A Winn is a Winn

This section of Kisatchie National Forest is the best bet for hunters looking to bag a spring turkey.

With over 600,000 acres, Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest can seem an overwhelming place to find a turkey, much less to end a hunt successfully. Therefore, the first thing a hunter must do is narrow his area. The Kisatchie has five Ranger Districts, so the initial search should concentrate on one district.

The Winn Ranger District stands out because it has vast acreage with few gobblers off-limits when their gobbles emanate from adjoining private property. There are 165,000 acres of mostly contiguous property in the Winn Ranger District.

“It’s alright that there are a few in-holdings,” said Chad Bowen, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s North Louisiana director. “Food plots on adjoining private property help turkeys. NWTF makes chufa and other seeds for turkey food plots available for private landowners and help enhance habitat on federal land.”

Bowen has taken a dozen gobblers from Winn RD. He lived at Winnfield most of his life, and hunted there ever since he was a youngster.

“There weren’t any turkeys in the Winn RD when I was a kid,” Bowen said. “But when I finally killed one at 28, I was thrilled beyond description.”

Now 36, Bowen is an accomplished turkey hunter, having harvested 40 turkeys in four states. His passion for turkeys made him a natural for the NWTF regional director position.

“After the first turkeys were released in the early 1990s, you couldn’t hunt them for five years,” he said “We began to see turkeys all over Winn Parish. When the season first opened, it was a huge success. I killed two turkeys on the Kisatchie the first year.”

There has been much habitat improvement performed at Kisatchie in the years since, including mulching vast areas of understory and prescribed burning the uplands with growing season and dormant season burns.

Plantings of wildlife foods has created openings to supplement native turkey foods and provide pasture areas for brood habitat. Turkey poults must have a supply of bugs, which are found in Bahia grass planted for erosion control.

NWTF transplanted turkeys for stocking Kisatchie in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Forest Service personnel.

There is a full-fledged hunting season here that is one of the earliest in the nation. The birds are well established, but so is the turkey hunting fraternity.

With the increasing hunting pressure came an adaptation in tactics. Whereas success during the earliest hunts came relatively easily, hunters had to become more educated to take trophy gobblers in recent seasons.

“That first couple seasons, the birds were easier to hunt,” Bowen said. “There were more birds that hadn’t heard a variety of calls and were very responsive to any turkey sounds. Now, the turkeys are much more educated. You have to be a better caller. You also have to be a better hunter.”

There’s nothing like the feeling of walking out of the woods with a gobbler’s head slapping your leg. But with so many hunters in the woods, even on such a large tract, it is imperative to put safety above vanity.

“If you get a gobbler, you should cover the turkey in a vest or carrying bag made for the purpose,” Bowen said. “You should also stay in the open on the main trails. You can’t be on the main roads with a gun in the Kisatchie, but many side roads are closed to prevent erosion or planted for wildlife.”

Closed roads keep the woods quiet, which helps turkey hunters. There is nothing worse when you’re calling a turkey than when another hunter knows you are there and gets between you and the turkey. Not only is it disrespectful, it’s dangerous. Still, it does happen.

“If you notice a hunter approaching, speak loudly,” Bowen said. “Don’t wave an arm. A moving arm can look like a turkey’s head.”

While Bowen enjoys using several calls, he eschews decoys on the national forest. He likes diaphragm calls and custom box calls because they make sounds unlike those of other hunters. Everyone blows a diaphragm differently. But used correctly, they sound like real hens. A custom box call throws calls a great distance.

“I don’t use decoys because I feel the turkeys have seen every shape, form or fashion of decoy,” he said. “I also don’t move much. The woods are too open. I wait for the bird to come to me.”

When scouting before season, Bowen finds strut marks, tracks and droppings along sandy roads. He glasses clear-cuts and listens early in the morning.

“You hear more gobbles in the morning,” he said. “You need to find several good places to hunt so if somebody else is parked at your spot you can go somewhere else. You need to get there early. I’ve gotten there at 4 a.m. and still wasn’t first.”

Bowen doesn’t advertise what he finds. If he locates a gobbler bird, he keeps it to himself.

“There are no friends in love, war or turkey hunting,” he said. “On opening day, Kisatchie looks like the day after Thanksgiving at Wal-Mart for the first three hours. But I’ve called up a turkey every opening day. I killed a turkey at 3:30 p.m. in 2004 and at 4:30 p.m. in 2005 because I’m patient.

“The birds may be henned up or spooky from all the other hunters, but after the other hunters leave, you have the woods to yourself.

“They roost a gobbler at 6 p.m. to come back early the next day, but they’d be better off to stay all day. Every minute you’re in the woods, you learn. Turkeys don’t eat lunch and come back later. I go into the woods in the dark and don’t come home until I’m wearing feathers.”

Bowen hunts during rainy weather. He can kill a gobbler that doesn’t gobble. But the best time to be in the woods is during a thunderstorm when every turkey in the woods gobbles every time it thunders.

Bowen is partial to the vast section of Kisatchie northwest of Calvin because it has thousands of acres with few private in-holdings.

“I like Caney, Iron Break and Spring Break creeks,” he said. “These creeks have tall pines overlooking the creeks for great roosting habitat. Most of the time these creeks can be crossed on foot. A turkey likes to hear his droppings hit the water because he can hear predators coming.”

In the Winn RD there are lots of gated roads with parking spaces that help separate hunters. The hardwood bottoms used by turkeys also make good walking for hunters. Hardwood trees are better to lean against than pines because the bark is quieter. It is also easy to find turkey sign along the creeks.

“I like being on the ridges because a turkey likes to come uphill,” Bowen said. “He will try to get the high ground. It’s tough to make him come off a ridge into a bottom.”

Other good hunting areas include thinned pine plantations because they have openings for feeding and traveling. Turkeys will walk down a thinned lane to come to a call. Pipelines are also good hunting places. Some of the rights-of-way are planted. Binoculars are useful for spotting turkeys along pipelines.

“You should not shy away from hunting burns,” Bowen said. “I called one in at a burn that had stumps smoking on opening day 2005. There were plenty of roasted bugs and seeds. Within a couple of weeks, there were green buds and sprouts.”

Bowen matches his camouflage to the vegetation. In burns, he wears a dark pattern. When leaves turn green, he uses Tomaflage by Custom Camo in Keithville because it has light greens.

“If I haven’t heard a bird in the morning, I go where there’s lots of sign and call every 15 minutes,” he said. “I alternate calling lightly and loudly. If he’s come a long way after a loud call, he won’t be turned off. I combine excited soft hen talk with scratching in the leaves followed by loud cackles and yelps.”

Saline Bayou is another wonderful place to hunt, according to Mike “Booty” Campbell of Colfax.

“I weighed in a 23.5-pounder and a 21-pounder in 2002. The 23.5-pounder had an 11-inch beard, and the other one had a 10 1/2-inch beard,” he said. “You can listen for turkeys from the lake while you’re fishing. It’s a great way to scout, but there are lots of private lands along the lake border, so you need to be aware of where you are.”

Sandy Point Launch is a good place to put the boat in the water. There’s good habitat nearby, with lots of hardwoods along the edges.

“They feed, travel and sun along the edge of the lake,” he said. “There’s also a lot of turkeys west of Brewton’s Mill.

“The area bounded by WP1233, WP 563, LA 501 and LA 126 has a lot national forest with very few blocks of private land. It lets you hunt a large unbroken block without having to get in your truck and go somewhere else.”

Like Bowen, Campbell hunts all day. He takes along his camera, water and lunch.

“I have killed just as many turkeys between 9 and 12 as I have early in the morning,” he said. “You have to know how to hunt them after they have left the roost.

“I’ll move around some after 9 or 10 o’clock and call with soft clucks and purrs. When you move you have to be careful because of cottonmouths, copperheads and timber rattlers. It pays to watch the ground and wear snake boots.”

Tony Rivers is a Forest Service resource assistant at the Winn Ranger District. He said a landscape management plan benefits turkeys and other wildlife. Some hunters see burned areas in spring and become concerned turkey nests are being destroyed.

“We do prescribed burns during the growing season and in the dormant season,” he said. “The growing season burns may hurt a few nests, but the trade-off in habitat improvement benefits far outweighs the loss of a few eggs. The hens will re-nest, and the wildlife habitat created by the burns will help turkeys and many other wildlife species.

“Prescribed burns are set on a three-year rotation. The growing season burns are set with a helicopter that distributes ignition pellets. Many small fires are set at the same time on a grid system, allowing each fire to burn into adjoining fires so the fire is kept low in intensity.”

Good habitat management on public land is important for producing turkeys to hunt. But for Bowen, a successful season starts at home.

“My wife Lee is the most wonderful person in the world,” he said “Because of her tolerance, I can put off my chores until after turkey season closes, and head for the turkeys woods every chance I get and stay all day or until I have feathers on my back.”