Craftier than a mature Whitetail buck, the elusive wild turkey is perhaps the most challenging big-game animal a hunter can pursue. With perfect natural camouflage that blends seamlessly into their surroundings, the birds can seem to appear and disappear like magic. Gifted by nature with uncanny vision, the wild turkey can spot even the slightest movement at great distances.
There are five species of wild turkey in North America, and a hunter who has successfully taken a “Grand Slam,” meaning one turkey of at least four different subspecies, can count himself among a very select and skilled group of hunters. While this may seem to make taking a wild turkey too hard a challenge for a beginner, rest assured that armed with the right knowledge and gear you will be able to take these regal birds in a consistent manner. To get you started off right, this comprehensive beginner’s guide to hunting wild turkeys will fully prepare you for your first trip into the wild-turkey woods.
Wild Turkey Subspecies
There are five distinct subspecies of wild turkeys all living in different areas across North America. The range of the Eastern and Osceola subspecies slightly overlaps on the north-south boarders of their respective ranges in Northern Florida.
1) The Eastern wild turkey
The Eastern wild turkey ranges east of the Mississippi River and is the most abundant and widely distributed of the five wild turkey subspecies. The Eastern is found in 38 states and several Canadian provinces, living as far south as Northern Florida. The Eastern wild turkey has the following characteristics:
- Chestnut-brown tipped tail feathers.
- Males can exceed 30 pounds in weight.
- Has the loudest gobble and longest beard of all the subspecies.
- Is second only to the Osceola subspecies, found in southern Florida, in difficulty to call.
2) The Osceola subspecies
The Osceola subspecies has a population of approximately 100,000 birds distributed across southern Florida, with the Eastern subspecies inhabiting the northern part of the state. The Osceola wild turkey has the following characteristics:
- Tail feathers with dark-brown tips and mostly black wings.
- Males can reach 20 pounds in weight.
- Exceptionally long spurs.
- Most difficult of all wild turkey subspecies to call.
3) The Rio Grande subspecies
The Rio Grande subspecies is found predominantly in western regions of the U.S., mainly in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, with other western states holding lesser populations. The Rio Grande wild turkey has the following characteristics:
- Tan-tipped tail feathers.
- Wings have an equal ratio of white to black stripes.
- Males typically average around 20 pounds in weight.
- Moderate-length beard and spurs with modest-sounding gobble.
4) The Merriam’s subspecies
The Merriam’s subspecies is found west of the Mississippi River, with the Rocky-Mountain states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho being the best hunting spots. The Merriam’s wild turkey has the following characteristics:
- White-tipped tail feathers and mostly white wings with black accents.
- Males can reach up to 30 pounds in weight.
- Has the weakest gobble of all wild turkey subspecies.
- Shortest spurs and beards of all wild turkey subspecies.
5) The Gould’s subspecies
The Gould’s subspecies is a bird of the mountains and is the least known of all the wild turkey subspecies. The Gould’s has small populations located only in Arizona, New Mexico and the northernmost part of Mexico. The Gould’s wild turkey has the following characteristics:
- Light-colored tips on tail feathers.
- Wings are moderately colored bronze and brown.
- Males will average around 30 pounds in weight.
- Has a moderate gobble with a medium-length beard and spurs.
Gear and Equipment
There is so much turkey-hunting gear available in retail stores and online, as a beginner you can become quite confused trying to determine what you really need.
There are really just a few basic pieces of mandatory gear, and many hunters bag their bird every season with no more than a shotgun and a turkey call. Here is the short list of necessary gear:
Weapon: The most common, and best suited, weapon for taking turkeys is a shotgun, with 10, 12, 16 and 20 gauges all being popular choices in the turkey woods. The larger gauges are better suited for longer shots, whereas smaller ones are better suited for shots under 25 yards. A .410 gauge does not have enough power to kill a turkey, except at point-blank range. While there is as much debate as to shot size as there is as to what gauge is best, number six shot is optimal for turkey hunting.
Where legal, rifles, vertical bows and crossbows can also be used to take turkeys. Popular rifle calibers include the .22 rimfire, the .223 and 243. Any vertical bow with at least a 30-pound draw weight is suitable for taking turkeys, and most states set a 30-pound draw weight as the minimum for hunting turkeys. Any modern crossbow is more than capable of shooting a bolt clean through a turkey.
Clothing: While not 100-percent necessary, a full camouflage suit, with head net, will help you hide from your quarry’s sharp eyes. Pick a universal camouflage pattern or one that matches the foliage for the area and time of year, For example, green for spring seasons and browns, reds and golds for fall. A turkey vest is a great addition to your turkey-hunting wardrobe, having lots of pockets to keep all your gear organized with some models even having a built-in folding seat. Finally, a good pair of comfortable, lightweight, waterproof hiking boots will make your outings that much more enjoyable.
Calls: While you can find a likely-looking spot and sit and hope a turkey saunters by, having and learning how to use a turkey call or two will increase your odds immeasurably. There are several types of turkey calls, including box calls, slate calls and diaphragm calls. Each call has its pros and cons and the choice of call is more suited to the hunter’s personality then any actually functional difference. However, one real and practical advantage is a diaphragm call is placed inside the mouth and can be used without having to move your hands at all.
Ground Blind: As turkeys tend to hang out in small groups in the spring and large flocks in the fall, and are ever vigilant to the slightest movement, a good ground blind will allow you to be comfortable, allow you to move when necessary and keep you dry in a morning shower while keeping you totally concealed. Of course, if you can remain virtually motionless for hours at a time then you really do not need a blind.
Decoys: A good decoy setup can bring a gobbler right to the exact spot where your want him for a perfect shot.
Optics: A good pair of lightweight binoculars will help you see deep into the woods and let you tell if that brown and white clump on the far hill is a turkey heading your way or just a rotting stump.
Trail Camera: While not a must have, a motion-activated trail camera can give you solid evidence that your quarry is, or isn’t, in an area.
Hunting Seasons and Regulations
Every state will have different turkey hunting season dates and regulations, and it is your responsibility to fully understand the rules and regulation for the area you are planning to hunt. In fact, some states have varying regulations for different areas with the state, called “hunting” or “management” units. Some states will have both a spring and fall season, whereas others will have only a spring season. Legal hunting hours, bag limits, sex requirements and legal hunting weapons will also vary greatly by state and even sometimes by unit. Be sure you thoroughly understand the turkey-hunting regulations for your area before you head afield.
For some mysterious reason, most deer hunters take scouting seriously, but most turkey hunters never give it a thought. While scouting for turkeys is by no means mandatory to success, it will improve your odds 100 fold. That is not hyperbole, as in some ways preseason scouting for turkeys can be even more important that scouting for deer.
Scouting specifically for opening morning, especially if you are hunting on public land, can pay big dividends. Scouting should not take place any earlier than three weeks prior to opening day. While earlier scouting trips can help you learn the lay of the land, and devise a hunting strategy, movement patterns of turkeys can change quickly. This can be caused by a number of things, such as a preferred food source drying up, a new food source becoming available or increased predator activity.
Because turkeys are so gregarious, where you find one you will typically find more. Scouting will show you where the birds are and, more importantly, where they are not. Additionally, if you are hunting anywhere but on private property with strictly-controlled access, you may have plenty of competition from other hunters. You don’t want your competition knowing where the birds are when you don’t, or you will be way behind the curve come opening morning.
When scouting, look for fresh sign including tracks, droppings, places where the birds have been scratching in the dirt and dropped feathers. Turkeys have four toes, with three longer toes fanning out to the front with a shorter toe pointing off to one side, sort of like a thumb. Wing feathers near tall trees typically indicate a roosting area. Like a Whitetail rub or scrape, a tom turkey will have favorite “dusting” spots he will return to frequently. Look for areas where the turkey has dragged or beat his wings on the ground. These places can be great ambush spots.
In order to be safe from predators, wild turkeys will roost in tall trees with sturdy branches, near open areas where they can feed, just before dark. East- and northeast-facing slopes are preferred roosting sites, as the geography blocks strong westerly winds while still allowing the turkeys to reap the benefits of the morning sun. As the birds do not like being silhouetted above the ridgeline, turkeys will most commonly roost in trees roughly two-thirds of the way up a hillside. For additional safety, wherever possible, turkeys will select roosting branches that overhang a water supply. In more open areas, where trees are at a premium, birds will take roost in the woods along river bottoms and even on power lines.
Wherever legal, try calling near a likely looking roosting area just prior to sunset; if you get a reply you found turkeys. Leave the area, as quietly as possible, and come back when it is legal to hunt. Another great way to scout for turkeys in the spring is to climb up to a high point a little while before first light or sundown and just sit quietly and listen. If there are turkeys in the areas, you should hear gobbling. Use your binoculars to look for birds roosting in the trees. It is best to use only a “locator” call during scouting activities, such as a crow, owl or predator call. Turkeys will readily respond to these types of calls when roosting and you don’t risk educating the birds by using your turkey calls.
Once you have found a place with fresh turkey sign, set up your trail camera to catch any birds that may be moving in the area. Continually getting pictures of birds in the same area is a good indication of a good place to set up your blind or tree stand for opening morning.
Whereas Rome was not built in a day, the skill of learning to talk turkey takes time.
While you can become an expert hunter for most species of big game animals without ever using a call, the wild turkey is not one of them. To be consistent at taking turkeys you must become a master at speaking their language.
The only way to achieve that level of proficiency is with practice, and a lot of it.
Think of your turkey calls as musical instruments, and the more you practice the better you will get. A couple five-minute practice session throughout the day will help you learn faster than a few longer sessions throughout the week. Work on learning the easier calls first and work up to the more tricky ones. However, don’t think you have to master every sound a wild turkey makes before you go hunting. Just learning the basic yelp and gobble will be enough to get the birds to respond to you.
Entire books have been written on turkey calling, but you can pick up a DVD or there are numerous free videos online, including YouTube. Practice until you can reproduce the sounds. Once you have mastered the basic standard yelp and gobble you are ready to go hunting. However, there is a caveat.
While many people give turkeys too much credit for being “smart,” they do have good memories for some things, one of which being the sounds other turkeys make. If a turkey becomes accustomed to the sound of your calling, because you have used the same call over and again, the bird will start to figure things out. To keep the birds guessing, after you have the basic two calls down you should move on to the more advanced calls, such as:
Tree yelp: Soft muted yelp that will increase in volume as the time to leave the roost approaches.
Cackle: Used by turkeys when they leave the roost in the morning.
Assemble yelp: A series of loud, long and empathetic yelps used by an adult hen to call her pouts in the spring or gather the flock in the fall.
Cluck: One or two short notes. This is a good call to reassure a gobbler it is safe to approach your decoys.
Purr: A soft call used by turkeys when they are content. The cluck and purr are often used together.
Kee-kee-run: A short, two-second, three-note call used by both immature and adult birds that are lost.
Cutt: This is an advanced technique. A sharp, loud cluck mixed with a yelp is used by hen turkeys when they are excited, but not alarmed. This can be used to challenge a dominate hen the same way a gobble call challenges a tom. Typically, a gobbler won’t come to your calls if he is already tending to hens. However, if you can get the dominate hen to come to you the tom will follow her.
Once you have a few calls in your repertoire, practice mixing the calls up. Learn when to use what call and under what circumstances. In just a short time you will be able to fool even the wiliest tom on the mountain.
Don’t forget to practice with your chosen weapon. While most hunters will practice with their deer rifle or bow, for some reason most hunters never consider practicing with a shotgun. Patten your shotgun so you will know how the pellets spread out at diffident ranges. When shooting a turkey with a bow from a tree stand, aim for the middle of its spine and slightly more than halfway back from its neck.
Use Google Earth to get an overview of an area you are considering hunting. In many states you must have permission to hunt on private land. However, as most big-game hunters don’t hunt turkeys, obtaining permission to hunt turkeys on private land is hardly ever the challenge it is during deer season.
Look for an area where birds are likely to be found and narrow it down to a particular hunting zone. Look for spots where a wooded area abuts an open area or a savanna, especially near a creek bottom. You can also inquire at sporting goods stores, hunting clubs, U.S. Forest Service and state wildlife agency offices. While some hunters may be tight lipped, wanting to keep the best hunting spots to themselves, most turkey hunters will talk if you ask nicely. Once you have zeroed in on a likely-looking spot it is time to do some scouting.
Selecting Stand Locations
To borrow a phrase from the real estate industry, the three most critical factors in finding a place to set up your turkey-hunting stand is location, location and location. Whether you are hunting relatively relaxed, early-season turkeys or very call-shy late-season birds, you have to find a spot where the birds feel secure enough to move around freely. Without the right stand set up all your polished calling efforts and careful decoy arrangements will be in vain.
Trying to force turkeys to come to a location they normally wouldn’t is usually a losing battle. However, if you find a spot that the birds are already using, in their normal daily routine, and add some sweet hen talk and a decoy or two to the mix, you are already partway to a wild turkey dinner.
The ideal spot to take up a stand or set up a ground blind is on the edge of a wooded area where you believe turkeys are roosting and a large agricultural field, savanna, new clear-cut or similar open area where you have found signs of turkeys entering and or exiting the area to feed. Additionally, these open areas adjacent to roosting areas are ideal spots for the toms to strut to attract the hens.
Place your ground blind about 10 to 15 yards back in the woods from the edge of the opening and the same distance to the left or right from where you found signs of turkey activity. These distances are neither hard and fast nor magical, but you want to be far enough away from the turkey’s natural travel route so as not to spook them, but still be within shooting range.
If you are setting up a ground blind do it at least one week before the season opens and during midday, if possible. This will give the turkeys time to get used to the blind and you stand less chance of spooking the birds in the middle of the day. Place natural brush around the blind to help it blend in. Never place your blind on a ridge or out in the open where it will stick out. Once you have your blind set up, walk to the area where you expect to take your shot and see what sticks out. Go fix it and take another look.
If you are not using a ground blind, pick a spot the same distance away and find a large tree or rock to sit against, to break up your outline. Tree stands can also work well for turkey hunting, but you must be careful not to give yourself away with movement.
Using Scents, Calls and Decoys
As the saying goes, the only time a turkey smells is when it’s being cooked. With as crafty as the birds are, if turkeys had a good sense of smell you probably couldn’t kill one. Aside from condors and vultures, birds have one of the poorest developed olfactory senses in the animal kingdom. As such, there is no need to use any type of scent when hunting turkeys.
Settle into your stand just before first light, if legal, and just listen for turkey activity for the first 30 minutes. You may hear turkeys talking or leaving the roost. If you don’t hear anything, give one soft yelp and wait 20 minutes. You do not want to start off calling too aggressively, as you could spook a nearby bird or possibly have one come flying in and catch you flat footed. If you haven’t gotten a response from your first attempt after 20 minutes, yelp again at a slightly increased volume. Call two or three times, 20 minutes apart, increasing the volume of the yelp slightly each time.
Soften up on the calling when you are getting a response. Remember, aside from a locator or challenge gobble, the majority of your calling will be of a hen trying to entice a tom to come to her. When you do get a response, try to make it a conversation like you would have with a friend. If you have advanced to the point where you can imitate clucks and purrs, mix your calling up. If not, then the best course of action is to shut up. If you haven’t gotten a response with the lighter calls, give a full-throat, trying-to-wake-the-dead gobble. Odds are, if there is a tom in the area, you will get a reply. If you get an answer, gobble back just one more time and then be quiet.
Know when to stop calling, as the more you call the more likely you are to muck it up. This is one of the most common, and biggest, mistakes even seasoned turkey hunters make and blow it by calling too aggressively. When a gobbler is responding to your call, you want to turn the volume down and even play a little hard to get, and make the lovesick tom come find you.
Always remember, just because a turkey hasn’t answered or has stopped responding to your calls does not mean he isn’t on his way to check things out. A turkey can often pinpoint your location from the first call you make, and oftentimes a bird will sneak in without making a sound.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to call every 30 seconds. Too much calling comes from a lack of patience. You will never hear a turkey just stand in the woods and talk continuously, so don’t do something a turkey wouldn’t when trying to imitate them. Turkeys are skittish, and if they think the slightest thing is off they will disappear like smoke in a breeze.
You will often get a tom to gobble back and forth with you a few times and then he will go silent. This often means you have spooked him or he has your location pegged and he is now pulling a sneaky Pete, creeping in to size up the situation. If this happens, do not keep gobbling to try and get him to answer you. You can, and should, also use this tactic in reverse. Once you have gotten him to answer your gobble, then you shut up first and let him stew a bit. The odds are he will come over to take a look to find out why you stopped talking. If he gobbles again, respond only with hen talk.
Don’t keep calling when a gobbler is coming directly at you. Once the bird is within eyesight you need to use your calls as sparingly as possible. He has come all this way to find you, knows you are there and he will most likely look around for a bit, provided you don’t spook him. If he starts to leave the area then give a few very soft yelps, purrs and clucks, which tend to get better results than just yelping as aggressively as possible. If he doesn’t stop, or just vanishes, wait and be patient. He may be trying to sneak around behind you. Put the call away and get your gun, or bow, ready. Either way, at this point, if you have a good decoy spread set up, all Hades may be about to bust loose.
A good decoy spread can literally work magic when turkey hunting. There are many reports of how an otherwise call-shy gobbler came in at a full trot when he saw the decoys. A lone hen decoy can often be enough, especially late in the season, however, a spread of two to four decoys will make that old tom drop his guard long enough for you to put your tag on him.
A perfect decoy setup will include two hens, a jake and a gobbler. Place your decoys along the edge of the opening, roughly five yards from the edge the woods and 20 yards out in front of your stand or blind. Set the decoys so they are quartering away from you, facing in the direction you think the gobblers will come from, usually their roosting area.
Setting up a jake and a gobbler decoy next to a hen or two when hunting early in the season can me magical. This setup will almost always provoke enough jealousy from a gobbler that he will literally come running. As the season wears on, toms get tired of fighting for hens and may not come in if he sees another male turkey. Here it is better to use just one or two hen decoys, set up in the same manner as a larger group.
Before raising your weapon, when the tom comes into shooting range be sure he is looking directly away from you, has his vision obscured by a tree or another turkey, or so preoccupied with your decoys he won’t notice your movement. Be especially careful at this time if you are not using a blind. Otherwise, everything you have done to this point will just be a very hard lesson to learn.
- Get permission early: If hunting on private land, get permission early and set up you ground blind or Tree stands as soon as possible. Getting permission early will allow you to become familiar with the area and also help you to gather information from your host about the turkeys living on his property. Another added benefit of getting permission to hunt private property sooner rather than later is once you have obtained permission the landowner(s) may turn down other requests. Even if a landowner turns you down, if you are polite he might say yes down the road. Building these types of relationships sometimes takes time.
- Mix your calls up: Because a tom will learn the sound of your calls, the same way he can tell the difference between individual turkeys and you can differentiate between the voices of your friends, if you use the same call over and again he will stop responding. Worse, he may even decide to head in the other direction when he hears you calling. To prevent this, you need to mix things up. This can be as simple as opening or closing your mouth or putting more or less pressure on the diaphragm to change the pitch of the call slightly. If you are using a striker call, you can get different strikers that will also produce a different pitch. While this can become a little awkward in the woods, it can sometimes lead to amazing results, provided you have reached this level of proficiency in your calling techniques.
- Buying decoys: Pay extra attention to the realistic appearance and movement capabilities. The more realistic the decoys the less suspicious a wise old tom will be. If you shop online, be sure the decoys you buy are legal in your state.
- Blind accessories: To make your hunt more comfortable include a folding camp chair, so you don’t have to squat or kneel all morning, and gun or bow hanger.
- Be still: No matter how well camouflaged you and your blind are, the turkeys will still detect you if you move around too much. Even in a blind, keep your movements to the bear minimum. If you are not using a blind, take advantage of trees and brush to obscure your movements.
- Selecting a bird: You may be faced with the high-quality problem of having a flock of turkeys approach you. Here you will need to pick out a specific bird, or two, before they come into range. Of course, you will want to pick the most mature gobbler, if possible. Picking out a mature bird is fairly easy, as he will be bigger than the jakes and hens, typically have a bright red head with white and blue accents, a long beard and a tail full of feathers. However, don’t get so greedy that you pass up an easy shot at a respectable bird on your first hunt. Remember, the best gobbler to shoot is the one giving you the perfect shot.
- Shot placement: Turkeys are extremely tough birds, so never try to body shoot a turkey with a shotgun. Stick with #6 shot and aim for the head, placing the bead on the center of the turkey’s neck, halfway between the head and breast. You can aim for the head with a rifle, especially if you are using a .22 rimfire, or you can shoot the turkey in the body.
- After The Shot: While a perfectly-placed shot can drop a turkey cold, turkeys are notorious for pulling a resurrection act that would make Lazarus proud. You may shoot, the turkey may drop like a stone and while you are sitting there feeling so pleased with yourself the turkey will get up and run off. Keep your eye on the bird after you shoot until you are 100 percent convinced it is dead. Take a follow-up shot if the turkey shows any sign of getting to its feet.
- Stay legal: Tag a harvested bird immediately, before you forget and get in trouble with the law.
- Photos: The best time to take photos of your first successful turkey hunt is right there in the field, not back at your vehicle.
- Safety: Carry a blaze orange stuff sack to put your turkey in to carry it out of the woods safely. Likewise with your decoys.
- Keep A Log Book: Albert Einstein said never try to remember anything you can write down. Make note of spots where you continually see turkeys or fresh sign. You won’t always hear turkeys, so make notes of spots where you see tracks, scratching, droppings or feathers.
- Have a contingency plan: Turkeys are funny creatures. Just because they are in an area today does not mean they will necessarily be their tomorrow. When looking for hunting spots, try to have at least two areas well scouted before the season opens. That way you won’t be left hunting an area where the turkeys aren’t and scrambling to find a new spot while the season is ticking away. Double check your preferred spot a few days before the season opens to confirm the birds are still there. If not, go to plan B.
- Be Patient: Don’t get discouraged if you are only seeing hens in the spring. Like college kids on spring break, if the girls are there the boys will be too.
- Move at midday: Do your scouting and walking to and from your stand during midday hours, so you won’t accidentally spook birds moving to and from their roosting areas.
This comprehensive beginner’s guide to hunting wild turkeys has provided you with all the information on the tactics, gear and starter tips you will need to match wits with North America’s craftiest game bird. Learn to be patient with yourself, as taking a wild turkey is one of the most challenging tasks a hunter can face, as well as one the most rewarding.
You will hear it said that calling turkeys is more of an art then a science. However, even art itself is based on science. Take your time to thoroughly master the basic biological needs of the wild turkey and learn how to create depth and tone in your calls the way a master painter does in his artwork. By learning the science of turkey calling you can become a master turkey caller and hunter, be rewarded with many successful seasons of chasing wild turkeys and perhaps even pull off a grand slam.