It is no secret that Mississippi has turkeys — lots of them.
That, and its early season, is why a lot of hunters, including many from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kentucky, compete with resident hunters for the thrill of the call and the gobble.
Thankfully, the state has plenty of public lands that are prime gobbler habitat to provide places for all to hunt. Dyed-in-the wool artisans of calls and camo stick to the program, knowing the magnum birds that reside on Mississippi’s public hunting venues.
There are numerous options: U.S. Forest Service’s national forest system, state wildlife management areas, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, national wildlife refuges, the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District — the list can go on and on.
Success on these lands just takes some time to scout and a willingness to learn.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks has done a very good job of listing the WMAs with good populations of turkeys in their publications and online.
And a phone call to WMA managers (found in most cases at www.mdwfp.com or in the Mississippi Outdoor Digest) is recommended before hunting. They can advise of timber cutting activity, road construction or other activities hunters like to avoid, although this writer has seen strutting gobblers within a few hundred yards of a wood harvesting operation.
And don’t be discouraged if an area you are planning to hunt has been recently burned: Turkeys love fried grasshoppers and other crispy critters. Flocks will move back into a burned area before all the smoldering stumps have gone cold.
The following are a few public areas in which hunting efforts have been perennially successful.
Central Mississippi’s Big 3
Bienville, Caney Creek and Tallahala WMAs in the central counties occupy an enormous amount of the Bienville National Forest. The land is a combination of creek bottom hardwoods and piney hills, hardwood ridges and natural prairies.
Some of the trees there are on an 80-year harvest rotation. There are few places like it in the southeast. Controlled burning underneath the towering pines and selective harvest has allowed a resurgence of forbs and brassicas benefitting all wildlife. Turkeys are plentiful, but trophy birds here are not easy to hunt.
To reduce pressure, the first weeks of the spring season is limited to draw hunts only on these three WMAs.
According to the MDWFP, the draw hunts are used on WMAs to distribute hunting opportunity and pressure while providing higher quality, safer hunting experiences for the public.
Richard Latham of Scott County grew up hunting the birds of Central Mississippi, and has hunted them is just about every state with a wild turkey population. Patience is key on these public lands, he said.
“Because of the proximity of the Bienville National Forest to major population areas such as Jackson and Meridian, you’d expect them to get a lion’s share of the hunting activity,” Latham said. “And in a sense that is true, but as the season progresses and hens start to nest, surviving gobblers, or should I say smart ones, become easier to hunt, but hunting pressure diminishes.”
Gobblers are very active in the morning, gobbling more in the early hours, but hens keep them occupied. Once a tom gets with hens he is almost impossible to call away. But, once the hens have started nesting there are fewer females to occupy the gobblers time.
“I love turkey hunting anytime,” Latham said. “The afternoons in April may be one of the best times for public land. I know this is a big if, but if you know where a nesting area is, hunt between there and a roosting area or feeding area in the afternoons. Be prepared for a satellite gobbler to move in if a dominant bird is gobbling.”
“One way not to kill a turkey is the hoot and run method,” Latham said. “I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard a vehicle stop, somebody hoot once, then hearing no immediate response, drive away. Get in the woods to hear turkeys.”
Homochitto National Forest
Outdoor writer Jim Spencer and his Mississippi bride Jill Easton enjoy hunting public land in the Magnolia State. One of their favorite areas is the Homochitto National Forest in Southwest Mississippi, another turkey-rich zone.
“We like to hunt the public land in Mississippi as part of our spring turkey hunting excursions,” said Spencer, who has written about turkey hunting in a collection of hunting stories titled Bad Birds. “There are a lot of birds there, but they get a lot of pressure, just as birds do on most public land.”
Sandy Creek WMA and Caston Creek WMA are located within the national forest and the MDWFP conducts a limited draw early in the season (a large portion of Homochitto NF is not under the constraints of the draw hunt requirement).
But it’s after the draw period, around the first of April, when gobblers get active. Even then, it takes some leg work to find them.
“The topography of Caston Creek is made up of hills and ridges,” Spencer said. “A bird can be gobbling 200 yards away and you may not be able to hear it.”
Holly Springs National Forest
Holly Springs National Forest in North Mississippi is another good bet for hunters. It is divided into two portions, with most hunting activity in the portion just east of Oxford in the Upper Sardis WMA.
“Scouting is a must for hunters,” Spencer says. “That said, there are a dozen people just waiting to write in and say they killed a bird within 15 minutes of their first yelp. Hundreds more will know that ain’t the common case. If you hear a bird gobble on a new plot you’ve never hunted, chances are a dozen hunters are after the same bird, and already know the lay of the land better than you.”
Mississippi is a long state, north to south, and the spring green-up starts weeks sooner in the south. Birds in Homochitto will be a week to 10 days ahead of birds in the northern counties. Driving from Bude to Oxford is like driving from Spring to Winter in a single day, according to Spencer.
Also in the northern third, closer to Starkville, the Tombigbee National Forest and the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge offer a fantastic hunting opportunity. hoctaw WMA has a good population of turkey, as does John W. Starr WMA.
Don’t overlook small WMAs. They can offer excellent hunting.
J.H. “Scooter” Whatley shares his story of a Pearl River WMA gobbler that helped end a five-year dry spell. While not a turkey hunting mecca, Pearl River is indicative of those small public areas where hunters who are willing to put forth the extra effort can reap the reward.
“As an avid turkey hunter, it pains me deeply to say I hadn’t killed a gobbler in dive years, until this past season.” Whatley said. “I mainly hunt WMAs since my hunting club is prone to flooding every year. During the 2015 turkey season I was hunting a portion of Pearl River WMA that’s not easily accessible.
“One morning as I was walking in I heard a bird gobble way off in the distance. The closer I got to him the more it became evident I was going to have to cross a big, deep creek by way of a fallen tree to get to him.”
Whatley made it across the log, twice, without getting wet, but a few close calls did occur. Needless to say, that particular morning the gobbler won. But as turkey hunters are a dedicated lot, Scooter was back in the woods at regular intervals. Two weeks later it all came together.
“I approached from the opposite side this time — no creeks to conquer,” Whatley said. “I set up one afternoon blind, hearing nothing for an hour. Yelping at regular intervals my calling paid off and I heard him coming. It sounded like he was a mile away. As he got closer, I started hearing some kind of rustling sounds close off to my left.”
Anyone who has hunted Pearl River WMA knows the area is home to a plenitude of critters such as armadillos, squirrels, skunks, wild pigs and deer. Hunting near the water, minks, beaver, nutria, otters and alligators may be seen.
“In no time the big tom was right on top of me, 100 yards and closing, gobbling with every breath,” Whatley said. “And that pesky scratching sound continued in the bushes to my left. I saw the bird coming down the hill at full strut. With my shotgun at ready I suddenly, out of the corner of my eye caught some movement. It was another gobbler!
“All that time the commotion in the bushes had been another turkey, just waiting for my bird to show up. And he was now headed up the hill toward my tom.”
Not knowing what would happen next, Whatley could only watch and wait. Would they start to fight, or buddy-up and walk off? The bird to the left had never gobbled, so most likely he was the subordinate bird and that’s how it played out.
“They met halfway down the hill, but my dominant bird walked right past him, still coming to my soft hen purrs,” Whatley said. “He got within 40 yards and both birds disappeared into a big dip in the terrain. When they reappeared they were headed the other way. It was now or never. As my trusty 870 sounded off, one bird took flight. The other one was down and my dry streak was over. I haven’t been that happy since, well, I can’t remember when.
“The big tom sported an 11-inch beard and weighed 19 pounds I’ll be the first to admit hunting public lands isn’t easy, but the rewards are tremendous. I’ll continue to chase gobblers on our states WMAs for many years to come.”