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Scouting Deer While Turkey Hunting

What can a deer hunter learn from the turkey woods? Quite a bit.

Scouting Deer While Turkey Hunting

Josh Zaring | Dreamstime.com

Whitetails pay my bills, but I’d rather hunt spring turkeys, and it’s a good time of year to talk about them both. Turkeys and whitetails share much of the same habitat and some of the same habits. Though the tactics and skill sets for hunting them are different, you can learn things in the turkey woods to complement your whitetail strategy in the fall.

Late-Winter Scouting

I don’t need much of an excuse to go for a walk in the woods on a warm day in late February or March when the peeper frogs are singing, and the daffodils are blooming. A day of kicking turds would do just fine. But usually, I go out under the guise of turkey scouting, though turkeys are still flocked up for the winter at that time of year, so seeing them doesn’t mean much for hunting season.

Maybe I should just say I’m going deer scouting instead, because taking stock of last fall’s deer sign is extremely helpful. A shed antler is an obvious prize that time of year, but finding last season’s rubs, scrapes and licking branches is more useful. Tracks, beds, muddy trails and fresh droppings are also easier to see right now—before the woods green up—than at any other time of year.

Deer tracks in the mud
Tracks are also easy to find this time of year. Make note of key movement corridors for the coming season. (Realtree-Media)

If you suspect the buck you were hunting last year was bedding on the edge of a beaver slough or base of a bluff but didn’t want to sneak in for fear of spooking him, late winter is the time to investigate. You might cut a faint trail or find a big, well-used bed, or perhaps even spook the hell out of the buck and watch him bound away with your own two eyes (relax, he’ll come back). This intel can be huge for fall, particularly the early season.

Even if you aren’t looking for buck beds and tracks, the barren timber can provide new perspectives on good setups that you just can’t see when the foliage is out. One of the best nuggets I ever gleaned from a springtime walk on one of my leases was a crossing that allowed me to slip down an otherwise sheer, undercut creek bank and sneak up the creek bed to the base of a prime oak ridge. I’d been trying to approach the ridge from a different way for the first couple years that I had the lease, and it was a deer-spooking fiasco each time. I learned that if I snuck up that creek before daybreak and committed to an all-day sit, the ridge is good for daylight-to-dark deer sightings come November and December. We’ve shot a couple nice bucks in there, and all those hunts began with a predawn hike up that creek. Finding that crossing was the key piece of the puzzle, and I wouldn’t have found it had I not been out putzing around in the spring.

Bottomline, every good whitetail hunter I know scouts extensively in the late winter and early spring, and sometimes the simple observations make the biggest difference. It’s more fun than kicking turds, and you might even hear a turkey gobble while you’re out there.

Improved Woodsmanship

Hunting from a treestand in a good spot is the best way, day in and out, to kill a big buck. But the two largest whitetails I’ve killed in my life were both taken as I sat flat on my butt against a tree trunk, with a gun rested on my knee. Both hunts—one in northern Missouri and one in western Tennessee—happened when bucks were locked down with does in late November, and I wouldn’t have shot either deer without some on-the-spot decision making and taking advantage of terrain that allowed me to maneuver into position.

The hard truth is that most whitetail hunters just aren’t that quiet or careful. They tend to throw on a pack, grab a gun and walk—or drive a four-wheeler—straight to their stands without stopping and listening along the way. Once settled, a good many of them spend most of the day glued to a smart phone. When deer do walk in, they film them and text the videos to their friends and then practice drawing their bows on them or aiming their guns and whispering bang. Not every deer gets spooked by all of this unnecessary movement, but plenty of them do. Then the hunters walk out and complain of swirling winds causing spooky deer.

Turkey hero photo
Even if you don’t get the whitetail information you need for the fall, turkey hunting can yield other great rewards.

If you spend some time sitting very still in the turkey woods, you’ll have deer walk up on you eventually, and you might marvel at how close they will get and how long they will hang around, even with you staring at them from eye level. Sure, they’ll spook if they get downwind, but you’ll come to realize that many of the deer you thought smelled you back in the fall really saw you or heard you.

Deer depend on their eyesight and hearing far more than many hunters realize. Turkeys rely on those senses almost exclusively to stay alive. There’s no better way to practice sitting still and being quiet than by trying to call the famously wary, 20-pound boss gobbler into shotgun range in the spring. And even if you gain nothing else, turkey hunting is a pretty good way to pass the time until next fall.

Know Your Range

Good binoculars in a protective chest harness are as indispensable when hunting gobblers as they are when chasing whitetails or any other big game. I’m frequently surprised at the number of turkey hunters who don’t carry them, but I stand more bumfuzzled by those who don’t carry a laser rangefinder. Even the cheapest model will reliably range objects to 50 yards, the maximum distance at which anyone should be shooting at a gobbler (even with a fancy choke tube and custom TSS shells), and most of them take up less room in a vest pocket than a slate call. Bring one along, like the Leupold RX1400i or Vortex Crossfire HD, and make like a bowhunter, ranging landmarks for reference at the start of every sit — before making your first yelps. I guarantee you’ll miss fewer turkeys if you pick up the habit.




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