Public Gobblers With National Champ Caller

John E. Phillips | March 5, 2019

Winning the most prestigious turkey calling contest against the nation’s best is a crowning feat for any competition caller.

David Owens, of Acworth, earned the 2018 National Wild Turkey Federation Grand National Senior Open Division title last year in Nashville during the NWTF’s 48th annual Convention and Sport Show. 

Combine that with another accomplishment that David completed in 2017, and he’s in rarefied turkey hunting air. He accomplished the U.S. Super Slam of wild turkeys, which is harvesting a gobbler from all of the 49 states that home wild turkeys. 

That’s amazing, but want to make it even more special? David killed 90 percent of those birds on public land. He also focuses on public land when hunting gobblers close to home in Georgia and Alabama. 

“No matter which states I’m hunting turkeys, 99 percent of the lands I hunt in the Southeast are public lands,” he said. 

David started hunting turkeys when he was 13 years old and has been after them now for 20 years. Turkey hunting has been in his DNA most of his life, but he only began entering turkey calling contests six years ago. 

When asked the difference in calling the different subspecies of wild turkeys in the various states and terrains David hunts each year, he said it varies greatly from location to location. 

“The places we call, the calls we use successfully, and the tactics we employ are site-specific. One of the secrets to hunting multiple states for various species of wild turkeys is the hunter’s ability to adapt to conditions like terrain, weather and habitat. You’ve got to be willing to face tough turkey-hunting situations.” 

Why Public Land For Gobblers

David likes to hunt public lands because they give him the opportunity to stretch his legs and cover a lot of ground. 

“I don’t have the ability or the finances to buy or lease enough land to keep me occupied throughout turkey season. But with national forests, state forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and other public lands that I can hunt, I can cover an awful lot of ground in multiple states. 

“I’m a run-and-gun type turkey hunter and don’t like to stay in one spot very long. If you turkey hunt every day of every season in a number of different states for three months, you’ve got to have a lot of land to hunt to keep from over-pressuring the turkeys.” 

David and his friends love to go out West to turkey hunt. He said there’s even more public land to hunt in western states than is available in the East, and the turkey seasons are later, especially in the Northwest. They enjoy hunting for Merriam’s gobblers in mountainous terrain of the Rockies with beautiful scenery with big timber, and there are good populations of Merriams in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and also in New Mexico and Arizona. 

They also hunt the Rio Grande gobblers in there traditional home range of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, plus the transplanted populations in the northwest states like Washington and Idaho. 

“I enjoy going places I’ve never been before and hunting terrain and turkeys that are different than the terrain and turkeys I have in Georgia,” David explains. 

Regardless of where he’s matching wits with a gobbler, it’s that active pursuit and calling that has David addicted to turkey hunting.

“I’m totally hooked on the interaction I can have with a wild turkey gobbler once I find him. I like the challenge of hunting various types of terrain to find and take a gobbler. I’ve also learned that each subspecies of turkey reacts somewhat differently when hunted, depending on the state and the type of terrain he lives in, and I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out where I need to be, and what I need to do to take that bird that day in that state. 

“As long as I’ve been hunting turkeys, I still never know what’s going to happen when I hunt turkeys. I have to look for ways to adapt to the unexpected to be successful. I don’t really get upset when the turkey beats me. I try to learn something—even when I lose to a turkey. 

“I enjoy the challenge of the unknown each day.” 

How David Hunts Public Lands 

David said first and foremost, he studies maps before his hunts to locate public lands where he feels he has a good chance of taking a gobbler. He’ll choose several places on this public land he’s never hunted before and pinpoint those spots on the maps in his cell phone and his hand-held GPS.

“First, I look on my topo map for terrain that will allow me to cover a lot of ground close to good turkey habitat,” David explains. “Next, I search for areas difficult for most turkey hunters to reach.”

Good sources for info include contacts the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state departments of conservation where he plans to hunt. David talks to biologists or area managers if possible. These are the professionals who have do brood counts and monitor turkey populations and habitats. Foresters, timber harvesters, crews doing controlled burns and creators of food plots are other knowledgeable people David tries to speak with when possible. 

“Doing this kind of research, which I’ve used since college, allows me to hunt turkeys all year long.  I’m hunting turkeys even when the season isn’t going on. Toward the end of the year before turkey season begins, I put in long hours of map research, telephone calling and interviewing people to get me to a place where my chances are best to bag a gobbler on public lands. This process is like a search for a treasure map. Once I get that treasure map and pick out several places where the treasure may be buried, then I can hunt with more confidence, knowing I’ve done everything I possibly can to locate and hear a turkey gobble on public lands.”

The next step after map study and talking to local professionals is to actually put boots on the ground. 

“I start by going to about six sites that I’ve identified that should hold turkeys,” David says. “I’ll usually find sign or hear a turkey gobble in at least one of those six locations. If I get lucky, the first spot I check may be where I find gobbling turkeys.” 

Questions Turkey Hunters Ask

David Owens earned the big prize last year by taking the Senior Division at the NWTF Grand National Calling Championships.

When David’s talking to hunters are shows like the NWTF annual convention, these are some of the common questions he hears. 

• How many days each season do you spend hunting turkeys? 

David says his standard answer is, “Not enough. I always want to harvest one more turkey. However, my view of turkey hunting is not about how many turkeys I take each season. Every day I turkey hunt is a blessing, an opportunity to learn, a chance to interact with a wild turkey and a way to experience new places and different birds. I don’t measure success or failure by whether or not I take a turkey.”

• What’s your advice on competition turkey calling?

“If your success in that contest depends on winning or losing, then you’ll fail more times than you’ll succeed. But when you enter a contest, if you’re taking on a new challenge and trying to perform the very best you can in that situation, under circumstances that you can’t foresee, then at the end of the day you’ve won.” 

• How do you get the time off work to hunt so much during turkey season? 

“I’ve really got a great situation. My cousin owns a pest control company. For nine months out of the year, I more or less run the business for him and pick up his slack. Then he’s willing to pick up my slack and take over my responsibilities in the spring.”

• Why hunt public lands?

“On public lands, you’re not handcuffed to one piece of property where you can hunt turkeys,” David said. “Remember, turkeys haven’t developed the ability to read yet. They don’t know if they’re on public or private land. Yes, you will encounter a few gobblers that have had some hunting pressure, and they may act somewhat differently than turkeys that haven’t experienced any hunting pressure. But, when you take one of those gobblers, the success is much greater than when you take a turkey that’s rarely if ever heard a turkey call before. The more land you have to hunt, the better your odds are for being able to create a dialogue with a turkey.” 

• How do you defines success?

“For a successful hunt, I believe hunters should have fun and enjoy the sport of turkey hunting, whether a gobbler dies or not,” David said. “Any hunter who gets the opportunity to interact with a wild turkey has been given a gift to cherish. The turkey is supposed to beat you. That’s the way he survives. 

“So, don’t be upset or disappointed if you leave with an empty turkey vest. Take all those defeats with a smile, especially if you’ve learned something about turkey hunting. You’ve had the opportunity to talk with that wild turkey, and he’s had the chance to talk with you. That’s a major win any time you hunt turkeys.” 

Get Your Florida Osceola Gobbler On Public Land

As many Alabama and Georgia hunters know, the season for Osceolas in Florida begins in 2019 on March 2 for the area south of State Road 70, and March 16 for the rest of the state. David hunts public land for Osceolas. 

“Anyone can hunt turkeys on the public lands I hunt,” David said. “Since I was in college, this is the way I’ve begun turkey season each year. Hunting public lands the first week in Florida is fairly tough. However, whether we take a turkey or not, we bring home great memories of super adventures. 

“To take an Osceola gobbler on public land, you have to be willing to get away from the other hunters,” David emphasizes. “Florida has huge expanses of public land to hunt, but much of it is choked with thick vegetation and palmetto flats, and water is everywhere. You can’t be afraid of getting wet. You have to look for small pockets of turkeys, scout before you hunt and search for habitat where turkeys can live and dodge hunters. 

“I enjoy going places I’ve never been to before, hunting terrain and turkeys different from the turkeys in Alabama and Georgia,” David Owens said.

“Unlike many other states, in Florida you can’t necessarily return to a spot where you’ve taken or seen Osceola gobblers previously and expect to find turkeys the next year. Osceola turkeys move a lot, depending on the water levels where they live.” 

David doesn’t wear waders or hip boots to deal with the water in Florida. Instead he wears Crocs (rubber slides). Since he knows he’ll get wet every day, he goes ahead and gets wet first thing in the morning. 

As David mentions, “Crocs and pants dry quickly. If you wear hip boots, you’ll spend more time trying to stay dry than you do hunting. Another factor that we just accept is that we’re going to get scratched by briars and cut by palmetto palms.” 

David said he’s not afraid of snakes or mosquitoes, but he definitely carries a ThermaCell with him. He also sprays his clothes down with Sawyer’s Permethrin insect repellent.  

David said that thick vegetation is another big challenge for hunting Osceolas in Florida. 

“When an Osceola gobbler hits the ground, we have to get much closer to him to be able to hear him than when hunting other races of turkeys in other states. Misjudging distance when you hear an Osceola turkey gobble often happens. The Osceola may sound like he’s 200 yards away, when in reality he only may be 100 yards away. Remember with Osceolas that less calling is better, and the most important aspect for success is picking a spot to call from where the Osceola will come.” 

On public lands, the Osceola gobbler is probably hunted harder by more people than any other gobbler anywhere, because Florida’s Osceola season is the first turkey season to open. David has learned that the Osceola gobbler is generally more nervous  and wary than other subspecies of wild turkeys. Not only do they have hunter pressure, but they live in thick cover with big panthers and bobcats that can sneak up on them and attack in that thick vegetation.

David’s Equipment Essentials For Hunting Turkeys

• GPS And Mobile Devices: “Since most cell phones have very accurate GPS receivers built into them, hand-held GPS receivers are becoming a thing of the past,” David said. “I have apps with different types of maps on them on my cell phone. I really like to get topo maps on my cell phone. The Navionics maps make sure I’m staying on the property I’m supposed to be on when I’m hunting, and it has a fairly good topo map section on it. 

“I also use a hand-held Garmin GPS with Base Camp software to download the maps of specific public lands. Then if you’re hunting in a place where you don’t have cell phone service, those maps can keep you on the property you’re supposed to hunt and show you how to return to your starting point. I never recommend that anyone only use the GPS on his cell phone, especially when he’s hunting property he’s never hunted previously. I think you always need a hand-held GPS with the maps and plan to use stored in the memory of that GPS.” 

• A Variety of Turkey Calls: David builds his own turkey calls for hunting and competition. He likes calls that consistently sound the same. He enjoys tinkering with different types of materials and stretching the diaphragms. 

“I’ll usually have four or five different diaphragm calls in my turkey vest. The pot call I use is built by Jimmy Schaffer, of Oak Ridge Custom Calls. And I’ll have a Pollard’s Elite crystal pot call and a slate-surfaced pot made by Lonnie Mabry.” 

• Miscellaneous Equipment: “I’ve started wearing some hiking boots made by a company called Crispi,” David says. “I shoot a Franchi Affinity 3-inch 20 gauge shotgun that’s lightweight and has a very-effective pattern and plenty of knock-down power. I use a Trulock choke. This gun will harvest a bird far away, but I draw the line at 40 yards. 

“I hand load my shells and use Tungsten Super Shot, Federal Premium Ammunition and Apex Ammunition. I can hit the bird harder and better with the reloaded shells than with any commercially loaded 20 gauge shell.” 

David considers his binoculars invaluable, especially when hunting the open terrain often found in other states. He likes the Vanguard Endeavor 10×42 with light gathering ability. 

• No Decoys, No Blinds: David feels these hunting aids change the nature of the game for him. 

“I’ve used them, and I’m not against anybody using anything that’s legal for turkey hunting, but blinds and decoys just aren’t the way I like to turkey hunt,” he said.

“I’m a turkey hunter at heart, and all I claim to be is a turkey hunter. Every decision I make in life includes turkey hunting.” 

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1 Comment

  1. hodgie71 on June 19, 2019 at 7:36 pm

    Take me hunting with you

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