Public Ground Gobblers

male turkey

You’re starting to think spring. We get it. It’s hard to beat booming gobbles, vibrant fans and long spurs. If this will be your first season hunting public dirt or your first venture across state lines to a new hunting area, be prepared—a lot goes into killing a public-land longbeard. But these tactics will help your learning curve.

Digital Scouting

Today’s smartphone apps like onX, Basemap, HuntStand and the like have made digital scouting easier than ever. What are you looking for, exactly? That greatly depends on your geographic locale. Those hunting crafty Eastern birds in the hardwoods need to focus on long ridges. Birds love them. They can walk at an even elevation and scratch along as they go. Plus, long ridges make great roost fly-up spots. Locate a few ridges and give them a walk. If birds are in the area, there will be lots of scratching, tracks and droppings.

If a western sojourn and nomadic Merriam’s birds are on your bucket list, look for cottonwood-lined canyon bottoms along small creeks. Locate a pocket of cottonwoods near water surrounded by a long sage flat where toms can move to strut and be seen by the girls, and you’re in the chips. Long ponderosa pine ridges that give way to grassy meadows are also hot zones in mountainous areas.

Rio’s can be a bit trickier to phone scout for. Why? Much of the terrain they inhabit is flat and sometimes featureless. Focus on likely roosting sites. Dense pockets of trees near water are sure to hold some birds, but don’t overlook those two or three lone trees hanging over a little no-name creek bottom.

Hands-On Scouting

The smart public-land turkey hunter, upon arrival, drives access roads and looks for droppings, tracks and scratching. It’s also a great idea to drive perimeter roads and check private-land ag fields that butt up to public. If you’re going to take a walk, and season is open, gear up and go.

turkey tracks in the dried mud

If you arrive a day or two before the opener, keep your walking distance to a minimum. Check a few ridges, sure, but mostly, gain vantage points and listen. In the evenings, owl hoot to pinpoint roosted birds.

Kill ’Em

If you’re hunting Eastern birds in big country with lots of ridges and have a bird roosted, go early. During the early season, lack of foliage allows roosted birds to pick you off quickly. Get within 150 to 200 yards of the bird and set up. When looking for a tree to put your back to, keep the rising sun in mind. If possible, sit with the sun at your back. This will create shadows for you and put the sun directly in the approaching tom’s eyes. Also, look for a sizeable tree that creates good cover.

If the morning is a bust, use the scouting intel you’ve gleaned to make your next move. Toms will slide along ridges where they can strut or tail behind scratching hens. Use your calls to see if you can get a bird to fire. If you do, get parallel or above the bird. You’ll have better luck working a crafty Eastern if he has to come up to you. Set down in a holler and a bird will walk to the ridge edge, look down, and unless you have a solid decoy setup, turn around and leave.

hunter holding a turkey upside down by its legs

Mountain Merriam’s require a similar approach. The key to killing one off the roost, especially if you’re in open canyon-like country, is not pressing in too close. It’s likely you won’t have a lot of cover, and a big blob slipping through the open sage and cedars is quickly spotted. Merriam’s are used to covering great distances to find a hen. Sit down and let your calls do the work.

If the morning sit is a bust, gain a vantage point and put your optics to work. Scan meadows, open sage and distant hillsides for roaming birds. If birds are spotted, pay close attention to their mood and their direction of travel. Once you have a general direction in mind, jump on your digital scouting app and find the turkiest-looking spot you can that the birds seem to be working toward. Make your move and get in front of them.

Rios can be ridiculous. The biggest mistake hunters make is pressing in too close to the roost and blowing it up. A good Rio roost might hold four, five or even 10 longbeards. Use your digital scouting app along with hands-on recon and put yourself where the birds want to be. Toms will move to open areas where they can strut and be seen by hens. If the birds haven’t been pressured, don’t be afraid to get aggressive on your calls. Rios often respond well to hen talk. It’s also not uncommon for three or four Rio birds to approach together like a band of bullies. In high-population areas, competition for hens is intense. An imposter jake placed over a lay-down hen will usually bring the birds running.

A Little Extra

Times can get tough in the public-land turkey woods. Heed these final tips and they might get a little easier.

1. Cattle are common in Merriam’s and Rio landscapes. Birds love to pick through cow poo. If you find an open pasture or other grazed-off area with lots of cow pies, you’ll likely find lots of scratching. Post up and spend lots of time in the area.

turkey leg with a hunting tag

2. Eastern birds, especially pressured ones, like to launch sneak attacks. If the birds aren’t talking much and aren’t responding to calls, locate areas that hold both old and fresh scratching. Find a good ambush spot and sit down. Call soft and sparingly and listen closely for the sound of a walking bird or the sound of a drumming tom.

3. Shoot! If you’re hunting big timber without decoys, a tom will get to a spot where he thinks he can see the hen. When he doesn’t, he won’t hang out long. Keep this in mind when setting up, and when you have a lethal shot, take it.

4. Decoys are a staple to hunting open-country birds. Approaching toms often need a visual, and if they don’t get it, they will hang up out of range.