I consider each gobbler that I have been fortunate enough to drape over my shoulder and carry out of the turkey woods a trophy. But there is something special about taking a bird on public ground. Combine the ingredients of hunting pressure and add them to the usual characteristics of a gobbler and you have yourself a challenging hunt. These types of birds are smarter and more cautious than your typical birds found on private dirt. Filling your tag requires patience, perseverance, and the ability to adapt to a variety of situations.
With that said, the following are five tips that will help you fill your tag on public land.
1) Research: Before walking into an area blind I pull up the DNR public land map. This map highlights the areas that are open to hunting in each county throughout the entire state. After clicking on the particular county that you would like to scout a detailed map appears allowing you to zoom in. A map key containing multiple colors will indicate areas that are open to hunting. It also shows the different types of roads that will allow you to navigate around public land. These typically will consist of the following governmental agencies-State Wildlife /Game Areas, State Forest Land, State Parks and Recreation Areas, National Park Service, and the US Forest Service. Another area that is oftentimes overlooked is timber company lands.
If you’re not tech savvy like myself and prefer a printed map showing these areas, you can either pick up a map of these lands from a government agency or give them a call and request to have one mailed to you. Sometimes I highlight the areas where I have been successful or seen turkey activity. This will save you time, especially when running and gunning.
2) Boots on the Ground: During the fall and winter months turkeys can be found in large flocks. This is a great time to keep track of the turkey populations taking up residency in seasonal areas where food and cover is available. However, once spring approaches flocks will begin to break up and change their daily routines.
Although I scout for turkeys year round I don’t get real serious until about six weeks before the season begins. This narrow window helps to find birds that are more consistent in their daily routine. For the last two years I have been hunting the late season, which typically runs early May to May 31. Not only does this allow me to spend more time in the turkey woods, it gives me the opportunity to see where other hunters are spending time.
Patterning the birds that are in a particular area is just as important as patterning other hunters there also.
In (most areas throughout the United States) Michigan the spring turkey season begins around mid-April and runs through the end of May. Within this timeframe most land that is open to hunting will see a heavy influx of hunters. Serious hunters should scout away from easily accessible areas where birds haven’t been pressured. This may require hiking in longer distances or using some type of watercraft such as a boat, kayak or canoe to reach these non-pressured areas.
During the early morning hours use a locator call such as a owl hooter, crow or coyote call from a higher elevation to elicit a shock gobble from toms. This will allow you to identify roosting areas and mark them on a map or a GPS. There are several different chunks of public land that I drive through to get to work every day which allows me to utilize my time wisely to find roosting sites. Oftentimes, these outings require several different stopping points before I hear any gobbles so it is important to cover as many areas as possible.
Once you have established where a good location would be to hunt turkeys put on a good pair of hiking boots and begin scouting on foot. When I enter these areas the types of things that I begin looking for is turkey sign. This consists of tracks, droppings, drag marks, feathers, dusting bowls, and scratching. The direction of tracks and scratch marks will tell you which direction birds are traveling and their freshness and quantity could indicate that they travel these areas often.
3) Adapt to the Unknown: There are three different ways for me to drive into work, but on this particular spring morning I decided to drive the route where I had the best chance of seeing a fanned out gobbler. I had seen numerous birds along this travel route during the previous year while driving to and from work so I figured this would be my best shot at catching a glimpse of one during the early morning hours. After all, it was opening week of my hunt and the first few days had been slow.
I was hungry to get back in the turkey woods again. The winding and hilly road cut straight through the heart of thousands of acres of public land in Northern Michigan and was located only 15 minutes from my house. This road allowed me to keep tabs on turkey activity prior to the spring turkey season and locate the best areas to hunt once the spring turkey season arrived.
After cresting the top of a hill the road leveled off. In my usual rubber-necked state this time of year, I glanced to my left in an opening next to a stand of mature white pines and there they were– two gobblers with a small harem of hens–their iridescent colors shimmering in the morning sun. Throughout the day while at work I daydreamed of these birds and decided that once work got out I would take a walk through the area, which happened to be state land. With a GPS in hand I walked down an old logging road and was pleasantly greeted by several tom and hen tracks in a patch of sand about a half-mile off the main road. The tracks confirmed my decision to return to this location the following morning before work.
Locating birds such as this by happenstance seldom happens to me, but when it does I take full advantage of the opportunity. The ability to adapt during these types of situations is the key, especially on public land.
Due to these large tracts within a forty-five minute drive from where I live the best method is to drive my truck along two tracks and old logging roads within these areas in order to cover as much territory as possible. This is commonly referred to as running and gunning. Being on the move and making smart decisions on where to setup on a tom that you discover can make you a successful hunter.
4) The Road Less Traveled: From my observations each spring, the majority of turkey hunters who hunt on public land set up within a few hundred yards away from their truck. They find the most convenient logging road or trail to hunt next to and severely limit themselves by hunting birds that have been pressured by other hunters. In order to be consistently successful on public land hunters need to take a GPS or compass and venture away from these types of areas. Although this type of hunting requires more effort, your chances of success will increase the further away from easily accessible areas you are willing to travel.
Reaching remote areas beyond natural barriers such as rivers, lakes, streams, steep topography, or thick and gnarly cover can put you closer to non-pressured birds. When encountering bodies of water use a canoe, kayak or in some cases a pair of chest waders to put some distance between yourself and other hunters. Push yourself to hunt in areas that you normally wouldn’t consider hunting.
5) Small Tracts of Land: The majority of hunters head straight to public land, which contains hundreds if not thousands of acres to hunt turkeys. This leaves many of the turkeys on the smaller tracts of public land free from any disturbances because most hunters overlook these types of areas.
Last spring I was able to connect on a longbeard within about a sixty-acre chunk of public land in northern Michigan during the late season. A brief scouting mission revealed numerous tom and hen tracks with wing drag marks along anold two-track. Within twenty-yards of this travel corridor I placed several sticks in the ground, which were used to drape a 3-D cloth over to help conceal me. A few days later I returned to this location on a morning hunt and successfully called in a tom, which made the Commemorative Bucks of Michigan Records Book.