As I walked slowly along through the pine grove something caught my eye. It was an object a casual observer might easily overlook, but any experienced turkey hunter would be sure to pick up on — a turkey’s wing feather. I ambled over and picked up the barred quill. It felt almost buoyant in my fingertips as I turned it over, admiring the zebra-striped pattern. To the non-hunter out for a Sunday stroll it might seem little more than a minor curiosity, something to take home and show the kids, or to stick in the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner table. For me it was a clue, one that I hoped might lead to a successful resolution in few short weeks.
Many things contribute to a successful turkey hunt but arguably the single most important is pre-season scouting. It’s sort of an investment. The more time you put in now, the less you’ll need to spend once the season opens, and that will provide a greater return. But like a shrewd investor you need to know what to look for, and then be able to recognize a good thing when you see it.
My wing feather offers a good example. It provided proof positive (or nearly so, anyway) that a turkey had been through that area. But when? Turkeys molt a lot of feathers in the fall. If the one I found had lay dormant since then it wouldn’t be of much help this spring. This one was fresh. Why was it there? If the bird was just passing through that might be of some value, but not much.
I quickly took note of my surroundings. This wasn’t some nondescript patch of woods. I was under a canopy of big, old pines; so I played a hunch. A little more searching turned up more feathers, some broken branches and at last, turkey droppings, confirming my suspicions that I was standing under a night-time roost. This was indeed a valuable find, and might eventually prove to be a good place to begin a morning hunt. I could return that evening at dusk to see if the birds flew to roost, or come back the following morning before sun-up and listen for their gobbling.
Continuing on, the pine grove abruptly gave way to a hayfield. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine the birds pitching down in the gray light of dawn, first the hens, then finally the tom. I pictured him racing to the head of the flock where he’d puff up into the full strut pose he’d continue through most of the morning. There would be no way to ambush the birds in the open, but if I could predict which way they would go…
I scanned the field edge. A stone wall to the left might discourage the birds from going that way. They could easily hop, or fly over, a fact most turkeys aren’t smart enough to recognize. A dense tangle of shrubs bordered the right side. The birds could squeeze through there, but probably wouldn’t. They’d be easy prey for anything lurking in the underbrush; and this they would recognize. Ahead the woods were open. Furthermore, there was a break in the stone wall marked by the ruts of a two-track woods road. That would seem their most likely exit route.
I hustled across and soon found more revealing evidence. First there was a vestigial footprint in the chocolaty matrix of what had been a mud puddle. Then, I found strange markings in the drier soil. They looked like primitive hieroglyphics, or perhaps the trails that might be left after a worm race. I recognized them as the scrape marks made by a strutting tom as he dragged his wings along the ground.
The picture was becoming clearer now. The birds would be roosting in the pines. They’d likely fly into the field at first light, because that’s what turkeys like to do. Then they’d make their way across, eventually walking through the gap and up the woods road. I couldn’t get to the roost, or the field without being detected, but I could get to the far side, if I came in well before daylight. Then all I’d have to do is be patient, and hope no one or nothing else interfered with my plan. If all that happened, it could be a very short turkey season. Just in case it didn’t, I planned another scouting mission, for another place and another day.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: