Talking Turkeys with The Wild Turkey Doc
Unless you’re brand new to turkey hunting or you make it a point to stay off the internet, you’ve likely heard of Dr. Mike Chamberlain, otherwise known as the Wild Turkey Doc (@wildturkeydoc). A professor and wildlife researcher for the University of Georgia, Dr. Chamberlain is responsible for loads of research that help us all gain more knowledge about wild turkey behavior that can be put to good use not only during turkey season, but all year round in our personal conservation efforts. He also leads the Mossy Oak Wild Turkey Lab (wildturkeylab.com), which further brings research data to the public in easy-to-understand language. Needless to say, he does more than the average bear for the wild turkey, as well as the hunting community. And he was gracious enough to answer some questions that I feel will benefit both veterans and newcomers to the sport. So, as you read through the questions, think about how you would answer them before reading his response to get a gauge for your turkey IQ. Then, soak in his answers and think through how you could implement his strategies into yours.
Question: How have years of structured research changed the way that you approach turkey hunting?
Answer: I've been conducting research on turkeys for 30 years, but when we developed GPS units for turkeys, that’s what changed how I approached hunting. Once we started gathering data showing how variable toms are in response to pressure, how birds behaved once they encountered hunters, and how there really isn't an "average" tom in any regard, that's when I started changing how I view turkey hunting.
Question: Are there any general assumptions or conventional turkey hunting wisdom within the turkey hunting community that research data has proven to be inaccurate?
Answer: An interesting one would be the notion that if you hear a bird gobbling in the same spot 2 or 3 days in a row that it's the same bird. We've shown clearly that if you hear a bird multiple days in a row at the same spot, it's more likely to be 2 different birds than the same bird. Yes, some birds will roost in the same location day after day, but most do not.
Question: Is there any data that suggests turkeys living around agricultural land act differently during the Spring than those living in heavily wooded areas with no access to ag fields or large open areas? Or is a turkey a turkey no matter the landscape? In other words, do they flock, travel, feed, strut, and breed similarly in every environment, or are there any significant differences within different environments?
Answer: As far as breeding behaviors, turkeys are turkeys no matter what landscapes they live in. However, research has shown that in agricultural landscapes, how birds move may differ from in forested landscapes. Birds with access to waste grains, livestock feeding lots, and other similar places that offer abundant resources may maintain pretty small home ranges compared to birds in landscapes where they must travel farther to find resources.
Question: What would you say is the most important tool a turkey hunter can take into the woods? It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical tool. It could be mental, such as attitude, information from educational resources, history with a given flock or property, knowledge of the terrain and food, etc.
Answer: Having knowledge of the terrain is important, as is any information pertaining to how turkeys move throughout the day. My approach is to try and become part of a bird's daily routine because if you can do that, I've found it's much easier to be successful. In other words, if you understand where turkeys naturally want to be, you can get into those areas and if you're patient and deliberate, can be successful.
Question: What would your strategy be for scouting out a new piece of land to determine if it holds turkeys, and where you should focus your hunting efforts if you find sign? Does that differ with different landscapes or with different sub-species?
Answer: I start with understanding whether gobbling turkeys are on the property. If I hear birds, I try to identify where they typically roost and where they head after they fly down. If I don't hear birds, and the property appears to me to be ideal turkey habitat, I'll usually try to cover some ground and see if I can find sign.
Question: With most turkey seasons being relatively short in terms of weekends available for the average hunter, should a lack of gobbling on the first morning or two be a sign that a hunter should move on from a given location, even if there was some physical sign or gobbling in the area pre-season?
Answer: We've seen tremendous variation in gobbling from one day to the next, so don't be discouraged if your first foray onto a property ends with you hearing no gobbling. Try to scout when barometric pressure is rising and weather conditions are ideal for gobbling and be patient. It may take multiple days to pin down what is occurring on a particular piece of property.
Question: How do your tactics change from the beginning of the season to the end of the season?
Answer: As the season progresses, I tend to push myself to slow down and be more patient. We've seen natural lulls in gobbling activity as you reach peaks in nest incubation, with a predictable increase after that point. The net result is that you may make several hunts mid-season with poor gobbling activity - stick to your guns so to speak, be willing to sit longer, call less, be more subtle, and let things play out if you have the time.
Question: What advice would you give a turkey hunter who has had years of success on private land, but has lost their access to it, and is being forced to challenge their skills on public land for the first time?
Answer: Be willing to identify places where you can try to get away from the crowds, be tolerant of others making mistakes that influence your hunt, and be willing to get through the opening barrage that occurs the first few weeks of the season. As the season progresses, many public lands will see big declines in hunter activity, so be patient and get through those opening weeks, understanding that you may be able to have access to birds later in the season that are not being pressured as much.
Question: What is the biggest mistake you believe turkey hunters make that they may not even be aware of that causes them to strike out more often than they should?
Answer: A big mistake many hunters make is engaging a bird first thing in the morning, and then leaving the area after the bird seems to move off in a different direction. We've seen clearly that some birds will respond to hunters, but then leave to move to different parts of their range for a few hours, before returning to the exact spot where the hunter was calling. The take home is to be patient. Be willing to sit tight for a few hours and let the hunt come to you. Sometimes, the result will be a bird that comes back to your location a few hours later looking for the hen he interacted with several hours prior.
There are several key takeaways from my interview with Dr. Chamberlain, but I’d say one of the biggest is the importance of staying patient – staying patient with pressure on public land, patient with quiet birds, and patient with learning a property. The season seems so short, so patience is hard to maintain. However, it’s likely the largest determining factor between a successful season and one that ends with a pocket full of tags. I’d like to thank Dr. Chamberlain for all that he does for wild turkey conservation, as well as for offering his time and expertise to the Spartan Forge community.
Written by Alex Killman at Southeastern Bowhunting