Hunting wild turkey is one of the most challenging pursuits of North America. So many things have to come together for a successful turkey hunt: scouting, woodsmanship, patience, camouflage, and shooting skills, as well as luck and timing.
In this wild turkey hunting guide, we’ve collected a whole mess of articles, how-to’s, gear guides, and other resources to help you bag a bird this season.
About Wild Turkeys
Different Types of Turkeys
Life Cycle and Hunting Seasons
Telling Toms from Hens
The wild turkey is native to North America, and thought to originate in Mexico. It’s the largest game bird on the continent, with gobblers weighing 17 to 30 pounds. Adult hens tend to be smaller, usually between 8 and 12 pounds.
There are six sub-species of wild turkey that differ in weight, coloration, and geographical range.
- Eastern Turkey. The most popular with hunters, this is the heaviest of the subspecies and has been restocked to 30 states by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Merriam Turkey. This turkey’s wide range includes most of the Rocky Mountains and neighboring plains states, from California to Wyoming, and is distinguished by bright-white tail feathers.
- Rio Grande Turkey. As the name suggests, this turkey is found mainly in the southwest, favoring the arid plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and California. It has notably long legs, as you can see at right.
- Osceola Turkey. This bird resembles the Eastern wild turkey but is darker feathers, and found only in Florida. It’s also called the Florida turkey.
- Gould Turkey. A slightly smaller version of the Merriam turkey that’s found largely in Mexico.
- Ocellated Turkey. This bird is native to the Yucatan peninsula, and is the ancestor of our domesticated wild turkey. European conquistadores shipped them back home where they were domesticated.
You can read more on wild turkey subspecies at Wikipedia. Most of this article will focus on the Eastern wild turkey, since that’s the species I hunt here in Missouri.
Most states have two hunting seasons: one in the spring, when only gobblers or bearded turkeys are legal, and one in fall when any bird is fair game. These seasons are timed each year to coincide with certain points of the turkey’s life cycle, allowing hunters to exploit certain vulnerabilities. Here’s the life cycle and firearms turkey season in Missouri:
Notice how the spring firearms season overlaps with the peak of gobbling activity, roughly in the middle of the turkey mating period. MDC biologists note that there are actually two peaks of gobbling activity, one in early April and one in late April.
Being able to distinguish male turkeys from female turkeys is an important skill. This graphic from the Missouri Department of Conservation provides a number of useful distinction points:
Three important things help you tell toms from hens at a distance. For the most part, tom turkeys:
- Gobble. This sound of the mature tom is hard to miss.
- Strut. An easy-to-spot visual display if he’s showing off for hens.
- Have beards. Most bearded birds are males.
You can’t always count on gobbling or strutting to help you tell the birds apart. For that reason, bearded turkeys are the legal quarry in the spring season. Interestingly, about 10% of these turn out to be hens.
The decision to take up turkey hunting is the moment a hunter’s destined to face some humiliation in the woods. Turkeys are the undisputed kings of the forest floor. As I wrote over at The Will to Hunt, turkeys have many advantages over hunters. They can see and hear better than us, they can run 20 miles per hour (and fly about 55), and they’re just wily in general. Kind of like the Roadrunner from those cartoons.
With the right strategies, knowledge, and gear, we can just about even the odds. Here are some ways to do that.
One of the most important factors in turkey hunting success is where you choose to hunt. Finding turkeys to hunt can be done in a number of ways — visually spotting flocks of birds or lone gobblers is one way. Scouting for sign is another — last year while scouting over Labor Day I located the roost area of a sizable turkey flock. This year I found them again, and shared some photos/videos in my article on scouting for fall turkeys.
See my article on spring turkey hunting tips for some advice on locating gobblers to hunt in the spring season. Here are some other nice articles on scouting for wild turkeys:
- Finding public land to hunt (NWTF)
- Reading turkey tracks, droppings, and feathers (Field & Stream)
- Scouting tips for finding quiet gobblers (Field & Stream)
When you choose to hunt wild turkeys is just as important. When the season opens, the element of surprise matters: more turkeys are taken on opening day than any other day in the season.
In the spring season, the traditional time to hunt gobblers is early morning. Most gobblers are taken before 8 a.m., generally because:
- They can be located on roost using an an owl hoot or other locator call
- A hunter can slip into position before the tom flies down in the morning
- The first thing a gobbler wants to do is find his hens. Thus, when he lands, he’s vulnerable.
Wait too long, and the gobbler will already be “henned up” with real hens, so he’s unlikely to respond to your calls.
Now we get down to the heart of the matter: how to hunt wild turkey. This is too broad of a topic to cover alone, or to cover entirely here, so I’ve collected a series of excellent articles with everything you need to know.
- Choosing the best turkey call will guide you in picking the call best suited for your experience and the target birds
- Turkey calling tips from the National Wildlife Turkey Federation will help you bring the bird in.
Many hunters use decoys while turkey hunting, which offers certain advantages. First, it adds realism to the calls which can help bring in your gobbler. It gives you an idea of where the birds might appear. Perhaps most importantly, decoys give the turkeys something to look at and focus on which helps prevent them from spotting you. This is critical if you’re bowhunting for turkeys, since drawing your bow creates both noise and movement.
First things first, read NWTF’s article on turkey decoy safety. I’m not an expert on using decoys, but my suggestion is to use a hen and jake decoy combination. Psychologically, there’s not much more that would both entice a dominant gobbler and aggravate him enough to come charging in. When he does, he’ll usually go toe-to-toe with the jake, so make sure that decoy is facing toward you.
See also Outdoor Life’s nice article on mega decoy spreads for early spring turkey hunting.
- Hunting turkeys in bad weather is Field & Stream’s guide to hunting in rain, wind, snow, or extreme heat.
- Why did he do that? NWTF provides explanations for the frustrating things toms will do.
- Turkey Hunting Tips & Techniques offers a good guide to taking turkeys with archery equipment.
Whether it’s shotgun or bow, you need to pick a weapon that you can shoot confidently and accurately while turkey hunting. If it’s a shotgun, you need to pattern the shot you intend to hunt with, know your limits, and practice shooting at turkey head targets. If it’s a bow, you need lots of practice at shooting small targets, and have a blind or cover tree behind which to draw.
- NWTF has a nice guide to choosing the right shotgun this turkey season.
- Arrow Shot Placement is Foremost Hunting’s excellent graphical guide to where to aim when you’re bowhunting for turkey.
Turkeys are sensitive to hunting pressure, possibly even more than deer. They learn from the mistakes of hunters. Finding days, times, or places with less hunting pressure is critical for success. One good time to hunt is in the middle of the week, if you can swing it, because most of us have to work. Even on the weekends, many hunters leave the woods at around 10 a.m., figuring that the toms are all henned up for the day.
This is partially true, except that once bred, the hens run off to build nests or lay their eggs. Thus a tom might end up lonely at mid-morning, and looking for another hen to breed. And this just when many hunters are leaving the woods. In fact, sticking around after 10 a.m. is a strategy that many experts have recommended to hunters who share pressured hunting grounds.
Many believe gobblers are not as vocal as they were 50 years ago — possibly because the most vocal birds were taken by hunters, causing natural selection to favor quieter toms. It also stands to reason that the old, mature turkeys are cautious. They’re wily. They didn’t survive this long by accident. This is particularly true on public land, where turkeys experience consistent heavy hunting pressure every year.