A change of tactics is necessary for North Carolina hunters who travel to different areas of the state in search of nice gobblers.
The morning hunt had been perplexing. By 8:45, only two toms had sounded off a total of four times on Arthur Dick’s 1,800-acre Willow Oaks Plantation in Rockingham County outside of Eden.
“We have so many gobblers and hens here,” Dick said, “that sometimes it’s just better to set up 10 yards off an access road, commit to sitting still for an hour or two, and make a couple of clucks.”
Dick took his own advice and set up along a logging road he’d used to access part of his land, and by 9:05, he whispered that a tom was headed up the road. Ten minutes later, an exceptionally easy 23-yard shot put a gobbler on the ground.
Another off-road setup the next day produced an 18-pound gobbler that sported spurs slightly longer than an inch. But somewhere else, perhaps away from the rolling hills of the northern Piedmont, conditions might dictate different tactics.
North Carolina is divided into mountain, Piedmont and coastal regions, and each presents its own special challenges for spring gobbler hunting. For example, each presents unique terrain, and the longbeards in each region respond to that topography in ways often peculiar to that part of the state; successful hunters have to be aware of both the terrain and tom types in their home areas.
Israel Gibson, a hunting and fishing guide for Rivers Edge Outfitters in Spruce Pine, said getting started in the mountainous region of western North Carolina is fairly simple.
“Whether I’m hunting on private land in any of the mountain counties or in the Pisgah National Forest, my strategy is the same,” he said. “Get up extra early, hike to the top of a ridge or the highest vantage point and be ready to start in any direction if I hear a gobble.
“It’s an old saying that it’s very difficult to call mountain gobblers uphill. Well, that saying is true. I don’t ever like to be below them, because if they start coming down a mountainside to the flat you’re on, once they come over the lip, if they walk down at all, the gobblers are going to be suspicious if they don’t see that hen. Then the next thing you know, they have taken flight and sailed off way down the mountain. That’s why I like to set up above them within 30 yards of a lip and kill them as soon as they poke their heads up onto the flat.”
Gibson said the Pisgah National Forest receives very little hunting pressure, especially in backcountry areas.
“The beauty of the Pisgah is that you can travel way back into the mountains and get away from the crowds,” Gibson said. “Another thing I like is hunting in ‘big woods-type’ habitat. The downside of the Pisgah is that there is very little diversity of habitat, and turkey numbers are typically lower there than on private land.
“The best springs to hunt are the ones when there (was) an above-average acorn crop the year before. Then, there seem to be more birds (in the national forest). When the acorn crop has been spotty, the turkeys seem to travel more, and they are very hard to pattern.”
Gibson said that on both public and private land in the mountains, hunters have to be familiar with the dominant types of terrain: saddles (dips between two coves or ridges that serve as funnels), finger ridges (side ridges from the main ridge), flats or shelves (level places on mountainsides) and benches (long sections of flats/shelves).
“The benches are where you will often find longbeards strutting or gobbling after fly down,” he said. “If you’re really stumped about what to go do, set up on a bench and call.”
David Allen, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist whose territory includes the mountains, agrees with Gibson about running the ridges in the early morning. He said that the Nantahala Game Lands are an excellent choice for turkey hunting. “Most all areas within the game lands, you can hear a turkey gobble,” he said.
Kip Hollifield, another Commission biologist, chimed in, too.
“I’d recommend Pisgah and the South Mountains Game Land in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford Counties,” Hollifield said. “They’re both large game lands, and some prior knowledge of the area or some scouting would be recommended.”
Specific strategies exist in the Piedmont, which Dick calls home.
“Much of North Carolina’s Piedmont is classic, rolling-hills country,” he said. “A great tactic is to go from knoll to knoll and glass as you go, especially the edge where one kind of habitat meets another one. Another thing I like to do is to use binoculars to check out fields, openings, agricultural areas and open woods — all which the Piedmont has a lot of.
“Here in this part of the Piedmont, we also have a lot of gas and power lines, which can draw gobblers. And a hardwood stream bottom is almost always a good place to find turkeys.”
Dick maintains that hunters who own or lease land or have good relationships with landowners can improve wildlife habitat.
“At Willow Oaks, we have planted all kinds of brassicas as well as clover and let plants such as ragweed and pokeberries spring up. These types of plants draw insects which in turn draw turkeys in the spring,” said Dick, who has Willow Oaks enrolled in the CP33 program, which has as one of its goals for farmers to develop field borders, which helps turkeys and other wildlife by creating transition zones between forests and open lands.
One of the most interesting things Dick said is he is calling less and less these days.
“Many parts of the Piedmont have a lot of hens, and the gobblers seem to be henned up much of the spring,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why locator calls like barred owls and crows have lost a lot of their effectiveness. It’s just hard to make a henned-up tom shock-gobble.
“I also think that because everyone today uses diaphragms, they too have lost their appeal. A slate or box is not used as much and so are much better calls. And lots of times, I don’t use any calls at all. I make a couple clucks and then go silent for an hour or more. The soft and subtle approach is especially the way to go when a gobbler has a lot of hens with him. Hatches have been down in our region in recent years, but there are still a lot of hens.”
In the coastal region, a problem that hunters in other parts of North Carolina don’t have is one of visibility.
Biologist Charles French explained that it’s a function of the habitat.
“A hunter may experience large, open bottomlands or wet swamps and drainages,” he said. “(There are) also open, longleaf sand ridges with thick pockets of pocosin vegetation and thinned or un-thinned (pine) plantations. Hunters should study aerial photography and scout as much as possible to familiarize themselves with the terrain in order to determine potential obstructions to calling birds or visibility issues that may increase the distance that a hunter can be seen.”
The visibility issue, French said, is a particular challenge in the coastal region. Hunters don’t have ridges and humps to hide a human’s approach to a gobbling bird. Hunters who move at untimely moments may have a bird spot them from great distances – whereas hunters in the mountains or Piedmont can often set up within shotgun range of a tom gobbling on the other side of the crest of a ridge or knoll.
Evin Stanford, the biologist who heads up the deer and wild turkey programs for the Commission, offered a bullet-point list of “primary terrain types” for this region.
• Large, mixed forest bottomlands and swamps along rivers and other major drainages;
• Swampy, muck habitats along the lower reaches of drainages and along the lower coastal plain;
• Mixed hardwood/pine stands on upland areas, intermixed with agricultural fields;
• Loblolly pine plantations, both private and commercial;
• Longleaf stands predominately occur along southern and southeastern portions of the coastal plain;
• Large commercial agricultural farms, often thousands of acres in size occur most frequently in mid- to lower-Coastal Plain areas;
• Pockets of forest or shrub habitats are typically found along natural drainages, pocosins and/or marshy/wet-soil areas where agriculture practices are not practical.
WHEN TO GO — North Carolina’s spring wild turkey season opens April 14 and runs through May 12. Saturday, April 7, is Youth Day. Hunting is legal all day.
WHERE TO GO — All 100 of North Carolina’s counties have an open turkey season. Traditional hotspots are the counties along the Roanoke River (Northampton, Halifax and Bertie), counties in the northern Piedmont (Stokes, Rockingham, Caswell, Person and Granville), counties in the northwestern corner of the state (Ashe, Alleghany and Wilkes) and counties in the western foothills and mountains (Rutherford, Madison, Yancey, Buncombe, Burke).