Last week we delved into some of the preparations you can do ahead of time to make your spring gobbler season a successful one. These include getting in shape physically, preparing gear, checking your shotgun to make sure you have the best turkey load for it and practicing your calling. Now let's delve into the most exciting part of preparation: scouting.
Finding birds before the season opens is the fundamental goal of scouting for spring turkey season. In order to do that, you need to cover ground. Use a combination of walking and driving in a truck or ATV to cover lots of ground, working out isolated gravel and dirt roads and along ridge spines to listen down into valleys, side spur ridges and bowls trying to locate birds. Try just listening first. This is the least conspicuous way to pinpoint toms.
If nothing calls on its own, then try locator calls such as owl, pileated woodpecker, hawk, gobbler and crow sounds to startle a response from nearby toms. Once you hear a bird, stop calling, unless you couldn't quite determine its location. As a final resort, use hen calls to incite gobbles from nearby toms. Once you pin down where they are, stop calling. You want to locate them, not educate them or spook them.
Another good tactic is to climb to high observation areas such as ridge tops, fire towers or other areas where you can glass and search for birds in fields, natural meadows and open parts of woods. Bring a good pair of binoculars so you can search a wide area.
Locating turkeys isn't the only goal of spring scouting, though. The best hunters do more than simply locate birds. I've been fortunate to hunt with some of the top turkey callers in the country, including Rob Keck, Eddie Salter, Kelly Cooper, Jim Clay and Will Primos. Without exception, they all try to not just find gobblers ahead of the season but also pattern them.
Don't just listen for a bird to gobble. Instead, wait until daylight and see what it does. Which direction does it fly towards when it leaves the roost tree? Does it glide far down the hillside or just flutter down and land next to the tree it slept in? Does it tend to head for a field, an oak flat or a nearby water hole?
Try to pinpoint where hens roost in relation to the gobblers. That's often the direction they'll head at first light. The more of these details you can pin down ahead of the season, the more likely you'll be able to figure out the tom's likely travel route and be waiting on it. Being in the right spot is often more important than how well you can yelp, purr, cluck and cutt.
Strutting areas are spots where birds display their fans and beards in front of hens year after year. Locate these in a sunny flat or bowl or on a soft knoll and plan on being there during prime breeding season. Also look out for gobbler droppings, scratched areas where the turkeys have fed and dusting areas where the birds roll around and flap their wings in the dirt to remove insects from their bodies.
As you scout you'll become familiar with ridges, hollows, areas of thick and thin cover, streams and other topographical features. Knowing those things will help you when you move to set up on a bird and enable you to choose the best calling location. Learn where thick areas are that a turkey wouldn't want to walk through or steep draws it might avoid. Look for terrain that's easy walking and where a bird will feel comfortable traveling through.
Be sure to check out fields a short while after sunrise and even into mid and late morning. Turkeys often head to these areas for the bugs, tender green shoots and clover they find there. Knowing which part of the field they usually enter from can help you set up an ambush. And knowing which way they leave will allow you to set up at that exit location if you spot them already in the clearing during the season.
Of course, you can learn these things while turkey season is open. But the more of them you discover ahead of time, the more likely you can score before the turkeys become wary and hard to call or are harvested by other hunters.
Carry either a topo or hand-drawn map of the hunting area with you as you try to locate birds and do your scouting. Mark spots where gobblers call from, where hens roost, water sources, fields you see turkeys in, dusting spots, feeding areas and strutting grounds. Gradually you'll begin to see patterns that will help you set up in the spot toms want to go to at a given time of day. And that, more than how well you call, is the key to a successful spring gobbler hunt.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.