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Scout Turkeys Early or Be Disappointed Later

by Jay Anglin

Your hunting areas have changed and the turkeys have already adapted. Will you?

“It won’t be long… I can’t wait.”

These are just a couple of the common expressions you’ll hear from turkey hunters at this time of year. And while they’re growing increasingly excited about the coming spring season, amazingly, most turkey hunters don’t start scouting until just prior to the season opener. If you really are excited about bagging a longbeard this season, start scouting now. 

Many turkey hunters have key spots they rely on to fill tags every year. They know turkeys are present there and they know the lay of the land, so they don’t think they need to scout – not in March anyway.

This mindset is what leads a lot of hunters to failure. I’m just as guilty as the next guy, but I’ve learned that being over confident can have terrible consequences once the season arrives. Fact is, complacency can quickly turn your turkey season into a mess in a hundred different ways. 

Why? Because things change.


Connect with your landowners

If you hunt private ground, don’t assume you still have permission. Touching base with landowners early will help avoid conflicts and misunderstandings once the season starts. The best handshake deal in the world can disappear in the blink of an eye when there’s a death in the family or somebody else comes knocking who ranks higher than you in a landowner’s hunting-rights hierarchy. So don’t assume everything is all hunky dory, or you may experience a rude awakening. And don’t expect to talk with them once spring tilling and planting begins; an exhausted farmer dealing with thunderstorms and broken equipment doesn’t typically care much about your turkey hunting.

Once you’re squared away with permission, be sure and ask any pertinent questions. This shows the landowner that you’re conscientious. Are there any bulls or especially surly cows you should know about? Have any new fences been electrified, and where are the best spots to get past them? Does anyone else have permission to hunt the property? If so, ask for their phone number so you can touch base with them. Also get a description of their vehicle. Finally, ask about parking and where you can and can’t drive. The farmer may have different plans for planting, and may not want you driving in the same places you did the year before.


Getting in and out

A myriad of changes take place in the woods and fields from year to year. Some are obvious, while others are subtler. Early scouting ensures you have the best-planned routes to and from your turkey hunting spots.

Turkeys may not be able to see in the dark but they can hear perfectly. Any sound that draws their attention will likely determine what direction they fly off the roost, and it probably won’t be towards you. Turkeys are survivors and they didn’t get where they are as a species by flying into the laps of coyotes and bobcats. Besides coughing or talking, turkeys also hear us walk. Snapping twigs, crunching leaves and shattering crop stubble are sure ways to sound the alarm. 

Early turkey scouting should result in a mental picture of the best ways in, through and out of parcel. Eliminate noisy footsteps by utilizing grass or hay that will be damp with dew, freshly turned soil, farm lanes, creek bottoms and logging roads. 

“White noise” such as highway traffic, railroads, airplane traffic and streams can do a good job of masking sounds and can be used to a savvy hunter’s advantage by opening up additional travel options. Some hunters even use waders or long boots to enter a parcel via ditches and creeks. If this is your strategy, take a detailed look at those routes during daylight hours so you’ll know where holes or big rocks are. Boot sucking muck and slippery boulders can disrupt an otherwise great plan. Take all of these things into consideration and come up with stealthy travel options for any situation at each of your hunting spots. 


Scout the birds

Listening to turkeys – when they vocalize on the roost at dawn, and again when they fly up in the evening – is one of the easiest ways to assess their numbers and location. Depending on what part of the country you live in, this may be as simple as quietly easing your vehicle into a farm lane or pulling a safe distance off the road. 

Observing birds with binoculars at peak activity times is also a great way to judge the potential of a given area. Specifically, it can tell you how many gobblers are present and which ones have achieved true trophy status. Thermal-imaging technology is another scouting tool that is improving and coming down in price. Compact thermal handhelds like FLIR’s Scout Series monoculars work in any lighting conditions – including total darkness – so they’re a viable option for scouting roosted birds at night, although you do need to be fairly close.

Looking for turkey sign and making dry runs to and from key locations requires getting out of the truck. The late-winter and early-spring landscape is often stark, with a lack of precious foliage for concealment. So bring your A-game. This means using maps such as Gazetteers, Google Earth and smart phone apps that are specifically tailored for hunters. OnX Hunt Maps, for example, offers satellite imagery with an overlay of landowners and other hunting tools. The modest investment is well worth it, as long as your hunting area has coverage.

Once inside your hunting property, look for signs of bird activity. Tenzing pro-staffer, Jon Turner, advises looking for primary strut zones, which tend to be flat areas with a lack of obstructions such as fallen branches and shrubs – logging roads and clearings, for example. “These are preferred landing areas for gobblers, and toms may linger there for short periods of time to gobble and strut after the morning fly-down,” he says.

Turner carefully observes the ground for fresh tracks and droppings that reveal where the birds are traveling. “Gobblers usually leave j-shaped droppings while hens to tend to leave clumps,” says Turner, who also looks for telltale turkey scratchings. “Foraging turkeys scratch through leaf litter to find insects and seeds,” he says. “These scratchings give you an idea of where turkeys are feeding and how many there are, but since they are directional, they can also tell you how turkeys are moving through an area.”

Entering a property increases the odds of spooking birds. One of the best ways to avoid this is to use scouting cameras. Cameras reduce fuel costs and allow hunters to maximize their time and cover more area. These amazing scouting tools can yield an immense amount of intel from minimal effort and only a modest investment. Advancements in recent years include better resolution, increased battery life, reduced size and decreased costs. 

Turkeys tend to use the same travel lanes as deer, so if you deer hunt your property, scouting turkeys can be as easy as throwing in a clean SD card and changing out the batteries. Repositioning cameras may be advisable but often isn’t necessary. Remember, a primary benefit of scouting with cameras is a reduced need to enter the woods and a decreased probability of spooking birds, so don’t overdo it. Tend to scouting cameras only when absolutely necessary.

If you’re a turkey hunter, late winter and early spring is the time to take care of some very basic business. Reconnect with your landowners, then get out in the field and take note of anything new. Doing so now means avoiding or minimizing all manner of imaginable surprised once the season starts. The birds have already adapted to these various and subtle changes. Will you?