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Hot Zones at Cabela's

Hot Zones

Author: Doug Howlett

Turkey hunting is a pursuit where hunters are best served with access to lots of land. But don't overlook the possibilities on smaller "target-rich" environments.

Hot zones often equal hot success.  Photo by NWTF.
The hunt lease provided exclusive access to nearly 4,000 acres with 2,000 of it spread across a county where turkey season started two weeks earlier than the rest of the area. There were plenty of turkeys on the land. The only downside: "exclusive" meant 34 other club members and me. Most of them were deer hunters, but enough of them were eager to run a turkey call, which would ensure that the early-season area took a solid pounding the first two weeks. At least 10 to 12 hunters were expected there each of the first days. So, when the opportunity came up to join another gentleman on his son's 96 acres for opening day, I jumped at the chance.

I know, I know. I can already feel the breeze from the veteran turkey hunters out there shaking their heads in unison. "Ninety-six acres. That's not enough land to turkey hunt. Why, I'd have that land hunted inside 30 minutes," I'm sure somebody is thinking.

Well, I'll tell you exactly how long it took me to hunt it-four hours and 46 minutes! That's when my patience, after an otherwise quiet morning and a blown setup on the only vocal tom on the property, finally paid off. As I pitched my decoy in an acre-sized grass field and began working a mid-morning tom that hung up just across the property line, two gobblers decided to crash the party. I didn't even realize they were to my left until a gobble erupted not 80 yards away.

When I eased my head around, the big boy that would fall to my gun was in full strut and steady rolling toward my deke. I had managed to slip into position, using a pine tree for cover, and let him get about 25 yards away when I pulled the trigger. Had I simply went off the amount of gobbling I heard at daybreak, I would have never guessed this many fat gobblers were in the area. But my friend's son had paid attention and told him how he had observed the turkeys in his wildlife openings late in the morning.

Decoys can often mean the difference between success and failure.  Photo by NWTF.
Small Or Nothing At All
Turkey hunting has long been considered a pursuit best carried out on large tracts of land, where if the hunter didn't hit on anything at first light, he could cover area after area until he found a longbeard that would work to the call. But just as biologists involved in the early restoration of today's phenomenal wild turkey populations mistakenly believed the birds required large, unbroken forests to thrive, many of today's turkey hunters think they need large leases or must own their own vast spreads to be successful in the woods. Not true.

While the laws of man and good ethics dictate that we honor property lines, and posted land by never crossing those boundaries without permission, wild turkeys are under no such mandate. Too often, hunters look at the make-up of the land on which they have permission to hunt as ancient sailors once regarded the earth they thought was flat: Beyond the edge there is nothing. But this is a narrow view. Your land is only one piece of a much bigger habitat puzzle that the wildlife in your area use each day.

Say you have a friend that owns a small piece of paradise. He said you could hunt it anytime you want, but it's not that big and you've never really given the offer a second thought. Well, let's give it one now.

Does the land have good trees that serve as roosts? Do any creeks or streams run through the property that might provide an early, green-up area in the spring and supply water? What about food sources such as oak trees or bushes that provide berries? Just like restaurants draw hungry humans, a good variety of food sources will surely draw birds as the majority of their lives are spent ranging for something to eat. Other land features that will prove attractive to wild turkeys are open areas such as fields (particularly if planted in clover or grasses) for strutting or bugging.

Fields bordered by thicker vegetation such as a cutover provide a good mix of nesting and feeding areas for hens; and hey, if hens are there, gobblers won't be far away. Any combination of these features means that if turkeys inhabit the area, it's a good bet they'll pass through or frequent your land as well. Add to this the possibility of improving the land for turkeys by planting food plots or fruit and mast producing trees, and you may well create a magnet for turkey traffic.

Good camo combined with good calling can help seal the deal.  Photo by NWTF.
Overlooked Treasures
Because many hunters want to pursue that classic hunt where they have a large area to work, many smaller tracts get overlooked by turkey hunters. I know it's darn near impossible to find a piece of land bigger than a couple of hundred acres near my house, not spoken for by some hunter or hunt club; that is if the landowner is open to others hunting it. But smaller pieces, anywhere from 40 acres to 150, often go untouched because few serious turkey hunters want to waste their time with them.

After all, the downside begins with the fact that the birds are either there or they aren't. You head to one of these smaller areas and begin owl hooting in the morning only to be answered by silence, what do you do then? You can go back home and get a jump on your yard work, or you can do like I did the morning of my hunt earlier in this story and wait around hoping things will eventually crank up. Neither option is ideal fun for a hunter bent on finding a tom that answers every call.

Another downside to small tracts is that they don't lend themselves to bringing guests. You can team hunt with a buddy, or on slow days even set up in different areas hoping to catch a late-wandering tom. But outside of that, hitting a place a little more than 100 acres in size and going your separate ways will likely end up with the two of you calling over each other for the same bird. If you primarily hunt solo or don't mind calling for a buddy or vice versa, these small tracts could play into your favor. They're also great for taking a kid hunting, as there's less chance that you'll walk him or her to death.

How to Hunt 'Em
Okay, so you've thought it over again, and decided you're going to try your buddy's back-40 after all. Even better, you have a little piece of land not far from his that you bought awhile back and are planning to build a get-away home on one day. You never thought of doing much but shooting a whitetail or a few squirrels off it, but now you're reconsidering. You should.

I've increased my odds greatly by having a few small places a short drive from one another. If I have access to one spot where birds tend to roost, I hit it first thing in the morning. If I strike out there, I'll head to a spot where birds may not typically roost, but where I've seen them later in the day. There, I'll do a quick lap in an effort to hit on an actively gobbling longbeard. If nothing happens, I'll set up a few decoys, get comfortable and call once or twice every 20 to 30 minutes. Looking back over 13 seasons of spring turkey hunting, I can say I've killed as many birds between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. as I have first thing in the morning-and of those, the majority gobbled very little or none at all. I've even napped in the setup only to wake up and discover what I sleepily thought was an extra decoy among my spread before snapping completely awake, "Hey, that's not a decoy!"

Whether it's one small gem of turkey habitat or you've managed to assemble a little collection of farms, learning when and how to hit these hot zones can really pay off by season's end. And years later when you're recounting tales with friends or looking through your photo album, that's all anybody's going to remember anyway.

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