Mapping your Way to More Turkeys this Spring

By Joel Nelson

Hunting new property is a challenge that most turkey hunters enjoy. Once you’ve taken a few birds in the same places, the hunt becomes more about doing it differently, and taking on a tom in unfamiliar territory is no small task. After all, you’re hunting him in his own backyard, a place he knows every square inch of. He can feed in open fields on the backside of a ridge, peeking over occasionally to check his backside, staying tantalizingly out of range from any direction.

So it was this past spring on a hunt with a few friends east of the Mississippi River in my favorite neighboring state. I had been taking the gracious landowner out each morning on the far side of the property to try and get him a bird, while a few friends, Matt Addington and Aaron Winchell, were cornering the portion closest to the truck. Lucky from the start I guess. Over the course of the morning, through a few loose texts and piecing together the details of the hunt while standing over a fine Wisconsin gobbler, I was able to understand just how crucial the digital map component of the hunt really was.

The birds I was on flew down, wing-to-wing, with some vocal hens that made it all but impossible to woo. Try as I may, I’d only get the occasional over-the-shoulder gobble as jealous jennies led their boys elsewhere. Texts started rolling in with some mapping screenshots, as the near side of the farm was awash with turkeys. This part of Wisconsin is blessed with beautiful hills, broad timber, and open ag-land, all amongst some challenging, rolling topography that makes a first-timer’s approach on birds a bit challenging. In some respects, it can hide you while moving, but without knowing the “roll,” it’s also easy to stumble over a rise and spook the whole flock.

“Birds here” the message read, with an OnX Turkey Icon planted 80 yards off a wood-edge in the open field just down the lane from where Matt and Aaron were approaching. The boys were using a GPS and mapping app that lived on their smart phones to better keep track of the birds and their relation to them. They were tempted to use wooded cover to sneak around on the birds and call them back to the edge, but simple map contours prevented what would have been an open-woods blunder. Instead, they stayed 20 feet below the birds, and 100% out of sight as they snuck below them into the wooded ravine for another peek.

Living vicariously through a friend’s turkey hunt was all I could do at this point, as we were out of spots and birds, and our approach to the truck could hurt their hunt. Eventually, their flock of hens, a few jakes, and two toms made their way to the north and east, staying out in the open and just off the field edge as they peered down into the woods where all the mouth-calls were coming from. Once more, dipping down below the birds, Matt and Aaron used contours and the mapping distance feature to sneak out of sight, and northeast of the birds to cut them off. They were heading to a narrowing field corner, making the approach inevitable if they could remain unseen.

Not long after they messaged about the 2nd move, I heard the glorious “boom” I have heard many times while hunting with friends and family. Most times it is louder than you anticipate, and even when you’re ready for it, the adrenaline is real though your gun barrel isn’t the one getting hot. The landowner and I climbed the open field and made our way down to two happy hunters that had never stepped foot on the property before that day.

It’s a case-study in how effective remote scouting through mapping apps can be, both prior to the hunt and during. My first introduction to them was for means of a digital plat map, and while they’re great for understanding ownership boundaries, their capabilities go far beyond simple property lines. Not only were Matt and Aaron able to convey their location to me for safety and hunting quality reasons, but they were able to use several key features to eventually take this tom. Aerial photos used to be the gold standard in scouting, but never had they been used real-time, in the field, to interpret cover, locations, and how best to move through them. The same could be said for contours. Those brown topographic elevation lines are helpful to gain a general understanding of the landscape, but to use them in detail to stay out of sight from wary gobblers is a whole other advantage altogether.

Distances and real-time measurements are a massive aid to hunters too, as quite often you can pick out distinct parts of the landscape to measure against and understand whether a bird will be in range. It is why Aaron did not attempt a shot at location two, and also why they slid to location number three such that they could. It is difficult to kill flocked up birds, and with so many eyes, it’s often common to see them stay to the edge of any shotgun’s range. Feeling confident in pulling the trigger makes all the difference in a clean kill, and this hunt had that.

More than anything, studying maps real-time makes for a more effective and rewarding hunt. You learn to look for specifics and details that make all the difference. Ranges, elevations, approaches and other details are juxtaposed on top of a host of ownership, air photo, elevation, and piles of land layer information. Even in the most remote areas, you would be challenged to get lost, and should cell service fail you, there’s offline modes that allow you to download the information needed before hitting the woods.

Especially on new territory, or public land you are unfamiliar with, there’s little reason these days to go in blind. Even the most traditional hunters can benefit from a little map study and comparison, and services like OnX make it not only more fun to get after some gobblers, but they also make it surprisingly more effective.