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Written By: Cal Kellogg, April 3, 2014
For two days the weather had been a dismal mix of wind and rain, but now the woods were still. A steady squishing of my boots was the only sound as I shuffled down a muddy trail under a sky blanketed with stars. I glanced at my GPS unit to confirm my position.
For 45 minutes I’d been hiking along a ridge using the stars and a glow stick for light. Hours earlier, I stood in the same spot and watched eight turkeys, seven hens and a gobbler, go to roost here. I had watch the birds with my binoculars as they fed their way onto a point halfway up the far ridge and then flew into a gray pine one by one.
Lying in my tent that night, I plotted a strategy: From the ridge trail, I’d drop into the canyon, scramble up the far side, locate and skirt around the birds’ roost, and set up behind them before dawn.
Making it to the canyon bottom was easy, but the far hillside above the creek was steep, steeper than I thought it would be and it was slick after two days of rain. I used some tree roots to climb like a makeshift ladder and pulled my gear up behind me on a piece of cord. Once I got past the creek bank, finding the roost tree proved anticlimactic.
As dawn broke I was set u in the limbs of a deadfall 50 yards from the roost, hidden behind a screen of brush and small oaks, and with a hen decoy placed seductively 15 yards in front of me. I listened as the turkeys yelped softly, and when a woodpecker flew from a nearby tree, I knew it was time.
I fired off a short staccato series of yelps and clucks with a diaphragm call while flapping a turkey wing against my thigh. After a few minutes of silence, I scratched the leaves and grass. Combined the sequence was my best imitation of a turkey flying down from its roost to feed.
Suddenly, there was a loud gobble, and then the dawn air erupted with wing beats. Just like that the turkeys were off the roost and on the ground, but where? Just as suddenly, the birds fell silent. I sat frozen, my ears straining as my eyes picked apart the brush.
I’d almost convinced myself that the birds had moved away and was about to yelp lightly, when I spotted a gobbler’s head moving through the undergrowth glowing like an iridescent blue light bulb. I held my breath. The gobbler’s movements were slow and cautious; he wasn’t excited about the decoy I had put our, only curious. At 35 paces the gobbler paused. Would he keep coming? Was he suspicious? It didn’t matter. My Remington ended the game by anchoring the long beard with a 2 ounce load of No. 5 copper plated shot.
Running my hands over the Rio Grande’s glistening feathers, I smiled with satisfaction. The homework I’d done had paid off with a handsome 22 pound public land gobbler. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Each spring thousands of West Coast hunters take to the field hoping to harvest a gobbler. Most of these hunters will fail to bag that old tom. Consistently harvesting gobblers on public land requires preparation, dedication and persistence. Many hunters mistakenly believe spring hunting success is all about calling, but there’s more to it than that. Calling is only one piece of the turkey hunting puzzle. The real challenge is locating turkeys and developing a strategy to meet the prevailing conditions.
Scouting is the most important element in building a successful turkey hunting strategy.
The amount of success you have during the spring season is largely dependent on the amount and quality of preseason scouting you dol. Most hunters that fail to bag a gobbler do so as a result of poor scouting.
For new turkey hunters or experienced hunters hunting a new area, scouting begins with a call to the state wildlife agency. You want to contact a biologist involved with the wild turkey program or at the least, a wildlife biologist who regularly works in the area you want to hunt. Begin by asking for any literature or maps that the biologist can provide.
Some states offer comprehensive guides about turkey populations, public hunting area, special hunts and hunting tactics. The biologist can give you up to the date information about turkey numbers, forage, preferred habitat, hunting pressure, and the counties with the highest harvest rates.
Don’t expect a biologist to point you to a specific hotspot. Biologists are a great resource that can provide you with an understanding of your area’s turkey population while saving you a lot of searching. Remember to call well before the season.
Based on the information the biologist provides, the actual legwork of scouting is up to you. Yes, it takes time. For serious turkey hunters scouting is a year round affair that turns serious about February 1. Depending on daylight the weather patterns, the birds will begin moving to spring hunts in preparation for the breeding season during February or Early March.
When you hang up the phone with the biologist, you will have identified some public areas around your region that hold promise. These areas typically consist of national forest lands and state wildlife areas. Prior to beginning your field scouting pick up a details set of topographical maps for these areas as well as a general map of the region for identifying roads, additional hunting areas, private land, and the like.
Topographical maps are essential equipment for the turkey hunter. I prefer maps with 1:24,000 scale. They reveal both terrain and vegetation in good detail. This knowledge, when combined with a basic understanding of turkey behavior, will help you predict the location and movements of turkeys. In addition, these maps provide a template where you can record information uncovered in the field such as turkey sightings, potential strutting and nesting areas, feeding and watering areas, dusting spots and movement corridors.
Knowledge is power. An in depth knowledge of the turkeys in your area and the lands that they frequent makes a real difference when the season opens. The objective of the turkey hunter is to locate a gobbler and either call him in or ambush him as he goes about his routine. To achieve this the hunter must know the lay of the land thoroughly. Field scouting involves three things: finding turkeys, locating sign and identifying areas that breeding turkeys will find attractive, namely nesting areas and strut zones.
While producing eggs, hens require a diet high in calcium. Their fast growing poults on the other hand, need a high protein diet made up almost exclusively of bugs. Open areas like meadows, old pastures, abandoned farms, fire breaks and old burns me the nutritional need so both hens and their young, providing calcium rich green shoots as well as ample insects. Where there are hens, you can bet gobblers won’t be far away, so consider nesting areas like these as possible honey holes.
That’s it for now. We’ll wrap up this discussion of public land turkey hunting success in the next edition of The Fish Sniffer- Cal Kellogg.
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