Turkeys will answer thunder from an approaching storm with a shock gobble.
Turkey hunting is one of the most popular forms of hunting.
Hens produce droppings in shapes like a mound, and the gobbler's droppings are in a straight line or resemble the letter J.
The weather’s warming up, cabin fever has long since peaked, and you can’t wait to hunt turkey. Spring turkey season might be months or days away, so what’s a hunter to do before opening day? Get out in the field and figure out what the preseason gobblers are doing in your part of the country.
Start Early, Scout Often
Anticipation is part of the thrill. Spend as much time scouting as possible. Before opening day, walk game trails, pasture edges, ridgetops, prairie expanses and river bottoms to piece the puzzle together. Move slowly, and take notes—either mentally or in a pocket pad—to construct daily turkey movements. You’ve got to study their habitat for sign left behind, and read what you find like a book. Using locator calls for roosted gobblers will seal the deal. Map out haunts as your excitement grows toward the season’s start.
Wherever you may be reading this, going out before the season is the key to taking a spring gobbler. You’ll find Osceolas in Florida, Rios in Texas, Merriam’s out west, and Easterns in the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South. Trap-and-transfer programs have varied this pattern, with Rios now roosting in Hawaii, while places like California, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming offer hunts for hybrid wild turkeys as well as pure strains.
Scratchings are sure signs that turkeys are using an area.
Whatever subspecies you chase, scout them early, and do it often, right up to the season’s start.
Where To Scout
Ridgetops, hardwood forests, farm fields, pastures, power lines and grassy glades—you’ll find Eastern gobblers here. Rio Grande turkeys haunt a range of habitats from grasslands of mixed live oak and mesquite to open prairie expanses. Merriam’s strut their stuff on rolling grasslands, fields near coniferous mountaintops, and cottonwood river bottoms. Osceolas roost in cypress trees, and slink through creek bottoms on their way to field openings.
Matt Morrett has hunted all four U.S. turkey subspecies successfully, usually scouting for them early on. The Hunter’s Specialities national pro-staffer emphasizes that preseason turkey sign in hardwoods are easily identifiable. Leaves are scratched away to expose leftover mast such as acorns before insects appear.
“Tracks in snow help you identify birds as well,” Morrett suggests. “You’ll see winter farmland turkeys feeding on waste corn in spread manure. You can follow this activity right up until the season begins, even after.”
For Eastern gobblers, Morrett looks for what he calls “greened-up” areas. Mountain bottoms, farmland that rolls into hills—especially south or east slopes—are typically the places that green up first. Hens will nest near fields, gobblers will follow, and you can locate them according to the sign you find, he adds.
What of the other sub-species? As Texas Rios go, find water holes on scouting trips. “Turkeys go there from their roosts every day,” says Morrett. Finding water near roosting areas, either natural or manmade, is his key to scouting Rios.
Osceolas live with varying water conditions. As a result, turkey ground sign in Florida swamps can be tough to find. To meet this challenge, Morrett suggests using binoculars to glass open areas near pine woods, backwaters, and forested cover. “Glassing works well for Merriam’s too in big open country,” he says.
“Prairies have Merriam’s congregated heavily in cottonwoods; but they’ll travel a long distance as spring arrives, so scout regularly during the preseason, and watch their movements,” Morrett says. “It may take days to locate them in such big open country, but once you do, you’ll likely see a lot of gobblers together.”
In short, Morrett sees three factors for finding preseason gobblers: food (which varies seasonally and geographically), water, and roosting areas. In south Texas, Rios go to the water as days grow warmer. In Florida, he suggests, there’s no shortage of water, and they’ll likely roost above it for safety reasons. Easterns and Merriam’s both seem to roost near an available water source as well.
Tracks not only show hunters that turkeys are in the area but give clues to the size of the birds.
What You’re Looking For
Tracks show you where birds have walked. Mature gobblers and jakes leave big-footed examples. A hen's middle toe is shorter. If the middle toe exceeds 2 inches (often more), you’ve found yourself a gobbler to hunt.
Fresh gobbler tracks might appear on late-spring snow, muddy trails, or dusty roads. If you find them, look for others. What direction did the turkey travel? Follow the tracks, especially if they seem fresh.
Droppings—often paired with tracks—are sure sign turkeys are nearby, too. The general rule is that gobbler droppings are j-shaped, and that a hen’s are rounded, though I’ve seen exceptions all over the country. Fresh droppings are moist. If the white uric acid daubed on that turkey dropping is as wet as springtime house paint, that bird isn’t far away. Older examples will be drier. Often an accumulation of these beneath a tree indicates regular roosts.
Feathers are also clues indicating that turkeys are nearby. Gobbler breast feathers are black-tipped, while a hen’s are brown-tipped. As with droppings, look closely at these to determine age. Has the roughed-up specimen been rained on? Is it dry and firm? This will tell you whether a bird passed through recently or not.
Once tracks, droppings and feathers are found, the ground-sign puzzle is only half finished. These three sign examples might lead to scratchings, dusting areas and strut zones. Since turkeys often disperse as the season approaches, scout often.
Scratchings tell you where turkeys have fed. These are visible in fallen leaves, which are raked away. Areas with good mast where acorns have fallen are often scratched up during the late-winter period.
Dusting bowls, often visited at midday, show where turkeys have wallowed in shallow depressions. Like many wild birds, turkeys use these spots theoretically to rid themselves of insects.
Strut zones, noted as wing-tip drag marks in the soil, are probably the toughest to find of all ground sign—unless you spy the literal puffed-out tom turkey in action. Bare soil sometimes exposes parallel drag marks and gobbler tracks. Broomed-off wingtips on tagged gobblers will later show you the results of that strutting. In many regions of the country, however, gobblers will choose high grassy spots to strut; places with little or no resulting turkey sign apart from visual evidence.
Five-time World Friction Calling Champion Matt Morrett shows off one of his many prizes.
Morrett, a five-time World Friction Calling champion, uses locator calls once turkey ground sign has been found. His locating style varies for the four U.S. turkey subspecies. Tom turkeys shock gobble at loud sounds. Locator calls were created to provoke this reaction, so that a gobbler’s position might be revealed.
“Out west you can hear for an incredible distance, so get Merriam’s to gobble with a coyote call, which carries far, though the crow call is my all-around favorite,” he says. “If you’re scouting a spot with less timber as in the prairie, they’ll be found in river bottom cottonwoods; elsewhere, ridgetops and pine trees will hold them, especially if the turkeys are still at high elevations in the spring.”
What about Rio Grande gobblers? “For Rios, my favorite locator is a coyote howler as well. They’ll often be roosted low to the ground though, so you have to watch your step while scouting.”
“For Osceolas though,” Morrett continues, “the barred owl hooter is best. A lot of those Florida birds like to roost over water, say on the edge of oak hammocks. Start locating gobblers there.”
The Eastern wild turkey dominates much of the turkey-hunting map, of course. “For Easterns,” he says, “use a barred owl hoot or crow call. If you can get his attention with a crow call, you can work that bird when the season starts.”
What about gobble calls for locating birds? “It’s a great back-pocket tool, especially before the season. You can get that pecking-order gobble fired back at you. During the season, it should be used with caution, as that’s the sound hunters are listening for.”
Morrett’s final words on locator calls: “Use them in preseason to mark birds. Stop once you locate a gobbler, especially in season. Don’t keep firing him up. That calls hens to his position, and possibly hunters as well.”
Bottom line: “Get to a good listening point,” says Morrett. “Find a high ridge, but get away from trees if you can. Scout where you can hear a long ways. You need to hear well, and pinpoint that gobble when using locator calls.”
Never pressure birds too much though. Though turkeys have brains the size of buckshot, they are as wary as wildcats. Get out often, but maintain your secrecy.
Some Final Words
“I tell folks at my seminars to scout year-round,” Morrett said in closing. “The more you know about turkeys in your area before the season, the better you’ll do once the season starts.”
Find the likely habitat, study ground sign for turkeys, use locator calls to evoke gobbles, record what you find, and be there on opening day. Do your homework and you’ll ace many a test a gobbler will throw at you later on. Caution though: you may be tested more than once, and the results may become habit-forming.
Photos by Steve Hickoff. Image of Matt Morrett courtesy of Hunter’s Specialties.