Winter Scouting for Spring Turkeys in Nebraska

February 7, 2022 greg wagner

Don’t kid yourself, we are still in the icy, frigid grips of winter.

However, the length of daylight is increasing. Deer have begun shedding their antlers. Some sandhill cranes have arrived already along the Platte River in south-central Nebraska. It is calving season on ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills. These are all indicators that spring is just around the bend.

For those of us who spring wild turkey hunt, our thoughts are drifting to the woods where we stake our blinds and decoys and hear those early morning gobbles. Gil-obble-obble-obble!

An old, wise turkey hunter I once knew said you should scout a heck of a lot more than you hunt. This is true with turkey hunting. You will not harvest a gobbler or a jake if the property you are hunting doesn’t have turkeys on it, so you need to spend time scouting before the season starts.

A walk in the woods where wild turkeys reside or frequent is a refreshing and welcomed activity in winter on a nice, bluebird-like day. Yes, I know, it’s downright cold outside, but there is a reason to be in the woods. Turkeys!

Scouting considerably in advance of your season opener is the best way to help improve your odds for a successful spring wild turkey hunt, especially for the archery season. Nebraska’s archery/crossbow spring wild turkey hunting season opens on March 25.

Many hunters though will tell you that scouting doesn’t do any good for the turkeys they hunt. They’ll say why bother to scout because “the birds are not even there yet,” or “they’re still flocked up and I don’t want to disturb them.” My response: You don’t know, unless you go.  For savvy turkey hunters, scouting is a year-round activity for wild turkeys, and it becomes more focused in early to mid-March when the birds begin moving from wintering areas to breeding areas.

The late Dick Turpin of Lincoln, who was a longtime Game and Parks outdoor educator and considered to be one of Nebraska’s top turkey hunting gurus of all time, told me this about scouting for spring wild turkey hunting: “You should scout those turkeys before you ever think of hunting them.” Turpin added, “Get to really know the birds. I mean watch ’em close and get to know each individual one. Learn the dynamic of the flock, too … their pecking order, daily routines and roost trees.” “The key thing is to find their core area,” stressed Turpin. “That’s something that won’t change much even when things start greening up.”

The late Dick Turpin of Lincoln, NE on a successful spring wild turkey hunt along Plum Creek in north-central Nebraska. Photo courtesy of MENRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Current Nebraska conservation officer Rich Berggren of Waterloo and an avid wild turkey hunter, has an interesting analogy to pass along to fellow turkey hunters. He said, “If you’re a deer hunter, you have your trail cameras, your game cameras up and running well before the season opens and you scout prior to the season, right? So, if you’re a spring turkey hunter, why wouldn’t you do the same thing? I sure do and it has improved my odds for success because I can pattern the birds.”

Here some important points to highlight about preseason scouting for spring wild turkeys.

Location, location, location.

Although daily movements of resident birds may change, most often wild turkeys will utilize the same habitat annually that meets their needs — particularly roosting cover/trees, seasonal food sources and spring breeding/nesting sites. These locations should be noted on maps or map apps. As a matter of reference, research in Nebraska shows that wild turkeys prefer two types of trees for roost sites — the eastern cottonwood found statewide and the ponderosa pine in the west. I would not overlook the structure of large hackberry or American elm trees for wild turkey roosting cover either. Usually you won’t find them roosted very far from a water supply either, and if they can locate the right trees situated over running water, that is ideal scenario to them. I find that east slopes over water to greet the warmth of the morning sun are highly sought by turkeys. Mark not only where turkeys are roosting, but also where they land after flying down from their roost.

Turkeys seen roosting in the upper limbs of a large eastern cottonwood tree near a Platte River backwater on a quiet February evening. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Turkeys really like open woods, too. Stands of woodlands that have somewhat open understories allow turkeys to easily see danger, be in cover and forage for mast. Open understories usually occur in woods with high canopy cover containing large, mature trees.

An adult male wild turkey walks through the open woods of a Nebraska woodland. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

In agricultural areas, turkeys often depend on harvested crop fields or livestock feed yards for waste grain or may even target freshly planted agricultural fields for food. Wild turkeys also scratch for seeds and acorns as well as eat everything from insects to earthworms to green matter. They seek out grasslands that have underwent prescribed burns for the insects, seeds and new growth they offer.

A pair of hens feed on waste grain during a sunny morning along a harvested, untilled cornfield edge along the Missouri River in March. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Go low impact, but when and how? 

Do not “educate” or disrupt turkeys. Wildlife biologists say winter scouting should be done as stealthy as possible so as not to spook wild turkeys or other wildlife that could alert wild turkeys. The less contact you have with a male wild turkey before you hunt him, the better the chances are that you’ll be able to lure him into range when it counts. Do I call? I typically do not. It is generally not recommended to call turkeys in the preseason, but with a few exceptions. Basic turkey calling should not have any effect on the birds other than to elicit a response — unless, of course, you’re careless and spook them! If sunrise happens and your terrain is silent. If I call, I will employ a barred owl call and blow the “who-cooks-for-you” refrain. If that doesn’t work to get a gobbling response, I’ll try a crow, hawk or pileated woodpecker call.

Interestingly, studies prove turkeys can recognize individual turkeys, so biologists believe they must also recognize different calls and associate the same type, tone, frequency and duration of calling being from the same individual. The bottom line: If a hunter calls in and spooks a gobbler, the gobbler from then on may associate the same call or type of calling with a bad experience and refuse to come close, or stop gobbling altogether.

Also, scout about the first light of the day, if possible, from high vantage points or where you can at least see and hear for long distances. Use good binoculars and spotting scopes to glass for birds in the trees. Similar information can be gathered in the evenings, especially using the barred owl call nearing sunset. In fact, you have may have the opportunity to see and hear birds flying up in their roost trees for the night. Watch and listen for turkeys creating a ruckus taking the roost, but don’t get too close! Put them to bed, so to speak, and discreetly leave.

For midday hours, careful scouting from a vehicle is an effective way to gain valuable details about individual birds, flocks, habits and routines. Plus, scouting from a motor vehicle won’t disturb the birds. They are used to seeing motor vehicles. Drive interior farm, ranch and acreage roads if the landowner doesn’t mind and the conditions allow. In addition, when we have those 50- plus degree days, take a quiet, stealthy hike wearing your camouflaged clothing and understand the lay of the land as it applies to turkeys. There’s no foliage to obscure your view, and since turkeys haven’t quite dispersed into their springtime ranges yet, you don’t have to worry as much about causing total disorder.

A trio of gobblers work their way through Platte River woodlands en route to harvested grain fields in March. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.

Wild turkeys almost always leave a mess wherever they are and give up their whereabouts. Fresh droppings from turkeys are a primary indicator of birds in the area. Ordinarily the scat is small and cylinder shaped, with a diameter slightly bigger than a penny. The ends of the droppings are usually somewhat blunt in form and the scat often curls in one direction. A heavy concentration of fresh droppings under trees can indicate current roosting areas. Know that droppings made by each gender of the bird aren’t always uniform and identifiable.

Wild turkey scat in February snow cover in Missouri River woods. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Tracks are crucial to examine and determine gender and numbers. Hens and gobblers leave behind three-toed tracks, but the middle toe of the gobbler is longer than his other digits. Gobblers have tracks that are approximately 4 1/2-inches long from the base of the heel to the tip of the center toe, while hen tracks are an inch shorter. You can count the sets of tracks to determine flock size. Look for other turkey signs as well.

Various wild turkey tracks in a dusting of snow in February along the Missouri River in southeast Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Molted feathers (a gobbler’s body feathers are black-tipped, while hen feathers are buff colored) and more so, primary wing feathers near suitable trees, may uncover roosts. Also, scratch marks in leaves where the turkeys have uncovered food such as acorns, dusting areas where they’ve rolled in loose soil and created a shallow depression, and even narrow, parallel wing drag lines from strutting, can provide clues to their presence. An abundance of different signs suggests that wild turkeys are hanging out in the area. Putting the pieces of this puzzle together gets you ever-closer to cancelling your Nebraska turkey permit tag.

A primary wing feather of wild turkey laying amid leaf cover in a mature stand of woods in late February. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
A primary wing feather of a wild turkey in February snow indicating the presence of wild turkeys in one of the areas where your blogger hunts along the Platte River in southeast Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Take pics, apply technology.

You know those high-tech, digital trail cameras you used to identify white-tailed or mule deer before your specific deer hunting season opened? They work just as well for pinpointing where certain wild turkeys are during various times of the day and what their behavior is then. The key is to watch for hens. Find the hens and the toms will be around somewhere close. Jakes (juvenile male wild turkeys) quite often like to associate in small bachelor groups. You might even catch a few gobblers on the move. Set up along active game trails (turkeys tend to utilize the same travel lanes as deer), food plots, field edges, vehicle paths, and forested ridges, and be sure to log the data the trail cameras provide.

Also, don’t be afraid to add modern technology to your preseason preparation list for spring wild turkey hunting either. Whether its onX, Google Earth (Earth View), HuntWise or some other hi-tech means, you can learn a great deal about the lay of the land and terrain features in brief bit. These will help you narrow down likely areas of turkey habitat use, save time and make your actual scouting sessions more effective.

A tom turkey is captured with a camera in early March moving through an area of the Missouri River bluffs. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Know your history.

The old cliché: History tends to repeat itself, is the case when it comes to spring wild turkey hunting. Comprehending what turkeys have done in past spring seasons is critical to present and future hunting success. Learning how turkeys interact within the landscape of your hunting property is paramount. Is there an exact spot where they like to cross a creek? Do they have established roost trees? Where do they like to strut? Where have hens typically nested in the past? Calling in a tom turkey is much easier when you’re sitting or positioned where he wants to go!

Miscellaneous Tips.

When scouting publicly-accessible land for spring wild turkey hunting, look for the larger tracts, scout and plan a hunt on them during the week, and hunt as far away from roads and parking lots as you can get.

On private land, take time to politely quiz the landowner for turkey information. Chances are the farmer, acreage owner, or rancher doesn’t hunt turkeys, but knows what the birds are doing, and where the birds are in the mornings, afternoons and evenings and with assorted weather conditions. And keep a log of this information.

It is a memorable moment when a big tom turkey answers your call and comes to within shooting range. This is when your preseason scouting work pays off. Remember, the more information you have about turkeys, the more your chances for success increase!

Your blogger with an adult male wild turkey harvested with a crossbow along the Platte River during a recent NE spring archery wild turkey hunting season. Photo courtesy of Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Get more information about spring wild turkey hunting in Nebraska by visiting

I wish you good scouting, good hunting and great experiences! GW

The post Winter Scouting for Spring Turkeys in Nebraska appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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