8 Reasons You Won't Kill a Public-Land Gobbler

8 Reasons You Won't Kill a Public-Land Gobbler

Posted 2023-04-07T20:19:00Z  by  Darron McDougal

Avoid these common sins this spring and boost your odds when hunting land open to everyone

You usually can't call a gobbler to a location he's not comfortable approaching. For example, if you're on one side of a river and he's on the other, he likely won't fly across to your calling. Plan carefully and pick a setup where you think the gobbler wants to go. Image by Russell Graves

The old gobbler was interested but hung up just beyond the public parcel's boundary. I stopped calling and began tossing leaves to simulate a hen feeding on forest morsels. Eventually, the longbeard caved.

When he breached the border and stretched his neck, I sent a deadly swarm downrange. Soon after thanking God for the success, I walked around the gate at the parking area with a limb-hanger slung over my shoulder.

Of course, not every public-land turkey hunt ends with a bird in hand. Many variables can hinder success. Some are self-inflicted yet avoidable. If you're chasing the king of spring on public land this April and May, these bloopers can hurt your chances.

1.Hunting Too Close to the Parking Area

Human activity is often most prevalent near parking areas of public parcels. In many cases, people come and go constantly. For that reason, turkeys and other wildlife frequent those areas, well, less frequently. Although you don't want to get fast feet and run through birds, don't expect to have a lot of opportunity until you're at least 500 yards deep. The goal is to hike farther than other hunters, which usually puts you into more birds.

There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes you can hunt near parking areas in a way that no one else does. For example, if most folks use trails to access a property, consider diving off the parking area and walking parallel to the road and perpendicular to the access trail. This doesn't always work, but you can sometimes find good hunting the minimum distance off a paved road and a few hundred yards from the parking area in a direction other folks don't hike.

By avoiding the mistakes in this article, you might hammer a big public-land bird. Image by Darron McDougal

2. Hunting Where Everyone Else Is Hunting

In my previous point, I suggested hiking in deep. That's often productive, but it can sometimes lead you right to hunting pressure. An example is an obvious food source deep into or at the back of the parcel.

It's 2023. Most hunters have mapping apps, which makes it easy to see fields and plots. If a property has corn or soybean stubble, or freshly worked dirt, most hunters will quickly swarm there, and it usually doesn't take long for the hotspot to become pressure central. Turkeys feel the pressure onslaught and re-route their daily tendencies. Keep your finger on the pulse. When you sense hunting pressure in a condensed area, go elsewhere.

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3. Leaving the Woods Too Early

After waking up at 3:30 a.m. and hunting from daybreak until 9 a.m., a mighty breakfast at the local café sounds awfully inviting. Scores of turkey hunters eat their tags rather than grilled turkey by leaving the woods too soon. Have some snacks in your turkey vest to curb your appetite and stay afield. If action seems dead, try another area or property. But at all sensible costs, keep hunting. Late in the morning and about noon can be excellent times to catch a lone tom roving for hens.

Calling too often is a mistake many turkey hunters make, which is why calling in gobblers on public land can be tough. Use more realistic calls, and dial them back a bit. Image by Darron McDougal

4. Calling Too Often

With calling, there's realistic and there's unrealistic. I've hunted turkeys that answered every call and came in at a mad dash. More often, public-land turkeys must be finessed into range with calling. Subtle, infrequent purrs and clucks mixed with the occasional scratching of leaves is realistic and often effective where birds get hunted heavily. If you're not getting responses, or if a tom is gobbling but not coming, yelping incessantly likely won't suddenly flip a switch. Tone it down.

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5. Failing to Scout

It's possible to pop in cold turkey (pun intended) on a new parcel you haven't previously hunted and walk out with a gobbler, but it's rarely so easy. Having some knowledge of the property can hugely increase your chances for success. You don't have to walk every inch of the property, and sometimes you don't need to walk the property at all.

Here are some ideas. For properties with sparse vegetation, do a drive-by and use optics to get a feel for it. Seeing a property in daylight before you hunt is better than trying to figure it out in the pre-dawn hours. If the property is timbered and you can't see much from the road, I don't suggest hiking erratically searching for scratch marks, droppings and other sign. Instead, get there before dawn or near dusk and owl hoot to trigger a shock-gobble from a roosted bird. If you hear nothing, move to other listening points and repeat.

If you don't have the advantage of visiting the property, you can still scout it. Consider smartphone apps such as HuntStand Pro. I use it constantly to get a property overview. I look for fields, ridges and openings. I also pay attention to agriculture — which I can identify on the app — on adjacent private lands, as birds often roost on public and feed on private. At the least, if you scout the parcel on an app like HuntStand, you'll have a better idea of what you're facing.

Sticking with a gobbler is an aggressive move, but don't count on tomorrow, because you never know what it might bring. Come at him from another angle, and stay in the hunt. Image by Darron McDougal

6. Not Being Aggressive Enough

In my early turkey hunting days, I often played it safe and backed out if a gobbler didn't commit to my first setup. I'd strategize an alternative setup and then plan to return the next day. I learned that public-land toms aren't always predictable, and playing it safe wasn't always productive. The next day, the gobbler would do something different, or he wouldn't be in the area.

This is how I look at close encounters now. First, we're not guaranteed tomorrow, so if a gobbler circumvents my setup and I believe I can come at him from another angle, I'll do it that day. I usually switch calls so that I sound different than before. Second, there's no telling what the bird will do the next day or if he'll even be in the vicinity. If you can, keep after him that day, and forget playing it safe.

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7. Or Being Too Aggressive

Obviously, you can get too aggressive. I've had a few hunts in which I overestimated the distance to a gobbling tom and bumped him as I closed the distance toward what I thought would be an ideal ambush location. It's a good reminder to slow down.

Another common mistake is to blow locator calls too often and too close to birds. Resist the temptation to hear him gobble one more time, and back off the locators. New turkey hunters commonly make this mistake, and gobblers become educated about those calls on pressured public land.

Noise is another common mistake associated with being too aggressive. Shuffling the leaves a bit as you close the distance on a tom is typically OK, but if you're snapping sticks and causing a big ruckus, turkeys will likely be long gone. Know when to decelerate and be stealthier.

Author Darron McDougal nailed this gobbler not far from the pavement after diving off a parking area where no one else had been hunting. Image by Becca McDougal

8. Calling from Locations Birds Aren't Comfortable Approaching

This is another mistake I made often in my early days of turkey hunting. It's always tempting to sit against the nearest tree and start yelping the second a tom gobbles. Sometimes, this works, but often, it doesn't. The right thing in the wrong location is the wrong thing. It's that simple.

For example, if a bird gobbles atop a ridge and you're down in the valley, your odds of pulling that bird to you are slim. Try to get on or above his level. If you're in wide-open hardwoods in flat topography, you stand little chance of calling a bird within shotgun range without decoys. So, if you're decoy-less, set up in tighter quarters and make the bird look for you. If you're on one side of a river or creek and a tom is on the other, he'll rarely fly across to come to your calling. Wade or otherwise circumvent the water barrier, and get on his side.

Don't set up so fast that you overlook common sense. When you hear a gobble, quickly assess your surroundings. If you doubt that the gobbler will fully commit to your calls at your current location, pick what you feel is a better spot. But don't take too long, especially if you hen-called to locate him, as he might already be coming.

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Live and Learn

Do you know why I've outlined these eight mistakes? I've made them many times during my turkey hunting career. And honestly, some of them apply to private-land hunting, too. I've mostly steered clear of these gaffes for many years now, and I've enjoyed good success as a result. Strive to avoid these blunders this spring, as they might cost you a gobbler.

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