March 29, 2016
By Tony J. Peterson
One of the things I hear whitetail hunters talk about often is late-winter and spring scouting. Not shed hunting, but scouting. I don't know if my timing is off, or theirs, but I never see anyone spring scouting.
I think it's sort of like the all-day rut sit. We all know the benefits, we all know we should, but most of us don't.
For many hunters, the season ends when it ends. It doesn't carry through prime antler time, and it certainly doesn't extend into green-up. Personally, by the time the end of March rolls around, I'm ready to forget about deer for a few months, too. I can't, however, because part of my job involves figuring out how to kill mature bucks. And since I've taken it upon myself to try to do that largely on public land, skipping spring scouting trips is out of the question.
That's why when I'm dealing with an out-of-state destination, I almost always try to do a combo trip that involves spring turkeys and deer scouting. Some bowhunters don't give turkeys much love, but I'm not one of them. This all started years ago for me when I was in high school, and I made my first trip to northern Missouri.
Turkey hunting in that state is somewhat of a religion, and we hunted public land there in our quest to kill a few limb-hangers. Sometimes we did; oftentimes we didn't. But we did learn that turkeys — even old, cagey, hook-spurred longbeards — could be killed on public land. And there were plenty of deer there as well.
Those formative trips out of state, living out of a camp and hunting new ground, taught us a lot. Many of the lessons we learned still ring true today, and I use spring turkeys an awful lot to look for deer ground. And you can, too.
Where To Begin
Turkeys and whitetails play well together, and the keys to killing public-land gobblers often translate directly to killing bucks six or seven months later. For starters, if you think you're going to arrow an easy bird right by the parking lot, you're probably in for a rude awakening. You might, because turkeys can be pretty stupid, but you probably won't.
Some of the turkey hunts I've done have been absolutely brutal as far as the hike in and the sheer amount of gear I carried. A pack full of the right stuff for a dark-to-dark sit, a blind, a chair, decoys, and a bow all have to be humped in and out. I don't much like hunting pressure, so I tend to carry all of that stuff in as far as I need to. The places where I carry that awkward turkey load also tend to be places I might have to carry a treestand come fall.
Just where you should hike to torture yourself starts with the right map work, just like deer hunting. In fact, I tend to hunt turkeys off of food sources if possible, which also happen to be deer buffets. You might hunt them off of a roost, which will almost always be near a ridge of some sort, and we all know what likes to run ridges come November. Do you see where I'm going with this?
It's not enough to just hunt turkeys and hope that will lead to huge bucks later. You still need to pay attention to the sign, and any deer sightings. My personal best buck came from public land in Nebraska, and it all started years before on a random turkey hunting trip.
My hunting partner had to answer nature's call, so we pulled off onto a gravel road. While he was doing his thing, I yelped a few times with a mouth call and three birds sounded off. We checked our maps and found a section of public land just down the road, which is where the birds were located. We camped there, and while the turkey numbers were impressive, so were the deer numbers. And since it was the end of March, we could see last season's rubs and scrapes. I also happened to find two shed antlers, both from good bucks — a welcome discovery. We immediately made plans to return to that spot in November.
When we did, we hunted spots that we had found while turkey hunting, and we both shot deer. It was that simple. It wasn't easy, because we hiked our tails off to get to those spots, but it wasn't as difficult as you'd think. A couple of years later we hunted spring birds there, found some shed antlers, saw the same amount of sign, and watched a ton of deer. They were on the same food-to-bed and vice versa patterns we all look for, and our second trip down there resulted in our doubling up on bucks, including my personal best buck ever.
It can be done, if you can get out for a few days in the spring.
I'm a bit Type A when it comes to planning my hunting trips. This is because there is an awful lot I can take care of ahead of time, and I know from experience that there are many things out of my control once I get to my destination. I want to spend time looking over aerial photos and topographic maps before I get there, but that kind of long-distance scouting only goes so far. Getting boots on the ground is what matters more than anything.
Take, for instance, a trip I made to northern Missouri last spring. I got an invite to hunt turkeys on private ground with my buddy Nate Mrnak. I was originally planning on hunting turkeys on public land until the 1 p.m. closure, and then scouting several public parcels. However, when Nate said we could hunt his private ground, I accepted.
I love the challenge of public land, but I'm not an idiot!
Despite weather better suited for a fall rut hunt than a spring gobbler adventure, the first morning we managed to work in a jake that was clearly a lover and not a fighter. I've never called so much to a single bird in my life. He stood statue-still at a distance of only 30 yards, and it was through sheer quantity of yelps, purrs, and clucks that he finally closed another 10 yards into shooting range. When he did, he gave us a drive-by, but that was all I needed to slip an arrow above his drumsticks.
It was a bit of a culture shock to finish photographing that bird in the lush clover of Nate's food plots, only to drive 45 minutes away and start looking over public ground. I drove along gravel roads that wound through greening, rolling hills dotted with the simple white houses of the Amish while I studied my maps and looked for the bright-yellow signs that indicated public land.
While I ended up walking several different properties, one in particular caught my attention. As soon as I parked in the empty lot, I saw a flock of turkeys feeding in a greenfield on the public side of the fence. Where I come from, any game on public land is a good sign, and turkeys right off the bat meant it probably didn't get hunted too hard, if at all, in the morning.
I consulted my maps, and then I set out through a spitting rain to get to an area that was about as far from any access point as one could get shy of trespassing. When I got close, I walked into a small clearing and looked for signs of treestands, because the spot looked like a no-brainer.
I couldn't see any visible signs of treestands, although there were a few sets of old boot tracks in the dirt. It looked like a good-sized draw bordered the clearing, so I set out through the thick stuff and found an area that got my Spidey senses tingling. A long ravine, cut deep on both sides, ran north to south through the corner of the property. It was clear that any critter looking to cross the washout would have limited options, and I walked the length of it to the private fence. A few trails bisected the ravine, and the bottom of it was dotted with fresh deer tracks. Better yet, the north-south orientation of the draw would allow for plenty of west-wind hunting.
After marking up my map, I set out to check another area. While I spooked a pair of toms there, it was a bust as far as deer were concerned. It was too open, too easy to hunt, and just not right for public-land bucks. At that point, I was as far back as I was going to get on the property, so I took a look at the aerial photo to pick an exit route. I ended up planning to swing wide toward the far boundary of the property while looping toward the parking area.
As is so often the case, what I expect to find while scouting and what I actually do find are vastly different. When I got closer to the truck, I started to believe my odds of finding a honey-hole would diminish, but I noticed a thicket at the bottom of a valley. As I clawed my way through it, I sent another longbeard running madly through the leaves (another good sign), and I stumbled onto some big rubs. The largest, gouged deep into a cedar, was definitely not the handiwork of a youngster.
I left that property fully intending to go back in the fall, but the distant call of some public ground in Oklahoma and South Dakota kept me from Missouri. I will go back and deer hunt that spot at some point, without question.
If you do embark on a spring turkey trip mixed with some whitetail scouting, be realistic about what you find. Seeing a lot of deer is a good thing, but not if it's not accompanied by last year's buck sign. You want to find a property that the deer are on in the fall, not in April.
And not every place you walk will hum with the vibrations of a big-buck haunt. In fact, nearly all of them won't. I don't know how many miles I've walked on land that simply didn't have what it takes. That's okay, because it's also part of the process.
Another aspect of a spring turkey trip with deer-scouting intentions is that you can iron-out plenty of wrinkles on the trip, long before deer season. By this I mean you can find quality spots to camp and park, and learn how to navigate through new ground quietly and efficiently.
It's always easier to screw up on a turkey than a big buck, and there is nothing better than a few days spent figuring out a new parcel with only the pressure of calling in a few birds and making plenty of notes about how to conduct a good deer hunt on the ground in half a year.
Enjoy the turkey hunting and see what it brings. It might lead to a good-sized antler and a great place to hunt the rut next fall, or it simply might yield a turkey cutlet for the grill. If you're not overly concerned about giant deer, you might just find a good spot to deer hunt that can produce some more venison for the freezer, or a buck that is big enough to meet your personal goals.
Either way, it all starts right now with a spring turkey tag and a willingness to wander the greening woods with an open mind and an eye to the near deer-hunting future.