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With the unofficial start of the New York State trout season this past Wednesday anglers lined river and creek banks chasing trout. Other anglers took to the lake for the first time this season.
The annual shakedown cruise for local anglers generally happens this time every year. If your shakedown cruise was anything like mine, a rod and reel were on board just to wet a quick line.
Unlike fishing, which generally has plenty of places to fish, hunting has become a little more challenging for local spring turkey hunters. Each year it seems that we all lose ground to hunt on. Whether it be a change of ownership or, as has been the norm in recent years, land owners are just letting folks on their land to chase their quarry.
This leads us into this week’s topic: getting ready for spring gobbler chasing. Notice I said “chasing and hunting.” For many of us, it seems that the chase is quickly becoming a full-time job. From getting hunting ground lined up, to scouting to gear, oh, and of course the reminder of spring-time chores, I believe “chase” is a good word to describe it.
There are many things one needs to be successful year in and year in the spring woods, but none is more important than securing hunting ground. One can have the best camo money can buy, the great turkey gun choke combination and enough calls to stock a sporting goods store, but without good hunting ground, it’s all for naught.
One of the best ways to do your preseason 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 have secured permission, there’s a chance the landowner 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.
A quick word of advice: 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, which takes practice, then some more practice. It’s never too early to work on your calling skills.
It’s no secret that I have been designing calls for years. After I think I found the perfect cut, spacing and thickness, I will immediately put them in my mouth and let her rip. So, any shop/house is always filled with turkey sounds, some good, most not so much. I have been known to write at my computer with a diaphragm call in attempting the perfect fly-down cackle. RJ, on more than one occasion, has walked into my office and, with that, ‘Look, I’m still learning,’ uncorks one that sounds pretty good. To her credit, when she walks in and skips the look and gets to it, she states that one sounds like crap.
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.
The Guides Guide had a great way to find birds. He would get to a high point in an area he wanted to check out well before first light and again an hour or so before sundown, and just sit and be quiet, picking a quiet, calm morning or evening and listening for gobbling on the roost, and for turkeys as they fly down from and up to the roost.
If turkeys aren’t gobbling or visible, not to worry, it’s time to lay down a little boot leather. Simply searching for clues like tracks, droppings and strut marks can reveal travel, stunting 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 signs, look around for potential set-up spots or ambush sites. One thing we have learned over the years is do your walking during midday hours so you won’t inadvertently spook birds as they move close to roosting areas.
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.
Just like deer hunting, trail cameras can help give you an idea where and when the birds are traveling. Once you find signs 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 roads and open hardwood ridges. This will give you an idea where flocks are hanging out and feed during the day.
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, goose and coyote, etc. If you can elicit a shock gobble, cool beans. But don’t educate birds now by scaring them with your yelping. It’s best to be a stealth bomber and disturb your hunting area as little as possible while you scout.
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 scratching, droppings, tracks or feathers. Even if you only find turkey signs 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.
Anybody who has ever hunted with me understands the theory of Plan A, B, C and oftentimes D. As opening day approaches, study 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 strutting areas. 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. Not to worry, though, there is always Plan D.