Hunting > Turkeys

Turkeys in Your Pocket

How to find and exploit overlooked gobbler hotspots on your public land parcel.

The truth turkey-hunting masters rarely relate is that the surest way to kill a gobbler isn’t using the newest call or the latest tactic, it’s finding a tom that isn’t being pressured. This is especially true on public land. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve hunted with turkey-hunting icons like Ray Eye, Mark Drury, Eddie Salter and more and found that, as advertised, they can call like the lustiest hen, think like the wisest tom and pull more tricks from their vests than Batman can from his belt. But the truth is those turkey gurus do a lot of scouting to find birds that aren’t being pressured.

This discovery prompted me to develop strategies to find what I call “public-land pockets,” low-pressure hotspots within hard-hunted areas—though I have to admit, my results are a little hard to admit. You see, I’m about to tell you something I wouldn’t say aloud in my hunting club, because they’d want the GPS coordinates. I killed a gobbler on public land on opening morning—just an hour from Manhattan—five years in a row. Each bird came from different locations on various public areas. Most days I saw and heard other hunters. Four out of five years I killed a second tom on public land. I’ve since moved. But after applying the same techniques to the public areas around me, I killed a bird on another piece of hard-hunted public land last season and called in another for a friend.

How? It certainly wasn’t my calling ability—I’m as good with a turkey call as some of those tone-deaf “American Idol” contestants are at singing. No, as realtors repeat, my success has come down to location, location, location. So, despite the danger of seeing you in one of my public-land pockets, here’s how I bagged those gobblers.

Small Public Parcels

Most public-land turkey hunters grab a loud call and race about on opening day like shoppers at a 6 a.m. Black Friday sale; they’re sure if they find the fool tom first they’ll go home with a turkey dinner. Some try to win the race by starting the evening before. I crossed paths with such a rogue a few years ago. The evening before opening day in New York I sat against an oak at the end of a mountain bench listening to songbirds and spring peepers sing in a spring sunset and then got goosebumps when a gobble rolled down the ridge. Yup, he’s on that same limb in the white oak on the stonewall, I happily pondered.

But then my reverie was dashed by a roaring engine and tires grinding gravel on a nearby dirt road. A car door flung open. A desperate series of off-key yelps screeched from a box call. I cringed, praying the tom wouldn’t give him a courtesy gobble. Tense silent seconds ticked by and I could almost see the gobbler craning its neck while wrapping its toes around a limb and muttering, “Does this hunter think I’m stupid? I live on public land in New Yawk, ya know!” The car door slammed shut. The hunter threw dust as he roared away and slid to a stop 400 yards farther down. The same calls emanated, more distant this time. He got the same response: nothing.

That last-minute rascal had almost stumbled on one of my public-land pockets. It has all the criteria: The only access is a dirt pull-off on a gravel road. The piece of property isn’t attached to the main state park. You have to be an experienced map-reader to even find the parcel. When you step out of the parking area, the first thing you run into is a steep ridge slathered in mountain laurel so thick I always wished I had a machete, like they used in those Tarzan movies. The brush is so thick with bloodsucking ticks that I swear they must hold hands at knee level so nothing slips through their picket lines—and a third of them carry Lyme disease. (I’ve had it three times.) Yeah, it’s a gauntlet. But if you can deal with all that there’s an oak bench a half-mile above the parking area that always has a few birds.

Big-Picture Scouting
Here’s how to find a place like it. Start with the map of the public area the state likely gives away. Lay down a topographic map and an aerial photo of the public tract next to it. Now use a highlighter to draw the boundaries of the park on the topographic map and the photo(s). Next, use a blue pen to draw in all the hiking trails. Then drive all the roads around the public area and mark all the parking areas—dirt pull-offs, parking lots—on all the maps and photos.

The next step is to walk all the hiking trails, as it’s difficult to know where they all really go until you’ve walked them. Okay, now step back and imagine where the hunters will park and walk in on opening morning. What you’re looking for are pockets of terrain they’ll overlook, areas on the other sides of swamps, thickets, steep ridges and so on that have no easy access but good habitat. Imagine all the areas where peoples’ feet will naturally carry them as red and the others areas as green. Hike into those green areas early or late and listen for gobbling. Or come at noon and slip through looking for sign. These areas don’t have to be big—I hunt a few that are as small as 5 acres that are surrounded by swamps and thickets. You’ll be surprised by how much game sign is in such places as compared to the rest of the public area. Don’t use a call before the season opens. Remember, you want un-pressured birds and that pressure includes you.

Inner-Terrain Hotspots
Here are some things to focus on in the areas you don’t think will get pounded.

Borders—The first place I always scout in a public area are boundaries that are close, but still a safe distance from houses. Most hunters shy from such places, speculating they must receive the most pressure, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. Such areas often have edge habitat that holds turkeys and other game. Also, and this is especially true near urban centers, the homes are often populated by non-hunters who block access for privacy or other reasons.

Waterways
—Many state lands, especially in the South, have lakes or streams that can lead you to public-land pockets, areas that are difficult to get to on foot. There’s a 50-acre area near me located across a marsh. It’s not an island, but the marsh makes accessing it without a canoe or kayak impossible. I heard gobblers on it last year, but never hunted it because I bagged my public-land birds elsewhere—it was on my last-resort list.

Funnels—This will sound eerily like deer hunting, but I’ve sat in bottlenecks on public land during high-pressure Saturdays where I knew hunters were going to move into woodlots and push turkeys. This works, but like most other hunters, I do prefer to call in gobblers.

Oh, by the way, that opening morning I was back on that bench hoping mister drive-by caller had found a bird somewhere else. I put on my tick guards and sprayed permethrin all over and slunk up a ravine to within 80 yards of that roosted bird. He gobbled once, but thankfully that was all, as other hunters were surely about. He was a henned-up old rascal, but I had that figured. I only called to him once, to make him stretch his neck out good and long.

Big Public Woods
Big woods need to be approached differently than most state game areas. My tactic is to try every little public road in an attempt to access the public land that rises above the private land. Ideally, what you want is a little-known access into a relatively low-elevation area of public land. Big-woods areas often have long stretches between pockets of birds, and the lower-elevation areas are typically better.

Hunting pressure can be heavy in the Catskills, and last spring I wanted to find a new place with as little as possible, so when a rottweiler jumped growling and drooling into the back of my pickup as I rolled down a one-lane public road I knew I was getting close to a good public spot. The dog stayed in the back pacing and snarling, just daring me to stop for a half-mile before leaping out and sauntering proudly home. I hoped he would greet every hunter the same way, because not much farther along I found a little-known dirt road that passed through a finger of public ground. I could use it to access miles and miles of public land above. But did it have turkeys?

When flocks break up just prior to breeding in Vermont’s Green Mountains, New York’s Catskills, Virginia’s Blue Ridge and other such areas, turkeys will spread out and often up. The difficulty with this is that when you scout prior to the season the birds often aren’t there yet. But then, just a week or two later, there will be gobblers on those mountain benches. What they’re doing is following spring up the ridges. When new forbs, grasses and flowers sprout from beneath the leaves turkeys move up into the hills. I scouted and found tracks and bumped a hen. I was in business.

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