Turkey hunters have caught on to the outdoor world’s best-kept secret: Public Land.
In fact, it’s become somewhat of a badge of honor to travel from state to state, matching wits with spring gobblers on dirt accessible to everyone. Along the way, turkey nuts have realized that many public areas hold excellent bird populations and offer great opportunities.
But hunting public properties, many of which are vast and wild, also presents many challenges, especially if you’re accustomed to smaller, managed pieces of real estate. Here’s a brief primer on how to take advantage of America’s “biggest hunting lease.”
Where To Go
Finding public land to hunt might be the easiest part of the equation. But with so many options, hunters often have difficulty narrowing down likely candidates, whether close to home or in other states. Off-season research is critical, and you won’t find any shortcuts.
Start with online searches, which can reveal endless lists of publicly accessible ground. These might include school land, state wildlife areas, timber company leases, walk-in access properties, Bureau of Land Management ground, and state, national and county forests.
Property size varies, but it’s often best to seek larger tracts, simply because they allow the opportunity to avoid crowds. Don’t ignore smaller pieces. Just realize that any little chunk of ground with relatively easy access will likely receive substantial pressure, which reduces your chances of success. Generally, the cliché about public land is true: The farther you get from the road, the better your chances.
Follow-up research using Google Maps or similar online mapping apps let you remotely scout properties, identifying ingress and egress points, and potentially productive areas. Look for likely spots far from roads, walking paths, parking lots or even water access. Key on areas that might provide turkeys with long-term and seasonal needs, such as roosting timber, nesting areas, loafing spots and food (often in the form of hard or soft mast). Further, seek areas that border private property, especially if those lands feature agricultural crops.
Broader inquiries help focus your search. Some states list harvest totals from wildlife management areas, providing clues about productive spots. Also, correspond with biologists and other property managers to learn more about turkey opportunities at public areas. If possible, contact local hunters who might be willing to share general insights about an area. (Hint: Posting inquiries on online forums or social media usually falls flat.)
With a tentative plan in mind, put boots on the ground to explore public areas, assess their value, seek turkey sign and determine strategy. Near home, that might require some pre-season legwork. Out of state, you might have to sacrifice a day or two of hunting to become comfortable with the ins and outs of a property. Or, you can hunt/scout, trying to learn as much as possible in a brief time. You’ll probably find that many large public properties don’t have turkeys everywhere but hold pockets of turkeys throughout. When you can focus on those spots and can avoid two-legged competition, you’re in business.
What To Bring
Turkey hunting large public areas doesn’t differ greatly from chasing gobblers on the back 40. You’ll need obvious gear, such as camo, calls, shells, your gun and footwear designed for the terrain (walking boots for steep or mountainous areas or rubber boots in swampy spots, for example). But if you plan to ditch the crowds and stay comfortable, you’ll require several critical items.
Cell-phone mapping apps have changed the way many folks hunt, and they’re especially useful in large, unfamiliar areas. Use app features to plot your way in and out of remote areas and also speed-scout if you hear turkeys at distant locales. It’s also wise to carry a compass as a back-up, especially if the spot you’re hunting has poor cell service. If you use the popular Onx app you can download your hunt area map ahead of time and satellite technology will keep you pinpointed.
Wild, remote areas typically feature lots of buggy country, such as wet lowlands for breeding mosquitoes and thick understory vegetation that might harbor ticks or chiggers. Gamehide’s ElimiTick clothing provides protection and peace of mind in such situations, as its Insect Shield Technology repels ticks, chiggers, flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Better, it does so without the odor of bug spray or the pain of reapplying Permethrin to your clothing. Hunting big public areas is difficult enough. You don’t need to worry about ticks and biting insects while you’re doing it.
Binoculars are essential tools throughout turkey country. They’re critical in open areas — think BLM or walk-in properties on the prairies or out West — but can also help in timber. Many folks dismiss this, but binos let you scan the woods and pick out previously unseen turkeys before you spook them. They add a bit of weight, but their benefits far outweigh that negative.
As mentioned, hunting big public plots can require lots of walking and long periods of patience. Try to reduce weight when possible. I eschew chairs, turkey seats and pop-up blinds in these areas, as lugging them in requires substantial effort. Likewise, I typically carry just one or two lightweight decoys.
As in many spring hunting situations, you’ll probably want a light jacket or hooded sweatshirt in the pre-dawn but will need to shed that as the temperatures warm. A small pack or bag lets you easily transport extra duds. You can also fill the pack with energy-boosting snacks and water, increasing your comfort afield.
One final note: Where legal, mountain bikes or electronic bikes can help you better access challenging or ultra-remote public areas. Check regulations where you intend to hunt, and then consider using a bicycle. They can boost your range and save miles of pounding on your feet.
Logistical challenges aside, hunting spring gobblers at large public areas is basically like hunting turkeys in any type of timber. You locate birds, identify and access likely setups, adjust calling strategies to lure birds within range and then, hopefully, fill your tag. However, remember that you’re hunting a turkey that’s not quite like its private-land cousins. Many of the eager gobblers that hung out near accessible areas were likely shot opening week. And hunters probably bumped, boogered or missed other turkeys, which can make birds relocate somewhat within their home areas. And those survivors don’t typically rush to the gun.
Don’t be timid in your approach, but don’t be brash or clumsy, either. Use a low-pressure mindset, striving to avoid being busted by sharp-eyed birds. Walking and calling still works in many areas, and it’s tempting to use this strategy when you have acres to roam. However, the run-and-gun approach isn’t as effective as it was when bird numbers were peaking across the country. Further, traipsing across unfamiliar ground and calling to hush-mouthed turkeys is often a recipe for failure. I call such efforts “cutt-and-bump” hunts.
Often, it’s best to set up at good areas — shady flats, acorn-studded ridges, meadows or other openings in timber, or roads or other travel areas between roosting and feeding spots — and call for a while. Get as comfortable as possible, and resolve to be still and patient for a few hours.
Calling strategies vary. Generally, when trying to get a response, it’s best to start soft and call sparingly, and then ratchet up your volume and intensity as time passes. Volume control can prove critical with pressured public turkeys. Many observers agree that realistic soft calling often makes the difference on birds that have heard plenty of loud, unrealistic yelping and cutting.
When you make contact with a gobbler, play the game as you would anywhere. See what kind of calling he likes — soft and low, or excited and chatty — and give it to him. It’s best, however, to call only enough to keep the bird moving toward you. Making him gobble a lot is fun, but it can also attract hens or other hunters, ending your hunt.
Don’t be afraid to relocate on a bird that gobbles but won’t approach. Areas with thick timber or terrain wrinkles make this relatively easy. Just proceed with caution in unfamiliar spots, and always err on the side of caution. One step too far can end your day.
Use decoys in open areas to provide visual reassurance for your calling, but many hunters avoid them in thicker timber, as they often seem to spook turkeys when the birds stumble across them.
One final word: Reaping (using a fan or portable strutter decoy to slip close to turkeys or attract them close) has become popular in many areas. It’s probably wise to avoid this tactic on public ground. It’s not legal in some states, and it’s potentially dangerous in spots with thick timber and even modest hunter densities. You might be tempted to reap birds in open Western terrain when no other hunters are near. Hey, if it’s legal and safe, hunt how your personal code of ethics allows. Just be very careful and circumspect about it.
Explore America’s vast turkey hunting opportunities this spring. These abundant spots can provide great days of wilderness hunting and back-woods adventure. And if everything comes together, they might provide a thrilling conclusion and the happy problem of having to tote a gobbler a mile or more back to your truck.