Preseason Scouting for Spring Gobblers

By Troy Hoepker

Have you ever asked yourself what one thing is most vitally important to the success of any turkey hunt before it begins? Some might say that it is practicing with their trusty box call or mouth call to be able to replicate just the right sounds. Others may point out that patterning the right shotgun and shell combination is the most important thing they do. Or is it picking out just the right decoy to use when the season arrives? All of these things are must do’s and can really help seal the deal on an old gobbler, but for me, it all comes back to the golden rule of hunting any game. You can’t kill what isn’t there! You have to do your homework first to make sure there are turkeys where you’ll be hunting and to figure out the habits of the birds that you find.

Years ago, I got stuck in the rut of hunting the same general area every spring and after a few years, if I didn’t have a turkey on the ground the first day of a hunt, it was almost an oddity. The farm was loaded with birds back then and just some simple woodsmanship skills were really all that was needed. I got to know their travel patterns, roosting spots and feeding areas so well after a while that the challenge of it seemed to disappear. Don’t get me wrong; I still had very exciting hunts and many mornings when the birds never failed to put on an incredible show. Prior to those good years I had scouted my butt off on that farm when turkey numbers were lower all over the state. I had success then too but it took longer some of those years. But when populations boomed so did my success rate. After a while I came full circle and craved the challenge of the hunt once again. I craved the challenge of figuring out a new property and the birds that called it home.

Finding a new property to hunt means scouting and the best scouting is done in the preseason. Before the season starts I always try to look at a topography map of the area first. Oftentimes you can identify good locations just by looking over the map of the land. Once that is done, it is time to make rubber meet the road. Armed with a good set of binoculars, I usually begin to figure a property out by driving there before the sun comes up and parking at a high point on the road several mornings in a row before my season starts. Windows down and ears keenly listening for the slightest thing that resembles a gobble, you begin to get a feel for just how many gobblers are living there or where they are roosting. By sitting and listening for several mornings you can possibly tell if they are always using the same area to roost or if they are unpredictable in their roosting habits. It’s also a good way to decide which property is holding more toms if you’re scouting more than one farm.

The real nitty-gritty of scouting comes from putting boots on the ground prior to the season. The best scouters are always applying what they already know about turkey behavior as they traverse the land. For instance, anytime you’re looking at a new property you should be keeping a keen eye out for food sources, popular roost tree species, attractive areas for strut zones along with the typical signs of scat or tracks. Are interior fences on the farm woven wire that they can’t cross through or are they barbed wire? You should be keeping an eye out for good locations where you can sit or set up a blind that offer some natural cover and concealment.

If you can’t figure out where turkeys are roosting from simply listening, there are still ways to determine that. Moving through the property, keep an eye out for those tall oaks, cottonwoods, sycamores or even walnut trees. Make sure to get underneath them and look for scat under their thick limbs. Some areas will stand out just by the amount of dumping under the tree telling you that it is being used regularly. Good stout, heavy limbed trees just inside a field edge always seem to be popular roosting spots.

Have the binoculars at the ready anytime you’re moving through a property and take it slow. Approach any open fields cautiously, glassing it as you get closer and closer. You may just stumble upon turkeys using it while you are there and discover a good midday strutting zone gobblers use when their morning girlfriend has left them. I’ve done this scouting on many occasions and it gives you a good area of confidence to move towards and hunt midday when you’ve struck out that morning. Carry a crow call with you and don’t be afraid to use it every so often as you scout. You’d be surprised just how often some sporadic crow calling will tip you off to a gobbler giving away his secret strutting spot when he’s lonely. As a general rule of thumb though, keep your distance when scouting and let your binoculars do the work. If you’ve found birds try not to get too greedy for a better look and risk spooking them.

Turkey habits change throughout the season for different reasons. To keep your intrusion at a minimum during the season and to help yourself be aware of any possible habit changes the birds make, place a trail camera or three around the property to see what areas the birds are using most. The most recent intelligence you can get will help you the most. Trail camera photos can also give you the timing of the day birds are using certain fields to feed and help you with bird identification if you’re pursuing one giant tom in particular.

Dedicate some time this spring to scouting the turkeys you plan to hunt and when the first morning of hunting season rolls around just as the sun takes over the day shift from the moon, don’t be surprised if your hard works pay off with a big mature gobbler in front of your gun barrel.