Public Land Turkey Hunting

By Darron McDougal

Black puffs dotted the colossal dead cottonwood tree for a picturesque pre-dawn silhouette that would make any turkey hunter grin from ear to ear. Gobbling soon boomed like thunder across the desolate prairie. My wife and I exchanged wide-eyed glances, then returned our focus to the roosted birds we’d sited the previous evening. I made soft tree yelps, nocked an arrow, attached my release, and prepared for action.

Wingbeats signaled my prey’s descent, and hens soon investigated our decoys. I then realized I’d placed them too close to our ground blind; I bet they weren’t 4 yards away! The hens displayed aggravation toward my hen decoy when the tom disappeared at the base of the dyke on which we were situated. Seconds later, he strutted onto the dyke for all to see. I could’ve shot when he was 15 yards out, but he was on a mission toward my Jake decoy. I let the show unfold.

Public land turkey hunting - darron-bowkill-turkey
Opportunities abound for turkey hunters willing to go public.

I drew as he postured by the decoy, centering my top pin on his head. I forgot that my top pin doesn’t correspond with the arrow’s trajectory at such close range, so my arrow flew low, only notching his beak. Surprisingly, he didn’t skip a beat; he continued torturing my decoy. I carefully nocked a second arrow, and since his head was moving incessantly, I shot for the lungs. My prairie prize collapsed 6 yards away. The Lord had orchestrated yet another incredible morning I’ll never forget.

Watch that hunt here…

We stayed put watching and photographing dozens of deer when another flock approached our setup. Several hens and jakes accompanied yet another vibrant gobbler. He strutted right into our lap and began pecking the deflated tom’s head. I wished my wife had a tag, but she didn’t, so we just watched as he taunted us with dozens of opportunities for a slam-dunk bow shot.

I’m sure by now you’re thinking we were hunting managed private land. Wrong! This was a public-land hunt in South Dakota, and the bird I took was the second of two gobblers arrowed during my hunt. Through the years, I’ve also slung plenty of public land Wisconsin gobblers over my shoulder. I bet you’re interested in finding out how you too can experience red-hot gobbler action on public land? Well, that’s exactly this article’s purpose. Follow along to learn how you can snuff out longbeards without knocking on doors or paying expensive outfitter fees.

setting-decoys
Setting decoys in South Dakota.

Less is Often More for Public Land Turkey Hunting

Hunters naturally gravitate toward large public tracts believing more land produces better hunting. In areas with little pressure, expansive boundaries are great. In pressured areas, though, off-the-grid small parcels typically get overlooked and consequently produce better hunting. I rarely have to share isolated small parcels with other hunters. That alone boosts my success odds.

For example, my South Dakota tom was taken on a small Game Production Area you can see across – 75 percent of the land is treeless. Most turkey hunters wouldn’t give it a second glance. My wife and I took the time to scout it the evening before our hunt, and we spotted two separate flocks roosted in plain sight of our binoculars. I hunted the next morning expecting to arrow a gobbler, not hoping.

Use your resources to discover hunting locales not clearly marked with public-access signs. In Wisconsin, MFL (Managed Forest Land) and FCL (Forest Crop Land) are proven choices that aren’t pressured like state land. In other states, Indian reservations allow public hunting with a special license. My brother, Joe McDougal, has nabbed many birds across these lands.

The idea is to escape the pressure. Large public parcels are popular. Small parcels get overlooked. Tap out-of-the-way public tracts for an action-filled morning.

Do you know where to go to find the right turkey habitat?

Habitat is Key

The key to public land turkey success is habitat. Eastern gobblers often inhabit a relatively small area with daily necessities: food, water, and roosting trees. On average, they’re a bit more predictable than Merriam’s turkeys in the West. However, Eastern gobblers are less responsive to calls, so both subspecies present separate challenges.

In Wisconsin, red-pine plantations make choice turkey habitat. Birds use them for roosting and security cover. I typically bowhunt without a blind, and red pines promote a stealthy approach so I can set-up ultra-close to the roost. Red pines bordering fields almost always hold turkeys. Hardwood ridges are another favorite option. A good rule of thumb is this: Turkeys inhabit the same ground as whitetails. Don’t be afraid to tap your whitetail hotspot for a spring-gobbler party.

On the prairies, Merriam’s and Hybrid gobblers usually roost in ancient cottonwood trees along river bottoms. This makes for an easy starting point. However, prairie birds typically have a substantially larger daily range than their Eastern counterparts.

One example is my first South Dakota gobbler taken during the trip referenced earlier. My wife and I arrived at an isolated Game Production Area well before dawn. We heard zilch for gobbling, but saw strut marks right on the gravel road that separates private land from the public. We decided to move on to another area, but soon noticed my brother’s vehicle parked a half-mile up the road. He and accomplice Jeff Quinn were listening to gobbling about 200 yards off the road in a farmyard.

“These turkeys aren’t like the ones back in the Midwest,” brother Joe said. “I wouldn’t doubt if he’ll cut across that ridge out there and end up right where you saw the strut marks on the road.”

Quinn agreed. “Yeah, Merriam’s will cover tons of ground in a short amount of time,” he said.

My wife and I watched and listened with our windows down as gobbling ensued. The pitch soon changed. As Joe predicted, the gobbler marched across the ridge toward the Game Production Area. We needed to act quickly – the hen-less bird was obviously on a mission. We turned our Jeep around, and booked it back to the public land. We parked our vehicle out of sight, grabbed our gear, and walked less than 100 yards before setting up. We deployed our ground blind and decoys in record time.

I nocked an arrow and made a few yelps. A faint gobble confirmed the tom was on a string to our setup. He covered the ground almost as quickly as we did with our vehicle! I made several more calls, each one answered by an increasingly louder gobble. Spit-and-drum sequences had us on the edge of our seats. In seconds, he strutted within 1 yard of our ground blind as he approached the decoys placed 6 yards in front of us.

When his fan covered his eyeballs, I drew. He fanned next to my decoy, and when he exposed his head, I touched the trigger. My broadhead sliced his neck’s base wide open, resulting in a near-instant kill. My wife and I high-fived as we approached my first-day South Dakota gobbler. The lesson: If you find fresh gobbler sign but aren’t hearing gobbles, stay put. Western turkeys cover tons of ground, and they do it at vehicular speed, as we learned.

Any public ground with turkey habitat is liable to produce birds. On the prairies, glass giant cottonwood trees at dusk for roosted birds. In thicker regions, listen at dusk for roosted gobblers. And finally, keep an eye out for fresh evidence like tracks, strut marks, and droppings. Finding turkeys on public land isn’t difficult. It just takes a little time.

bowhunting turkeys from a ground blind
A well placed blind in the midst of turkey habitat and a sweet sounding turkey call are a deadly combination.

Calling Advice for Public Land Turkey Hunting

I’m partial to mouth calls for several reasons. With practice, they sound like real hens. And, operating them requires little or no movement. There are many great mouth calls on the market. I like the ones that produce good pitch and rasp for an authentic sound.

If you hunt public land long enough, you’ll eventually encounter two types of gobblers that are nearly impossible to kill. The first is the bird that quits gobbling as soon as you begin calling. The second is the bird who gobbles incessantly at your calls, but never comes closer. Both birds have most likely been called to by other hunters, and have become call-shy. You have two options: keep hunting until you kill him or the season ends, or move on to another bird that’s hopefully more call-responsive.

Ideally, I find the bird’s temperature while he’s roosted by making a few soft tree yelps. If he cuts me off, I call more aggressively. If he gobbles casually, I scale my calling back. Nowadays, I rely mostly on decoys to pull birds in close, although calling sometimes seals the deal when a bird hangs up beyond shooting range.

Conclusion

The advice I’ve presented here has helped me bow-bag a pile of public land gobblers. I’m confident it will produce similar results for you. However, I want to note that there are no absolutes when it comes to public land turkeys. I’ve learned to just try off-the-wall ploys when a gobbler seems unkillable. An all-or-nothing approach is often all it takes to punch out a tag. And if it doesn’t work, move on to the next one. Trial and error will help you develop a public land turkey playbook of your very own. One thing is for sure: Once you experience a rock-n-roll morning in the public land turkey woods, you’ll want to do it again and again. It’s a riot!

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