Why is it that big game hunters are fanatical scouters, but many turkey hunters can’t seem to find the time? If you hunt a small chunk of private ground, that might be fine. But if you’re a ham-and-egg, public-land gobbler getter, you can bet the farm that others are out looking for birds long before the season opens.
Here’s my Top 10 list of how to scout smart so you can get a jump on the season.
10) Get Permission Early: One of the best ways to do your pre-season scouting is to ask for, and then lock up, permission to access private land early. This also helps gather information from landowners about the turkeys on the property, saving you lots of time. Plus, once you secure permission, there’s a chance landowners might turn others down. And even if a landowner turns you down, if you’re friendly and polite they might say yes next time. Even better: If there’s adjacent public land, knowledge of turkey numbers and habits on private ground can help you plan your public land hunts.
9) Practice Calling: One truth: you can be a super deer hunter without ever making a sound, but if you want to consistently kill gobblers you have to be a decent caller. That takes practice. It’s never too early to work on your calling skills. I’ve been driving my wife nuts for a month now as I work some new diaphragm calls while sitting at my desk, and I practice with them while driving around town, too. Way more fun than talk radio.
8) Timing is Everything: Scout specifically for opening day, especially if you’re a public land hunter. While late-fall and winter observations of turkeys are cool, winter flocks alter feeding patterns as warmer weather sprouts fresh food sources. To nail down where birds will be, serious scouting doesn’t need to occur any earlier than two to three weeks before opening day. But earlier scouting trips will help you get the lay of the land, and also formulate a plan to hunt areas that are not quite as easy to access as close-to-the-road spots that will be overrun with other hunters opening weekend.
7) Stop and Listen: A great way to scout is to access a high point in an area you want to check out well before first light and again an hour or so before sundown, and just sit and be quiet. Pick a quiet, calm morning or evening and listen for gobbling on the roost, and for turkeys as they fly down from and up to the roost. Use binoculars and spotting scopes to glass for birds in the trees.
6) Ground Check: If turkeys aren’t gobbling or visible, don’t despair. Simply search for other clues: tracks, droppings and strut marks can reveal travel, loafing or feeding areas. Droppings and feathers — especially primary wing feathers — near suitable trees might reveal roosts. Dusting areas can be gold because turkeys like to visit these frequently during the day. As you find sign, look around for potential set-up spots or ambush sites. One caveat: do your walking during midday hours so you won’t inadvertently spook birds as they move close to roosting areas.
5) Map Check: Simply finding tracks, feathers, and droppings is just the beginning. Unless they’re in a primary roosting area, you shouldn’t get overly excited just yet. Now grab your topo map and see if you can figure out where the birds might be heading and the likely route they’ll take. Finding travel routes between bedding areas (roost trees) and food sources can be gold. Hey, are we deer hunting?
4) Smile for The Camera: Speaking of deer hunting, trail cameras are for much more than big game hunting, you know. Once you find sign or observe turkeys on the move, cameras can pinpoint where turkeys are hanging out and what routes they use for travel. Set them up on fields, along logging trails and open hardwood ridges, and around water sources to figure out where flocks lounge and feed during the day.
3) Shut The Heck Up: I know, I know. You’ve worn out those new diaphragms practicing, and you need to see how that Old Faithful box call sounds. Show some restraint when scouting and limit any calling to a locator-type call (crow, coyote, etc.). If you can elicit a shock gobble, cool beans. But don’t educate birds now by scarifying them with your yelping. It’s best to be a stealth bomber and disturb your hunting area as little as possible while you scout.
2) Keep A Log Book: Keep a list of places where you find turkeys year after year. Make a quick stop there just to be sure the turkeys are still there. It doesn’t matter whether you hear a gobbler or not, as long as you find scratchings, droppings, tracks or feathers. Even if you only find turkey sign from hens, you’re good. If hens are there, gobblers will be too. Once you’ve verified turkeys are in your trusted spots, head off and scout new places. Because, as we all know, nothing lasts forever. Good places go bad, sooner or later. The more options you have, the better.
1) Plans A, B, C: As opening day approaches, take stock of all the information you’ve gathered scouting and plot a strategy. Identify the best spots for a fly-down hunt. Note places to intercept birds as they eat or travel. And plot out good Plan B and C spots where you can cold-call or walk and call during quiet, late mornings, or set ambushes along field edges or water holes. What will you do if you get to your primary spot opening morning and find another truck parked there? Or the birds don’t respond, or get away from you? The better prepared you are the less time you’ll waste in unproductive situations.
Regardless, always remember that no matter how well you scout and prepare, turkeys have a nasty habit of throwing you a curveball. No worries, Matey. You have a backup and the season is long. Enjoy the day, and the season. And be sure to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your scouting techniques and turkey-season successes. I’d love to hear from you!