How Turkeys Use the Land

By Brian Lovett

In our defense, we probably couldn't have done anything differently. Still, it played out like a bad dream. Oh, it started just fine. As my friend and I listened from a field corner, a solitary longbeard hammered from a hardwood ridge that cut through a cedar swamp. The bird was just off the property we could hunt, but he was very huntable. We hoofed down the field edge, pausing now and then to get a better fix on the bird. After three or four more gobbles, I guessed he was in a thick-limbed oak that bordered a small ridge in the swamp. 
Further, because of the lay of the land, I guessed he’d pitch toward us. We eased along as far as possible, finally stopping at a dead tree on the fence line. If we went farther, we'd hit a wide open area, and the gobbler would surely see us. Although the tree provided sparse cover, the rest of the setup looked good. The bird was 70 yards south of us, and an open, easy hardwood slope extended from the field edge to his tree. I figured he’d hit the ground, walk a few steps to the crest of the small slope and pop his head up at 25 steps.

Within seconds, the gobbler crashed to the ground. I clucked once on a slate, and he double-gobbled. Perfect. I called twice more in the next two minutes, and he honored every yelp. More perfect. Drumming filled the air, and I listened intently for the bird's approaching footsteps. But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the kill.

The longbeard started to drift left. He did so slowly at first, so I figured he might just be strutting back and forth, inviting the hen to his domain. But he quickly picked up the pace, and soon, it was evident that the bird would pop out along the field edge to the east. My friend and I shifted around and got ready, just as the gobbler emerged. The tom stopped and craned his neck for a moment, searching for the hen.With nothing between him and us — and no decoy out — I figured we were sunk. However, it was still pretty dark, so the longbeard began stepping cautiously into the field, quartering slightly toward us.

I’m not sure what he saw: a shifting gun or two silly looking blobs hunkered by a dead tree, perhaps. Either way, he soon stopped, periscoped his head, putted once and turned to leave. He was in range, albeit barely, so I told my friend to shoot. He did, and — using an unfamiliar shotgun — placed a lovely shot string in the dirt at the gobbler’s feet. The bird jumped in the air and flew a country mile.

It was 5:30 a.m., and our day was done. After inspecting the scene of the crime, it was easy to see how things had gone wrong. The bird had flown down toward us, as anticipated. Yet instead of hot-footing it up the small rise to our setup, he'd followed a tiny finger ridge from his roost tree to the field. The ridge was just a few feet higher than the swamp and bottom hardwoods it bordered, but to that gobbler, it must have looked like a four-lane highway. As I followed the ridge to the field, I remembered something another friend had told me two years earlier: “They like to pop out in the field here.”

Of course. It was just a natural travel area. Though there was no good reason why the gobbler couldn't have come directly to our setup, he was probably accustomed to walking the small ridge to that field, and he'd just done what came naturally. Still, that knowledge didn’t make me feel better.


Most turkey hunters underestimate the importance of knowing how birds use the land. Despite their often random behavior, turkeys frequent specific areas for a reason. They don't just walk along a ridgetop for no reason. Their survival or reproductive instincts guided them there.

It’s been said a thousand times, yet it bears repeating: A poor caller who’s familiar with his hunting area and turkey movement there will kill more longbeards than a great caller on unfamiliar turf. If you pitted a world-champion caller against a farm kid on land with which the kid was familiar, the smart money would be on the youngster to tote a gobbler back to the barn. Of course, most turkey hunters gain a general knowledge of their hunting areas, and can pinpoint likely roosting areas, ridges where birds might travel and loaf, and fields or other open areas where turkeys will likely feed and strut. But few consistently connect the dots about why birds frequent some areas, travel certain routes or use specific areas in certain weather conditions.

If you’re a bow-hunter and deer manager, you’re likely farther along the learning curve. Because they must find spots to ambush deer at 30 yards or closer, archers pay meticulous attention to the how’s and why’s of deer location. Further, with few exceptions, they don't fall back on fancy calling or decoys to do that homework for them. Too often, turkey hunters think that fancy yelping, the latest decoys or “secret” calling tactics will lure in a gobbler. They disregard the turkey’s natural tendencies and fail to anticipate — as I did with the missed field gobbler — how even pepper-hot birds react to the landscape and terrain features for specific reasons. Knowing how turkeys use the landscape might be the No. 1 skill for killing spring gobblers.

Because turkeys inhabit 49 states and several Canadian provinces, it’s extremely difficult to categorize and diagram “turkey country.” I’ll simply try to cover general guidelines and throw in specific examples. Hopefully, you can apply these to your neck of the woods.


Let’s examine how turkeys use the land during a typical morning. Basically, this entails roosting, fly down, feeding and breeding, while considering travel with all these periods. Determining where turkeys roost might be the easiest task. After all, you'll hear them gobble in the morning; they’re providing an aural road map to their location. Also, you might hear them fly up in the evening or down in the morning, and you’ll often find wingfeathers and piles of scat under roost trees during the day. Turkeys typically roost in large trees. In Texas, a “large” tree might be the only 15- foot-tall live oak in a mile radius. Throughout the rest of the country, however, turkeys spend the night in big hardwoods or evergreens. Depending on the size of the tree and the lay of the land, they usually roost 15 to 35 yards high.

In areas with few large trees — Texas, Nebraska, South Dakota and many other Western states — pinpointing roosting areas is simple. But in the expansive timber of Alabama or unending ridges of southwestern Wisconsin, it becomes more complicated. Turkeys love to roost in areas that offer them increased safety and advantages for the morning and evening. They often spend the night in trees that overlook a creek, pond, swamp or drainage. After all, they won't face any terrestrial predators in such spots. They also frequently roost at the edges of fields, meadows or food plots, depending on where they feed during the day.

This also lets them simply pitch their wings and sail into a safe open spot right away in the morning. In areas of thicker timber and pronounced terrain, turkeys typically roost two-thirds to three-quarters up — or down, depending on your vantage point — the sides of draws, ravines, ridges or bluffs. They love to roost off points or knobs that drop off quickly into steep terrain. In very steep country, where deep coulees or drainages climb to flat bluff tops or hightop fields, birds will often roost at eye level to the top, albeit 30 yards up in a tree.

Guessing where turkeys will hit the ground in the morning can be difficult. Usually, it will be relatively open. This lets birds see the spot from their roost tree and provides an easy take off and landing zone. (They often fly down to the same spot from which they flew up the previous evening.) In flat country, they might just set their wings and sail to the woods floor. In open farm country or the prairies, they might sail several hundred feet, resemblingmallards as they wing into a field. If it’s windy during the morning, birds often fly down into the wind, just like a plane landing.

If the landscape has any roll, the equation is easier. Usually, birds fly down to the short side of the terrain. That is, a bird roosted on a hillside will usually sail to the crest of that hill — perhaps eye level for him — rather than flying much farther down to the bottom of the terrain. The short side of terrain simply offers turkeys the shortest distance from Point A to Point B. And if that short side of the terrain has a logging road, open bench or nifty finger ridge, all the better for turkeys.

After they’re on the ground, turkeys pretty much have three concerns: safety, food and, in spring, reproduction. (For gobblers, reproduction basically involves strutting and breeding. For hens, it’s more complicated, involving breeding, laying eggs and nesting, depending on the stage of breeding season.)


Unless hens are nesting, they usually fly down and immediately feed or travel to feeding areas. If your hunting property offers built-in buffets — that is, food plots — the morning location equation is often easier to decipher. If hens are hitting your clover or other food plots regularly, they’ll typically fly down, mill about in the woods for a bit and then beat a path toward their breakfast. Gobblers, of course, try to stick with hens or, if they’re not near any, find them. So, if you've determined feeding areas and paths to them — that is, your food plots and paths leading to them — you’ve solved a major piece of the puzzle. After all, if birds are consistently going to a specific area in themorning, you can just set up and wait for them. Small food plots work best for this tactic. If a gobbler follows hens into a one-acre clover patch, it's a sure bet he’s in range or will soon be in range no matter where you're set up. However, if you’re waiting on the edge of a large food plot, he might never come into range, unless you’ve chosen a killer setup.

Finding the ideal setup isn’t easy, but it can be done. The first and most obvious step is observation. If you see a breeding flock of turkeys entering a food plot at about the same point every morning, it’s fairly obvious where you need to set up.

If you don’t have a visual on the birds, look for likely terrain features that funnel turkeys' movements to food. I seek ridges, flats, benches, logging roads or other open areas near roosts. Ridges, benches and roads are great travel areas, so turkeys might just feed briskly along these paths on their way to your plots. Many folks overlook the importance of points, benches and finger ridges. As their name implies, points are just areas that jut into valleys, ravines or coulees and drop off quickly to the sides. Birds often roost off the tip of points and, assuming they fly down to the point (that is, the short side of the terrain) often travel the crest of that point to a flat, main ridge or field. Because of the terrain, they often can only travel one direction — straight away from the tip of the point. If you're on a point between a bird's roost and a clover patch, you're in business.

Benches are basically small, flat areas — much like terraces — with open timber along the slopes of ravines, coulees and hills. Gobblers love to strut in these spots, especially those that receive the first rays of morning sun. If you strike a bird on a hilltop, he’s often on a bench. Finger ridges are basically just smaller ridges that branch from a main ridge. Turkeys feed and strut at these spots, just as they would on a bench or main ridge. They’re great travel areas because they offer easy access from food plots or lush bottoms to main ridges.

What if your scouting goes for naught, and you have no clue about where to set up in a food plot? Pick a spot that lets you view the entire plot and gives you a decent shot in a 180-degree radius. If all else fails, try this neat trick. Have you ever noticed that turkeys rarely travel the entire distance of an opening? That is, if turkeys enter a food plot from the southern end zone of a football field, they seldom reach the northern end zone. Usually, they mill about one end of the field and then exit somewhere between the 30s. If you get a visual on turkeys in a field, determine their travel direction, and then look for likely areas where they might “duck out of bounds” back into the timber. Points, finger ridges, logging roads or similar openings are likely spots. This won’t work all the time, but when it does, it’s magical.


General guidelines are great, but as mentioned, you must put the turkeys-in-the-landscape equation together on your own. Being a land manager gives you an advantage. Take these lessons to you hunting area.