Thanks in large part to the NWTF’s restocking efforts, most of us who live on the eastern side of the Mississippi River don’t have to travel very far to see a wild turkey. Overall, the Eastern Wild Turkeys are so widely dispersed that I’m not sure if suburbia is encroaching on the Eastern or the Eastern is encroaching on suburbia. Heck, today there are even turkeys on Staten Island, NY. Because of the population explosion and vast amount of real estate that their range covers, the Eastern wild turkey has become a very adaptable bird.
The Eastern wild turkey loves areas of mixed pine and hardwood forests and open fields. That would be ideal Eastern Wild Turkey habitat, but those are not the only areas where you will find them. I’ve hunted gobbling Eastern’s in 3 year old pine plantations before where the “woods” were so thick you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of you. I would venture to say that this is probably not the ideal hunting situation or ideal habitat, but some days you just have to hunt them where you find them… or in the last place on your lease that is not spoken for.
You already know that a wild turkey’s best line of defense against predators is its keen eyesight, and the Eastern wild turkey is no different. Eastern’s prefer areas that they can see a predator stalking or waiting to ambush, so the more open the forest is, the more likely Eastern wild turkeys are to hang out there. Open woods are preferred turkey habitat, but they are definitely not preferred turkey hunting habitat. With that being said, the more open the woods are the harder it is to hunt turkeys there. Turkeys can easily see something is out of place in the woods that they spend their days in. This is really no different than if you walked in from work and your spouse put a new potted plant next to your favorite chair. You would notice it too. So, woods that are mostly open with some patches of thicker underbrush or small saplings to provide some cover for you are ideal turkey and turkey hunting woods.
There are two other key factors that help to determine where the turkeys are on the land that you hunt. Those two factors are food and water. All wild turkeys are opportunistic feeders that will feed on almost anything that they have a chance to. Eastern wild turkeys will feed on anything from acorns to crawfish, so a lack of food should not be an issue you have on your hunting property. Eastern’s do have preferred diets, and finding that preferred food source should be a goal of yours before every hunting season starts. Look for the tell tale scratching in the leaves, and then do some scratching of your own to see what the turkeys are eating there. Mark that spot on your map, and start thinking of other areas that have the same food source available. Where you find food, you’ll find hens. Where you find hens, you’ll eventually find gobblers in the spring. Hunting near food sources in the mid to late morning and early to mid afternoon in the spring is a great strategy for filling a tag and your freezer.
Usually, the areas east of the Mississippi have adequate water sources to keep and hold turkeys. Turkeys will drink water from puddles, streams, creeks, ponds, lakes, and rivers, and there usually is no shortage of any of those in the eastern 1/3 of the US. If your area is having a particularly wet or dry year, then that may affect the numbers of turkeys you have in certain areas of your land that year. Extremely wet or swampy areas will cause turkeys to move to higher ground, at least for the short term. Conversely, extremely dry areas will cause turkeys to seek a water source to stay hydrated. If you are experiencing a very wet or very dry year, then hunt in areas that are going to be more suitable living areas.
Use the information above to start putting together a game plan for your favorite hunting areas. Some of the best turkey hunters I know are not very good turkey callers. They are students of the birds and the birds’ habits. If birds are using a certain area, find out why and when. They are primarily using it for food, roosting, nesting, or water. If you’ll pay attention to an Eastern turkey while you are hunting him for a few days, then he’ll show you the best method for filling a tag with him.