Try these tactics to improve your chances of bagging a longbeard at public hunting lands surrounding Kerr Lake.
April and May are special times for hunters.
Many die-hard bass anglers who relish fishing the spawn have given up that activity for calling keen-eyed Eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in the red bud-laden, dogwood-infested woods.
Spring gobbler season is coming, and there are plenty of trash-talkin’ toms to call during these months.
Chris Coleman, along with Steve Tollerson of W&W Outdoor Adventures (a full-featured hunting and fishing guide service) in Clarksville, Va., have their way with the vocal bird at the public lands surrounding Kerr Lake (aka Buggs Island to Virginians) at the Virginia and North Carolina sides.
Virginia and North Carolina have their share of the intelligent birds that have keener eyesight most living organisms. Current population estimates suggest there are approximately 100,000 to 125,000 turkeys in the Commonwealth, said Gary Norman, the forest gamebird project leader from Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. He said the south Piedmont (Kerr Lake region) has among the highest densities of birds in the state.
The public hunting lands at this region of Virginia have varied forest types, including upland hardwood (oak and hickory); mixed (upland hardwood and pine); pine (loblolly, short-leaf and Virginia pines); and bottomland hardwoods (willow and pin oaks, green ash and sweet-gum).
Longer hunting hours in May (in Virgina) offer hunters afield more time to bag a bearded bird, although as the season progresses, some say the IQ of Eastern toms rises even more, if that is possible.
“As far as afternoon hunting tactics, I would suggest fields and clearings where gobblers have been seen strutting (in the afternoons earlier in the year) would be the best place to start,” Norman said. “Afternoons (and mornings) in May should be good as most hens begin incubation during the first week of May (on average).
“Gobblers should be easier to call when they don’t have hens. Hens that are laying eggs have to leave the gobbler, and I suspect that many hens do so later in the morning or afternoon, although hens are capable of laying an entire clutch with just one mating, so it doesn’t always hold that hens stay with gobblers while they’re laying a clutch.”
At public lands during April and May, hunters can assume most gobblers will have heard about every call imaginable. So Norman suggests “light” calling — clucks and low yelps — infrequently, and perhaps even relying on scratching leaves to mimic feeding turkeys.
He said decoys may be a good alternative, too. For two accomplished turkey hunters in Clarksville, they couldn’t agree more with Norman.
Tollerson and Coleman heavily rely on the use of decoys when trying to fool spring toms. However, their secrets to success are more a result of paying their dues than anything else. These fellows live and breathe spring gobbler hunting when many other outdoorsmen are chasing fat largemouths in local lakes and rivers.
“First of all,” Tollerson said, “any time you’re hunting late in the season, you’re hunting smarter, more educated birds (referring to hunting in late April or May because of hunting pressure earlier in the season).
“I refer to this as a bird that’s been ‘took to school.’ Until the last three years, there was little hunting pressure on spring turkeys in our area around Buggs Island. More people are interested now, and we’re seeing a few more spring gobbler enthusiasts.”
With that in mind, Tollerson said the birds are warier. It doesn’t matter to Tollerson or Coleman one way or the other, because it’s still possible to harvest a big tom — a feat they regularly accomplish.
“Later in the season I call less, and in the early season I’m a little more aggressive, but this isn’t always true,” Tollerson said. “I listen to the birds and let them teach me how much to call.”
For instance, if a gobbler answers every time Tollerson calls, the hunter will become more aggressive with his calling frequency and pitch. If the gobbler answers every third call, Tollerson calls less frequently.
If he’s employing decoys, he will use a hen and a jake in early season. However, in May he relies on several hens with or without the jake.
Tollerson said afternoon toms are looking for two things: hens and food. He believes morning birds are looking only for hens.
“I like hunting field edges with the use of decoys in the afternoon,” he said. “Place your spread where they can be spotted from as far as possible. Call often until you get an answer, then start calling a little less and let the decoys do the work.
“Call less and have a sharp eye, especially in the late season because many times a tom will come in quietly.
“A good tactic is as follows: If he’s an old tom, he’ll come in quietly even in the early part of the season. It always helps if you’re dealing with a wary bird and you know his (exact) location. Position yourself between the tom and a friend, and let your friend do the calling.”
Working in pairs is helpful in many ways.
One of the biggest drawbacks of hand-held turkey calls is not having free hands. If hunters work together, the caller doesn’t have to put the call down to pick up the gun after the gobbler arrives in the neighborhood.
Tollerson said late-season birds are more skittish than early in the season, mainly due to hunting pressure.
He believes hunters can return to the truck with a pair of spurs and a beard in hand, but only if they pay their dues.
Chris Coleman said public hunting lands near Kerr Lake offer a great set-up for spring turkey hunting. The hills and valleys are great terrain for gobbler calling.
“Old gobblers really prefer to walk downhill,” Coleman said, “so setting up in the bottoms (about halfway down in a bottom) is a great set-up for calling in a big ol’ tom. Plus, I like to use the water’s edge as a third man, so to speak.”
Coleman agreed with Tollerson about letting the gobbler tell him how much or little to call. He is a firm believer that patience is paramount to success when spring gobbler hunting.
Coleman said the all-day hunts during May (in Va.) are a bit different from April hunting. He echoed Tollerson’s comments that gobblers in the morning are interested in one thing only — scratching their amorous itch by finding ready and willing hens.
“But in the afternoon, I think they’re a little more interested in eating, too,” he said. “The edges of fields are good spots for afternoon hunts, and in spots like these, decoys help.”
Coleman offered some advise on decoys for spring gobblers. Early in the season, he said, a single hen with a jake is great in small openings in the woods or in fields. However, later in the season, he believes a group of hens with a trailing jake works better.
“Decoys can be a deadly tool when used right,” he said. “I try to place my decoys so they can be seen from as far away as possible, and then find some good cover nearby.”
Birds that come in without making a sound aren’t uncommon, and they can rattle even a seasoned turkey hunter’s nerves, Coleman said, so the waiting game is a little more intense in the late season.
He stressed knowing areas well is probably the best tool a hunter can have during the late season. Feeding, roosting and dusting areas are all key to bagging late-season longbeards.
“Setting up on either side of roosting areas late in the day is a great trick, too,” Coleman said. “Sometimes you can catch birds coming in to roosting areas at last shooting light.
“Pre-season scouting and paying close attention to everything you see during the early season can really pay off big when hunting late-season birds.”
Where to Hunt
Some of the Virginia public hunting lands near Coleman’s Clarksville home that have continued to produce good birds for him include Hogan Creek and Cargills Creek areas.
Beaver Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area is another spot he and Tollerson frequent.
“The public hunting land at Occoneechee State Park is a good area, too,” he said. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publishes the ‘Guide to Wildlife Management Areas’ that can be a great tool for someone not from around here, as it has some good maps and other info on the WMAs adjoining Buggs Island Lake.”
Coleman and Tollerson access much of the public land areas at the N.C. side by water.
“We’ll launch early in the morning and beach the boat, then walk in to begin our hunts in Carolina,” Coleman said. “A lot of this public land is owned by the U.S, Army Corps of Engineers.
“Also on the N.C. side are Nutbush WMA and Crooked Run WMA in Nutbush Creek. The Corps lands surrounding Grassy Creek are also productive.”
When the guides access hunting land by water, they oftentimes will hit an owl or crow call and let the turkeys tell them where they should start.
Every time a gobbler encounters a hunter — if the tom lives to tell the story — he gets a little smarter and a little warier. As in all hunting, patience is even more important late in the season for any type of game.
For that reason, Coleman offered six ways to improve turkey calling on public hunting lands.
“Know the public land you hunt; use a variety of calls; don’t call too much; don’t give up too soon; don’t be afraid to move; and practice, practice, practice,” he said.
Tollerson stressed the importance for spring gobbler hunters to understand they’re attempting something that in nature is not natural.
“You’re trying to get a tom to come to a hen, but in reality when the hen is ready she’ll come to him,” he said. “(The tom) knows this, and for that reason some toms will hang up and won’t come to a hen (or caller).”
Tollerson offered this last bit of advise for hunters that encounter a gobbler that hangs up on the caller, meaning the bird answers every time but will not get any closer. The guide said the instinct of most young or inexperienced hunters is to move closer to the bird. He emphatically believes this is the wrong approach.
“Back away from him about 50 yards and call again,” Tollerson said.
A gobbler, particularly a “boss” bird, can’t stand the idea of a receptive hen dismissing his amorous attentions and wandering off. Plus, if he thinks another gobbler is in the area, jealousy may overcome his caution, and he’ll often come to investigate, spoiling for a fight.
“There’s a good chance he’ll follow (a retreating, calling hunter) and come right on in,” Tollerson said.
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