Hunting big woods turkeys is much different than pursuing field birds
There are significant differences between field birds and what I call big woods turkeys. We all drive by field birds in early spring and glass the gobblers strutting and pirouetting around their harems of hens. We want to see if they are bearded, full-fanned mature toms or notch-tailed jakes. We anxiously look for any No Trespassing signs and for places to park our trucks. If the field is posted we look around for any farmhouse close by so we can stop by later to ask permission to hunt the fields.
The problem is every other wild turkey hunter is doing exactly the same thing. Those gobblers are going to be harassed and hunted hard throughout the season. Novices will try and stalk them, and hunters will sit in blinds and try to pull them off hens, all day long. There will be trucks parked near those fields from dawn to dusk until those toms are shot or are pestered so much they are nearly impossible to kill. I do make a mental note on where I am seeing field birds but that’s typically as far as it goes. I much prefer to hunt woods birds.
What is a woods bird?
After the successful reintroduction of wild turkeys in the Northeast I’m betting it came as a surprise to many state biologists that they ended up virtually everywhere. No type of habitat was spared: from the obligatory farmland fields, to urban backyards, to boreal forests, to young forests or successional habitat that is typically considered ruffed grouse and woodcock cover. If an area is devoid of acres of fields, turkeys live in the woods. But they still gravitate to edges of openings like cleared power lines and blueberry barrens, and are often found lingering in selectively cut parcels and woodlots that are still relatively open. Those are the places where I do my preseason scouting and prospecting, and inevitably the lion’s share of my turkey hunting.
Scouting and prospecting for woods birds
Since woods birds aren’t out in the open showing off, you need to look for them. Scouting, for me, is different than prospecting. Scouting is walking wooded areas and looking for turkey sign, like scratching in leaves, tracks in mud, strut marks in gravel roads, and turkey poops and feathers. Prospecting, on the other hand, is using locator calls to find gobblers. In early season you should combine both by looking for sign and throwing out aggressive cuts as you move. Sometimes you find good sign but can’t strike a bird. At other times the area is devoid of sign but a gobbler goes off. Either way, you now have a woods area to hunt. Walk the power lines and scour the edges and entrance roads to blueberry barrens, find young cuttings and park and walk the logging trails, scouting and prospecting.
I know it’s considered bad practice to call in a gobbler preseason. Conventional wisdom has it that you don’t want to spook him or educate him to calls. But I can’t resist and typically let a few come into view. I want to see if it’s a mature bird or a jake. If I strike multiple birds going off in staccato fashion I can be confident enough that it’s a band of jakes, so I move on.
I’ve trained my springer spaniels to accompany me on my spring turkey scouting and prospecting excursions. As soon as I throw out some calls they sit, and wait, and listen. My hearing has deteriorated with age, but I can watch their expression and head tilt and tell if a bird went off far away — and can move closer to be certain. If I let a struck bird come to the call, the dog hunkers down next to me shaking like a leaf, but doesn’t budge or make a sound.
Hunting woods birds
By opening morning you should know the whereabouts of at least a half dozen woods gobblers and a slew of jakes. That way, if some get killed and if you help or guide others you will still have some birds to hunt yourself. You won’t be lugging around a duffel bag filled with decoys or pop up ground blinds, and you won’t be spending time creating natural blinds. Woods bird hunting is largely a run-and-gun operation.
If I haven’t roosted a bird, a typical hunt for me is to drive into a wooded area, pull over, park, begin with light mouth yelps and end with aggressive box call cuts. If there are no takers, I either start walking and repeat every couple hundred yards, or drive on, park, repeat. It’s important to look around the immediate area for a quick set up spot before throwing out any locator calls. Even in thick woods you can typically find a good tree with some shooting lanes. Big woods turkeys have an uncanny way of being right on top of you at the first yelp. It is one of the joys of running and gunning turkeys. You should have your eye on a good tree to sit against before you call. If a bird goes off a good distance away you can set out a decoy. I always carry at least one decoy but I don’t always set one out.
It’s difficult to gauge distance when you are in thick woods and that bird starts gobbling its way towards you. The gobbles are muffled by vegetation and terrain. If it’s a consistent talker you can usually keep track of him. And like all toms they will often sneak in silent. Woods gobblers know exactly where you are from the first call, no matter how far away or what is between you. They will move straight towards you if they can, and when they reach that point where they should see a hen, they stop. If you don’t spook them they will circle, trying to find her. You have to really concentrate on scanning the woods slowly for that white-and-blue head to pop into view. In particularly thick woods and with a tom coming in, I’ve chosen to stand next to a tree or kneel behind a blow-down rather than sitting low. Get used to shooting through some obstruction, like briars or goldenrod or low-lying twigs. You will often get a clear shot at the head, but not always. I’ve shot woods birds at 10 yards because that’s how close they were when I first saw them.
Big woods Turkeys aren’t generally as heavy as field birds and so won’t earn top bragging rights on the scale. But they are equally as challenging in their own unique ways. Don’t be distracted by the siren song of field birds. Leave them to every other Tom, Dick and Harry and head to the woods. You won’t regret it.
Brad Eden began hunting and guiding for Maine wild turkeys soon after the spring hunt was started by lottery in 1986. He created and runs Upland Journal, a popular discussion forum launched in 2002. He is a Registered Master Maine Guide, an outdoor writer and artist.