What You Need to Know Before Public Land Turkey Hunting

What You Need to Know Before Public Land Turkey Hunting

If you are among the lucky ones with a quota permit in hand, here are a few tips to increase your odds of offering a mature tom a spot in the back of your truck.

With spring turkey season upon us, many of us are eagerly awaiting the sound of that boss gobbler firing off from the roost over a low spring fog. For most Florida turkey hunters limited to hunting public land, it’s likely you’ve waited for a few years to collect enough preference points to win a quota permit. The limited number of hunters allowed on these draw hunts offers us pretty good odds of having the chance to punch a tag.

If you are among the lucky ones with a quota permit in hand, here are a few tips to increase your odds of offering a mature tom a spot in the back of your truck.

1. Scout, Scout, Scout

how to scout for turkey on public land
This isn’t the time to be figuring out where you should hunt- at daybreak on opening morning you should be seated in a pre-determined location listening to the woods wake up.

Florida WMAs cover thousands of acres and offer a mind-boggling amount of terrain to chase a turkey around. Going onto a large property without prior knowledge of how the land lays out or where the turkeys live is a recipe for failure. For turkey hunter that consistently fill tags, the most important knowledge you possess is familiarity with the terrain. Finding where a gobbler is roosted and gobbling gets you in the game- but when he ignores your best hen talk and heads off away from you, knowing what the woods look like where that bird is heading makes it easier to do an end-around move and get ahead of him without being busted by the gobbler or other turkeys. Pre-scouting arms you with this knowledge.

2. Have Multiple Options

best public land turkey hunting
By investing the time before season to observe birds without disturbing them you should also learn where they want to spend late morning hours loafing to determine a mid-day plan B.

Spend as much time in the woods where you’ll be hunting and try to locate as many birds as you can. Finding multiple roost sites is smart for that morning when you find a fleet of trucks parked at your favorite spot. This gives you a plan B to fall back on if you don’t want to fight a crowd. Pre-season time spent watching birds loafing around in the mid-morning under a shade tree is also a good way to understand where those birds are headed after fly down and gives you a chance to be set up for mid-morning to wait them out after the early rush has quieted down.

3. Early Bird Gets the… Bird

how to hunt turkey
Get in early! If you’re rolling up to the roost at this point in the morning you will undoubtedly be having words with another unhappy hunter.

Get to your spot EARLY. If you are in a public spot where you’ve found a roosted gobbler, chances are somebody else has found this bird too. By getting to the spot well before first light and setting up, you have a leg to stand on when it comes down to who will get to sit under the bird. Most times if another hunter wants to be argumentative about it, I’ll give up the spot and try to scramble to my plan B. If you engage somebody in the woods in the pre-dawn that is being reasonable however, you being already brushed in and seated before they arrive is enough to encourage them to move on.

4. Expect the Unexpected

public land turkey hunting near me
Avoid unnecessary surprises such as curious livestock whenever it’s possible by anticipating the unexpected and adjusting the plan before you hunt.

In turkey hunting, you’ll run into more obstacles to your success than in almost any other kind of hunt. This is a game where everything has to go exactly right and there are too many things you didn’t plan for going wrong. For example, one thing you’ll undoubtedly experience is a hunt that seems like a lock suddenly go sideways with the appearance of the local livestock. I’ve lost count of how many hunts of mine were unraveled by cattle. Cattle are curious animals and will approach your decoys and the sound of your calling just for a social visit and they like to surround you. They also give off a nervous energy when they can smell you but can’t see you. This could signal other wildlife (including turkeys) that something is amiss. There’s nothing more frustrating than this scenario. An easy way to avoid this predicament is to set up away from any pastures with lots of cattle whenever possible. Despite your best effort, if you do a good bit of turkey hunting this will happen to you eventually.

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5. Scent Control Matters

how to find turkeys on public land
Scent control might not seem overly important but practice it to some extent to avoid having a wary whitetail alerting the woods about impending danger.

Now you’ve likely heard the expression “if turkeys could smell, we’d never kill one” and laughed. The truth is that may be very accurate and I’m thankful they don’t smell us. Don’t let the fact that their inability to smell lets you off the hook from applying some measure of scent control. Although I never get too neurotic about controlling my scent since I know there’s no way to be entirely scent free, I will take measures to avoid smelling like a chemical plant covered in insect repellant. The scent of bug spray will send a wary pack of hogs stampeding into the noisiest hammock and get the most neurotic blowing whitetail doe sounding off and stomping her feet pretty quickly. Both of these distractions signal trouble to the entire woods and a turkey may likely go on high alert as a result of it. Whenever possible, try to keep the spray to a minimum or even better avoid it altogether. I fire up a Thermacell at the truck so that it’s smoking hot when I sit down if the bugs are bad at the truck. This scent doesn’t seem to be as offensive as spray.

6. “Don’t move! He can’t see us if we don’t move.”

how to find turkeys on public land
Being prepared to be comfortable for long sits can spell the difference between success and failure and a low slung ground chair is a game changer for these days.

Sit as still as possible for as long as possible. The best way to assure your ability to sit motionless for long periods of time is to carry a comfortable seat to the woods. Many hunters have learned the value of the “Turkey Lounge” style folding seat for long sits (myself included) and although they are a bit more freight to pack around in the woods they are well worth it. Obviously the drop down cushion on a turkey vest is more convenient and will work in a pinch if the bird is hammering away and closing in fast. The lounge seat saves the day when you find yourself camped out for an hour or two waiting on a stubborn bird to come your way. Sitting still is going to put more game in front of your gun ten times out of ten. The ability of a deer or turkey to sneak in silently on your blind side is supernatural and an animal that sees you move before you notice them will simply melt back into the landscape without you ever knowing they were coming.

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7. Don’t Over Call

where to hunt turkey
Aggressive calling that’s intended to get a gobbler fired up is a sure bet that you’ll have other hunters closing the gap towards your intended target.

Probably the single thing that ruins more public land turkey hunts than any other- is a hunter running to a gobbling bird. If I’m set up under a public land bird at daylight I’m likely praying that he won’t gobble. As soon as one fires it up you can be sure that other hunters will abandon their plan A and haul the mail towards the sound of that bird. If it’s a bird you’re set up close to, he’s either getting blown out of there by the sight or sound of an approaching hunter or the guy gets close enough to him to shoot him out from under your nose. Either way your hunt ends abruptly. Calling to a bird is meant to elicit some kind of response and often it’s a gobble. As much fun as it is to work a bird to the gun by calling, on public land a quiet bird is ideal. If you must engage old Tom, wait until he’s in gun range and then smack talk a little at him to get him to stretch his neck out for the shot. This way your gun is pointed his way with the safety off if he decides to leave you can cancel his plans.

8. Be Patient and Sit Tight

public land turkey hunting
Being patient will very often lead to a silent Tom slipping in quietly and turn what seems like a lost cause into a sudden adrenaline filled moment of panic.

For some hunters in the turkey woods, sitting still for long is impossible. As soon as that bird hits the ground and goes quiet, minutes seem like hours. A common mistake is to always assume the bird has left you or is headed away from you. I swear I’ve killed a great many birds by softly tree yelping before fly down until a bird gobbles at me one time off the roost- and then sitting there quietly and waiting him out. If I’m sure a bird answered me I’m also sure he knows exactly where I am and if he wants to come find that hen- he’ll do it eventually.

using turkey decoys on public land
Game, Set, Match- If you’re watching a longbeard breed your decoy at 20 yards, chances are you’ve done your homework.

I’ve even had plenty of birds leave with hens at daybreak only to return an hour later looking for his long lost love from first daylight. The reality is that TV show hunts where they’re calling back and forth is much more exciting and birds hammering in your face and attacking the decoys get your heart pounding. Realistically, sitting patiently and waiting one out puts more birds in the pot.

9. Don’t Take Chances on Private Land Gimmicks

using turkey decoys on public land
The motorized ground stake on this DSD Jake decoy has clearly done its job but this kind of realism on public land invites hunters from long distances to come closer for a better look. Safety, and more importantly avoiding incoming gunfire should be your top priority.

A couple examples of this are using motorized decoys or “Reaping” a gobbler from behind a turkey fan. These are methods that work plenty of the time but should be reserved for private property where you are certain you’re the only one hunting. Motion decoys will attract the attention of hunters from a long way off and you’ll likely have somebody pulling off a ninja sneak on your decoy set. Moving decoys will turn off the brain of too many hunters and create potentially deadly consequences. Even more dangerous is to belly crawl towards a bird behind a turkey fan. Sure it looks cool on YouTube when you see it done but crawling through the grass with a fan is way too risky- especially since unlike the motion decoy, you’re inviting the shot directly towards your face hiding behind the fan.

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10. Use Natural Cover

where to hunt turkey
Using available natural cover allows you to be mobile and undetected by both other hunters in search of a hunting area, and by the sharpened vision of a wild turkey.

There are a lot of methods to conceal yourself from turkeys and probably the best way of all is to remain motionless. Of course this is impossible for long periods of time and you’re going to be much better off having some type of concealment. A pop-up blind can be set up in a minute and allows you to be more free with your movement. They’re also more to carry into and out of the woods. For me I don’t care for being restricted in my ability to hear everything in the woods and pop-ups will shield some of the nature sounds including turkeys coming in quietly. My solution is to create a natural blind made of available brush on the spot. Cutting palm fans to create a screen in front of you is ideal to conceal movement. Simply carry ratchet pruners with you and trim several fans at a sharp angle so they stick into the ground more easily. Use a back screen of palmettos or other brush to tuck into or sit with a tree to your back for back cover and you’re good to go. This can be cut beforehand and laid out of sight until morning so you don’t tip off other hunters that you’ll be sitting there. When your hunt is over even if you plan to return the next day take the blind down and lay the branches out of sight until the next hunt.

public land turkey hunting
With some advanced planning and pre-season boots on the ground your chances of putting yourself into this photo-op become more likely.

Turkey hunting is one of the most challenging forms of hunting we have and although anyone can get lucky and have one walk right to the gun occasionally, to be consistent, especially on public land requires you to use every tool at your disposal to your best advantage. Start with these suggestions and you’ll likely be one step ahead on the road to success.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>