Scouting turkeys with trail cameras can make turkey hunting more efficient
Every turkey hunter knows that one of the most important parts of turkey hunting is scouting. Many would argue that it’s imperative to success. Traditional scouting shows a hunter many things. Ground scrapes on the freshly thawed forest floor indicate areas where birds are pecking on new-growth greens otherwise hidden by leaves. Tracks reveal regular travel routes. Scat shows a hunter where birds are roosting. And of course there’s the line in the sand … that telltale wing drag mark which gives away a gobbler’s strutting zone.
While traditional scouting is fun, exciting and informative, it provides no realistic view of how the birds are acting while inhabiting these areas. Are they in that field often? What time of day? Is the wing drag mark from a large tom? While most people think deer in this conversation, people even use trail cameras to scout upland birds. Trail cameras answer these nagging questions that keep die-hard turkey hunters awake at night.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a turkey addict who doesn’t find the first few trips to turkey country exhilarating. There’s something about reconnecting with the smells of the forest, enjoying the sounds, the sights and the fresh air. Scouting can be a year-round event, but the most effective time to figure out your spring hunting trips is by scouting when the birds are moving from their wintering areas and beginning to scatter. For a hunter like me, in the Upper Midwest, that happens when the first hard thaw happens. When the snow melts and the grass exposes itself, this is when birds start to show up on the farms we hunt and the leases we have, and they start to inhabit the old roosting trees they haven’t used in months.
What to look for
There are four key things to look for while scouting in the spring: roost areas, travel routes, feeding areas and strut zones. Finding these four key indicators isn’t always easy, but it’s an important part of your season.
Tall trees with horizontal limbs, that’s where turkeys like to roost. We all know that, but we also know that most areas have a lot of trees to choose from. You may have to lace up your boots and prepare to break them in. If you can access a good map that shows contours, you’re at an advantage. I use OnX Hunt to check for things like edges, ridges and ravines. Look for any contour that’s inviting to a bird that likes to fly up with ease to a spot where it can view its surroundings and a nice area to pitch down to. Mark these spots in OnX, and then visit them looking for scat and feathers. If I find a good amount of sign, I’ll set up a trail camera 30-40 yards back from the area. This reveals the size of the flock, and can give a hunter an idea of the time birds are going up and pitching out.
Finding routes that the birds frequent is hugely advantageous. Turkeys are a lot like deer; they like to travel the same routes daily and won’t often stray far from them. Finding tracks in the mud or on sand or gravel is always a surefire winner. Finding scattered pecking or scratching areas along game trails can be a giveaway, as well. If you find a likely travel route, setting a trail camera along the route will give you an idea of what time the birds are utilizing it on their way to and from feeding. These areas can be good midday spots to set up on, and are great places to hunt with young ones in a blind.
Find the food, find the birds. As the spring sun warms the old farm fields, new sprouts begin to emerge. Turkeys will flock to these areas just as if the farm was still covered in grain. Fields are high-percentage spots and great locations for trail cameras. Other areas to look include aspen thickets where high amounts of leaves cover loamy soil. Grasses grow quickly due to heat retention between the dark, damp soil and the leaves on top. Riverbanks and creek edges, where the sun can peek through and the soil is being fed a constant stream of water can be productive, as well. Clear-cuts loaded with insects like ticks can also be very productive. Set up trail cameras in likely feeding areas and you’re in for a show. Tons of birds hanging out in front of the camera for long periods of time make feeding areas prime spots for cameras, as well as prime spots to set your cameras to video mode. There’s nothing more informative than watching birds in their natural state; having a video is as close to being there in the flesh as it gets. Using a camera reveals times the birds are feeding and leaving, helps take inventory and shows the largest area thanks to open landscape.
Finding a strutting zone is always exciting. Hunters often experience that “slam dunk” feeling in their veins when fresh drag marks from a tom dragging his wings appear while scouting. Setting a trail camera overlooking the strut zone will tell you how many toms are using it, how big they are, and if it’s a worthy spot to set up on come opening day. And some of the coolest photos and videos you’ll get while trail camera scouting come from these areas.
Public versus private land
There’s a simple rule to setting cameras on public lands vs. private land. If your camera is visible, it’s susceptible to theft. If you’re going to run cameras on public land, be sure they are in tucked-away or secluded areas, and try to blend them in as well as you can. As sportsmen and sportswomen, we like to think that we all have the same set of standards and respect. But that just isn’t always the case.
Private land is fun to scout with cameras because you don’t have to worry about them being stolen or destroyed. Be respectful of the landowners if the property isn’t yours, and let them know where the cameras are located. If you have a lot of cameras, you can saturate an area to really pin down the birds.
Camera selection and options
Trail cameras have come a long way since their inception. Higher resolution cameras provide print-quality images that outdo some digital handheld cameras. There are even trail cameras on the market which feature wireless technology that can text photos to your phone within a minute of the photo being taken.
I run a mix of standard trail cameras set to take two to three photos every minute, some set on video mode, and a couple of wireless cams. With a data plan that only costs $9.99 a month, I can have almost instant photos of birds using the area I’m scouting thanks to the Bushnell Wireless Trophy Cam HDs. This is a huge advantage for guys like me who have leases a long way from home. I don’t have to drive out and change SD cards every few days; I can simply let the camera sit and do the work for me. I can also look through images on the Bushnell app, and switch the camera settings from photo to video with a simple click on my phone.
In reality, any trail camera will do the trick, but there are advantages to having a higher-end camera. Be sure to check your local laws on the use of trail cameras on certain public lands and to see if wireless cameras are legal in your area.
Employ the minions
Scouting is almost as fun as the hunt itself, and directly plays a role in how you feel about your harvest. A well-scouted bird that you’re able to connect on is far more gratifying than just showing up and getting lucky. Plus, photos last a lifetime and they help memories stay fresh in your mind. Add trail cameras to your scouting arsenal for turkeys this spring. You won’t be disappointed.
Matt Breuer has been working in the outdoor industry for over 15 years, guiding, writing, promoting, volunteering, and working with several conservation groups. He’s on the Board of Directors of the MN Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and is a recruitment and retention coordinator with RGS. He owns and operates Northcountry Guide Service & Promotions in northern MN. Link up with Matt by visiting www.northcountryguides.com .