Preseason scouting for Carolina turkey hunters

(Photo by Rick Small)

Scouting is the key to turkey hunting success

Before turkey season arrives, do plenty of scouting and learn areas birds are roosting, feeding, and strutting. Scouting gives you a leg up on tagging that first tom.

You have set up on a gobbler on the roost and made your best effort to call him in. But hens came to him, and they slowly worked their way away from you.

That’s a heartbreaking, but all-too-frequent scene in the spring woods of the Carolinas. Many hunters either call it a day or get up and do the old “run and gun” — walking and calling, hoping to get a tom to respond. The big problem is, especially in the early season, henned-up gobblers aren’t prone to answer a call after they have gathered their morning harem.

Proper preseason scouting can provide answers to this problem and help hunters to score this season by using their eyes and ears to come up with a plan for taking their next turkey.

Find out where the gobblers want to go

Darrell Combs of Ronda, N.C., has been turkey hunting since North Carolina opened a spring season in his area in the 1980s. Combs, who at one time held the North Carolina record for the biggest non-typical wild turkey, uses his ears to do most of his scouting. That’s because the thick terrain he hunts lends itself to that kind of approach. He is afraid he’ll spook birds by doing too much walking around in his hunting area before the season. So he prefers to do most of his scouting by listening from high vantage points in the early mornings in the weeks leading up to the season.

Combs not only listens for gobblers, but he takes mental notes of where they are roosted and in which direction they head after gathering their hens. This information tells him where he needs to set up. He said it is much easier to call a gobbler in if you are already where he wants to go.

Don’t be afraid to try something crazy

Combs also said you can use the information you gather in unorthodox ways to harvest a bird. Combs’ hunting buddy hadn’t taken his second bird by the final week of the last year’s season. And after noticing a certain gobbler was roosting almost every night in a patch of big white pines, they decided he should slip in early in the afternoon, set up and only call a couple of times and wait for the gobbler to show up.

About an hour before dark he was rewarded with a nice longbeard. It was a gutsy and risky call, setting up so close to the tom’s roost. If he spooked the bird, he risked the possibility of the bird changing its roosting location. But because he did his homework in the preseason, he was confident of his plan and it payed off.

Look for strut marks and paths

Bobby Mead of Moncks Corner, S.C., uses his eyes more than Combs because the Lowcountry terrain he hunts lends itself to a more visual approach. Mead has been hunting wild turkeys for decades. He began looking for turkey sign as a child, riding his bicycle down the long drive leading to where he caught the school bus. Soon, he began noticing strut marks in the path where strutting gobblers would drag their wings. He would take his shotgun and setup in those areas and wait for the gobblers.

Mead said he begins his search these days at food plots and intersections of farm roads where toms can strut and be seen from a great distance to attract hens. He is not just looking for gobbler tracks in roads and strutting birds in food plots. He’s also looking for lone gobblers strutting and single sets of gobbler tracks.

Mead said hunters always tell him about seeing big toms strutting in the fields. But when he asks, he finds out that most of the time, they were accompanied by plenty of hens. Mead is looking for lone gobblers to hunt first. He said a lone gobbler is an easier bird to call up.

After he has identified a few lone gobblers by sign or sight, he begins listening for their roosts. Once he has identified them, he picks a set-up spot between their roosts and their strutting zones. He also said that after he has a bird or two under his belt, he picks one of those old toms to pursue, hoping by that stage of the season, some of his hens have left him for the nest.

Get the kids ready

Hidden in the brush or nestled in a ground blind, spring means turkey season to hunters. And in the Carolinas, younger hunters get an early start on their elders with special youth-only seasons.

In North Carolina, hunters under the age of 18 get a week’s jump, with an April 4-10 season. In South Carolina, hunters aged 17 and under get March 28-29 on private lands in Game Zones 1 and 2, and March 14-15 in Game Zones 3 and 4, and March 28 on Wildlife Management Areas. These season provide up-and-coming hunters with an opportunity to take a longbeard before hunting pressure becomes a factor.

Madeleine Kearns was 14 when she killed this youth-season tom in Granville County, N.C.
Madeleine Kearns was 14 when she killed this youth-season tom in Granville County, N.C.

Many adults use the youth season as a time for scouting for the regular season. While taking their kids afield, they figure out what birds will be doing come the adult version of opening day. But too much scouting before youth season can be counter-productive.

Hunters should keep birds in the dark as long as possible by limiting scouting sessions to vehicles, to which many turkeys are accustomed. Hunters can gather plenty of information about roosting sites, feeding and loafing sites through the windshield or driver’s side window.

Past knowledge is always helpful

Hunters who have hunted a property for many years will generally already understand where the birds typically roost. And they can visit the site a week or so before the opening of youth season to listen and see where birds are roosting. Hunters don’t necessarily need to know exactly which trees toms are using for roost. But they should know where the birds are sleeping and where they head when they hit the ground the next morning.

Calling of any kind should be off limits before the season opens. Turkeys will quickly become educated to calling during the season, and there is no reason to begin their education prematurely. Hunters can typically learn plenty just by listening.

Finally, adults should take their young hunters out for some target practice. Make sure they shoot from positions they’re likely to be in when a gobbler is 35 yards in front of them. If they will use a shooting stick or rest of any kind, they should practice shooting with the same equipment.

— Jeff Burleson

Ambushing tough toms

Some turkey hunters think ambushing a spring gobbler is taboo, and that the only sporting way to harvest a bird is by calling him in. It’s much like a dry-fly purist on a trout stream.

But some of the best hunters around have a different idea, especially when it comes to a particular, tough tom. The late Ben Rogers Lee, an Alabama turkey hunting great, was once quoted as saying, “There comes a time when you have to decide if you’re going to call to a gobbler or kill him.”

Some tough gobblers require special tactics; don’t be afraid to try an ambush when a bird steadfastly refuses to come to calling.
Some tough gobblers require special tactics; don’t be afraid to try an ambush when a bird steadfastly refuses to come to calling.

Eddie Barr of Devotion, N.C., has taken that advice on several occasions on the way to killing more than 100 gobblers in several different states. One of his favorite tricks for “uncallable” toms is to slip in within 50 to 60 yards of a roosted bird, if he can pinpoint his roosting area.

Some gobblers vary roosting locations but still work their way around the same area every few days. Barr eases in very early, in total darkness, sets up on the uphill side of the roost tree and makes no calls. He resists, even if the tom gobbles his head off. He said the best-case scenario is the bird pitches down within shotgun range, and he has him. If the bird pitches down out of sight, he slips the bird a couple of very light clucks or yelps and calls no more, no matter how much the bird gobbles. Most times, Barr said, an old tom can’t resist coming over to take a peek. And that’s when you take him.

Anybody who thinks this is unsporting has never tried to sneak to within 50 yards of a roosted old gobbler. It takes more hunting skill than sitting down against a tree 200 yards from a 2-year-old gobbler and calling him to the gun.