It’s the same for every sportsman who travels to a new place to hunt-whether hitting a friend’s new spot in the next county or booking a guided adventure to hunt property halfway across the country-the excitement of the unfamiliar thrills us. Like going on a first date or waking up on Christmas morning, the possibilities of what awaits seem boundless. And even if the land has been hunted to death or game is scarce, we are-at least for the first day-blissful in our ignorance.
But the very thing that enthralls us, the challenge of hunting land we’ve never walked before, also works against us. Why? Well, because we’ve never walked the land before! When a thunderous gobble breaks the silence at first light on your local property, you can accurately picture what the woods look like where the turkey is, what lies between and how you need to make your approach.
However, put yourself in the same situation but on a place you’ve never hunted before and you have no idea of what lies between you and the gobbler, the best way to approach and even what the land might look like where he is. No doubt any hunter who has chased turkeys across county and state lines from his or her usual haunt long enough has a tale of trying to work a gobbler that was, unbeknownst to them, across a river or on the other side of a cluttered thicket. Such scenarios make for low odds of success to be sure. The day before I started working at the National Wild Turkey Federation, former Turkey Call editor Jay Langston and I worked a gobbling bird from a tract of unfamiliar public land only to discover that the tom was in a pen behind a farmer’s house!
Because knowing the lay of the land can play as much a part of a hunter’s success as his or her ability to call or shoot, learning how the land is situated can be crucial. And with more and more turkey hunters slipping behind the wheel or boarding airplanes in the quest for a Grand Slam or simply in search of distant adventure, it is more important than ever that hunters take this into consideration when they go somewhere new to hunt.
The First Step
The first thing you’ll want to do when planning a distant hunt is naturally talk to somebody who knows the land. Without question, the best way to up your odds is to book a guided hunt. A good guide will be familiar with the land, will have scouted the birds and know their patterns and where they will be found and in many instances, can even call for you and help you in the endless field decisions that need to be made during a turkey hunt. Of course, a guided hunt is also the more expensive route.
A word of caution here: Depending on your calling abilities and turkey hunting experience make sure you quiz your outfitter-before you book the hunt-as to your needs and expectations of the guides who will be taking you afield. For novices, you’d be wise to choose a hunt that will allow you to accompany a seasoned turkey guide in the woods. Besides upping your chances of success exponentially, the tips you can pick up on setting up, calling and working birds may be worth the price of the hunt alone.
Don’t just expect because an outfitter offers turkey hunts, however, that he or his guides fully understand turkey hunting. I’ve seen a number of operations where a moderately experienced turkey hunter knew his way around the turkey woods better than his guide. This is fine if you are an experienced hunter who can call your own bird. For those hunters, many will simply want to be shown the land, get the heads up on where to find the birds and then be set loose to hunt on their own. Either way, understand what it is you expect from the hunt and make sure the outfitter is able to deliver it.
Whether it’s a call-your-own hunt through an outfitter, an out-of-state public-land hunt or you’re swapping hunts with some guy you met on a turkey hunting message board, talk to the people who know the land the best-the outfitters, landowners, farmers, wildlife enforcement officers or biologists, any hunters you may know from the area, etc. Ask them where they’ve seen birds before, how well local populations are doing, what the terrain is like (hilly, open, wooded, large timber, cutovers, etc.), how much water (i.e. creeks, ponds, water catchments) is there and where it can be found, what the weather is usually like at the time of year you will be there, proximity of agriculture, where the turkeys will typically roost and the like. Anything that can give you a better idea about what to expect before you get there might be helpful.
Then back that information up by looking at topo maps or aerial photos of the area and start correlating the info you have learned with what you see on the maps. Don’t bank on everything you see on the aerial photos, however. Some may be 10 to 15 years old and in places like the South, where timber is regularly cut and replanted, and where forestry has replaced agriculture in a lot of areas, that nice open field you’re looking at may now be a stand of eight-year-old pines. Likewise, that ridge of mature hardwoods may now be a clearcut.
Upon Getting There
Time is of the essence as soon as you get to the area you’ll be hunting. If possible, get there early enough on your travel day to do a little scouting. Identify likely roost areas such as hardwoods bordering fields and creeks and ridges with tall timber throughout the eastern half of the U.S. In Rio country, search for wooded creeks and oak stands and where Merriam’s roam, key in on tall tree stands along hillsides or wooded creeks near agriculture or cattle operations.
Check in with landowners or stop in at check stations to find out what the birds have been doing. Are they still henned up? Are they gobbling good-just from the roost or once they hit the ground? Are hunters running into a lot of jakes? These are all good questions to get the answers to as it will impact how you approach the next day’s hunt.
Try to cruise the country you’ll be hunting looking for turkey tracks and strut marks along field edges and logging roads, glass fields and open hillsides for strutting or loafing birds and as dark approaches, offer up some coyote howls or owl hoots to locate a roosted gobbler. Spotting a longbeard at or right before fly up is the best sign you will get as you can just about bet your paycheck he’ll be there first thing in the morning. It’s all the more better if you spot him alone.
What to Look For
Water, large trees for roosting and open areas for strutting are all good habitat components for turkeys and finding all three together creates a great area to focus your attention. In the West, where cattle feeding and agriculture are prevalent, you’ll want to keep in mind the route turkeys will most likely travel from roost to food and will want to set up along those areas. Look for stands of trees and changes in elevation such as bottoms or hills that will allow you to move from setup to setup without being seen by the birds. During the day, many turkeys will take to the open to scratch and strut, but you’ll want to keep hidden. Make sure to determine what areas provide you with the necessary to cover to move and setup when necessary.
When hunting places like Texas or other areas where feeders for deer are common, make sure you find out from the landowner if he is still running corn or other food from the feeders. You’ll want to know this, as you could be a Grand National-class turkey caller and not call a bird away from his meal-even at the peak of the mating season! Likewise, you’ll also want to know how far the law requires you stay away from feeders as to avoid getting yourself in both legal and ethical trouble.
Time Well Spent
Plan at least three days when possible regardless of whether your hunt is a one- or two-bird (or more) hunt. Less than that and you cut yourself short of time that may be needed to score, more than that and you may find yourself tagged out on a good hunt with little to do. (This isn’t always a bad thing, though!) Either way, three days typically gives you ample time to work around any curves the weather might throw you and will allow you to understand where the birds are and how they move throughout the day.
Expect your first day there to be one spent learning the lay of the land, where the turkeys can be found there and how they are acting. If you score, then all the more power to you. But don’t be discouraged if things don’t pan out that first morning. You still have two days and everyday-if you’ve done your homework before arriving-you’ll be that much more prepared to hunt the place like it’s yours.