field and waited patiently, I could hunt in relative comfort in bad weather, and with little competition. Now I actually look forward to hunting turkeys on rainy days.
These are but a few of the tactics I’ve discovered for dealing with pressured turkeys and those who pressure them. Each situation is different and often unique circumstances call for their own specific techniques. Don’t be afraid to try something new or radical. Yes, you might blow a few birds in the process, but if it works, you could be the one strutting around your local state game lands.