Turkey hunting is one of the most challenging and thrilling experiences that the woods have to offer. Contrary to popular belief, hunting turkeys successfully doesn’t require much experience or investment. If Jase and Si can do it on Duck Commander with a full camera crew in tow, can it really be that difficult?
According to this month’s issue of Missouri Conservationist, hunters harvested about 40,000 bearded turkeys during the Missouri spring 2012 season. In this article, we’ll cover basic turkey hunting techniques that might help you harvest a bird this year. At the very least, it should get you out into the turkey woods, which isn’t a bad thing.
Where to Hunt Turkey
An important part of turkey hunting is finding areas that hold decent flocks of birds. Eastern wild turkeys generally prefer woodlands, though they often browse open grassy pasture or farm fields during daylight.
There’s a sizable flock of turkeys that meanders in an open clear-cut along a highway near my house. I’ve spotted them dozens of times over the past year, often in the middle of the day. Visually spotting flocks like these is probably the most confident way to locate game. Keep in mind that these birds are wary… if they notice you watching them, they’ll be gone.
Once you find the hens, it’s time to locate the gobblers. They probably won’t be far. You can occasionally spot these when they’re “henned up” and showboating for the ladies. A gobbler in full strut is a magnificent thing, and hard to miss. For a number of reasons, however, gobblers are often easier to locate by sound rather than sight:
The birds have the edge. A turkey’s hearing and perceptive vision are better than ours. They are hard to catch unawares, especially in wooded terrain.
- Uneven terrain. Ridges, valleys, and other geography can prevent you from seeing the bird.
- A gobble is unmistakable proof that you’re hearing a turkey and that it’s male. In the woods where I hunt at least, there’s no other sound like it.
Many turkey hunters use a locator call — a crow call or an owl locator call are popular choices — when trying to find gobblers. One of the reasons to use these in place of a turkey call is that you don’t want to draw the gobbler toward you until you’re ready. Early morning or late evening (when the gobblers are still in roost) is a good time to locate a tom with one of these calls.
How to Hunt Turkey in Spring
Spring turkey season in many states allows hunters only to take bearded turkeys (toms, though some hens can have beards too). Spring is turkey breeding season, so it allows hunters to exploit the tom’s most important weakness: his desire to procreate.
How you set up your turkey hunt is important. If you’ve located a gobbler to hunt, here are some tips for setting up.
- If you’re hunting in the early morning, try to get in position when it’s still dark and the turkeys are still on roost. This lets you locate and begin calling a tom before he meets up with his hens.
- Sneak in as quietly and slowly as possible. Get as close as you dare to the roost area, but try not to spook the birds. 50 to 100 yards is probably the best you can do. One bird spooked (the one you didn’t know about) will alert the others.
- Plan your ambush using the surrounding terrain, travel routes, and visibility. Ideally, you’d like to be above and concealed from where you think the tom will approach.
In spring you’ll be pursuing toms, and that generally means your calls will imitate a hen. Turkey calling is an art form, and there are many professionals out there who have some great advice. I highly recommend you study up and practice as much as possible, but don’t obsess over it. Follow these turkey calling guidelines and you’ll be off to a good start.
- Find a call that you can use well. Mastering a single call that you can use confidently is more important than packing three or more calls before you head to the woods. If you are just getting started, try a box call. It’s one of the simplest and most widely used turkey calls, and it works.
- Listen to real turkeys. To imitate realistic sounds in the woods, you need practice. Even better, you can find plenty of audio files and videos to help you know what real turkeys sound like. Use these to perfect your technique.
- Start simple. One of the most-overlooked but effective calls is the cluck. This is generally the sound of a contented, happy hen. It’s easy to make, hard to mess up, and more difficult to be pinpointed by an approaching gobbler. It’s a great go-to call, especially if you’re not as experienced.
See our comprehensive guide to choosing the best turkey call for more tips and advice.
Turkey Hunting Equipment
Compared to some of the other game you might pursue in North America, turkey hunting is fairly inexpensive. Most hunters already own just about everything they need. Here we’ll break down some of the more critical turkey hunting gear and offer a few tips for success:
Camouflage is arguably more important for hunting turkey than for most other game, primarily because turkeys have excellent perceptive vision. Spring turkey season often comes before much of the foliage has returned to the woods, which makes you (the hunter) easier to spot. And they will spot you, given the chance. To stay hidden:
- Camouflage patterns on your body (pants and shirts) matter, as does positioning yourself against something wide enough to break up your outline. A tree or log that’s wider than your shoulders is a good choice. Pop-up turkey blinds are another good option.
- Cover everything you can, including your hands, face, and neck. If it’s too warm for a camo face mask, use paint instead.
- For safety, never wear blue, red, or white and be sure not to carry anything with these colors (like a handkerchief) into the field, because you might be mistaken for a turkey.
The 12-gauge shotgun is probably the most popular turkey hunting weapon, though a 20 gauge will also get the job done. Many hunters outfit their shotgun with a choke tube to help concentrate the shot at the target area, which is a tom’s head and neck. You can get away with this because your quarry will be on the ground (not flying) and generally within 20-40 yards when you take a shot.
There are plenty of shotgun shells designed specifically for turkey hunting; pick one and get some practice at the shooting range on the patterning boards.
Shooting Turkey with a Bow
A compound bow is another, slightly more challenging option. A few factors increase the level of difficulty when you choose a bow instead of a shotgun:
- Draw motion. Drawing a bow requires more movement than raising a shotgun, which means a bigger chance of being noticed.
- Shooting accuracy. A lethal shot with a bow is just harder than with a shotgun, partly because you need to know the distance of the shot.
- Smaller target. Compared to a deer or wild hog, turkeys offer a smaller target. Generally, you aim at the “wing butt” — which is where the wing joins the body — rather than the head.
Despite these difficulties, a bow is a viable and thrilling weapon of choice for turkey hunting. For bowhunters like myself, the optimal shotgun distance (20 yards) is a high-confidence shooting distance.
Go Turkey Hunting This Spring
After what seems like an eternal wait between the end of deer season and the start of spring turkey season, most of us need no encouragement to get out into the woods. Turkey hunting makes for a great excuse. Go ahead, get out there. The turkey woods await you.