Mar 10, 2017

Close Quarters: Big Results from Small Spots

By: Brian Lovett

When turkey hunting, I love to stretch my legs, cover vast swaths of ground and yelp up a storm trying to locate receptive gobblers.

Trouble is, unless I’m out West, my urge to travel is often stifled by property lines. When you hunt lots of 40 to 80-acre properties, it doesn't take too much running big until you hit a fence or bust turkeys onto the neighbor's land.

Fifteen years ago, this bothered me, as I was a devoted cut-and-run hunter. But, then I slowly adapted and learned how to better hunt the relatively small properties so common in Wisconsin and throughout much of the eastern United States. In fact, my log reveals that almost two-thirds of the past 30 or so Wisconsin gobblers I’ve shot came from properties that were 80 acres or smaller. Many of those turkeys came from 40-acre chunks.

The lesson is simple: Small woodlots, pastures, fisheries areas and agricultural fields attract turkeys and can produce outstanding hunting. Here’s a quick primer on finding success at these often-overlooked, under hunted hotspots.

Choosing and Scouting Small Properties

This is pretty easy: Scout, look and listen for spots that hold birds, and line up as many as possible. Many smaller properties hold turkeys consistently but not continually. Sure, some might have everything turkeys need such as; roosting trees, food, water, nesting cover and loafing areas. If you find these, hold onto them like grim death because birds will rarely leave them. Other areas, however, might only hold one attractive element. Maybe a 40-acre chunk has some big pines where turkeys roost but do little else. Perhaps a farmer’s 30-acre field often pulls hungry birds from neighboring timber. Or, maybe a tiny wooded ridge offers an ideal travel corridor from a neighboring roost site and a distant feeding area. Are these properties perfect? No, but don’t dismiss them. Remember, turkeys have relatively small home ranges, so even if they’re not on the land you can hunt at a specific time, they’re likely not far away. In fact, they’re probably within reasonable calling distance. Also, remember that turkeys frequent that property, albeit not all the time, for a reason. It’s up to you to determine that reason, and that’s where your recon efforts come in.

Scouting small properties is not only critical for determining where and when birds use the land, it is also extremely important because your margin of error is tiny. It doesn’t take much to bump the only gobbler on a 40 over to the neighbor's land. Likewise, it doesn’t take a lot for that gobbler to wander on his own across the fence.

Before you hunt a small chunk, learn everything you can about it. Memorize the property lines, and study topographic maps and aerial photos to learn the area’s terrain and nuances. Identify roost trees, feeding spots, loafing areas, dusting bowls, open fields, timbered flats, cool creek bottoms, potential strutting areas and other attractive elements. Then try to figure out when turkeys frequent those spots. Likewise, find creeks, ditches, fences, brushy areas and other possible obstructions or noisy areas to avoid.

Walk the property to familiarize yourself with it. Learn how to slip quietly and undetected into roosting spots or open timber. Find cover or terrain that will let you reposition on turkeys. Seek ideal setups where you can call to turkeys and shoot them the instant they pop into view. Look for sign, such as scratching in wooded flats, tracks and strut marks on logging roads, and poop and wing feathers near roosting spots. Slip into the woods a few mornings and listen for gobbling, not just on the roost but after fly-down. Likewise, sneak in a few evenings and watch and listen for turkeys to fly up to roost.

Above all, use a cautious, low-impact scouting approach. Don’t call to birds, and do your best not to spook them. Sure, they’ll probably return if you bump them, but even a few human encounters might make turkeys change their mood or shift their patterns for a few days.

Hunting Small

My small-property strategy is far different than my approach for big chunks of land. As during scouting, I want to avoid bumping turkeys or alerting them to my presence. You can’t kill a gobbler on a small property if he’s not there.

For fly-down hunts, I arrive well before daylight, take my time following the sneakiest route to a good spot and try to get as close as possible to roosted turkeys. My calling strategy doesn’t change much. I usually go soft and subtle, especially if I’m really tight to roosted birds. After fly-down, I gauge a gobbler’s response and base my yelping off that. If he’s fired up, I’ll get aggressive. If he’s tentative or hush-mouthed, I back off. I am far more patient on smaller properties than when I hunt bigger ground. Often, that’s because I might not be able to move to another calling location without spooking a bird. Further, I know that patience kills turkeys, and as long as a bird is responding to calling and on property I can hunt, I’m better off sitting at a good setup than traipsing around the countryside, even though I might desperately want to do so.

If my fly-down hunt goes sour, I’ll spend some time trying to locate other birds, but if I’m not successful, I’ll leave the area and hit another small spot. In these situations, I’m very cautious when approaching and entering the woods because I’m visible, and, as earlier, I do not want to bump turkeys. Usually, I’ll glass open areas from the road or listen for a bird gobbling on his own. If I don’t see or hear anything, I’ll take one of two approaches: I slip into an area turkeys frequent and cold-call, or I’ll sneak through the property while attempting to strike a gobbler.

Cold-calling is often a good approach. If I can reach a likely spot without spooking birds, there’s a good chance nearby turkeys might come to my calling. I like to setup at mast-rich flats or ridges or dark, cool midday loafing areas. Or, I’ll simply find a spot where turkeys can hear me for long distances. Either way, I get comfortable, take out several calls, listen for a few minutes and then begin calling. I’ll start with soft, subtle stuff and then wait a few minutes before calling again. As time passes, I’ll ratchet up the frequency and intensity of my calling. And, I’m patient. Often, a bird won't respond until I’m on my second or third round of calling. When I get a gobbler going, I’ll try to yelp him to my setup or determine if I need to move. That’s pretty much Turkey 101.

If I don't feel like sitting, walking through the woods is a good option, but I’m very careful when doing so. Trying this in open early-season woodlots is a recipe for disaster. I only do it in areas with enough terrain or late-spring foliage to hide my movements. Even then, I don’t tromp down a logging road and blast out cutting sequences every 50 steps. Instead, I approach it like still-hunting deer. I’ll slip quietly and cautiously from spot to spot. Then I listen for a bit, run two or three series or calls, and listen for a response. If nothing responds, I sneak to another likely spot and repeat the process. If I take my time, it might take an hour or two to slip through a 40.

If I’m really impatient, I might make a “milk run” to several small properties and try to visually locate turkeys or strike one by calling from the road or parking area. This is ideal if you’re pressed for time or in desperation mode. It can work, but I find that it doesn’t work as well as a patient, measured approach.

Small Thoughts

This season, don’t be dissuaded by those tiny, inconspicuous properties. Many hold gobblers and shouldn’t be ignored. If you need to burn some boot leather, find a big chunk of public or national forest land to hunt. But when you’re ready to kill turkeys, think back to those cozy little 40 and 80-acre patches that produce big results year after year.