Using Terrain When Turkey Hunting
There are only two things that can take the chill out of a cool spring morning. A hot cup of coffee and the unmistakable gobble of a turkey a couple ridges over. Your first instinct will tell you to lace up your hiking boots and hightail it to the next ridgetop to hopefully close the distance. While you may be lucky and be able to sneak into gun range of one of those temperamental timber turkeys, nine times out of ten it ends with a long walk back to the truck with nothing to show for your efforts. These big woods, ridge roaming turkeys are another breed. Placing a couple of decoys out and having a bird see them from a couple hundred yards away is not in the play book here. If they don’t see you first, there is a good chance that they will hear you. The terrain is their friend and their lifeline. Knowing how to use it to your advantage can tilt the odds in your favor, and turn that long, sad walk back to the truck, into a happier and heavier trek.
First Things First
In order to be successful in the big woods, the hunt should start by couch scouting on the HuntStand App. One of the first things to look for is potential roost locations. Figuring out where turkeys roost in large expanses of forested ridges is one of the most difficult aspects of hunting the timber ghosts. The luxury of being able to see a turkey out in a field before fly-up does not exist.
The two places where most roosting activity is done, with regards to hilly terrain, would be along the top third of a ridge or down in valley over some type of water like a small creek. These locations offer the turkey the most options when fleeing from a predator/hunter who decided to get a little too close before fly-down. Using the HuntStand App before hunting to pinpoint these locations will save a tremendous amount of time and energy that can be used later in the hunt.
The best way to figure out a turkey roost is still good old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground scouting a day or two before hunting. You want to be looking for turkey sign, specifically droppings under larger trees or wing feathers from where they are flying to their perch. The first morning hunt should be within earshot of these locations.
A tom turkey is focused on two things this time of year. Number one being security and number two being love. The key is to try and get the turkey to forget about number one because of number two. A tom’s moving behavior off the roost varies depending on if they have hens or not. Most of the time, when a tom has hens or is roosting close to his hens, he will take his hens low and spend a good portion of the morning in a valley or feeding on a flat. If a tom does not have any hens or is roosting far from his hens, the first thing he will likely do is fly down and gobble his way to the nearest high point or knob on a ridge. This way his call can be heard from multiple valleys and ridges where other hens will be able to hear him. Once he has his hens, he will likely drop off the side of the ridge.
If unfamiliar with the area, find a spot where gobbles on the roost can be heard from a distance. Get there before daylight and wait for the first gobbles of the morning. Using the Huntstand App and its map layers, pinpoint where you think he is roosted, and then use the aerial and topographic map layers to strategize a way to get close without being detected. Sometimes it’s best to wait until fly-down before moving in because the terrain features and vegetation will allow you to close the distance. When traveling on ridges, DO NOT walk the crest of the ridge. Stay just over the edge to prevent getting sky lined. Get as close as you can without them seeing or hearing you. In hilly terrain and open hardwoods, close may be 50 yards or it may be 200 yards depending on their location. Before every move, ask yourself, “What can the turkeys see?” When making the last move, try to get to the same elevation level as the turkey. It is easier for them to see up or down a ridge for a hen than it is to see along the ridge.
Once the romance of the morning sunrise wears off, the hens will work their way toward their favorite feeding spot with gobblers in tow. The food of choice for timber turkeys is acorns. One of the good things about these hardwoods is that there is no shortage of acorns. Turkeys are able to scavenge the leaf litter for the last remaining acorns that the squirrels and deer have missed.
Even if the woods are littered with oak trees and a heavy acorn crop, there are a few key terrain features to narrow in on for the midday hunt. One of these hill country features is called a flat or feeding flat and another is called a bench. A feeding flat is any part of the terrain where there is little to no elevation change – hence the name “flat”. This could be an area between two ridge tops or at the base of a ridge where there is a larger flat valley.
Benches occur on the side of a ridge usually half way to just below the ridge top. It is a flat area that extends out from the ridge like a shelf before it drops down to the valley below. Benches are a favorite among turkeys and seasoned timber turkey hunters. These benches give turkeys two escape routes, either up or down, but still allows them to feed and keep watch up and down the ridge. Flats and benches can easily be seen and marked on a good topographic map but should be scouted as well to make sure turkeys are frequenting the area. One way to tell if turkeys have been to that location recently is the presence of V-shaped scratchings in the leaves. Wet dirt in the scratchings means that turkeys have been there recently.
Setting up on benches or flats can be a little tricky. Being far enough from the crest of the bench but close enough to shoot a weary gobbler skirting the edge, is a must. Lots of times the turkeys will take a peak over edge to see what the commotion is about and those few seconds may be all you have to get a shot off. Even when using decoys, terrain and vegetation are likely to block the turkeys view. Many hardcore timber hunters keep the decoys in the truck for this reason. Instead, bring a buddy who can be the caller. Have them drop back and call, keeping the person with the gun, in between the turkey and them.
Waiting in their Bedroom
With any luck, you used some of the tips above and have tagged your bird already. If not or you had that irritating thing called work get in the way, hope is not completely lost. The evening roost hunt can be fast and intense. Using your earlier scouting or knowledge of roost locations from seasons prior, get in early and get above the roost trees. When turkeys roost on ridges, they want to spend as little energy as possible flying up into the towering trees. They will come into the area and stage higher in elevation than the trees they are roosting in. You want to be in that staging area. If you are under the roost tree, you will likely be too far before they turkeys fly up for the night. A good hide is necessary in all these situations, but here in particular, because there will likely be more than one bird coming to roost. Toms may not be as responsive at this time so listen carefully for turkeys walking in the crunchy leaves. Keep the gun up and ready, and you too may walk out of the woods with a couple extra pounds over your shoulder.