By Tony J. Peterson
Nearly 10 years ago, my buddy drank too much coffee one morning while we were trying to find some turkeys on public land in Nebraska. We pulled off on a gravel road and ended up in a parking area, where he relieved himself and I yelped on my mouth call for lack of anything else to do.
As soon as I did, the whole woods seemed to erupt in gobbles. We scrambled to find a place to camp, and got our gear ready to go. During that hunt, we called in quite a few birds, found some sheds, watched plenty of deer from our blinds, and made a plan to return in the fall.
Acting off of that first-year intel alone, we returned in November. And then the following April for turkeys, and then in November again… You get the point. Not only have we arrowed quite a few longbeards (and jakes) on those trips, but they resulted in quite a few bucks — including my personal best — all off of public land.
Here’s the thing about this strategy — most of us want to travel to hunt, but not to scout. We figure that we can do enough digital recon to put ourselves in prime spots when we show up on a deer trip, but there really is no way to replace boots on the ground. And if you won’t put those boots on the ground unless you’ve got a compelling reason to do so, consider a turkey hunting trip.
The Low-Pressure Look
So far, I’ve gone turkey hunting in South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin with dual motivations. Having a good time turkey hunting is one, of course. But a second and equally important reason is to take a good look around at unfamiliar public land. Some places, like the public areas I hunted in Missouri, didn’t do enough to motivate me to splurge on a nonresident deer tag in the fall.
Others, like some of the Walk-In ranches I bowhunted turkeys on in South Dakota, were good enough to get me to go back. In fact, the best public dirt I found in that area yielded 100-percent success on bucks for me, four years in a row, with the biggest taping out in the mid-140s.
The goal with a turkey hunting trip that might provide the necessary intel for a return trip for whitetails, is to both cover ground and to watch. The first part can be tough, because bowhunting gobblers generally involves a pile of gear and a blind, which isn’t overly mobile. This is where the watching comes into play, because if you aren’t going to run-and-gun, you at least want to pull the binos up and pay attention to what the deer are doing.
There’s no guarantee that what an April buck does at first and last light is what he’ll do in late-October. Or it might be exactly what he’ll do. Deer use specific travel routes year-round in many places, which means you might witness spring deer activity that closely mirrors their fall traveling.
Or, you might find yourself in a situation where you can’t (or don’t) see a whole lot in the way of deer movement. That’s okay, because you’ve still got recon options.
Winter Scouting in Spring
I’m of the opinion that the best time spent in the deer woods outside of actually hunting involves winter scouting. Finding last fall’s rubs and scrapes is like getting a sneak peek into where the area’s bucks prefer to be when you can hunt them. While it’s easy to get distracted by gobbling toms, don’t forget to keep your eyes open and take note of spots where you find lots of deer sign.
This happened to me last year in Nebraska while turkey hunting a new (to me) piece of public land. I managed to call in a trio of jakes on my first setup, and as I was taking my grip-and-grin photos, I started to notice rubs all over the patches of brush around my setup.
Fast-forward to last September, and not 200 yards from that spot, I watched a couple of bucks cruising through the same tract of ground. On opening night, I shot a velvet 10-pointer that died within 20 yards of where I had arrowed the jake. The following night, my hunting partner killed a monster 11-pointer out of that same stand, and it was all made possible by a spring turkey trip.
Naturally, you’ve got to make sure you can get a turkey tag and a deer tag in your chosen state. If you can, you’ll realize a turkey trip allows you the opportunity to trial-run your camping sites (or motel choice), and learn the best ways to navigate through the unfamiliar territory.
It also allows you to quickly waypoint staging areas, travel routes, and a host of other potential stand sites for your return trip — all while you’re hunting longbeards. But remember, this is a scouting mission that might yield unimpressive results. Don’t get married to a spot simply because you went on a dual-purpose turkey and deer-scouting mission.
Occasionally, you’ll find a suitable turkey woods that just doesn’t lend itself to the investment of a deer tag come fall. That means the worse-case scenario for this type of trip is that you got to go turkey hunting for a few days, which is a good enough reason to go without the potential bonus of finding a deer hotspot.