The washboard dirt road that leads past our house looked like the entrance to the Talladega Speedway. Pickup trucks, campers and trailers loaded with ATVs labored along stacked with ice chests and camping equipment. It was the weekend before opening of turkey season in Arkansas, and the crowd was building. Over the next two days, the human population of Sylamore Ranger District in the Ozark National Forest of northern Arkansas jumped from three to more than 150, as hunters from across the state came to worship at the shrine of public land turkey hunting.
A long, noisy week later, three longbeards and two jakes had been harvested and most of the hunters were pulling out.
So many came, and so few succeeded. Yet public land turkey hunting can be a winning proposition with a bit of forethought, study and planning.
There are things each turkey hunter, from the greenest newcomer to the most seasoned pro, can do to increase their success. Simple commonsense tricks can put a gobbler into your freezer, or at least provide some great hunting experiences.
Preseason scouting is the key to hunting turkeys on unfamiliar public lands.
Across the United States, there is a wide variety of public lands available and open to hunters: National Forests, National Grasslands, Bureau of Land Management areas, state-owned public hunting lands, Army Corp of Engineers mitigation lands that surround flood-control lakes, and parts of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Much of it is open to turkey hunters, and it provides almost unlimited hunting opportunity. This new terrain can provide exciting challenges, as long as hunters are willing to do their homework.
First, acquire a topographic map of the area you want to hunt. Most ranger districts have maps of their area, or you can contact the U.S. Geological Survey at www.usgs.gov to select and order maps online. Maptech, MyTopo, TopoZone and other companies also have topographic maps—either online or on CD-ROM—that can provide a wealth of information on potential hunting areas. These maps include roads, trails, elevations, mountains, waterways and other pertinent information.
Next, contact knowledgeable folks in the area. Biologists, wildlife officers, mail carriers, meter readers and folks who run the local sporting goods stores have a wealth of local hunting information. A phone call to the state game department will almost always provide a couple of folks who work in the area you’re planning to hunt. Then start calling the experts that are recommended at the local office. USDA’s Forest Service, or the administrative office of the public land you are researching, can also generate plenty of leads on local turkey populations.
When you get to the local biologist, conservation officer or mail carrier, ask the right questions. Don't ask for their personal honey holes; just ask for suggestions on where to start looking. Make sure your topographic maps are handy, and mark areas that they
Large, roadless tracts with waterways often contain birds that have moved away from woods full of hunters.
recommend for closer study.
Next, using your maps, look for small areas of public land surrounded by private lands. Also, if you have access to a boat, search out areas in the middle of large, roadless tracts with waterways flowing through them. After the first weekend of the season, surviving birds move into these safe zones and are ignored by or out of reach for most hunters.
If your area is close enough to where you live that an on-the-ground scouting expedition is feasible, do it early, a month of more before the season starts. Drive across and around the area you're thinking of hunting. Look for farmland surrounding these public areas. Fields planted in corn, soybeans, wheat or sunflowers are turkey magnets. Cattle feeding operations, dairies, chicken and egg ranchers and other grain-intensive operations should also be marked on the map.
Next, check out the waterways. A canoe or small boat and motor can comfortably put a hunter into the middle of tracts that are too far into the woods for walking folks. An added advantage of boat hunting is the ability to pack in tents, coolers and other equipment someplace other than on your back.
Go to the nearest town and find a place with dinner or plate lunch on their sign. Hang out; tell folks what you’re interested in. Buy a round of coffee. The amount of information you can gain this way may be zilch, but it can also be overwhelming.
Develop A Strategy
O.K. you've done your homework and have a map with three to six potential hunt spots marked. Now begin to think like a turkey. Take into consideration the terrain you’re planning to hunt. In the west, trees and water are in short supply and gobblers need both. Dixie National Forest in Utah is a typical example; there are thousands of treeless and arid acres, yet turkeys can be taken there if you concentrate your efforts in the right places.
Turkeys are often found near water, either roosting or visiting at least once a day to drink.
In the west, tanks (what easterners call ponds) and other water sources are essential for the birds. In most situations, turkeys drink at least once a day and generally roost near water. Locals know where these water holes can be found. Add a few more marks to your map if water is in short supply.
The third need of a turkey beyond food and water is a place to sleep where it feels safe from predators. Turkeys prefer large trees with strong branches that are nearly horizontal. Many times they roost in pines or cypress that overhang water.
By now, you should have narrowed your list of possibilities to two or three areas that best meet the turkey's needs and are huntable with the equipment you have available.
The Opening Weekend Dilemma
One advantage of hunting opening weekend is that many of the birds are "uneducated" in the ways of hunters.
There are advantages and disadvantages to hunting opening weekend. During those first few days of the season there is a whole new crop of uneducated jakes and gobblers. Many birds that respond enthusiastically and come to calls won't survive the first few days.
Unfortunately, there are eight to 10 times as many hunters and wannabes in the woods as there will be any other time during the season. Frequently these folks are using hunting as an excuse to get away from home, and will drink more than is prudent. Their mistakes lead to educated wary birds and potentially dangerous situations. If you hunt opening weekend, try to seek out those hard-to-reach areas, or hunt later in the day when other hunters have already given up.
Sometimes, even the best-laid plans will yield nothing. In the end, most of us fail more than we succeed. However, the tactics we’ve just discussed will put you into situations that have excellent potential. And anyway, if it were easy, everybody would be out there.