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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Gobblers On Your Home Turf

If you’re like most turkey hunters, you’ll work a gobbler anywhere you can find him. When you strike a bird, the game is on and where you, or the gobbler, are standing at the time doesn’t matter. Lots of times the particulars of the property doesn’t come into play until some time has passed and the hunt begins to grind to a slow-paced battle of unknown maneuvers by you or the bird. More times than not, particularly if you are on hunting grounds that you aren’t overly familiar with, you will find yourself wishing you knew a little more about where the bird was standing the last time he gobbled and what was between you and him.

That’s why I prefer to get into it with a longbeard on my home turf. I don’t own a big chunk of property, but that hasn’t kept me from learning some public pieces of ground like the back of my hand. Knowing where birds like to roost, where they like to go after fly down and where they like to spend the day is valuable information. That kind of information can only be known by the hunter who is willing to learn these things through time spent in the woods over a period of time.

My home turf has expanded gradually over the years. When I strike a bird in one of these areas that I know so well, I have an advantage. On the other hand, I have missed out on opportunities to even get in the game with birds simply because I had no idea where to even begin the hunt, much less end it.

Let’s look at the valuable points of turning a piece of property into your personal stomping grounds and how to do it.

Find the birds: I think it’s safe to say that at some point in our turkey-hunting careers we have all been a little shy about jumping into a piece of public ground with any real confidence. That could come from the amount of other hunters that might frequent the spot or simply just because you have no idea where to begin. You have to start somewhere, so you might as well dive in and start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. The best way to go about it is to find the birds first. This is better done in early March when birds are pretty much where they will be come opening day. That isn’t to suggest that you don’t need to spend any time in the turkey woods before March though. You can learn an awful lot about your hunting grounds just by poking around.

By early March the birds are generally in the area you will find them in when the season opens up. From there you can learn where they like to roost and which direction they like to travel when they fly down. Once they vacate the area, you can find the best places to set up on them once the season opens. It’s not enough to just get somewhere you might hear a bird gobble in the morning because it generally doesn’t do too much good to hear birds in the far distance. You want to be tight enough on them to get in on the first-light conversation. It’s always a plus to hear birds gobbling, but if he’s a half a mile away, you’re probably not going to have a lot of luck getting him interested, at least not while there are plenty of hens at his disposal.

Where are they going? Once the birds have flown down, it is important to pay attention to where they are going; first the general direction and eventually where that direction is going to take them. Turkeys are rarely creatures of random habit. They have a reason they travel in certain areas. It could be anything from something as simple as the food supply is better up one side of the creek or the terrain is more suitable in one direction than the other.

Pay attention to detail here. If a flock continuously heads in one direction, find out what the reason is for doing so. There may be a pine thicket in one direction and an oak ridge bordering a green field in the other. Common sense tells you where the birds are more apt to go. Of course, you don’t want to put all your faith in common sense when dealing with a wild turkey, but it pays off sometimes. Once you learn where birds like to go, you have really discovered a great place to get in their way in the process. As the season fades, along with the surplus of hens, gobblers will continue to frequent areas that netted him romance in the early season. They will be more apt to be on the move to cover as many areas as they can, so the more of these areas you can locate, the better your chances of scoring. These areas can produce gobblers at all times of the day.

Why did he do that?
I remember hunting an area of Cedar Creek WMA one morning where I had located a group of birds a day or so prior. I won’t overdo the details here, but I got my fanny whipped. Not to be discouraged, I tried the birds again the next morning, and the same results followed. A couple of days later, I tried them again, and again I was the loser. I had gotten the gobbler going each morning and had pulled him to within easy hearing of his drumming but never saw his face. Each morning, as I retreated to my truck with my tail tucked, I cursed the hens for ruining an otherwise beautiful spring day.

I was unable to hunt the spot for the next week, and when I finally got to hunt it again, nobody was home. I sat up in the same location as the previous hunts, and when the uneventful morning was over, I walked over the hill to see where the birds had been roosting. Once I cleared the hill, the old embarrassing “dunce” feeling hit me right between the eyes. There was a gully, just over the rise approximately 8 feet in depth and a good 4 feet wide. Not a huge obstacle for something with wings, but I have seen much less prevent a gobbler from dying.

I believe it was this gully and not the hens that ruined those previous morning hunts. I simply didn’t know what was over the hill and had never bothered to investigate. A little homework likely would have given me a passing grade on this bird before he decided to skip town. I have been guilty of being hard-headed on a turkey hunt or two, and this was just another case of it. I was bound and determined that he was going to die “my way.” I was wrong.

Sometimes it’s not enough to simply know what a bird did to whip your tail. It’s a good idea and can pay huge dividends later if you find out why he was able to do it so soundly. Most turkeys aren’t of the genius stature, though we are quick to label them as such at times. Also, I would imagine that most gobblers aren’t even aware that they are whipping your backside when they do it. They simply have their own set of rules, and sometimes they refuse to bend them. I think we are a little too quick sometimes to give a gobbler all the credit when we lose the battle. We just accept it as “he whipped me” and go to the house. The truth of the matter is if we try to figure out why, he may be a little less fortunate the next time we meet him.

I also believe if you have gained “home field advantage,” you are more likely to learn a particular turkey’s habits than if you just hunt an area every now and then. Some turkeys in certain areas will do the same things, travel the same routes and roost in the same areas as their ancestors did years before. If you know an area well enough, you will soon realize how true that is, even on public ground. And you will understand why it is so.

A good example of habits passed down occurred last spring while hunting with longtime friend Jake Hill. We were hunting a very familiar piece Cedar Creek WMA property one early April morning. The daylight chorus we had hoped to hear was nonexistent. After setting up and going through the motions for an hour or so, we finally heard a gobble a few hundred yards down the creek. He sounded as if he was on the other side of it, and I was pretty happy about it, too. Usually I’m not too happy about a bird on the opposite side of a creek, but this bird had gobbled from a spot I heard birds many times over the years. It was also in close proximity of a place where I knew birds liked to cross this creek. In fact, I had called birds across it several times over the years.

We hurriedly made our way toward the area I normally worked birds from across the creek. The first call I made got jumped on by two birds. One bird was on the hill above and behind us a couple of hundred yards away, the other bird was across the creek. I told Jake to pay close attention, and watch for the bird to slip in from across the creek. Five minutes passed when I called again, and the bird across the creek hammered it. He had cut the distance nearly in half and was probably only 150 yards or so away. The only thing between us now was the creek.

Ten minutes passed when Jake spotted the bird slipping in from his right. We watched as the bird stood strutting and drumming at 30 yards for the next several minutes before he gave in and strolled by Jake at just less than 30 yards on our side of the creek. This was his last stroll as Jake rolled the good 3-year-old.

It was a case of knowing what birds like to do in a certain area. It was history repeating itself.

Growing your own: When I first started turkey hunting, I had nothing but public ground to hunt. That’s fine, and I was proud to have that. I still am, but there was always a piece of me that wished I had the luxury of occasionally being able to hunt some unmolested private-land birds. Sometimes I will get an invitation to join someone on a piece of private property, but most of my turkey hunting takes place on public ground. My family owns roughly 160 acres and is made up of a slightly diverse landscape. A few different ages of pine make up the majority of the property, and there are four or five sections of hardwoods. I grew up deer hunting the property, but I decided a few years ago to try hard to get the turkeys to take notice.

Three years ago I planted eight food plots. The turkeys found it pretty much immediately, and last year I called up the first turkey that ever died on our property for my 10-year-old nephew, Walt. Last year, prior to the season, I conducted a controlled burn, and the results have been as hoped for. My youngest son, Andy, and I both killed birds on the property last year.

Not only is it rewarding just hearing a bird gobble on your own property, it should be a piece of ground you know better than any other.

One morning in March of this past spring, Devereaux, my oldest son, and I headed to a particular field on the property where Andy had taken a bird a couple of days earlier. We were set up well before daylight, and I can’t explain how excited I was to be hunting there that day. We didn’t have to wait long before a gobbler began cranking it up in a small hardwood head on another field about 150 yards away. He was where we thought he would be, but he was in a spot the birds liked to roost often, and as a result, we have decided not to hunt that particular field. So, I did a fly-down cackle, and he humored me with a hearty reply. He too was soon on the ground, but within a few minutes it was clear he had hens with him.

“No big deal,” I remember thinking. “He’s going to come over here anyway.” That’s when he threw me a curve and headed off in the opposite direction. He went silent for the next 45 minutes or so and then gobbled about eight or 10 times in a period of about 10 minutes from about 300 yards away. Then he went silent again. I thought about moving at this point but talked myself into staying put.

Thirty more minutes passed when I decided to call to see where he was. He answered from about 300 yards away, but this time he had traveled in a direction that made me think he just might be coming to see us. Ten minutes passed when the bird hammered again inside 100 yards. I knew he was likely to show up soon. I answered him, and within a couple of minutes a big white head came bobbing up the roadbed that leads into the field. Two hens passed him and made their way into the field in front of us. Five minutes later, he was flopping on the ground at 40 yards. I had killed my first bird on my own property! It was one of the most rewarding hunts of my career. When I was standing over the bird I remember thinking that every time he had gobbled, I knew precisely where he was standing. That’s some valuable information.

Now, I won’t try to convince you that you can live in downtown suburbia and own an acre of land that you can turn into a turkey-hunting paradise. I will tell you though that if you have a piece of hunting property and you want the turkeys to take notice, you can work toward that goal and maybe make it a reality. Food plots and control burns are great ways to grab a turkey’s attention. If you are low on budget, managing openings just by bushogging alone can help. Control burning is still one of the cheaper wildlife-management tools there is. Managing openings and creating more open understudy and promoting new growth through control burns will make your property more attractive to wild turkeys. Remember, generally, turkeys aren’t real crazy about thickets.

If money isn’t a concern, control burns and plot planting is the way to go. The same plots you plant in the fall for deer are often planted in the same things a turkey enjoys eating as well. Clovers, wheat, rye and other seedy head plants are turkey pleasers. However, my No. 1 choice for turkey plots would be chufa. It isn’t called turkey gold for nothing.

It’s all a matter of what you are willing to do to create home-field advantage. Whether you own 50 or 1,000 acres, or hunt thousands of acres of public land, you can create an advantage that will pay dividends for years to come.

Written By:  Donald Devereaux Jarrett

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