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By Jace Bauserman
We all dream of hammering toms and the sight of a vibrant fan topping a ridgetop as a gobbler marches in to our calls. However, days like these are often few and far between, especially when hunting public dirt. Turkeys are finicky birds, and depending on the weather, the timing of breeding and hunting pressure, you might find birds with concrete beaks. Sure, a tom or two may fire off a morning gobble, but aside from that, you could be in for some quiet days.
The good news: It's possible to regularly kill silent birds, even those that have gone quiet due to hunting pressure. Here's how to get it done.
Turkeys are creatures of habit. When you arrive at your hunt area, especially if you're not familiar with it, spend some time burning Bridgestones and boot leather. Scouting is critical to public-land turkey success, and if you're hunting during the early season, recon is easy. Before dawn starts to break, drive perimeter roads, get out of the truck, and listen. During the early season, birds will thunder on the roost. Drop pins on your favorite digital mapping app while listening to birds gobble from different locations. After fly-down, stay in the vehicle and start glassing the edges of any agricultural fields.
During the early season, it's common for hens to peck around in the timber for a bit and then head to their favorite food source. If there are no agriculture fields on your public tract, focus on where the best private-land food sources are, and pay special attention to how the birds move from public to private and vice versa. If you're hunting the western mountains or cedar-sprinkled canyons, focus on open sage flats and grassy mountain meadows.
Stay patient with your scouting. Good optics are essential, and I like to tote a good pair of binos and a spotter attached to a window mount. If you locate birds, stay on them with the glass. Take note of where they feed and move off to after breakfast. Next, plug all of this data into your digital mapping app. More to come on why.
After your morning scouting mission, take a walk in the woods, but don't press in on areas where birds are likely loafing. Instead, walk perimeter areas and take note of tracks, droppings, strut marks, and the like. Listen while you walk. Toms will sound off throughout the day, and hens will yelp and cluck. I've located many midday loafing areas by just listening. I also like to gain vantage points that allow me to see into timbered areas where I can put my glass to use and find midday birds. While you scout, keep plugging intel into your digital mapping app.
Now that you have the MRI (Most Recent Information), it's time to develop a plan. Use your digital mapping app and all you've learned to put yourself in areas turkeys want to be. I like transition areas between the roost and feed, open strut zones where toms like to go to make themselves visible to the girls, and deep timber pockets where birds will move to loaf during the midday.
When you set up in an area, stay patient. This isn't a run-and-gun tactic. This is a stay-put, hit a few single and double yelps—nothing too loud or excited—sit-and-wait tactic. If hunting an open area like a sage flat, clearing in the timber, sandy spot along a river bottom corridor, and the like, set out the most realistic decoys you can afford. I prefer a posturing jake setup over a laydown hen. An approaching tom usually won't tolerate it. Face the hen and jake toward where you're sitting and leave enough space for an approaching tom to walk between the two. A tom looking to fight will want to face his adversary.
When setting up in dense cover, I prefer to go without decoys. Again, don't just pick a spot on the map and set up. There is a purpose for every locale I hunt. Spots in the timber full of scratching, dusting spots, tracks, droppings, and strut zones can be money. The trick is staying patient and not moving. The birds will be there eventually.
On public dirt, the late season is any date after the first two weeks, and the reason for this is hunting pressure. By week two, birds have seen numerous field-edge sets and decoys, and they have been hammered at with box, pot-and-peg and diaphragm calls.
You can take a perimeter road cruise in the vehicle, but don't expect to see birds carelessly strolling around. Focus on ag fields that butt up to a public-land corner or some well-off-the-road public. I also recommend looking at your digital mapping app and investigating any public property that is considerably smaller than most of the others in the area. These tracts often go overlooked, and more than once, I've found a single tom with a few hens lurking in them.
When it comes to hunting tactics, patience is more important than ever. Pressured birds, much like elk and other animals, will seek areas where they aren't being bothered. For the hunter, this means longer walks and accessing deep canyons and remote ridgelines where others don't want to roam. Set up and stay patient when you find an off-the-beaten-path area loaded with a turkey sign. Don't be afraid to call, but don't hammer on them. Let the birds’ mood dictate how much you call and the intensity of that calling.