So when I heard that I’d be taking a boat ride to some U.S. Corps of Engineers land the next morning, I figured I was being gar-holed. Oh, I wasn’t upset. After all, I’d been the luckiest guy in camp, so I figured the guide wanted to give other folks the chance at similar success while keeping the fortunate son — me — safely occupied elsewhere.
Little did I know my hot streak had just started rolling.
As guide Brian Pierson pulled his boat away from the dock that morning, he explained that we’d be hunting a small island on the river.
“Turkeys go in and out of there, but if they’re in there, we’ll kill one,” he said.
Intrigued but still skeptical, I nodded and hunkered down against the chilly morning air. When Pierson eased the boat onto the island’s sandy shore, I stepped out and awaited his instructions.
“Let’s just slip up here into the edge of the timber and listen,” Pierson said. “If one gobbles anywhere on the island, he’ll be plenty close enough to hunt.”
And sure enough, minutes later, a gobble resonated from the opposite side of the island. Pierson calmly walked 20 steps to a big oak tree and sat. I followed his lead. During the next 40 minutes, he uttered all of four clucks, and the longbeard probably gobbled 60 times. When my shotgun sounded and ended our morning, Pierson stood and smiled, knowing we’d just experienced a textbook island hunt.
And although that was a fabulous new experience for me then, I know now that such scenarios play out every spring in turkey woods across the country.
The Island Appeal
Before that Alabama hunt, I — like most folks — didn’t associate turkeys with islands. But since that March morning, I’ve experienced great island hunts in Wisconsin, Missouri and South Dakota, and I’ve slowly started to realize that islands in medium to large rivers might be among the most overlooked gobbler hotspots.
Relatively large, permanent islands typically feature the same good turkey habitat found on surrounding riverbanks, ridges and flood plains. For example, an island in the Wisconsin River will often have the same grassy meadows, hardwood stands and lowland nesting cover as a turkey-rich bluff 100 yards across the channel. Likewise, an island on the Cheyenne River in western South Dakota is almost identical to the neighboring cedar- and cottonwood-lined prairie bluffs that are choked with Merriam’s. Turkeys also love to roost over or near water, from which no walking predator can approach, so islands provide an added measure of safety.
To a turkey, an island is just another part of its home range. If an island offers good habitat and relative safety, turkeys will use it. (The exception might be during winter, solely because many river islands have no crop fields. But as birds disperse in late winter and early spring, they often flock to islands with leftover mast, fresh green shoots and abundant nesting cover.)
The hang-up hunters have with islands is, of course, the water surrounding them. Water acts as a barrier to turkeys, and everyone who’s ever run a box call knows that turkeys won’t cross barriers. Of course, if that were true, there would be piles of gobblers stacked up against every barbed-wire fence from Florida to Washington.
Actually, turkeys cross “barriers” all the time. They wade creeks. They go under fences. The slip through cattle gates. And — you guessed it — they fly across river channels, too. As such, they have no problem accessing islands.
Hunters, however, often have problems accessing islands. Maybe it’s because there are plenty of other good places to hunt, most of which require less work. Or perhaps it’s because they don’t want to mess around with boating or wading a river in the pre-dawn darkness. Regardless, many hunters don’t even consider islands when they formulate a spring game plan, so island turkeys are often relatively unpressured.
Further, although we’ve already established that turkeys can easily fly onto or off an island, they typically don’t do that every day. That is, after they’re on an island that meets their spring needs — food, safety and especially the opposite sex — they usually stay put.
When you add everything together, islands start to look like a great spring option.
Conquering the Island
At its core, island turkey hunting is pretty much like turkey hunting anywhere else. You have to locate birds, set up on them, and then call them in or bushwhack them. It’s Turkey Hunting 101. However, paying attention to some special considerations can make your island hunt easier and more successful.
First, of course, you must get to the island. In some areas — like the aforementioned Cheyenne River in South Dakota — you can wade, which lets you leave the boat at home and offers a quiet, stealthy approach option. A skiff or canoe provides a faster option, provided the current isn’t too swift. But on larger, deeper or faster-flowing rivers — such as the Wisconsin — a motorboat is your only option. And because motorboats are noisy, you’ll want to get to the island plenty early to let everything calm down before gobbling time.
Let me back up a bit. As with any type of turkey hunting, scouting is critical for islands, especially when planning your approach by boat. You don’t want to blindly motor up to a shoreline to learn that four longbeards are roosting in the white oaks that hang over the river. Before the season, try to get a good idea of where birds like to roost. Then you can boat to the island from another direction to avoid spooking birds.
Boating to an island during daylight is a surprisingly good option. If you’ve ever boat-hunted for turkeys on a large lake or impoundment, you probably know that birds don’t get too freaked out by a boat that stays at a safe distance. Often, you can motor right by turkeys, stow the boat out of sight and then hunt those birds.
Regardless of how you get to an island, the most critical part of island hunting is controlling yourself. You must be stealthy, careful and patient. Remember, you’re hunting a relatively small piece of real estate. If you bump a gobbler first thing in the morning, you probably won’t scare him off the island and onto the mainland. However, you’ll likely shut him up and make him even tougher to hunt the next day.
If you’re like me, this can be challenging. I’ll admit that patience isn’t my biggest asset as a turkey hunter. If I can run and gun, I’m going to do it. But on an island? Forget it. If anything, I’ll slowly slip through areas and soft call. The chances of bumping silent or unseen birds on an island are pretty high.
Likewise, because island turkeys typically stick to that little piece of land for fairly long periods, they’ve effectively limited their daily travel area, so you don’t need to wear the soles off your boots trying to find a hot bird. If you hear two or three gobblers on an 80-acre island in the morning, you can be reasonably sure those birds are within — duh — 80 acres of you at all times during the day. They might be silent, henned up or otherwise funky, but they’re within 80 acres. And how often can a turkey hunter say that with certainty?
That doesn’t mean you have to set up on the shoreline and sit all day. When birds gobble in the morning, slip as close as possible to their roosts, and try to work them. Just be extra careful, and remember that one step is all it takes to bust a hunt.
If turkeys fly down and slip away, don’t be in too much of a hurry to chase after them. Remember, they’re nearby. Usually, if an island roost-hunt blows up in my face, I’ll stay put until a gobble or some other clues give me a heads-up on the direction turkeys went. Then, assuming the island is small enough, I’ll circle around the shoreline and come at them from the other direction. However, I move slowly and stop often to call, look and listen. And if turkeys go totally silent or I have no clue about their location, I simply find a good spot — maybe even the roost area — set up and blind-call for a couple of hours.
Also, I’ll continue to hunt a turkey-filled island far longer than I’d stick with an equally good mainland spot. The birds are not going anywhere, and the longer you stay with them — without bumping them, of course — the better your chances.
Remember how I described Pierson’s approach during that Alabama island hunt? He stayed 120 yards from the gobbler’s roost tree and then clucked four times. When I asked him about that after the hunt, his explanation made sense.
“I just wanted to sound like a little ol’ hen messin’ around in the mornin’,” he said. “The gobbler knew the hen was there, and he didn’t have many other places to go, so I figured it would happen sooner or later.”
And no one could argue with the result.
The hardest part of island hunting might be keeping your newfound hotspots secret. After all, the biggest appeals of island hunting are solitude and the chance to hunt unpressured turkeys. But hey, if you take photos away from the water, people will just assume you’re hunting the same old spots, and they’ll leave your island honeyholes alone.
Just tell them the boat hooked to the back of your truck is for fishing.