If you’re a deer hunter, you scout before the season. It’s what you do. So, if you’re a turkey hunter, why wouldn’t you scout before the season? That’s a rhetorical question. In fact, it’s a question that recently entered my mind as I began to prepare for youth turkey season here in Wisconsin. You see, this will be my first time ever mentoring a youth hunter, and boy, do I want to get him on a bird.
Below are a few of the pre-season turkey scouting tips and strategies that you should be using in the coming weeks to prepare for turkey season.
Time your scouting right
Turkeys change their patterns dramatically from winter to spring. This shift from giant winter flocks to smaller, single digit groups typically happens right before spring turkey seasons begin in most states. Therefore, you want to hold off on scouting until about two weeks prior to your turkey hunting season. Scouting before that may lead to poor intel in regards to how turkeys are acting and where they will be during the season.
Use trail cameras to find turkey strut zones
By now, almost every hunter has a trail cam or two. Most hunters will use them during deer season, but only a few will keep them out during the winter and spring. If you’re not going to keep them out during the freezing winter months, at least put them back out in time for turkey season. Trail cameras provide all sorts of great information that can help you bag a bird. Set them up in strutting locations to determine when and where you need to be sitting with a shotgun in hand. Strutting zones include open fields, food plots, pastures, ridge tops, and logging roads, to name a few.
One option that’s becoming more popular on today’s trail cameras is the ability to shoot in time-lapse mode. This is one of the most underutilized features on trail cameras, and, in my opinion, one of the most useful – for deer and turkey. Set your trail cameras up facing either north or south to prevent sun interference and set them to take a picture every 5-10 minutes during daylight. If there’s several dips or rolling hills in the field, you can set them up high in a tree to see the field in its entirety. Since it’s not deer season you’re not worried about identifying an individual buck, but rather, just trying to figure if and when turkeys are using a particular area.
Scout from the truck
Not much to explain on this pre-season turkey scouting tactic, but it is an effective way nonetheless. You don’t necessarily need a roadside field for this method to be effective. Driving a daily loop on logging roads can be effective as well, as you can spot the toms strutting from a long way off.
Scouting from the truck is also a great way to keep the pressure off the birds. If you don’t have any fields you can see from the road on your turkey hunting property, you can still gain valuable information by observing what the turkeys are doing in your area. You can usually get a good idea if they are henned up, with other toms, or alone – all key observations when it comes to deciding what decoys and calls to use.
Previous turkey hunting history
Understanding what turkeys have done in the past is crucial to present and future success – after all, history tends to repeat itself. Learning how turkeys interact within the landscape of your hunting property is of utmost importance. Is there a barrier they don’t like to cross? A specific roost tree they prefer? An annual strutting grounds? The list of site specific conditions goes on and on, and how well you know them usually plays a big part in your success. Don’t just learn the ground you hunt, learn how the turkeys use it.
Map it out
Mapping it out builds upon the previous tip of understanding how turkeys interact within a specific landscape. Map out all the important features and obstacles that may impact your turkey hunt. Fence lines, roost sites, strut zones, creek bottoms, and feeding areas should all be marked on a map, so that when one gobbles off in the distance you know exactly where to set up for the kill.
Mapping out all the key turkey areas will give you a good idea on where you should be hunting throughout the day. Also, when one gobbles unexpectedly you will have a good idea where he is or where he is headed and you can sneak in for the kill.
Boots on the ground
Last, but certainly not least, strap up your boots and get out there. Identifying turkey sign may not be as easy as finding deer sign in the woods, but if you know what you’re looking for, certain markers can clue you in on a big strutter’s whereabouts. Use the following forms of turkey sign to help you bag a big ol’ longbeard this season.
Finding a turkey wing feather in an open forest with mature trees is almost always a sure sign of roost site.
- Turkey droppings – easily spotted on bare ground and can signify a roosting site if found in high concentrations below a large tree. Turkey droppings are usually two-toned as the brown color tapers into a whitish gray end. Droppings from a gobbler are typically elongated with a J-hook on one end. Droppings from a hen are typically clumped or spiral shaped.
- Turkey scratchings – most easily identified in a wooded area where you can see the leaves roughed up. Turkeys will scratch the ground beneath them while they are searching for food.
- Turkey feathers – look for black and white barred wing feathers and tail feathers to locate roost locations. Often a turkey will lose a wing or tail feather from the commotion of flying up or down from a roost tree. If you find several in one area, it’s a sign you may want to set up nearby.
- Turkey tracks – easily identified by the 3 long, front-facing toes – are a good clue that turkeys at least visit the area.
- Dust bowls – you’ll typically find dust bowls where there is bare soil or sand. Turkeys create a bowl-like shape in the soil by resting on their breasts and covering themselves with dust tossed about by their wings. They do this as a form of grooming. Dust bowls are often revisited and can be great midday turkey hunting spots.