Public Ground Gobblers

By Nick Johnson

The words “public ground” conjures up all sorts of mixed feelings in a hunter. Some relish the opportunity to explore it and some dread it. Hunting on public ground is thought to be a lot more challenging and often without reward and while these statements may hold true in some respect the reality is that public ground can be a gold mine for turkey hunters who stay focused and think outside the box.

Preparation and Scouting
Scouting is important in any aspect of turkey hunting but none more so than in hunting public ground. The best-case scenario when prepping for a hunt is to know the pattern of a tom or toms on a piece of ground, and know them well. Think of it this way, the less time you spend on public ground after a tom (given the hunt is a success), the less time and chance there is for him to figure you out or have some unnatural disturbance interrupt like mushroom hunters or another turkey hunter. You want to stack the odds in your favor and knowing the pattern of a tom is one of the best ways to do so.

Scouting a bird and figuring out his daily routine also takes some run-and-gun hunting out of the equation, not to mention trying to strike up an unknown bird with loud yelps and cutts. The more noise you make and/or a hot tom makes, the greater the chance for someone else’s ears to hear the same. The last thing you want to do is compete directly with another hunter for the same bird. Scouting will help take some of the guesswork and footwork out of finding a tom and his routine prior to hunting.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm
One of my college buddies, Clayton Meyer, almost exclusively hunts turkeys on public ground. He is also very successful in filling his tags most seasons and a lot of it he attributes to determination and going the extra distance where others will not. Clayton often hits the woods as early as 3 a.m. and walks far back into larger pieces of public ground where he knows a gobbler or two is roosted up. The extra time in the morning by arriving early lets him sneak in slowly and quietly and reach farther back into a piece of ground than a lot of other hunters are willing to do.

The Afternoon Bird Also Gets the Worm
Okay maybe this title doesn’t sound quite right but it makes sense! One of the best times to hunt a public ground tom, especially later in the spring is during the afternoon. There are two reasons for this. One, any hunters who may have shown up at daybreak and didn’t get a crack at a tom by 11 a.m. are probably heading out of the woods. Afternoons can be a great time to get out on some ground without the notion of competing with another hunter.

Afternoon hunting is also great in regards to a tom’s lust for love. He may be occupied with his hens after morning flydown but if their group gets separated or the hens are seeking out nesting sites by this time then old tommy may be left high, dry and lonely. If you have the ground to yourself this might be a good time to do a little run and gun hunting and locate a fired up tom. This can also be a great time of day to observe and intercept a tom’s travel routes. One of the best ways to locate a tom during mid-day is to blow a sequence on a crow call. Crows are vocal animals all day whereas hens and especially owls are typically not.

Less Aggression, Less Competition
I’m not talking about a dispute with a fellow hunter; I’m talking about the nature of the hunt itself. We all love to get loud on a call when a tom is fired up and just keep him hammering all the way in but this may not be the best idea when hunting public ground, especially if there is the chance of another hunter in the same area. With you calling like a needy hen and the tom gobbling his brains out, there is a greater chance for some unwanted competition coming to investigate this gobbler.
Safety also ties in with above statement. If you are calling a lot to a fired up tom and there is another hunter in the area who decides to do some running and gunning after this same bird, there is a chance for a bad accident, especially if the other hunter does not know your location which is highly probable.

Leaving aggression out of the hunt also ties in with the amount of pressure some of these birds are experiencing. In higher-pressure areas, many of these birds get used to being yelped, clucked and cutt at and recognize this as something to avoid. Scouting comes into play big time here in finding where the birds like to spend the majority of their time. If you can get close enough to the birds without spooking them and make subtle soft sounds on the call, your chances of peaking a weary tom’s interest for a closer look will increase.

The moral of the story here is to tone down the calls, hunt slow and hunt smart. Also reduce the frequency of calling slightly. This conservative approach can really pull through for the patient hunter who is willing to put in the footwork and the time.

Hunt as a Team
If you like to hunt with a buddy when chasing gobblers then this can be used to your advantage with weary toms or toms that may be prone to hanging up. Have the caller sit ten or twenty yards behind the shooter from where you would expect a tom to approach from. If a bird comes in as planned and decides to hang up, the extra yardage closer may be all that is needed to make a lethal shot.

Hunting with a partner also has the advantages in regards to a team style hunt. One more set of eyes, ears and ideas is a great idea, especially those of an experienced turkey hunter. Your partner may observe something or think of something that may have never crossed your mind.

Public ground turkey hunting presents some unique challenges but a smart and persistent hunter can often rise above and succeed. We are blessed in Iowa to have many public hunting opportunities statewide through a multitude of habitats. If you are like me and lack abundant hunting rights to private ground, relying on public to fulfill the majority of hunting activities, consider some of these tips if you have not already and enjoy that challenge of taking a big longbeard on public ground. Good luck this spring!