Turkeys are not a mystery, but you’ll have to do your homework. The time and effort will pay dividends once turkey season begins—if you handled the basics. Many turkey hunters simply wait for opening day, walk a couple hundred yards from the truck and plop down against a big tree. They know turkeys are around, and sooner or later, one may walk by. While this laid back tactic works for some, scouting and planning greatly stack the odds in the hunter’s favor.
By Jay Anglin
The best turkey hunters have success rates far exceeding the averages. This is not by chance or luck. To the contrary, the most successful hunters scout the birds relentlessly and have multiple back-up plans on any given day. They know where birds roost, feed, and when they travel to and from these places.
Such hunters know landowners well, often spending hours speaking with them. They may even acquire intel from delivery drivers, waste haulers, and bus drivers. It’s highly likely they know the names and vehicles of anyone hunting nearby. And, of course, they know the birds—the boss hens, stud gobblers, and the silly jakes that meander around looking for love, typically in the all the wrong places.
These alpha hunters scout turkeys 12 months a year, so when the season arrives, they know exactly where, when, and how to hunt their birds.
Next to a good pair of binoculars, maps and reference materials are a turkey hunter’s most valuable scouting tools, and include Gazetteers, good old plat books and, of course, a smart phone. Apps such as HUNT by onXmaps include satellite images with landowner overlays. While these apps aren’t free, they’re worth every penny in areas fragmented with a mosaic of different landowners. Also, be sure to keep a notebook handy to record your observations.
Scouting turkeys can be quite enjoyable. While trophy whitetail bucks can confound even the best hunters with their nocturnal habits, and waterfowl can travel for miles, turkeys are comparatively simple to keep tabs on. Not only do they tend to stay within a given area, they also vocalize regularly.
Turkeys fly up into trees to roost every night, which makes confirming their presence fairly simple. When foliage hasn’t completely filled in, it’s as easy as finding a good vantage point and watching from a distance. The telltale sound of a turkey’s huge wings clattering through the branches of mature hardwoods is unmistakable. By using an owl, crow, or similar locator call, turkeys can be “shock gobbled” at dusk, giving away their location as they settle into the roost.
While “roosting” turkeys may be a standard scouting procedure, don’t overdo it by getting too close. Avoid slamming doors and flashing them with the headlights at close range. Any of these mistakes may bump turkeys off their roost.
Turkeys stick out like a sore thumb in clearings, fields and pastures when they feed and strut. In good turkey country, a hunter can pinpoint groups of birds quickly by simply driving the roads around their hunting areas often. During winter months, wild turkeys congregate in large flocks and are easily seen. Keep in mind that while these winter flocks are a good indicator of bird numbers in the area, once early springs arrives, many of these birds will disperse along river and creek valleys and into isolated woodlots.
It’s remarkable how quickly turkeys move to spring territories. Even if there is no evidence of birds one day, it doesn’t mean they won’t be there the next. Unless something significant disrupts their movement, turkeys will fill in the empty spaces quickly, so it pays to keep checking prime spots.
Once birds settle into their spring territories, scouting becomes more like a dry run for the actual hunt. Turkeys possess incredible vision and detect movement easily. They also hear very well and can triangulate a yelp or snapping stick from hundreds of yards away. When entering the turkey’s domain, it’s important to wear effective camouflage and use maximum stealth.
Good woodsman skills are critical, and it helps to know the land. This has never been easier, with resources such as Google Earth on our smart phones. Use the terrain and natural features to lessen the odds of spooking birds. The last thing a turkey hunter wants to do is mess up a good thing before the season even opens.
The Turkey Man, Eddie Salter, agrees, and looks to creeks as ideal scouting corridors. “When I’m checking properties and in particular new ones, I’ll check maps to find roads, draws, and small creeks to use to check for turkey sign,” the Flextone pro says. “They make it easy to move and stay hidden, and it’s easy to see tracks in the sand and mud. Once in awhile, I’ll venture a little further into the hardwoods to look for turkey scratchings in the leaf litter,” he continued, “but on quiet afternoons I may even be able to hear them doing it.”
Plano and Tenzing pro-staffer Jon Turner has been dealing with hard-hunted Kentucky birds for decades, and also likes to confirm the presence of birds by looking for tracks, droppings, and other sign along trails and roads, “That’s what I look for in a new area,” says Turner. “You can also tell if the droppings are from a male or female. Hen droppings are usually in clumps while the toms have more of a ‘J’ Shape,” he says. “Also, check roads for signs of strutting toms. Wing tips dragging the ground make distinctive marks in sand and dirt.”
Trail cameras are more affordable than ever, and many turkey hunters now consider them standard scouting equipment. Priced at just under $50, cameras such as Wildgame Innovations’ new Terra 5 IR have the same features found exclusively on high-end cameras just a couple years ago.
Salter says cameras have become one of his most valuable pieces of scouting equipment. “I’ve got 8 of them on a 1,000-acre property I’m scouting right now,” says Salter, who captures both still images and video clips to show when, where, and how his birds are moving. “Trail cams tell me where, how, and at what time turkeys enter a field in the afternoon to feed. If they are consistently moving at three o’clock, I’ll get there at two so I can set-up decoys well before they show up.”
Of course, simply listening for the presence of birds may be the easiest and most effective way to quickly scout turkeys. With a few exceptions, toms will gobble on the roost around dawn every morning before fly down. Savvy hunters will have a “milk-run” of spots to check to maximize their efficiency. Such checks can often be done without leaving the vehicle. It takes discipline, but many hardcore hunters start doing this weeks prior to the season opener and continue throughout the season, often on their way to work each day.
While some hunters make their living on thousands of acres of productive public ground, there are quite a few who primarily hunt private land. This is a major consideration when scouting. You can find all the birds in the world, but if you have no chance to hunt the parcel they are on—or at a minimum an adjacent one—it’s a waste of valuable scouting time.