Last year, my good buddy Ben and I applied and were drawn for spring turkey permits here in Illinois for a State Natural Area. We hunted it with no success for a few days, but the whole experience was an amazing time. Ben and I had lunch following the morning hunt of my last day available to hunt, and as I drove out of the parking lot of the restaurant we were at, I was already planning our trip this year. Ben hunted one day longer than me, without success, but the amount of walking we had done throughout our three days of hunting gave us the knowledge to try and hunt it again this year.
As luck would have it, we applied once again as a “party”, and once again drew the same SNA. So this spring we will be trekking through the woods looking for thunder chickens. As I impatiently wait for that weekend in April, I am reminded of how I even began this whole journey of public land turkey hunting.
In 2018 Ben and I applied for the first time for public land turkey permits. Ben had convinced me to apply to a few public hunting land areas he had deer hunted with other friends, since he knew the area. Well we applied but unfortunately Ben didn’t draw but I drew one for the Winston Tunnel State Natural Area. Now, we would have liked to have had hunted it together, but the parks are closed during the turkey seasons until 1pm to everyone except permitted hunters. So that meant he couldn’t go with me.
But Ben, a true good friend, offered to take me out there and show me around, to get a lay of the land and help me scout for turkeys. So at the end of March, we set out and spent the day wandering the woods. The terrain there was very hilly and wooded, and it definitely was going to be a challenge to hunt with gear on my back. But we looked around and came up with a game plan I could follow when I came out solo. We marked spots I could use for calling locations on my onX Hunt app on my phone, and even though we didn’t see any turkeys, we saw some sign that looked promising.
The time between our scouting trek and my season was passed by me getting my gear organized, and most importantly, working on my calling. In our turkey hunts of the past, Ben did the calling. Well when I learned I had drawn a permit and would have to hunt solo, I got some diaphragm calls and began (much to my neighbors’ dismay) practicing all the time.
My first day to hunt had to be cancelled because my wife, who never gets sick, got sick. So I had to stay home with the boys so she could recover. My next available day found me driving the two hours west from my house early in the morning. Between the podcast I had playing and running through my plan in my head, the two hours flew by.
There had been snow overnight, something I hadn’t thought would happen, but that’s what happens when you draw the first season. My anxiety level was a bit high, because I wondered if I was going to run into the other permitted hunter for the area. Your see, the quota for each season was two permitted hunters for that area. As I descended the big hill that at the bottom held the parking lot for the hunting area, I was unsure how exactly I would handle running into another hunter.
This was my first full on experience hunting public land, and from what I’ve learned in articles and on podcasts was that the interaction can be 50/50 at best. Some people can be abrasive, treating the land as if it was there’s alone, even though it belongs to everyone. My plan was that if someone else was in the parking lot getting ready, I would ask them what their plan was and where they were headed, and I would alter my strategy accordingly. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and from the scouting me and Ben did, I had a few spots picked out that would make adjusting possible. I didn’t want my first public land experience to be marked by confrontation.
As I reached the bottom of the hill and saw the reflective marker that marked the entrance to the parking lot, I turned in. My headlights hit an empty parking lot, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It’s not that I didn’t want to share this area, I was just glad to avoid the potential of conflict. I parked my truck, and noticed I had arrived a bit earlier than I had planned, and since no one else was here I was able to take my time getting ready. I took my camo face paint out, and applied it. I chose that route over a facemask because I am not a fan of using facemasks because I feel they can become a hassle. They obstruct my view and generally I don’t like using them.
Once I got my makeup on, I opened the door of my truck and stepped out. Remembering the lessons I had learned from my dad, who in his younger years was an avid turkey hunter, and from what I read and heard from podcasts about shock gobbling, I slammed my truck door. Now, shock gobbling is a term used to describe tom turkeys gobbling at any loud noise during the breeding season. The list of noises that can cause a shock gobble is endless, but one I witnessed in those hunts with my dad when I was young was the slamming of a vehicle door.
When my door slammed, it seemed the whole area around me came alive with gobbles. I was pleasantly surprised to hear it at all, given that it had snowed overnight. I thought that they would be silent, spending the night in the cold weather. Inspired by the shock gobbles, I opened my back driver’s side door and hurriedly got the rest of my gear ready. I uncased my shotgun, and, taking the box of turkey loads out of my pack, loaded three shells into it. I threw my pack over my back, grabbed the two decoys and slung them, and for good measure I slammed this door too.
Once again the surrounding area came alive with gobbles. One of the locations that I could make out where gobbling was coming from was north of me, and it sounded near a spot I had marked on my onX app as a potential location. The plan Ben and I had developed from our scouting mission called for me to climb a large hill that held the old now defunct train tracks and call from there trying to locate some turkeys. But the gobblers I was hearing were north of that and since I could make out where I thought they were, I hoofed it to that spot. The snow on the ground made everything a bit more slick, but I made good time and snuck into place, the toms gobbling here and there during my 15 minute walk. I placed my two decoys about 20 yards in front of me, and sat against a tree.
I figured sitting on a hill adjacent to the hill the turkeys were making all their ruckus from was a good plan as I could see the surrounding area well. Plus, the snow would help me spot the turkeys better.
The turkeys were gobbling on private property, and I was within 200 yards of the boundary between the public land and that private land. I sat there, listening to them gobble from their roost. My anticipation was high, as I expected with how vocal they were, they were surely looking for some companionship.
Well that anticipation soon dwindled, because I heard the toms fly down, and then followed their dwindling gobbles as they made their way along the ridge they were on and didn’t come towards me. Despite my plaintive calls, I caught a glimpse of the pair of toms once, on the same adjacent hill they gobbled from, following it to the east. They stopped gobbling after I saw them, so I climbed the hill I was on, trying to maybe head them off.
When I reached the other side of the hill I was sitting on, I gave up trying to cut them off. If I was to I climb down this hill, an even steeper snow covered hill still awaited me. There was no way I could beat them, and that was if they were even still headed that way. I hadn’t heard from them for a while, so they literally could have went anywhere.
The rest of my time there that day was spent looking for turkeys all over the State Natural Area. I saw some tracks in the snow, and tried to follow them, calling here and there. But other than the birds chirping and crows calling, the only bird I didn’t hear was a tom turkey. When 1 o’clock came around, which is closing time for turkey hunting in Illinois, I headed to my truck. On the drive home I decided to head straight where I had set up that morning in a few days when I could get out next.
Two days later I was back in the parking lot, which once again it had snowed overnight. I got ready in a similar fashion as before, and when I slammed my truck door, all that met my ears was silence. Well this isn’t a good sign, I thought as I walked from my truck to the path. I trudged along the path in the freshly fallen snow, and came upon a bobcat track that had to have happened in the last three hours, since that’s when the snow had fallen.
I got set up back where I had been a few days before, this time working closer to the property boundary. My hope was that those same toms would be roosting in the same spot. I got my decoys set out, and backed myself into the base of a tree. I heard a few toms gobble from the roost, but nothing like the other morning.
Once the sun was fully up, I saw a turkey fly from the ridge across from me, headed right for me! My heart jumped thinking, damn it’s gonna land right on top of me! When it got close I could see it was a hen, which are off limits during the spring season. She landed up the hill behind me and looked at me and then made her way up and over the hill. I hoped that the toms saw where she went and decided to follow her.
Well, they didn’t. I sat for a few hours in this spot, and then began to wander around, exploring, looking and listening for turkeys. I would hear a random gobble here and there, and would head in that direction, but they seemed to always be sitting on private property. I hiked back up to finish my day on the train tracks, since it was a high spot I could call from and look around. I set up and called once, listened, then began walking down the tracks. I was checking the woods that dropped off each side of the tracks in that rough country, when a flurry of movement on the tracks ahead of me caught my eye.
It was a turkey! It was running away from me at about 50 yards! I could have taken a shot, but with it’s back to me I couldn’t tell if it was a hen or a tom. I hid in the brush along the tracks and tried to call. I peeked out and the turkey was gone. So I walked ahead and tried to pick up it’s tracks in the snow. I found them, and tried to follow them, constantly looking ahead to see if I could find the bird.
But it was long gone. And it was getting close to closing time again. So I began walking back to the parking lot, calling every so often in the off chance I stumbled upon another turkey.
I got back to my truck, snapped some pictures of me with the park sign and my gear and loaded everything in the truck. While I didn’t bag a turkey, I had a great time in my two days I spent there. I got to enjoy our state public land, and had it all to myself. This experience is why Ben and I have now made it a tradition to hunt these lands in Jo Daviess County. Hopefully this year is the year that we will be successful, but it will be fun regardless, getting the chance to hunt Illinois public land.