A lot of turkey hunters shy away from public lands in the spring, believing them to be too crowded with sportsmen and home to birds that are too heavily pressured and act spooked all season long.
I also know plenty of hunters who differ with that opinion.
They are the savvy ones who worked hard and learned to beat the odds caused by the unique challenges of hunting turkey — and deer for that matter — on open property. Good thing, too, since Mississippi has nearly two million acres of public hunting land.
Mark Boyd, associate publisher and sales manager of Mississippi Sportsman magazine, is one of those hunters to embrace the test of turkey hunting on big scale public lands.
It’s because Boyd is a hunter that he has been a success in his professional life. He understands the basic foundations of sportsmen and sportswomen do — we hunt and we fish. That is what this magazine is all about.
Boyd takes the tough road to turkey hunting. He hunts public lands and he does it very well. He has been more successful than most, especially at Homochitto National Forest in the Southwest Mississippi.
If you hunt turkey, then you already know how stubborn gobblers can be to call to the gun. On public land where you can be working a gobbler across a ridge, not knowing there could be as many as half a dozen other hunters on the same gobbling bird.
Boyd enjoys that challenge.
Mistakes start in pre-season
Over-pressure on gobblers is a public land problem and Boyd has seen it start long before the season opens, courtesy of hunters who mistakenly interact with gobblers during scouting.
Boyd’s rule of thumb about scouting on national forests or other public land — “Stay out of the woods before the season starts.”
He studies the terrain while hunting in the deer, squirrel or raccoon seasons, and does his listening for gobblers from high ridges and roads.
“I never go into the woods before the season starts for fear of bumping the already wise birds,” Boyd said. “No matter how much gobbling or how many toms I might hear, I will not call to them ever or try to sneak up on them. This is where other hunters screw up big time. The worst thing you can do is practice calling before the season opens. All it does is educate your turkeys earlier than need be.
“I usually just listen from my car stopping every so often when driving through the area. Normally I won’t even use an owl hoot or crow call to locate a tom. I just listen. I have learned more by being patient and letting Mother Nature take its course.”
Too many turkey hunters break the basic rules and suffer the consequences of never getting close on a bird that has been messed with too much. Keep this in mind if you intend to take on public turkeys.
Daybreak to midday
According to Boyd, the early morning set-up is crucial.
“There is a fine line between getting close, but not too close,” he said. “In the early season, birds can see much farther in the woods than later in the season after the spring green up. Don’t risk bumping the flock off the roost. Busting a roost only further educates the birds. Forget it.”
“If you know the land and can get close before day breaks, then do so in a cautious, slow, methodical manner. Slow is better in early season. Later after the green up, a hunter can usually get closer to a tom by using the dense foliage as cover to maneuver into position. Even then a stealth mode has to be used. Remember there are a lot of eyes and ears in the turkey woods.”
“One tactic I use often mid-morning, if I didn’t hear any gobbling initially, is to scratch in the leaves as though a turkey was feeding around as they normally do, and add some light clucks and purrs to get a tom interested.”
Boyd knows that gobblers are not always vocal at sunrise, and can be muter on public lands. That’s especially true early in the season when the hens are plentiful and their morning dance cards are full.
Unlike many hunters who encounter those quiet mornings, Boyd doesn’t give up and go home. No way, because he knows that gobblers will eventually be looking for more hens.
“Mid-morning and midday hunting can be the best,” he said. “Going into week two of the season, the birds are still bunched up, so mid-morning hunts can be fun after they have done their thing most of the morning. You might be surprised how many toms you can get fired up after most of the other hunters have left the woods.
This is important to remember when turkey hunting on public lands.
“When other hunters leave the woods to go get breakfast they usually don’t come back until they return for an evening hunt. I might go run to get a biscuit but I get right back in the woods and will hunt for a couple more hours. Don’t let the crucial mid-morning hours be wasted.”
Late afternoon requires patience
Boyd won’t quit even if the morning and midday hunts fail him. He might get discouraged, but quit? No, he just keeps on plugging away through the afternoon hours knowing in the right situation, an evening hunt can produce quick, satisfying results.
“This can be a very slow and discouraging time for public land turkey hunters; it takes a hunter that is patient, persistent and knows how turkeys think,” he said. “Most gobblers have heard every call there is before the season, and heard every call from daylight all through the morning. Some have been bumped off the roost from hunters getting too close.
“The story goes if you can get a gobbler fired up in the evening, he will be in the frying pan that night. Well, sometimes.”
But Boyd mainly uses his late afternoon hunts for prospecting, hoping it can lead to a better trip next time.
“If I hear a tom gobbling way off, then I go ahead and start planning my next morning set up,” he said. “I try to figure out and pinpoint where the gobbler is. Then I just wait for the roost time to nail him down. I will slip into his domain and just listen for a gobble or the sounds of wings flapping as he or others fly up for the night.
“That way I know approximately where to creep in the next day. Knowing this is huge.”
Call cautiously in public
“Calling is what everyone loves to do,” Boyd said. “I have been hunting national forests and public lands all my life. In the old days when pressure wasn’t as abundant as it is now, you could use the cut-n-run tactic that we’ve all seen displayed on hunting videos with some success. I have made many mistakes by trying to be too loud and too aggressive on public land.
“You may get on a bird that might answer your calls, and you may think he is fired up and coming right in. Two hours later, you figure out that gobbler is still on the adjacent ridge strutting and waiting for that hen to show up. You can call too much to any bird and have them gobbler over and over. Just as quickly the gig is up and he is gone to another ridge or slipped silently out the back door.
“To beat this cycle, keep getting tougher in the game. Toms gobble to hens hoping they will come to him. That’s his game and you have to fool him. Be patient. Give him the silent treatment for 30 minutes or more. Don’t rush to move. Call soft and very little. Scratch in the leaves with a stick. Listen. Scan the horizon for gobbler movement. He could very well come in completely silent working the shadows looking for you. Less is better under these circumstances. “
Turkey hunting public lands like a big national forest or a WMA is a tough challenge, and hunting pressure is just part of it. You simply have to be smarter and more patient than the other guys. Don’t panic, hold tight and execute flawlessly.
That will earn your gobbler.