In many places, spring means many things to many people, but for the diehard hunter who calls the Carolinas home, it’s full of sitting, listening and stalking a gobbling tom. It’s turkey season, and the millions of acres of public land across the two states are perfect places to bag a longbeard. Even though public lands receive a lot of hunting pressure, a hunter who knows the ins and outs of hunting them has a good chance to bring home a 20-pound bird.
For the several weeks, wild turkey distributed from the mountains to the coastal flatlands in both states will hear and consider just about every type of turkey-sounding vocalization imaginable. This couldn’t be more true on the public lands, however, the turkeys won’t get educated until after the first week of the season, so it’s critical to be in the right spot on opening day.
Charles Ruth, the wild turkey project supervisor with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, encourages hunters to do their homework and figure out where the turkeys are spending their days and nights right before the season comes in.
“Simply put, due diligence in preseason preparation is critical for the opening-week hunts,” Ruth said. “Look for areas with a diversity of habitats, including timber stands of various ages and types, wildlife openings, food plots and riparian areas. Determine where the turkeys prefer to roost. Do the legwork to find the better habitat as it relates to turkeys.”
On public lands with a high population of turkeys, the prime habitat will receive a lot of traffic the first few mornings of the season. Ruth advises hunters not to get too discouraged when all that time scouting before the season appears wasted.
“Hunting pressure normally decreases after the initial rush,” said Ruth, who believes the rest of the season can be very productive, with fewer hunters to compete with in the turkey woods.
According to Harold Knight, co-founder of Knight and Hale Game Calls, the best time to kill turkeys on public lands is when most hunters have left the scene.
“Learn to hunt turkeys in the middle of the day and in the afternoons when other hunters have quit,” said Knight, who spends a few days ever season hunting public land in his home state, Kentucky. “Most people will hunt early in the morning and will leave. Hunt public lands in the afternoons; the gobblers in the afternoon are more likely to respond and come in to your calling.”
Knight has had success between 3:30 and 4 p.m. in familiar areas.
“If I hear a bird that is really fired up in the morning, that dude will be in the same area in the afternoon and will be easier to call than he was that morning when he was henned up,” he said. “They have lost their hens, and (they) go into panic mode.”
Beyond the time of day, hunters can change their location. They can gain an edge on public lands by reaching out to find turkeys well away from the high-use parking areas and public roads.
According to Knight, avoiding places where most people are hunting is best tip for the public land hunter. Willing to walk or having a bicycle that can get you places could put you on prime turkey turf miles from the rest of the crowd. A large percentage of the access roads and trails that crisscross public hunting areas are closed to vehicular traffic, which keeps hunting pressure down in some remote areas, making it easier to call in a gobbler.
Hunters have to switch gears to late-season tactics quickly on public land that gets plenty of heavy hunting pressure. Turkeys will become educated and accustomed to just about every kind of call, and most hunters admit messing up from time to time, getting too close or moving when the shouldn’t — providing education to gobblers. If turkeys survive the opening week, they will have earned advanced degrees in hunter avoidance.
“A few weeks in the woods listening and looking at hunters mess up is equivalent for a turkey to years of learning,” Knight said. “Turkeys will get real wise, real quick.”
Learn to use calls that are different from the standard owl hoot and the purrs and yelps every hunter out there is using. On public land, Knight will use calls that he typically only brings out in the late season on private land, including fighting hens from a double push-button box or an aggressive series of cuts from a diaphragm mouth call.
Knight spends more time using locator-type calls in areas with high pressure to get the birds to shock gobble so he can figure out where they are going.
“Use a red-tail hawk or aggressive crow call to get them to gobble back at you,” says Knight. “Then reposition to get into the bird’s path.”
Turkeys will stay with their hens most of the day early in the season, and hunters will often have a difficult time getting gobblers to come in when they’ve collected a harem. But most gobblers and hens will frequent the same places on a daily basis, feeding on whatever is available. When gobblers are locked onto a group of hens, Knight will set up in places where he finds a lot of scratching and dusting.
“Sit there and listen for a while,” he said. “Call every now and then with soft calls from a mouth call or slate. You can kill them in these places where they routinely travel, but don’t overcall or you may alert one of these educated birds.”
In the Carolinas, few places exist that are more than a short drive from public hunting land, and most counties in both states are blessed with a decent population of birds. Nevertheless, public lands should not be avoided, because some of the best chances for killing a gobbler may be on those lands.