Grand Slam Tips for Public Land Turkey Hunting
Have you ever thought of taking your turkey hunting Grand Slam on public land?
I think it was my late friend Dwain Bland who first came up with turkey hunting’s Grand Slam concept of the 3/4 Slam. Dwain claimed the distinction, anyway, in his marvelous book Turkey Hunter’s Digest, and he won’t draw a challenge from this corner.
Whoever did it really started something. It’s hard to find a turkey hunter today who doesn’t know about the Grand Slam, and eventually most folks start thinking about trying for one. Many hunters are content to do it over two or more seasons, while others don’t consider it a true Slam unless it happens in a single year.
We’re not opening that can of worms here. However you define it is your business. But if you want to try for a Grand Slam the hard way – without guides or outfitters, on public land – maybe these thoughts and tips can help.
The quarter not accounted for here is Florida’s Osceola subspecies. Tagging a public land Osceola is tough. Much of the public hunting land in Osceola territory (the southern two-thirds of the Florida peninsula) is on a permit draw system for turkeys. Further, public-land Osceolas are hunted hard, by good, dedicated turkey hunters. Combine that with the natural tendency of Osceolas to gobble less than other subspecies anyway, and the result is a capital C challenge.
It can be done; I once killed a public-land Osceola. Once. But I hunted them seven years, for a total of 33 days, to get that one bird. I’m not the best turkey hunter in the world, but I’m better than 1-for-33. Evidently not on public-land Osceolas, though.
Okay, that’s the bad news. For the other three subspecies, the outlook is much better. The continental U.S. has more than 170 million acres of National Forest, in every state save nine: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas and North Dakota. Most of these have state forests, WMAs and other public hunting opportunities. Smallish New Jersey, for example, has nearly a half-million acres of public land in the Pine Barrens alone. In short, there’s plenty of public access to the Eastern, Rio Grande and Merriam’s subspecies.
Editor's note: Hardcore turkey hunter Jim Spencer has some how-to tips for taking three of the four subspecies for your turkey hunting Grand Slam. My sidebar for getting the fourth, the Osceola down in Florida, follows his article. Please click through this photo gallery for all four. – Steve Hickoff
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1 | Easterns
From Maine to north Florida, west to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and into Canada, the range of the Eastern wild turkey exceeds the ranges of all other subspecies combined. I’ve found excellent public hunting for Easterns in, let’s see: Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, New York . . .
Get the picture? It’s no challenge to find public land on which to hunt Easterns. Killing one, however, can be a problem. They gobble somewhat more, but Easterns are just as wary as their Florida cousins, mostly because they’re hunted much more than their western counterparts.
Elsewhere on this website my article titled 6 Ways for Turkey Hunting Multiple States on the Road covers the mechanics of planning a multiple-state turkey hunting road trip. Use that as a guide for finding places to hunt. Once you do find that place, here are some tips for hunting Easterns that may help:
*Avoid opening days and weekends if possible, especially in early opening states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. These states draw out-of-state hunters like roadkill draws buzzards, and if you’ve ever had hunters converge on you from three directions while you’re working a bird, you know it ruins your day. After the first week, though, the crush subsides. The turkeys have been messed with, but the woods are less crowded. All in all, it’s a better situation.
*In much of Eastern turkey territory, insect protection is essential. A Bug-Out suit is wonderful in buffalo gnat country, and in the Southern swamps a Therma-Cell is worth its weight in platinum. Also, spray pants, boots and other clothing with permethrin-based repellent. Tick-borne diseases are no joke.
*For most Eastern habitat, darker woodland-style camo patterns are best, especially those with a large, open pattern. Some hunters wear brown-pattern pants and green-pattern upper clothing, claiming they blend in better. Whatever floats your boat, but if you ask me, that’s overthinking it a little.
*Speaking in general terms, Eastern turkeys are not as forgiving as Rio Grande and Merriam’s birds. Because they’re usually hunted harder, they react less favorably to aggressive tactics and loud, frequent calling. Sometimes you’ll find a suicidal Eastern that comes galloping, but more often some restraint in calling and hunting technique is a better way to seal the deal. The advice from here is to start each encounter conservatively, and ramp up the excitement level if it seems appropriate. It’s hard to begin aggressively and then tone it down.
*My top 3 picks for public Eastern hotspots: Wayne National Forest, Ohio; Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri; Boone National Forest, Kentucky.
(John Hafner photo)
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2 | Rio Grandes
For public-land Rios, go to Oklahoma or Kansas, west of Oklahoma City and Wichita. Anywhere else, they’re either on private land or they’re hybrids with Easterns or Merriam’s. There are a few pockets of transplanted Rios – in Utah and Washington, for example – but these are outside the bird’s natural range.
Rios have a reputation as pushovers, certainly the case with my first experience with them in 1986. I was as green as they come, but that didn’t matter. Hunting by myself, in the first three hours that morning I looked down the barrel at 11 mature gobblers before pulling the trigger on the 12th one. I killed my second bird two days later, after calling in another 15 or so gobblers.
During the intervening decades, though, something has changed, and I think I know what it is. We’ve turned Rio Grandes into real turkeys. Those birds I hunted 31 years ago had never heard a fake turkey call, and the only gunfire they’d ever heard was the occasional deer rifle. Else I’d never have called in more than two dozen of them in a three-day hunt.
These days, it’s hard to find a place where Rios are that innocent. Still, hunting them is usually an easier proposition than hunting Easterns, because even now Rios get less pressure. Another factor that works in our favor is that Rios generally live in more open habitat than Easterns, and that makes them easier to locate. Of course, it can also make getting shapes on a gobbler difficult or impossible, so it’s a trade-off. Rio Grande hunting tips:
*Dress in layers. The arid country of Rio Grande land is like arid country everywhere – cold by night, hot by day. A lightweight jacket with a regular shirt and a sweat-wicking t-shirt are usually just the ticket.
*Whether you like them or not, bring a loud box call. Wind is a constant in Rio country, and a high-pitched, ringing box cuts through it better than any other type of call. You’ll locate and work turkeys you’d never hear otherwise.
*Unless you’re good at estimating distances, a range-finder is handy. Because of the open conditions, a strutting Rio Grande gobbler often looks closer than he is. It’s embarrassing to shoot and have your gobbler run away untouched, then step off the distance and learn he was 65 yards out instead of 40. Trust me here.
*My top 3 picks for public Rio hotspots: Wilson Reservoir, north-central Kansas; Packsaddle WMA, Oklahoma; the Walk-In Hunter Access properties in the western two-thirds of Kansas.
(Russell Graves photo)
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3 | Merriam's
While the mountain turkey is generally inferior in beard and spur length, that’s where the inferiority ends. They’re almost as big as Easterns, they gobble with a dedication bordering on obsession, and they come to the call even more readily than Rios. And when you see a blown-up Merriam’s gobbler strutting in, bathed in golden Western light, with snow-capped peaks behind him, you’ve seen the prettiest sight in turkey hunting. Tips:
*Wear good boots. Except for a few places along the Platte and Niobrara rivers in Nebraska, Merriam’s are mountain turkeys. To hunt them, you’re probably going to have to climb. The historical range is Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, but they’ve been introduced farther west – California, Idaho, Washington, Utah – and there’s a spectacularly successful population in the Black Hills and eastward through South Dakota and Nebraska.
*Binoculars are a necessity. If you think Rio Grandes live in open spaces, you ain’t seen nothin’. It’s not unusual to spot a Merriam’s gobbler two miles away. In the rare air and quiet places where they live, you can also hear one nearly that far.
*A compact emergency kit is also wise for hunting Merriam’s. A space blanket, matches, kindling, flashlight and a pound or two of high-energy food (sardines, cheese, jerky, candy bars, granola) can mean the difference between relative comfort and a life-threatening situation if bad weather hits or you break a leg in rough country.
*Call often and call loud. Merriam’s turkeys gobble about as well at noon or 4 p.m. as they do on the roost at first light.
*If possible, start hunting low and work uphill. It’s as effective as any other tactic, and at the end of the hunt when your butt is dragging, your return path will be downhill.
* My top three picks for public Merriam’s hotspots: Black Hills NF in South Dakota and Wyoming; Lincoln NF in New Mexico; Nebraska NF in western Nebraska.
(John Hafner photo)
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4 | Osceola
Following Jim Spencer's exceptional insights here, some of my thoughts on killing an Osceola turkey for your Slam . . .
1. Named for the Florida Seminole Indian leader, the Osceola often roosts in swamps, runs with the snakes and gators, walks in looking just a little taller than the other subspecies, and flat out grabs your heart when he gobbles and struts right in.
2. Yep, the bugs can be fierce. And the late-season summer hot. But if you haven't done it, there's just no describing it.
3. Black dominates the primary wing feathers of this special bird. He looks just a little bit different than all the others. These distinctions add to the hunt for those of us who study the wild turkey.
4. Early on in the spring turkey year, he's pretty intense, flying down out of a Spanish moss canopy and ripping back at your sweet yelps.
5. I've never been big on the Grand Slam deal, but have been fortunate to do it numerous times, if only from hunting around the country all these years. Good friends in the right places have certainly helped plenty. Sometimes I just scratch out one of these "3/4 Slams" Spencer and Dwain Bland write about.
6. Slams, no matter how you cut it, are always a "we" deal, and I'm grateful for it. An Osceola is one piece to the puzzle. You won't regret the time, money or effort to get him by the feet. And you may even return to Florida on a regular basis. I do.
Realtree's Turkey Hunting Nation: Turkey Hunting in Florida
(Tes Randle Jolly photo)