Turkey Hunting: In the Thick of Things

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Close your eyes for a second.  Go ahead, trust me on this one!  Describe to me the perfect turkey hunting place.  If you are like most hunters, you would say that your idea of a gobblers’ Shangri-La would feature lush, rolling fields with big hardwoods in the drains and fingers.  Believe me, even though I prefer the “flat land” I am accustomed to as a result of hunting in central Alabama, the scene sure sounds heavenly.

 Now let’s say that it is late in the season and the hens are nesting.  Is that place you are so vividly describing in this exercise really a turkey Mecca given the circumstances?  It probably has become a land barren of turkeys.  Where did they go?  They haven’t hidden themselves in underground tunnels; they have simply followed their hens to their perennial nesting grounds.

Like many hunters in the southeast, I have become by way of circumstance accustomed to hunting cutover turkeys.  Let’s be brutally honest, cutovers are ugly and hunting them is not fun.  For those of you fortunate enough to hunt land absent of these headaches, picture a large agriculture field full of logs, branches, and stumps.  As hard as field turkeys can be to kill, a cutover turkey is more difficult.  The first and second years after the timber is cut, turkeys will frequent the cutovers to strut and feed, as it is open and full of fresh green sprouts.  As the years pass and the undergrowth becomes thicker, turkeys frequent cutovers less and less.  However, the hens do like to nest in the cutovers, and as they say, where there is smoke, there is fire.

One morning late in the 2010 spring season, we heard some turkeys in a very peculiar place on our property.  We were short on time, and were not able to find out exactly where they were.  Later that week, we decided to go scout back towards where thought we had heard the turkeys.  This area is basically one large cutover with a small creek bottom on either side and a road running through the middle.  We were shocked to see tons of gobbler tracks that had been freshly laid in the road since the rain a day prior.  The next morning, we went into the area and heard several turkeys, and you guessed it, tons of hens.  Again, where there is smoke, there is fire.  While we were unsuccessful, we did learn something very valuable about late season turkeys-forget hunting in the parks, and follow the hens.

One of the best turkey hunting places I have ever set foot on was a 2,000 acre pine plantation in west central Alabama.  It was not the most aesthetically pleasing tract, as it had no picturesque creek bottoms winding through it with old growth timber on either side; it was just row after row of pine trees.  However, it was home to a mother lode of turkeys.  It took me several years of head scratching to figure out why it seemed to be a turkey factory, particularly later in the season.  The simple reason was that it had the right mixture of open pines and thicker pines to attract and hold turkeys throughout the year.  Because the pines were denser than surrounding blocks of timber, as the first waves of hunters hit the woods in mid-March, the turkeys fled to the pines to seek shelter from the storm and stayed there throughout the season thanks to the nesting cover.

While you may think that hunting in thick cover would be easy simply because you can get tighter with the turkeys, sometimes hunting thick cover can be far more difficult that those pretty hardwoods in your dreams.

Finding daylight

One of the main challenges of hunting thick areas is simply finding a place to setup.  Not only are the trees you will be sitting by smaller, but the area you will be able to shoot will be as well.  The key is to find areas that turkeys can access more so than an area that appeals to your eye.  Hang-ups are bad enough in a perfect world; set foot in a thicket and they multiply exponentially.  Turkeys tend to find themselves a comfort zone, which may be nothing more than a small clearing in the middle of a briar thicket, and given that they had to bulldoze their way in, may be reluctant to come running to you.  The key is to be patient and willing to make several “probes” into the tight cover to see where a bird may be willing to work.  Because the timber is tighter, the birds may be skittish, meaning that it will take time for them to come on.  As long as a bird is answering me, however, I keep myself in the game.

Roads are without a doubt the best ambush spots for tight cover gobblers.  Turkeys use roads to travel through the thickets with ease and will strut for nearby hens on these trails.  Logging decks are also key areas.  I do not use decoys, but those who do so may want to use one to draw the bird down the road and into an open spot.  Shooting lanes will be at a premium, so keep them in mind when setting up on a road.

Take a careful aim

Several years ago I was hunting on the turkey factory discussed earlier and culminated a great afternoon hunt with a gut-wrenching miss.  The turkey was so close before I could shoot it that the tiny vine at ten yards caused me to miss at fifteen, beginning a humorous chase through the woods.  The greatest lessons in life and the woods are often of the painful variety, and after that day I learned two things about shooting in thick cover: aim carefully, and use a looser choke tube.  Yes, that’s right, a looser choke tube.

Let’s face it: we have become obsessed as a whole with how many pellets our gun places in a pie-shaped target at sixty yards.  I am as guilty as anyone of this, but the truth is that when you are hunting in a thicket you will not be able to see sixty yards, much less shoot that far.  The majority of the shots I have while hunting in what I consider to be thickets are between fifteen and thirty steps.  There is simply no need for a triple-extra super duper turkey choke at those distances.  You just need the bulk of the pattern to hit him in the head. 

If you deflect a portion of the pattern on a vine, like I did above, you have a much greater margin of error than you would shooting a pattern designed for long range destruction.  I am not inferring that you should switch to an improved or modified choke, but the factory choke that comes with your shotgun may be better than the hundred dollar post-production choke you use under normal circumstances.

The Back of Your Hand

As with any terrain type, knowing the lay of the land is crucial, and when hunting thick cover, it is paramount.  I learned this the hard way several years ago.  On a midday prospecting run, I struck a turkey a couple hundred yards back in a dense pine plantation.  Without thinking, I quickly moved into the timber and began aggressively working the turkey.

The turkey gobbled furiously, but was held up by a grown up windrow that was just out of eyesight from me.  Assuming that was the case, I decided to loop around the windrow, which ran north and south for almost 100 yards, and set up where the turkey had no obstacles.  Soon after uttering the first note of a yelp, the bird roared back.  Five minutes later, I was standing on top of him.  By being willing to make a move to eliminate a key obstacle, I was able to take a phantom of the pines home with me.  However, had I known the obstacle existed in the first place, the hunt would have come to fruition more rapidly.

Just like deer, turkeys will have entry and exit points in thick cover and will have travel corridors throughout them.  You must think like a turkey when deciding on your set up; remember that if the area is too thick for you, it is likely too thick for the turkey. When doing your scouting, find those small clearings and learn how they interact with each other.  That may end up being the difference between success and failure when hunting the thickets.

ADAPTING TO CHANGE

Let’s face it, briar thickets or CRP sage fields are not our paint-by-number turkey sanctuaries.  However, as the dynamics of the places we hunt change, and the turkeys adapt accordingly, we too must be willing to venture into the tangles in search of our favorite game bird.  Trust me, having a gobbler emerge at point blank range in a thicket is a heart-stopping experience.  If there ever was a good thing to come out of a thicket that would truly be it.  See, there is a silver lining to everything!
Author:
Wild Turkey Report Staff
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