As more private property becomes unhuntable because of development or posting, more hunters are likely to find themselves turning to public land to chase spring gobblers. But that’s not a bad thing because turkey populations are thriving on public lands across the country.
You’ve seen Hunter’s Specialties pros Matt Morrett, Rick White and Alex Rutledge chasing turkeys on television for years. And you might think they only hunt the most exclusive, private hunting tracts around. But you’d be wrong. All three of these accomplished gobbler killers routinely hunt public ground each season.
As Rutledge puts it, “There are lots of turkeys on government land, so you’d better believe I’m going to be out there hunting them.”
Following are 10 tips from these pros on how you can fill your turkey tag this spring on public land:
The Late Bird Gets The Worm
Turkey hunters are predictable creatures. They head out to the woods before sunrise, listen for gobbles, and then set up and call in hopes of enticing a talkative tom to fly down when he leaves the roost.
On public land, however, it can be downright crowded in the spring woods in the hour before the sun comes up.
Check the public parking lots about two hours after sunrise, however, and you’re likely to find fewer trucks. According to Morrett, the hunters who stay later are the ones most likely to tag a tom.
“Too many hunters give up and go home after the morning fly down, but I think it’s much easier to get a gobbler going and call him in later in the morning — especially on public land,” Morrett said.
First thing in the morning, Morrett said, public-land hunters are battling one another and live hens to get the attention of a gobbler. Instead of joining in, let that gobbler sneak through the crowds with his single girlfriend or his harem and go about his business, Morrett recommends.
“At 10 or 11 a.m., the hens are probably going to be sitting on their nests, which means there are going to be some lonely gobblers out there — and not a lot of hunters,” he said.
There’s Nothing Like The Real Thing
“I’ve heard turkey hunters say they think calling is 10 percent of turkey hunting,” Morrett said. “I think it’s 100 percent, but you have to sound like a real hen.”
With the variety and sophistication of calls on the market today, Morrett said it’s easier than ever for hunters to emulate turkey sounds.
“Get yourself a video or audio recording and listen to what a real hen sounds like,” he said. “Practice with your calls to get the tone and the rhythm down. If you can sound like a live hen — not like a hunter using a turkey call — you’ll be amazed at how the birds respond.”
Realism is especially important on public land, according to Morrett, because the resident turkeys are likely to hear a lot of calling.
“You don’t want to sound like everybody else,” he said. “You want to sound like a lonely hen. It’s public land, but hens still call and gobblers still respond to those calls.”
Professional videos teach hunters how to talk to turkeys, Morrett said. So many hunters call to gobblers, eliciting vocal responses, but they are not talking to the gobblers.
“Learn what you need to say to get that bird to come to you — not just a bunch of loud clucks designed to make him gobble,” he said.
Scouting Never Ends
Scouting and turkey hunting go hand in hand. Except possibly for deer hunters, no one puts in more time before the season opens trying to locate areas with good numbers of game than a turkey hunter. But Morrett has noticed that most turkey hunters quit scouting the moment the season starts. That’s a mistake, he said, especially for public-land hunters.
“Things change in the woods every day,” he noted. “The woods change. Things are getting greener. Grasshoppers show up in the fields. The birds are hit with hunting pressure. You have to keep scouting to figure out how the turkeys change their habits.”
Often, Morrett said, public-land hunters will stick to the areas they scouted in the pre-season, thinking the turkeys are still hanging around.
“A lot of times they think the gobblers have just shut up, but actually they’re not there anymore,” he said. “The hens moved and the gobblers went with them.”
If you find yourself wondering if the turkeys you found before the season opened are still around, Morrett suggests you quit hunting those birds and go look for more.
“I scout all season long. You’re going to be more successful scouting for two days and only hunting one, than hunting three days in a bad spot,” he said.
Double Up On Gobblers
“No matter where you hunt, teaming up with another hunter is always a good trick when you have gobblers that tend to hang up,” White said. “The tactic is really deadly on public land because turkeys that have been subjected to a lot of calling sometimes will only come so far to a call.”
The two-hunter strategy involves a caller and a shooter. The shooter sets up between the caller and the gobbler. The caller hangs back 30 or 40 yards and does his or her best to get the gobbler to move toward the shooter.
“If the turkey hangs up 60 yards from the caller and the shooter is 40 yards in front of the caller, that turkey should be in range of the shooter,” White said.
Because the caller does not intend to shoot, that person can maneuver to steer the turkey to the shooter, White said.
“If the turkey swings to the right, the caller can move to the left,” he said. “If the turkey moves away, the caller can go toward him or go in the other direction. It’s all about reading the gobbler and figuring out what you need to do to get him to move within range of the shooter.”
Stuff Your Pockets With Calls
When White hunts public land, he takes out as many different types of calls as he can find — slates, box-calls, mouth diaphragms, tubes, wingbones, etc.
“Public-land turkeys hear box calls all day long,” White said. “You have to give them something different — something they don’t hear too often.”
Every day is different and every turkey is different, according to White. Public-land hunters shouldn’t be afraid to try many different types of calls in searching for the one that any gobbler within earshot feels compelled to respond to on a given day.
“Let ’em have it,” he said. “One day, the birds might like a slate call. The next day, they might want to hear a diaphragm. The point is if you just use the same box call everyone else is using, you’re probably not going to be too successful.”
Most turkey hunters are familiar with slates, box calls and mouth diaphragms. White suggested public-land hunters also carry along some less common calls, such as tubes and wingbones, because fewer other hunters are likely to have them in their hunting vests.
“Sometimes, the odd-ball calls work the best on public land because the birds just don’t hear them too often,” he said.
“Patience kills more turkeys than any other tactic I can think of — especially on public land,” White said.
Many hunters working a gobbler will stay set up on that bird as long as he’s gobbling. But if the tom stops talking, White said, those hunters might hang around for an hour before they get up and move on.
“Public-land turkeys are different,” he said. “It might take them two hours to come in. If you know that bird is out there, be patient. Wait longer than you normally would and see if he doesn’t show up.”
If a gobbler that’s yelling his head off at you suddenly stops talking, that other hunter you can’t see might have spooked the bird, White said.
“You need to wait it out and see if that bird settles down,” he said. “That might take an hour or two.”
Also, White said, some turkeys just plain don’t have a lot to say.
“There are gobblers that will only gobble once an hour,” he said. “If you’re not patient, you might miss his gobble.”
White doesn’t like moving around too much on public ground anyway, he said. That’s when accidents can happen.
“If you’re walking around all over the place making turkey calls, you’re asking for trouble,” he said. “You have to be safety conscious at all times.”
Do Your Pre-Season Homework
Going hand in hand with the previous tip is White’s suggestion that spring gobbler hunters locate birds before the season, so they know they’re hunting in areas toms are frequenting — whether they’re talking or not.
“If you go into a spot opening day and you know there are birds around, then it doesn’t matter if you hear them or not,” he said. “They might be call-shy because of other hunters, but they’re still there.”
When you know there are birds around, it’s easier to convince yourself to stay put after the gobbling dies shortly after fly down.
Also, White said, if you can pattern turkeys before the season, then, while other hunters will simply move toward a tom gobbling on the roost, set up and start calling, you can set up on the route that bird is likely to take after he hits the ground.
“Public-hunting areas can get hit pretty hard,” White said. “You’ve got to have an idea where the turkeys are and what they do every day to get an edge over the other hunters.”
Have A Backup Plan
When Rutledge sets his mind on hunting public ground, he doesn’t put all of his eggs in one basket. He scouts multiple areas at different times of the day so that his hunt isn’t sunk if another hunter, or hunters, shows up to hunt the same spot he does.
“You must have a Plan A, B and C,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen when you go out to hunt. If there are a lot of trucks in the parking lot when you show up, have a backup plan ready so you can switch to that plan.”
Even when he gets to a spot and hunts it for a couple of hours, but finds the turkeys have moved on or aren’t cooperating that particular day, Rutledge likes to have an alternate trick up his sleeve.
“I’ll have a couple places I can go to midmorning where my luck might be better,” he said.
When he’s selecting his hunting locations, Rutledge keys in on out-of-the-way places that other hunters might not consider. He studies topographic maps to find isolated ridges and clearings, and then puts his boots on the ground to see if turkeys are there. If they are, he marks those spots on a GPS unit.
“I can call up any of those spots during the season and head out there if my original plan for the day doesn’t work out,” he said.
Rutledge is a firm believer in the power of decoys when it comes to hunting turkeys on public or private land. Regardless of where he’s hunting, he carries jake and hen decoys. He seeks out the highest ground around for his setup so no gobblers can drop down on him from above, and he tries to keep the sun at his back. He sets his decoys by resting the hen on the ground in a squatting position directly in front of the jake.
“That positioning makes it look like the jake is going to breed that hen,” he said. “If there’s an aggressive old gobbler around, he’s not going to stand for that. He’s going to think he’s missing out and he’s going to try to kick that jake’s butt.”
The difference between Rutledge’s public-ground setup and his private-land setup has to do with the surroundings. When Rutledge sits down near his decoys on public land, he likes to be able to see at least 100 yards beyond the decoys.
“That way, if another hunter hears my calling and walks toward me, I’ll see him and then I can let him know I’m there,” he said. “Don’t ever wave at a distant hunter, however. Yell out to him.”
There’s a different mindset required for hunting public ground versus private property, according to Rutledge. On private property, you can assume no other hunters will be around the day you’re hunting. You can assume no one else has been pressuring the birds you’ve scouted. And you can assume the turkey noises you’re hearing while set up are actually coming from turkeys.
“Don’t assume anything on public land,” Rutledge said. “It’s not safe, and it’s not smart.”
If you don’t assume you’ll have the birds you’ve scouted on public land all to yourself, you’ll seek out multiple hunting locations. If you don’t assume the turkey noises coming toward you are definitely coming from a turkey, then you’ll be prepared to protect yourself when it turns out to be another hunter sneaking in on you.
“I hunt a lot of government land, and I encourage other hunters to do so as well,” Rutledge said. “It’s a privilege that all hunters should take advantage of, and if you go about it with the right mindset, you can have a successful hunt.”
Take the advice of these seasoned, professional hunters this season and you will have to find room in the freezer for a big spring gobbler!