Turkey tracks littered the sandy lane. Not 100 yards away was the tower stand, where on more occasions than I could count during deer season, I had watched silently as flocks of turkeys crossed or fed along the road. I knew the roving gangs were mostly disbanded by now, but felt certain some of their members lingered among the pines. The recent tracks told me I was right.
I had visited the area a couple of times over the past two weeks and had focused my search on this particular zone. It was the evening before opening day.
I worked my way slowly along the path, tossing out an occasional crow call to entice a shock gobble, when two hens stepped into the path 80 yards ahead. I froze and let them pass. If they saw me they gave no sign of alarm. As soon as they stepped behind some brush, I slipped into the tree line to give them time to get out of the area. No sooner had I wondered if a tom might be nearby than a deep-throated gobble rocketed from the lane where the hens had just crossed.
Hunched behind a pine barely bigger than my leg, I grew concerned as the gobbler continued forward-not across the lane like the hens, but right down the path in my direction. I watched as the redhead with the rope-like beard strolled toward me. With no mask and no way to move or hide, I grew more nervous as the bird approached. It was less than an hour until the turkeys would fly up to roost. If he had reason to be spooked by a man now, it was unlikely I would be able to slip in and work him as easily in the morning.
"Please get in the woods," I silently pleaded. Then as if on cue not 30 yards away, he turned and headed for the hens.
When I felt that he was safely out of sight, I hopped up and ran the other way, deeper into the woods. I walked a big circle back to the truck, but I couldn't risk walking down the open lanes. Not now.
I knew if nobody rolled in there before dark, he'd set up shop for the evening nearby, and if I was the first one to the area in the morning, I was in for quite a hunt. Upon reaching my pick-up, I heard him gobble in the distance, the sound of his thunder followed by another gobble on the other side of where I now stood. Apparently, there was another longbeard in a smaller patch of young pines that bordered our property line. "There's my Plan B," I thought.
I tell you, there was no better feeling driving home that night than knowing I had not one, but two toms pinpointed for the opener.
With the availability of birds in many of today's forests, I know a surprising number of hunters who don't bother to do any serious scouting before season. With my early turkey hunting forays limited to my father's farm, I too, seldom scouted prior to opening day. I knew stepping out the door of the small farmhouse if something was gobbling, unless it was in the deepest part of the swamp, I was going to hear it. The birds were either there or they weren't. I had no other options and no competition from other hunters.
But factor in larger tracts of land, different farms or forests to choose from, unfamiliar woods or the desire to get an edge on the other hunters who will be sharing the woods with you, and the need to know where to be when the first whistle of the season blows becomes pretty darn important. By scouting prior to the precious few days you will actually be able to hunt, you will learn generally "where the turkeys are," and more importantly, discover the daily routines of the birds.
Some hunters like to hit the woods a month or more before the season, but I usually don't bother until two to three weeks prior to the opener. Before that (at least in the South where I live), the birds are usually still flocked up. Their springtime patterns have yet to be established and if the mornings are still cold, they gobble very little.
When you do hit the woods to scout, get to a high point before daybreak and listen for gobbling. Try to pinpoint where the birds are roosting. Once the sun is up, cover some ground looking for likely roosting areas. Out West, where habitat limits the areas where good roost trees are found, the birds are likely to be more concentrated in particular pockets of trees leaving behind the tell-tale sign of droppings and feathers. South facing slopes in the mountains are a good bet too.
In the East, roost areas are less identifiable as large expanses of trees provide more than ample roosting. Good places to inspect are along creek bottoms, swamp edges and ridgetops. Field edges, where birds can pitch into the open, are also good possibilities.
Check for sign along field edges and logging roads or paths by checking for turkey tracks, wing-tip drag marks from strutting birds and even dusting areas. Scratching in the forest, marked by overturned leaves, are a good sign that turkeys have been feeding in the area. If the soil is still moist on the surface, you know the turkeys were probably there that morning.
Take along a map and note the location, creeks, downed trees or clusters of downed trees, thick brush, fences and other obstacles that might impede a gobbler's approach to your calling. Keep these obstacles in mind when setting up, making sure that there are none between you and the tom.
Spend some time sitting tight at a field edge or in open woods, listening and watching. Record your observations in a journal to determine patterns in the turkeys' behavior. Include weather conditions and other factors that might also prove helpful.
A lot of hunters are tempted to include a little calling along with their scouting in the preseason, but resist the urge. Leave the calls home until opening day. Birds learn quickly when they hear calls but never find a hen, or worse, find you.
Minimize the impact of your presence when you scout, too. Don't drive all over the place and don't make a lot of noise crashing through the woods or talking with a friend who may have joined you while walking. Like deer, turkeys pick up on the sudden increase in human activity and by making yourself obvious, you may speed the birds toward exhibiting the reclusive behavior they will typically show after a good week or two of hunting pressure.
Once you pinpoint where the birds roost and where they head during the day to feed, plan a strategy that puts you along their travel routes. Then you can enter the woods on opening day, full of confidence.
So how did the hunt I was describing turn out the next morning?
I'd love to say I scored on that fat tom, but even with my scouting, the efforts weren't quite enough. I managed to set up less than a 100 yards from where the bird was roosted. He headed toward my calls upon pitching down from the roost, but got hung up behind a large hedgerow I hadn't realized was between us. Again, a more thorough understanding of the lay of the land would have helped me avoid that obstacle.
After another nearby hunter shot a jake he was working, the sound of the blast shut my bird up for good.
A quick review of the property sign-in sheet that afternoon showed nobody had hit the spot I had heard that second gobbler the evening before. The next morning I was there. And with the help of a decoy, enticed a curious hen into my setup with not one, but two, huge longbeards in tow. She was standing five yards to my right when I pulled the trigger on one of the two gobblers standing just inside my 40-yard limit.
It would be the only turkey I would tag in my home state that year and from that day forward, I have been a devoted student in the school of preseason scouting.
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