A more direct route to the area where I wanted to turkey hunt would have been to beeline directly through the woods. However, Hurricane Hugo made the pine woods look as if an expert-level game of pick-up-sticks was about to begin.
The logging road provided a clear and, more importantly, quiet path back to an opening where I'd seen an abundance of turkey signs the previous afternoon. Less than 100 yards beyond the opening, a small drain provided the perfect roosting area. It was imperative that I get setup quietly under the cover of darkness.
Near as I could tell while scouting the day before, the turkeys seemed to be scratching for some leftover chufas as well as using the clearing for dusting. I surmised a mature gobbler might be strutting in the clearing as well. but I couldn't spy any wing-drag marks in the weeds.
Daylight was breaking, and before long I could hear some faint yelps originating from the creek bottom. If the hens worked their way to the clearing, they might drag a lovesick gobbler with them.
I positioned myself in the direction of the sounds. Some quiet yelps from my box call where answered with raspy and louder yelps. The girls thought another girl was in the neighborhood.
Soon I could see some heads making their way through the gnarled pine woods. With bounding steps, two hens popped into the clearing. Two more quickly followed, then three jakes entered behind the hens like 8th-grade schoolboys.
No mature bird arrived that morning. The turkeys went about their morning routine completely unaware of my presence. Just as I had surmised, I watched them feed and scratch as well as dust before they moved off after about 90 minutes.
Many turkey hunters are drawn to food plots, or their more politically correct name, wildlife openings, like crows to a morning owl call. It's understandable since turkeys are fond of openings for strutting, feeding and a host of other behaviors. But for many hunters, their attraction to wildlife openings ends with turkey season, which is a big mistake.
"Food plots provide excellent benefits to a turkey population," said Dave Baumann, retired wild turkey biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and now a wildlife consultant with his firm, Woodlands Wildlife Services (843-509-3455), in Bonneau. "A lot of hunters only view a food plot as a place to kill something, whether it's a deer or turkey. The truth is food plots have other advantages outside of hunting season.
"Turkeys use food plots for a variety of reasons. A food plot could provide a supplemental food source through a variety of plantings. Turkeys also use food plots for bugging areas, especially for newly-hatched poults."
Baumann also noted turkeys routinely nest not too far from openings or lightly-traveled roads.
He said how often turkeys use a wildlife opening during the year depends upon the condition of the opening and what's planted in it.
"The key to having successful wildlife openings is planning," Baumann said. "It starts with determining what your objectives are for the openings. Once you decide what role the openings will serve, then you can go about locating them if you need to construct them and determine what you might plant.
"I recommend to landowners to look beyond the opening as just a spot to hunt."
Baumann suggested food plots be located at higher sites, preferably near roosting areas. In the Lowcountry, for example, locating an opening near a cypress head or swamp would be ideal. Away from the coast, it might be a creek bottom.
"A food plot should be a minimum of 1 acre, but I recommend them to be 2 acres if possible," he said. "It's no harm if a plot is larger.
"In fact, having a larger plot increases your flexibility. It might be possible to simultaneously have two or three different plantings, which can supply the year-round needs of turkeys."
Baumann said one mistake hunters make is having an opening that doesn't get enough sunlight.
"A linear opening is good," he said, "but you have to make sure that whatever shape you make an opening that it gets at least six hours of sunlight."
A lot of landowners or leasees are already ahead of the curve because they have openings at their property. If they don't, Baumann had some suggestions.
"Obviously, you can make an opening in the woods with a bulldozer," he said. "If you can't afford that much labor or expense, consider logging decks or roads.
"If you're getting ready to have a timber sale, arrange with the logger to cleanup the logging deck before they pull out. These make great areas to plant.
"Roads through the woods are often overlooked for planting. Many roads have shoulders that are wide enough to plant. You can plant these areas just like they were a one-acre patch."
Once you have the location of a food plot established and the land cleared, it's time to decide what to plant. Choices will depend upon the opening's objectives and the amount one budgets for planting.
"Before you plant anything," Baumann said, "I urge everyone to get a soil test completed for the opening. Soil tests are inexpensive and can save you a bunch of money in the long run."
Most soil sample kits, available from your local Clemson Extension office or Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office, cost about $5 per sample. The cost-saving portion of a soil test is its prescription.
Some landowners merely "guesstimate" how much fertilizer or lime to apply. The problem is some minerals aren't available to plants if the soil's PH is incorrect. It's a waste of fertilizer and money if the plants can't utilize the chemicals. Completing a soil test will tell one exactly what he needs to know based on what he plans to plant.
"Most people plant an opening to provide a supplemental food source," Baumann said. "There are several options to meet that objective.
"The easiest and simplest is to do essentially nothing and merely maintain a fallow opening. Native grasses will become established in the opening, and these provide a good seed source for turkeys as well as an excellent bugging area.
"To prevent woody vegetation from becoming dominant in the opening, you'll need to periodically burn or bush hog. If you have two or more openings on the property, it's best to rotate which ones remain fallow. Leaving an opening fallow for three years is a good starting point."
If fallow is easiest and cheap, agricultural crops, such as corn or soybeans, are the other end of the spectrum.
"Everyone knows turkeys eat corn," Baumann said, with a reference towards turkey baiters. "But corn and soybeans are labor intensive. In addition to planting, you have to cultivate them as well. Each time you start that tractor, it's an expense in terms of time and money."
While leaving some openings fallow benefits turkeys, Baumann has other recommendations for landowners who want to plant crops that aren't as labor intensive as corn or soybeans.
"When someone thinks of planting something for turkeys they usually think of chufas," Baumann said. "Turkeys love to scratch up chufas and eat the tubers."
Although chufas have been grown in the Southeast for some time, there was little science-based management information about the plant. To provide that information, the National Wild Turkey Federation recently funded a study through the University of South Carolina.
The general consensus was that chufas should be planted in sandy loam soils, so it was easy for turkeys to scratch up the tubers.
"Researchers tested three soil types to determine if soil type had any influence on tuber production," said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, senior vice president for the NWTF's conservation programs. "They compared the typically recommended sandy loam soil, rocky Piedmont soil and a sandy soil from the Aiken area and found great chufa production and use by turkeys on almost any soil type."
The study also found other valuable planting recommendations.
"Selecting the right time to plant is critical," Kennamer said. "Chufas need adequate moisture availability first and foremost. Although chufa has a wide planting window in the Southeast, it's best not to plant too early in the spring or wait until daytime temperatures reach the 90s."
The study found chufas planted during hot conditions were often attacked by fungus and bacteria, which reduced germination.
Baumann said landowners at the coast could plant chufas starting right after turkey season up until about the first week of August. Away from the coast, he recommended not planting past mid July.
"Chufas can't tolerate competition from weeds," Baumann said. "To reduce weed competition, I favor later plantings.
"I normally disk chufa patches in late May or early June and then again in early July before planting. I typically plant my chufas during the first week of July."
It's been Baumann's experience that fertilizer merely increases the tops of chufas and does little to increase tuber production. He has also found fertilizers can increase weed production, jeopardizing chufas. Therefore, he shuns fertilizing his chufas but maintains that having the correct soil PH is critical.
"It's best, no matter what you're planting, to have a soil PH of 6 at the minimum," he said. "A soil test will tell you exactly how much lime to apply, but it normally ranges between 500 to 2,000 pounds per acre for coastal soils."
The standard planting rate is 50 pounds of chufas per acre if the planter is going to broadcast them. Landowners can drill them in at a rate of 35 pounds per acre, but Baumann said you'd have to scuff the seed ahead of time to ensure good germination.
"Remember, chufas can't stand competition, even against itself," Kennamer said. "If you have any doubt about how much to plant, plant less.
"One problem is many landowners don't accurately determine the size of the plot, and the second common problem is the feeling that more is better."
Baumann suggested landowners not keep an opening in chufas any longer than about three years. He said nematodes would eventually attack the tubers if the plot remains in chufas much longer.
Besides chufas, Baumann said turkeys relish clover as well.
"Almost any of the clovers are good to plant for turkeys," he said. "They'll eat the plants, and the vegetation usually supports a number of insects as well."
There is a host of clovers available for planting. Baumann said any red or white clover is fine, but some common ones to plant include Crimson clover, Osceola clover and Durana clover, which is a strain of ladino clover new to the market.
"Most clovers are perennials," Baumann said. "The ladino clovers normally stay green over the summer while Crimson clover will die back in the summer but reappears in the fall. You can usually get about five years out of one planting.
"The planting rate will depend on the variety of clover you're planting. Typical rates range from 8 pounds per acre to as much as 18 pounds per acre."
Clover can be planted on bare ground just about any time of the year. Disc the plot, then broadcast the seed on the bare dirt. It's best to lightly drag or disc the plot to make certain the seed has good contact with the soil.
"You can fertilize clover at the time of planting," Baumann said. "Remember, clovers are nitrogen-fixing plants so they don't need a nitrogen fertilizer. A good fertilizer is 0-17-17."
Purchase clover seed that's been pre-inoculated.
Once late summer rolls around, Baumann recommends mowing clover patches.
"Other good food sources to plant are wheat or naked oats," Baumann said. "Browntop millet is a good alternative as well. Millet is cheap and easy to plant and matures quickly, usually less than 60 days, which makes it a good planting for early summer.
"I avoid planting rye for turkeys. It has a low nutritional value and although it's an annual, it can take over an opening if it gets established. It's pretty to look at since it remains green over the winter when everything else is brown, but I don't recommend it."
It's a lot of fun to watch a mature gobbler strut his stuff in an opening, especially if it's one the hunter planted. With a little planning, that same opening can supply a turkey population with year-round benefits and allow hunters to catch a glimpse of them after the season.