Making Your Plan: 5 Common Areas That Will Help You Find Your Tom
By Ryan Graden
Have you ever heard the loud and deep-pitched call of a gobbling Tom in the morning? There’s no better “wake-up” call in the timber! No kidding! If you haven’t ever heard it before, grab yourself a cup of coffee and get out to some timber before sunup in the springtime. All you have to do is stand by your truck and listen as the first light gives rise to these calls that will echo any timber valley here in Iowa. It will get your blood pumping and your excitement will shoot right up the scale. A gobbling Tom signals to us hunters, turkey season has arrived!
The easy part of hunting these birds is hearing those big ‘ol boys in the morning. The tougher part is finding them. It’s not as easy as you think sometimes. When you hear a Tom sound-off in the timber, you can’t just sneak up and bag him. Unless you carry a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe in your pocket. You have to come up with a plan to fool him into coming to you and that’s where the fun begins.
To create your plan you have to know a few things about these sly birds. You need to know their advantages, their keen senses, and most of all where to find them. Finding birds is arguably the most basic element to making your plan work. But you wouldn’t believe how many hunters ignore this important piece of the puzzle that could save them a lot of time, effort, and frustration. Where do you find a Tom?
My hope is that this article will give you some basic knowledge that you might use in your hunts this coming spring. If you have an area you usually hunt and some of these suggestions seems to fit the description of that area, give them a try. And if you’re new to turkey hunting, key into these areas when you gain access to land or if you’re on public land. They will eliminate a lot of “wandering” in the timber to find a target to hunt.
This may seem like a basic thought, but you’d be surprised at how many guys ignore the possible success of hunting a turkey roost.
If you didn’t know, turkeys roost every night for protection from predators that might be seeking for prey through the night. But they don’t just roost in any tree. That’s the key! A turkey is a large and heavy bird and to comfortably roost, they need the proper tree to use. Roosting trees, in my experience, are often hardwood types that have long and strong limbs that grow level and parallel to the ground.
Some of the best roosting trees are found where a Tom can easily fly from a ridgetop to a branch below him. You will know you’ve found a roosting spot when you see the droppings below the tree. If the branches are used enough, you will also see a little wear and tear on the branch from the tight gripping toes of the turkeys.
To hunt a roost, it would be to your advantage to locate a bird the evening prior to the morning you plan to hunt. Wait till dusk during the fading minutes of daylight after most turkeys have chosen and flown to a roost. I often will take a crow call or a coyote howler call out to the timber to do this. Get near the timber and let out a loud and obnoxious call. If you get an answer, don’t “go find him”. Just make note of the area he’s calling from and plan on setting up near that area while it’s still dark the next morning. Again, keep some distance between you and him in your setup. Your goal is to coax him to leave his roost and land in search of a hen (you).
After a Tom has landed from his roost, he’s going to do his best to impress the ladies. This, as a hunter, is one of the best shows you will ever see in the woods. If you see it, take a few moments to enjoy the dance that a mature Tom will do before you take a shot if you can.
Sometimes, however, a Tom will not always win over a ladies love. He may be with hens right off the roost, but if they aren’t interested in breeding and once they’ve filled their stomachs, he will be alone once more. That doesn’t mean he gives up. He will take his dance “on the road” to what we know as “strut zones”. These are areas that he can display his grandeur to any other ladies in the area that might be interested and ready to breed. Usually, this will be in the late morning hours. From my experience, this may be anytime between 10 a.m. and noon.
Strut zones are usually not huge areas of property. A space of 3-4 square yards is all that a Tom needs to strut in. They also like to be a little higher than the area around them. Keying into small hills and rises in the topography of the woods will help you discover these areas.
You will know that you’re in the right spot when you see turkey tracks, dragging marks from their wings, and a general “wear down” of the ground. These Toms will go back-and-forth displaying themselves for long periods of time constantly looking around from their highpoint for hens in the area. If one strut zone doesn’t produce a mate, he will travel to another. This leads me to my next suggestion.
Turkeys are creatures of habit and they will often create a routine that they will often follow in a pattern. They often use same areas to roost, feed, strut, and travel. As long as they aren’t pressured by other things too much, they will continue to repeat these patterns day after day.
That’s where this suggestion can be to your advantage as a hunter. Turkeys, like many animals, will use a path of least resistance. Just like humans, we like easy travel. We use roads, sidewalks, paths, and more to make our transitions from place to place every day. Turkeys are the same and that’s what you need to remember.
Where I hunt, there are an abundance of old logging roads through the timber. These roads were cleared over 30 years ago when a company came in and selectively harvested older oaks and hickories for commercial use. Although they left a lasting mark, it has been a benefit to the local wildlife and to my hunting methods.
Through the use of trail cameras and good scouting, I know that there are certain logging roads that have become travel corridors for toms as they move from strut zones to strut zones. In these situations, sometimes you don’t even need to call. You just need to be in the right place at the right time. And by the use of a trail camera, you can zero in on that time!
This may sound odd but it’s true. If you have a major power line that runs through your property or a property that you hunt, don’t ignore it! Especially if those powerlines run through timbered areas or near timbered areas.
If you’ve ever seen these areas, you will quickly notice that they are open! That’s the key. Power lines are somewhat maintained to be free of trees, branches, and other debris that could harm the lines. So, from time to time, those companies will come out and trim up those areas to protect their lines. That, in return, creates an amazing space for turkeys to travel and strut in.
I remember watching an outdoor television show that was hosted by a hunter named “Colorado Buck”. Colorado has been in the TV hunting industry for years and knows what he’s talking about when it comes to hunting different species. It just so happened, as I was watching one day, that he was turkey hunting on a new property that he had not had a chance to scout too well yet. However, he knew there were some powerlines running through it. He keyed in on that area the first morning out and before the sun had come up, he had his Tom!
I have done the same here in Iowa and have had luck from time to time with the tactic. No joke, if you hunt an area with lines like this running through it, don’t ignore the opportunity!
Field Edges and Stubble
Another great area that you shouldn’t ignore are fields, field edges, and field stubble. Fields are just a logical place for turkeys to be in multiple times during the day. They are feeding areas, and usually have a lot to offer a hunter.
Turkeys will spend most of their day foraging for food. Their daily diet consists mostly of small bugs, worms, grass/greens, and dropped seeds. So, logically, fields will hold quite a bit of forage for turkeys to find. And the advantage to the turkeys is they don’t have to scratch through layers and layers of leaves to find something! Once the snow is melted, it’s easy pickings!
Being out in the open also let’s those turkeys warm up! The spring sun on their black feathers makes is a wonderful area to warm up and feel good!
Making a set on the edge of a field is always a good option at any time of the day. Find a shady spot and hunker down with a good wide view of the stubble in front of you. It wouldn’t be surprising if an old Tom wanders out following a group of Hens or just feeding on his own. Just give them some gentle calls and see what happens.
Another very successful area to find birds in are pastures. Over my years of turkey hunting, I have had quite a bit of success hunting pastures here in Iowa and in Nebraska. Usually these pastures contain small timber draws but lots of green grass to graze.
When you have the opportunity to hunt a pasture you have to be cautious of a few things. Fist, there’s not much cover for you. And second, there’s not always a travel pattern that turkeys will follow.
Your best bet is to pack some kind of blind with you. Turkeys, more than any other big game in Iowa, will not be bothered too much by a new blind setup. Pick a good open spot that gives you a good vantage point where you can see far and be patient. Turkeys will tend to go where they want to in pastures. They can see far and feel safe. Sometimes it takes them a while to make their way nearer to you.
Most of my turkey hunting is in the timber. That’s what I’m used to and that’s what I’m good at. In those timbers, I am constantly looking for signs of a dominant Tom and places that he might be calling “home”. Some of the best places I’ve found them have been ridgetops or “hog backs” as we call them.
These ridgetops usually are long and level and they will continue from a flat field edge back into the timber for a couple of hundred yards. They are usually narrow and can have some steep drops down both sides of the ridge. Yet, time and time again, these are the areas that Toms will strut back and forth on for hours!
You will see tracks, drag marks (from the wings), and dusting bowls (more on those next) along these ridge tops. If you find an area like this, you can bet on finding a Tom there most every morning of the season.
When Toms are going crazy on these ridgetops, you can use this to your advantage as a hunter! My father executed a great harvest last year by taking advantage of a ridgetop Tom! As the Tom would wander away (on the ridgetop) from my Dad, he would move up the ravine a little closer to the top. When the Tom would wander back, Dad would be still. This went on until Dad had moved within possible shooting range of the Tom. After a few quiet yelps the Tom came down right over the edge and my Dad gave him a lead surprise!
Turkeys often deal with and sometimes struggle with mites that live within their feathers. It’s common and you shouldn’t worry if you harvest a bird with them. To deal with the mites, turkeys will often times “dust” themselves in loose sand, dirt, or dust in order to keep the mites at bay. It’s not a cure-all, but it seems to help.
Dusting sites can be another advantage to finding a Tom to pursue. Toms and hens alike both dust from time to time. And there are only certain areas of hunting grounds that contain the right “dust” that they are looking for. These dusting sites aren’t huge areas of land. Often times, you’ll see what looks like a “bowl” that’s been scratched out of the ground. If you look closely, you’ll see tracks and lines in the dirt from wing tips.
Hunting near these would be another opportunity for success. Toms will come to dust as well as hens. And sometimes in the Spring, Toms will visit these sites in search of Hens to breed. They will wander from dust site to dust site searching for a hen to display to in hopes that he might tickle her fancy.
You might also try making mock dust sites. It’s a practice that some turkey hunters have begun to use with good success. Find an area, on a logging road for field edge, and loosen up the dirt creating a bowl-shape in the process. You might need to add a little sand or fine dirt to the area too. Make sure this happens a few weeks from the opening of your turkey season. You might be surprised with what will happen. Once one turkey discovers it, the rest will follow.
The Iowa turkey season is right around the corner for some of us and that’s exciting. If you are a turkey hunter, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never hunted big Easterns in the Iowa timbers and fields, you need to give it a try! Whether you have a bow or a gun in hand, the areas that I mentioned within this article should give you a “hand up” on finding a Tom. Just remember, you still have to come up with a plan to seal the deal.