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Gobbler Gaffes: How to Hunt Public-Land Turkeys

Pressured birds require a different approach, but that's what makes DIY birds so much fun.

Gobbler Gaffes: How to Hunt Public-Land Turkeys

(Photos courtesy of Tony J. Peterson)

Ten years ago, I had an absolutely action-packed day of turkey hunting on public land in central Nebraska. The gobblers sounded off all day long, and between them and quite a few shortbeards, I called in more birds than I ever have in one sit.

What I didn’t do, was kill one.

In a frustrating pattern that repeated itself multiple times throughout the day, I’d get a single bird, or a group of them, to fire-up and head my way. But they’d hit an invisible wall at 50–100 yards and eventually slink off, or worse, give me a drive-by just out of range.

At midday, I got out of my blind and realized that its top panel was glowing in the spring sun just enough to cause the birds to question the whole setup. It wasn’t enough to get them to sprint away, but it was enough to keep my tags unfilled.

My lesson learned that day stuck with me, and ever since then I’ve become pretty meticulous with my setups and my behavior when birds get close enough to really eyeball my decoys and blind.

Natural Or Nothing

The gobblers you watch on outdoor TV, sprinting in to calls and paying no attention to a blind that was popped up that morning in a wide-open field, aren’t quite the same turkeys a lot of us are hunting. On public land, this might work on opening weekend, but it doesn’t take long before the local birds wise up and become leery of the sudden presence of a blind.

Simply tucking a blind into a patch of cedars, or snugging it up to a deadfall, might be enough. But on a lot of public ground, you can’t trim anything to really brush-in your blind, but you might be able to stack up some dead limbs to give your blind some depth. Regardless, if you have the chance to use some natural terrain to your advantage, do it! And when you do, consider all potential directions from which turkeys might approach your position.

If turkeys commit to your setup, wait until they are locked-in to your decoys before maneuvering into position and drawing.

As far as decoys go, think natural. If you’re on a two-track between two hayfields, imagine how real birds would use the lane — and think about what turkeys look like as they move. They almost always tend to feed and travel in the same general direction, with the hens in the lead and the toms in the back.

If you’re using a breeding pair of decoys, make them visible, but also tie them in naturally to any other decoys (if any) you choose to add to your setup. This might seem like overkill, but the whole point is to sell the setup to all of the birds in your area, and not cause a single synapse of suspicion to fire off.

The Most Crucial Moments

Last season, a buddy and I made a trip to South Dakota in mid-May. We figured the pressure of the early season would have died down by then, and that we’d be able to find some birds on public ground if we looked long enough.

What we didn’t plan for was wind gusting to 40 mph. This lent an added element to our setups that meant we had to keep our decoys and blinds from not only blowing away, but also from moving in any way that would spook birds.

It was a challenge, but after relocating for an afternoon setup on the third day of our hunt, I spotted three redheads coming my way. The jakes hit the 40-yard mark and stopped dead in their tracks. For a tense minute or two, they looked everything over before cautiously walking closer to the decoys.


When the trio finally committed to my decoy spread, I put my pin on the nearest bird and let him have it, which was a relief. The way those youngsters approached, I figured they’d see or hear something that they wouldn’t like and never offer a shot.

I’ve bowhunted turkeys on public land in many states, and find these birds to be less tolerant of little mistakes. From brushing in your blind, to setting your decoys in a natural manner, your goal should be to eliminate anything that might catch the attention of hunt-wary birds.

Now, I wouldn’t peg South Dakota birds as the toughest I’ve ever hunted, nor would I say that jakes are as wary as hens or adult toms. Yet those teenagers weren’t suicidal, and honestly, most of the birds you’ll hunt on public dirt aren’t either.

Turkeys almost always follow a similar script, where they’ll get close enough to either believe in your setup or become convinced something is up. This is the moment when a lot of bowhunters make the mistake of scrambling to get into position. This opens up the possibility of them either seeing your movement or hearing your stool squeak as you move around. If either happens, you’re in trouble.

If the birds give you advanced warning they are on their way, you can get ready. But do it in such a way that allows you to be comfortable. You might find yourself pinned down with a slow approach, and if that happens, you don’t want to move.

If, on the other hand, you suddenly look up and realize there is a longbeard staring holes through your decoys — freeze. Let the encounter play out as long as it needs to. If the gobbler doesn’t see or hear anything he doesn’t like, he’s probably going to come in. When he does, let him get comfortable in your decoys. A turkey that has bought into the setup is a bird that will fall under the decoy spell. That bird will let you grab your bow, draw, and shoot, without paying much attention to what’s going on in the blind. A bird that hasn’t fully bought into the ruse and committed, likely won’t.


Bowhunting public-land turkeys can be far more challenging than it should be. But that’s the fun of it. These are the birds that have encountered enough humans to know that they’d rather survive than risk it all on a potential girlfriend. But, if you really consider your blind and decoy placement, as well as how you’ll handle the moment of truth, the opportunity to aim small will happen.

Gobbler Gear

Montana Decoy XD Turkey Decoy

Bowhunting turkeys can often feel more like an elk hunt after lugging in all of the gear. To alleviate some of that weighty burden and still arrow birds, consider the new XD Turkey Decoy collection from Montana Decoy. The XD stands for Extra Detail, which you’ll see if you check out the MISS PURRFECT XD and the JAKE PURRFECT XD. Used separately or paired up, these decoys weigh next to nothing and fit inside of a daypack, making them the perfect choice for common-ground hunters.

Primos Double Bull 2 Panel Stakeout Blind

Another way to trim weight without sacrificing a chance at filling your tags, is by picking up a blind like the new Primos Double Bull 2 Panel Stakeout Blind. Covered in Mossy Oak’s Bottomland camo, this super-lightweight blind is ideal for tucking into field edges, patches of cedars, or wherever you expect to call in a tom. It’s also designed with multiple viewing/shooting ports, and one-way, see-through walls that allow you to keep tabs on birds without the risk of getting busted.

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