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Public Land Longbeards at Cabela's

Public Land Longbeards

Author: M.D. Johnson

Tagging a bird on public land can sometimes be a chore, but with these few tips from the pro's the task just got easier!

Julia Johnson with a beautiful bird in a beautiful setting.
To put it mildly, I wasn't in a good mood. A dark, vile mood would be closer to the truth. Dawn was a good half hour in the past and it was raining, a slow, rolling "this is going to last all day and into the night" type of rain that is an all-too-common occurrence in Washington State. And to top it off, I had been informed by the party of turkey hunters camping not 50 yards away from our "secret spot" that they would be hunting the bulk of the timber company property the next morning. "After all," I was reminded, "they had gotten there first." Boy, didn't I know it. "Ah, quit your whining and let's go turkey hunt." Julie, my wife, an accomplished blacktail deer and elk hunter turned turkey hunting fanatic, wasn't about to let a little inclement weather, let alone competition, keep her from practicing her art. "Beside," she said with a sarcastic smile, "your sleeping bag's soaked." Only because she was right about the sleeping bag did I agree.

And, again putting it mildly, was I glad I did. Not a quarter mile from the camp, not one but three hard-gobbling longbeards responded to my half-hearted crow calls. Quickly we moved through the narrow stand of timber, and after setting our single hen decoy a few yards out into the large pasture field, we made ready to make our first series of calls.

Forty-five minutes later, the trio of still-gobbling toms hadn't moved from their original position. "Let's give it another half hour," I said to Julie, "and we'll have to move." It was then that we heard the faint gobble, a sound neither one of us could be sure we'd actually heard. "There he is," hissed Julie. "Across the field directly in front of you." At a distance of more than 500 yards, the gobbler looked like a black Volkswagen beetle as he began his march across the field, all the while in full strut. Four hundred and sixty - four yards later, the firing pin of the Remington 11-87 started a process than ended with two ounces of copper-plated #6 shot meeting 21 pounds of hook-spurred gobbler.

"YES!! Did you see that bird come across that field?" The question, asked to my dancing partner, was unnecessary as her smile provided more than enough in the way of an answer. For the past five minutes both of us supposed adults had jumped and shouted and measured and weighed in the corner of the large open field, but now it was time for the work of putting the whole experience on film to begin. With still trembling hands, I reached up to take the diaphragm call from my mouth. "I wonder," I thought.

M.D. Johnson with a longbeard.
My squeaky series of yelps was greeted with thunderous gobbles. "They're coming," I hissed. But there was no need. Julie was already 15 feet ahead of me and diving for our former calling location. Settling in behind her, I looked out into the field where my bird still lay. Immediately, my peripheral vision caught movement - one, no, two big longbeards, the second in full strut. "Take the second one," I whispered in Julie's ear. With that, the first gobbler stepped into a small opening just 13 steps beyond the bead of Julie's matching Remington. "No, take that one." I didn't have to say it twice.

Ten minutes later, as we stood, still shaking, beside the pair of longbeards, the skies cleared. A flock of Canadas flew to the north, outlined against the snow-covered heights of Oregon's Mount Hood, while below us, three blacktail deer grazed on the short green grass. And as a fitting close, our nearby neighbors chose that moment to walk out of the timber on the other side of the field. Hearing the twin shots, they'd come out to investigate. "Let me wave," said Julie as she hefted the heavy tom onto her shoulder for yet another picture. It wasn't the first time I'd seen her smile that morning.

A magical experience? Any time I can sit beside any turkey hunter, let alone my wife, and watch them harvest a trophy longbeard, it's most certainly a magical experience. But because the words "public land" were used in this particular opening anecdote, does that phrase then put this story into the "mythical" category?

For many turkey hunters across the country, the thought of hunting spring gobblers on public land ranks right up there with saying, "Sure, you can borrow my Harley." It's just not going to happen. And the reasons for this are many, and range from pressure to impossible birds and back to pressure again.

But what if public land's the only option? Today, due to factors such as development, human encroachment, and the rise in the popularity of leasing for the purposes of outdoor recreation, it's becoming more and more difficult to find not only a parcel of private property upon which to turkey hunt, but a privately-owned piece that actually harbors a decent population of gobblers.

However, there are some turkey hunters who not only don't mind hunting public ground longbeards, but actually enjoy it, and have taken this often-called last resort and made an art form out of it. Matt Morrett is one such individual. A Pennsylvania native and current member of the Hunter's Specialties elite Pro Staff Team, Morrett has, since entering his first turkey calling contest at the ripe old age of eight, amassed a record of titles that's the envy of turkey callers from coast to coast. His current list of accomplishments includes five World Friction Calling Championships, the coveted Grand National Calling Championship (1990), and most recently, the US Open Friction (21 August 99). Morrett has hunted gobblers from New York to Florida and everywhere in between, even taking the Grand Slam, his first and all on video nonetheless, during the mid-1990s. Much of this hunting, particularly in his native Pennsylvania, has taken place on public land, and with much success; however, public land, according to this talented young man, does have its share of hardships. Still, it's nothing that some extra time and effort, and a few tricks, can't handle.

As with all turkey hunting, regardless of whether the hunt's held on private or public land, the secret to successfully notching that tag lies in scouting.

"The first thing that I look for when I'm scouting or researching a public area are high spots and low spots, and water in particular. Regardless of where you are in the country, turkeys need water every day of their life. And you're not necessarily going to look for big bodies of water, but often little creek bottoms with nice ridges along them. And hopefully those ridges are hardwood ridges with food (acorn, hickories, beech) on them," said Morrett. "The other key elements that I look for are fields and openings, and things such as logging roads and access points."

One of the important things that turkey hunters need to remember, Morrett reminds us, is that when looking at a public area, size really doesn't matter. Often, hunters have a tendency to discount anything that doesn't cover 10,000 contiguous acres. That, according to Morrett, is in many cases, a mistake.

"It all depends on where you're hunting. If it's 100 acres in Iowa or Missouri, I certainly wouldn't pass it by, but if it's 100 acres in the big mountains of Pennsylvania, I'd probably pass it up just because so many of our public acres (in Pennsylvania) are much, much larger. But typically I won't pass up anything. If it looks good and looks like it should have turkeys, I'm going to try it," said Morrett.

And like all good (read: successful) turkey hunters, Morrett does much of his preseason scouting, or homework, before he ever leaves the house.

"The gazette style maps (like DeLorme's Gazetteer series) can be a turkey hunter's bible. I think that the key to hunting public land is finding areas that the average hunter isn't going to get to. I was always taught when I was growing up that the farther back in you go, the better the hunting's going to be because nobody's going to go there. So I've found that the key to public land is to pack your bags and hike in a mile or two where you're likely to have the woods all to yourself," said Morrett.

But now let's say the scouting's complete. It's the end of opening week, and you've found a gobbler that you believe to have all to yourself. Up until now, the particular piece of public ground you're hunting has received quite a bit of pressure; still, this bird seems receptive, and there doesn't appear to be anyone around for miles. What do you do?

"On public ground, I usually don't do a lot of aggressive calling unless the situation warrants it. Most of the time, on public ground, I'm using some really soft yelping. I want to sound as much like a real, relaxed hen as possible. I'm not calling aggressively because that's what everyone else is doing. And if I do get a gobbler cranked up with aggressive cutting and yelping, I'll shut up," said Morrett. "One of the most successful tactics I use, particularly on public land, is once I've gotten a gobbler to gobble at long range, I'll slip in as close as the terrain allows. I'll slip up to a point or an edge, yelp very aggressively, and cutt one time. Then I'll back off from that point about 20 or 25 yards, set up, and stay quiet. A lot of times, I've had that gobbler come into that exact spot where I've made that final call. It might be an hour later, but when he gets to that spot, he's going to gobble looking for that hen he heard. That's a great way to hunt pressured turkeys," said Morrett, who continued by saying that "woodsmanship and the ability to be patient" are vital to turkey hunting success, and in particular with public land longbeards.

Morrett gets a little more specific in terms of calling public land gobblers with his next statement.

The pair with a brace of birds
"One thing to remember (when calling) is volume control. That's very important. Volume control is where most hunters mess up their turkeys. Loud calling has its place, but if that turkeys coming to you and you continue to call, you don't want to blow his eardrums out. I judge a turkey like this. If I yelp very softly and he gobbles, I know he's heard me, and I'm not going to call any louder than that again. Over the past five years, I've learned to not call as often nor as loud. I hunt every year with folks who like to hammer their gobblers all the way to the gun barrel, and that's fine, but you're going to kill more turkeys with patience and softer calling," said Morrett.

Hunting turkeys on public land adds several new and different variables to an already complex equation; however, there's one aspect of hunting public longbeards that should receive the highest priority - safety. "It's a great practice and required by law in states like Pennsylvania to wear some type of blaze orange garment into and out of the woods. And use it even during a set-up. What I'll do often is to put my blaze orange game bag behind the tree I'm set against. A lot of people are "scared" to use hunter orange in the turkey woods, and in some cases it might scare a gobbler away, but in eight or nine cases out of ten, that turkey's not going to pay any attention to it," said Morrett, who tells the story of a hunt with his father in the Spring of '99 where his Dad killed a big longbeard not 10 feet from where Morrett had accidently left his blaze orange hat lying on the ground when the gobbler shocked the pair.

"That turkey was ready, obviously, but it never affected him at all. In fact, that turkey strutted up through the woods almost to that hat," said Morrett.

Just like there's no such thing as an "easy" duck hunt, there's no such thing as a push-over gobbler. And no statement's more true than when that longbeard makes his home on public lands. Still, each spring, dozens of hunters notch tags, thanks to a combination of research, scouting, patience, persistence, and the belief that unicorns are very, very real, and come complete not with an ivory horn, but with inch-long, black-tipped spurs and a spine-chilling gobble.

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