Black puffs dotted the dead cottonwood tree, picturesque pre-dawn silhouettes that would make any turkey hunter grin from ear to ear. Gobbling soon boomed like thunder across the desolate prairie. My wife and I exchanged wide-eyed glances, then returned our focus to the roosted birds we’d sited the previous evening. I made soft tree yelps, nocked an arrow, attached my release and prepared for action.
Wingbeats signaled my prey’s descent, and hens soon investigated our decoys. The ladies displayed aggression toward my Dave Smith Upright Hen decoy when the tom disappeared at the base of the dyke on which we were situated. Seconds later, he strutted onto the dyke for all to see. I could’ve shot when he was 15 yards out, but he was on a mission toward my Dave Smith Jake decoy. I let the show unfold.
I drew as he postured by the decoy, centering my top pin on his head. In my excitement, I forgot my top pin doesn’t correspond with the arrow’s trajectory at such close range, so my arrow flew low, only notching his beak. Surprisingly, he didn’t skip a beat; he continued torturing my decoy. I carefully nocked a second arrow, and since his head was moving incessantly, I shot for the lungs. My prairie prize collapsed 6 yards away. God had orchestrated yet another incredible morning I’ll never forget.
We stayed put and were watching and photographing dozens of deer when another flock approached our setup. Several hens and jakes accompanied yet another vibrant gobbler. He strutted right into our lap and began pecking the deflated tom’s head. I wished my wife had a tag, but she didn’t so we just watched as he taunted us with dozens of opportunities for a slam-dunk bow shot.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking we were hunting managed private land — wrong! This was a public land hunt in South Dakota, and the bird I took was the second of two gobblers arrowed during my hunt. Through the years, I’ve also slung plenty of public-land Wisconsin gobblers over my shoulder. I bet you’re interested in finding out how you too can experience red-hot gobbler action on public land. Well, follow along to learn how you can snuff out longbeards without knocking on doors or paying expensive outfitter fees.
Less is Often More
Hunters naturally gravitate toward large public tracts believing more land produces better hunting. In areas with little pressure, expansive boundaries are great. In pressured areas, though, small parcels are typically overlooked and consequently produce better hunting. I rarely have to share isolated small parcels with other hunters. That alone boosts my success odds.
For example, my South Dakota tom was taken on a small Game Production Area you can see across — 75 percent of the land is treeless. Most turkey hunters wouldn’t give it a second glance. My wife and I took the time to scout it the evening before our hunt and spotted two separate flocks roosted in plain sight of our binoculars. I hunted the next morning expecting — not hoping — to arrow a gobbler.
Use your resources to discover hunting locales not clearly marked with public access signs. In Wisconsin, Managed Forest Land (MFL) and Forest Crop Land (FCL) are proven choices that don’t get pressured like marked state land. In other states, Indian reservations allow public hunting with a special license. My brother, Joe, has nabbed many birds across these lands.
The idea is to escape the pressure. Large public parcels are popular; small parcels get overlooked. Tap out-of-the-way public tracts for an action-filled morning.
Habitat is Key
The key to public land turkey success is habitat. Eastern gobblers often inhabit a relatively small area with daily necessities: food, water and roosting trees. On average, they’re a bit more predictable than Merriam’s turkeys in the west. However, eastern gobblers are less responsive to calls, so both subspecies present their own challenges.
In Wisconsin, red-pine plantations make choice turkey habitat. Birds use them for roosting and security cover. I typically bowhunt without a blind, and red pines promote a stealthy approach so I can set up ultra-close to the roost. Red pines bordering fields almost always hold turkeys. Hardwood ridges are another favorite option. A good rule of thumb is that turkeys inhabit the same ground as whitetails. Don’t be afraid to tap your whitetail hotspot for a spring gobbler party.
On the prairies, Merriam’s and Hybrid gobblers usually roost in ancient cottonwood trees along river bottoms. This makes for an easy starting point. However, prairie birds typically have a substantially larger daily range than their eastern counterparts.
One example is my first South Dakota gobbler taken during the trip referenced earlier. My wife and I arrived at an isolated game production area well before dawn. We heard nothing in the way of gobbling but saw strut marks right on the gravel road that separates private land from the public. We decided to move to another area but soon noticed my brother’s vehicle parked a half-mile up the road. He and his hunting partner, Jeff Quinn, were listening to gobbling about 200 yards off the road in a farmyard.
“These turkeys aren’t like the ones back in the Midwest,” my brother said. “I wouldn’t doubt if he’ll cut across that ridge out there and end up right where you saw the strut marks on the road.”
Quinn agreed. “Yeah, Merriams will cover tons of ground in a short amount of time,” he said.
My wife and I watched and listened with our windows down as gobbling ensued. The pitch soon changed. As Joe predicted, the gobbler marched across the ridge toward the game production area. We needed to act quickly — the hen-less bird being obviously on a mission. We turned our Jeep around and booked it back to the public land. We parked our vehicle out of sight, grabbed our gear and walked less than 100 yards before setting up, deploying our ground blind and decoys in record time.
I nocked an arrow and made a few yelps. A faint gobble confirmed the tom was on a string to our setup. He covered the ground almost as quickly as we did with our vehicle. I made several more calls, each one answered by an increasingly louder gobble. In what seemed like seconds, the tom strutted within a yard of our ground blind as he approached the decoys.
When his fan covered his eyeballs, I drew. He fanned next to my Dave Smith Jake decoy, and when he exposed his head, I touched the trigger. My broadhead sliced his neck’s base wide open, resulting in a nearly instant kill. My wife and I high-fived as we approached my first-day South Dakota gobbler. The lesson is if you find fresh gobbler sign but aren’t hearing gobbles, stay put. Western turkeys cover tons of ground, and they do it at vehicular speed, as we learned.
Any public ground with turkey habitat is liable to produce birds. On the prairies, glass giant cottonwood trees at dusk for roosted birds. In thicker regions, listen at dusk for roosted gobblers. And finally, keep an eye out for fresh evidence like tracks, strut marks and droppings. Finding turkeys on public land isn’t difficult, it just takes a little time.
I’m partial to mouth calls for several reasons. With practice one can sound like a real hen, and operating them requires little or no movement. I also pack a slate call.
Ideally, I take the bird’s temperature while he’s roosted by making a few soft tree yelps. If he cuts me off, I call more aggressively. If he responds casually, I scale my calling back. Even then, you’ll encounter toms that just won’t commit to your calls. This can be frustrating, and if you have only a few days to hunt, it’s okay to move and locate a more responsive gobbler.
Early in the season, henned-up gobblers are probably the most difficult to call in. They gobble their heads off, but won’t leave the ladies for a date with your plastic bird. In this case, I direct my calling at the hens. I pitch aggressive purrs and clucks with a goal to tick off the boss hen. When she comes in, the whole flock usually follows.
As the season wanes, most hens are nested and gobblers are on the loose looking for last-minute love. Calling can be very effective on these solo birds, but remember they’ve been called to by other hunters throughout the entire season. Most hunters call aggressively, so make your calling sound different with a passive approach. Toms are already looking for a hen, so there’s no reason to call belligerently. Get them interested with a few soft yelps and go from there.
The advice I’ve presented here has helped me bow-bag a pile of public land gobblers. I’m confident it will produce similar results for you, but I want to note that there are no absolutes when it comes to public land turkeys. I’ve learned to just try off-the-wall ploys when a gobbler seems unkillable. An all-or-nothing approach is often all it takes to punch out a tag. And if it doesn’t work, move to the next one. Trial and error will help you develop a public land turkey playbook of your very own. One thing is for sure: Once you experience a rock n’ roll morning in the public land turkey woods, you’ll want to do it again and again. It’s a riot!