Turkey hunting can throw lots of curve balls. For once, I thought I was ahead of the inside curve by scouting out a good area two weeks in advance of the season opener.

The evidence was overwhelming, though I heard no preliminary gobbles. The trail was littered with tracks coming and going. Two active dusting bowls were in plain view right along a trail intersection. Plenty of roost trees dotted the skyline.

This was a hotspot.

The drive to the secret selected area was a pretty good haul from Hattiesburg, so I was up extra early and on the road. As I pulled down the forest road, there was not another truck in sight. I smiled and smirked to myself. Then I rounded the last curve to my honey hole. Two trucks were already parked there and both were empty. Drats!

Caught with my pants down without a backup plan, I cruised on down the dusty gravel road as Mr. Sun was peaking over the edge of the earth. I found another area to park along a trail, and walked it for over two hours without hearing a gobble or seeing a bird. I went home enlightened to say the least.

Welcome to public-land turkey hunting in the Desoto National Forest, I thought.

For turkey hunters like me, if it weren't for bad luck we'd have no luck at all. So trust me, do not take this one incident as a conclusive indictment against hunting turkeys on public lands.

With the vast, open resources we have in this state and an excellent statewide turkey flock in good condition, it would be a big mistake not to take on gobblers residing on Mississippi's public turf. Turkey hunters just have to be a little smarter with their planning phases and execution strategies to work gobblers on public land.

First things first

"If you go turkey hunting on public land without doing any scouting, then you're either a better turkey hunter than most, or out of touch with reality," says Rick Bedwell of Petal. "I've hunted my share of public lands for wily gobblers, and plenty of pre-season scouting is essential.

"Public lands are big, so the good areas have to be narrowed down and surveyed for active sign. It's good to spot a few birds, but be cautious about bumping them early, and for sure don't call to them before opening day. They don't need any more education than they already have."

Experienced turkey hunters know that there is no rocket science to scouting for turkey sign. The minimal requirement is the pounding of plenty of terra firma. It's also unwise to automatically assume that last year's hotspot will be again this year. Turkeys have a way of vanishing from an area a whole season at a time. The prudent tactic is to scout early and often.

Pre-scouting homework

Hunters both experienced to a particular area or wanting to investigate an entirely new public land often start with the paperwork. Today, excellent combination maps of all state-owned wildlife management areas are available for purchase from the wildlife department in the Jackson office or on line at www.mdwfp.com. These maps offer a detailed topographic view on one side with an aerial photograph of the area on the other. Studying such a map is an excellent way to start the scouting process.

In particular, the aerial photographs can reveal land layout features that could never be visualized the same when standing on the ground. Finding information about road access, along with forest road numbers, is highly valuable to any public land hunter, but also locating forested areas, open fields, water sources and other landscape details is crucial.

Always key in on open areas like pastures, utility lanes, food plots or new cutovers as turkeys love to visit these spots in the spring to chase fresh bugs and tender sprouts. Turkeys like to roost along ridge tops, but also in tall trees alongside water, so check for those land features when examining a map of a public hunting area.

Taking on a public-land turkey hunt is also best accomplished by previewing season dates, rules and regulations for any proposed public area. Double check the wildlife department's web site and click on any one of the over 40 WMAs open to public hunting. While on the site, be sure to check for any new regulations or provisions that might have changed since last year.

Be aware, though, that rules and seasons are not always the same for every area, if you plan to hunt multiple public lands. This is especially the case if you elect to hunt the federal wildlife refuges in Mississippi. It is best to know ahead of time which areas are open to turkey hunters and when. Be sure to confirm open dates for the special youth turkey hunts as well.

Scouting tactics

Preston Pittman is probably one of the best-known turkey hunting characters in all of the Magnolia State. Having hunted with the old bearded wonder several times, I can attest to the fact that some of his classic turkey hunting antics are a bit out of the box. However, as they say, you just cannot argue with success.

One of Pittman's all time favorite comments about turkey hunting is "turkey hunting is all about hunting a turkey to call, not calling a turkey to hunt."

"What I mean by that is simple," he said. "A lot of hunters jump into the woods and start calling all over the place without even a clue if there is a turkey there to hunt in the first place. But once you know there is a turkey in that piece of the woods, then and only then can you begin to hunt him."

The first place to start the process is with scouting for a gobbler to hunt. The calling comes later.

Turkey sign comes in several varieties. Finding a combination of two or more is best. Of course, the best sign is actually hearing a gobbler sound off from a roost site or area more than one time in a week. Seeing live sightings from a distant vantage point via binocular observations is another good clue. Watching birds feeding along the edge of a wooded area or out in an open pasture makes for a good prospect for a later hunt. Mark these spots on a map or catalog them in your memory of places to visit again.

Without visual or auditory evidence, turkey hunters have to rely on telltale sign. As you hike any prospective turkey hunting area, always keep tuned in to sign left behind both by turkeys and other potential hunters. Take stock of multiple tire tread markings in public parking areas and roads or if other vehicles are parked in certain spots. Note fresh footprints on the same paths you scout. Save yourself some time and avoid those areas altogether. Too much human invasion in the woods can spook gobblers out of the area.

Turkey sign can be pretty obvious to find in terms of tracks, dusting areas, scat, scratchings or feathers. Sometimes active roost sites can be found by checking under decent looking groups of roost trees for indicators such as heavy droppings on the ground. Though this may often mean hens in the end, the gobblers should not be too far away from the harem.

Remember, though, that turkeys are not usually apt to roost in the exact same spot more than two or three evenings in a row before they move around on their habitual travel circuit. If you roost a bird during the season, be sure to act on it the very next morning, or he may be long gone.

As you walk trails, be sure to inspect the edges of every water spot for tracks. Mud holes, creek banks and the edges of drainage ditches are good spots to inspect for tracks. Gobbler tracks are, of course, identified by the heavy dot impression behind three-toed prints. Sometimes turkey tracks can be quite faint, especially on sandy type roads or trails, so don't be in a rush. Get down close for a good look. A site around water covered with tracks makes for a good afternoon set up, especially on warm spring days requiring birds to take an additional drink before the roosting hour sets in.

Turkey tracks can reveal a lot about turkey activity. How fresh are the tracks? If you can make a fingerprint in a damp track, then it is pretty fresh. Of course, if it is dried hard, then the sign is old. Lots of fresh tracks mean a recent visit to the area. If there is a dusting area nearby littered with small feathers, then this is a site worth setting up in a blind after the fly down hour just to see what shows up. Using a decoy with some light hen yelping every so often is a smart bonus tactic.

Look around closely also for the classic L-shaped droppings that indicate a gobbler has been there in contrast to the round piled dropping of a hen. If the deposit is fresh, you'll know it. If it's still damp, then the bird may still be in the area. A quick set up for some impromptu calling would certainly be in order. Again, turkey sign is critical to locating an active area to hunt. Scout until you find it.

Defusing pressure

Public lands receive more hunting activity that translates into hunting pressure. In these cases, turkeys do not respond as per normal either. They might escape deeper into the woods, go silent and never gobble or push off to private lands that may not even be hunted. Of course, this is not always the case for every public land.

If you discover a lot of hunter action in the same area where you hunt, then it's time to shift gears. A smart plan of action to hunt public lands is to be there when most hunters are somewhere else. Many hunters skip weekends altogether knowing that the woods are likely to be full of other hunters. A call to the area manager might reveal some insights into hunter activity. Be sure to ask what days see fewer hunters, then plan hunting schedules accordingly.

A good tip is also to hunt hours in the day that are non-traditional. Naturally, the majority of turkey hunters want to be in the woods to call to a gobbling bird sitting on the roost. However, mid-morning to noon can be an excellent time, too. After birds leave the roost and visit with their hens for a while, they separate again to stroll about the woods solo. This is an excellent time to set up on food plots or open fields waiting on gobblers searching for food or a stray hen that is ready for action.

Forget heavy calling

The assumption is that every public-land gobbler is worn to a frazzle by over calling. Plan to modify your calling strategies to be less aggressive with quieter calls.

"When I face off with public-land gobblers, I tend to go easy on the volume and frequency of my calls," Pittman said.

For the most part, you can forget running, gunning, cutting and cackling unless a gobbler is working hot and close. Tone it down to start off using just a few quiet yelps spaced well apart. Cranking down hard on a public-land gobbler might tend to lock them up for good. Go slow, call sparingly and also listen for other hunters so you don't get your wires crossed.

Taking a public-land gobbler in Mississippi is certainly a doable hunt. With nearly two million public acres to hunt, it should not be a problem finding some gobblers willing to provide a challenging hunt. Scout well, avoid traffic, call softly and be thinking about a favorite recipe.