By Ron Eakes, Wildlife Biologist
Very few outdoor experiences can compare with spring turkey hunting. The sport can, to say the least, be challenging, exciting and in some cases almost addictive. When a gobbler sounds off up close, or he’s strutting just out of range, even the most experienced hunter’s heart tends to pound uncontrollably. This is because a wild turkey’s senses are extremely keen. Its eyesight and hearing are among the best in the woods. I’ve often heard it said, “If a turkey could smell, you’d never kill one.” Due to a turkey’s nature to flee at the first hint of danger, one errant move can cause a gobbler to seemingly vanish like a puff of smoke.
This is the challenge that makes turkey hunting so intriguing and is helping to attract droves of new hunters to the sport. This article covers some of the basics to help get you started hunting wild turkeys.
Before you can hunt wild turkeys, you’ve got to find them. The easiest way is to start with the big picture, locating general areas of turkey habitat, then gradually narrow it down to a certain area, then a certain piece of property, then specific hunting sites. Wildlife biologists, conservation officers, sporting goods dealers and hunting club members are good places to start. Ask about federal and state lands, wildlife management areas, reservoir properties and military reservations. Don’t overlook private lands. Some landowners will grant permission to hunters who ask courteously, or perhaps you can wrangle an invitation out of a friend.
Field scouting begins after you have identified several possible hunting spots. Get a good map of the area you plan to hunt. Drive the back roads during the first couple of hours after dawn, stopping along ridges, high points, power lines, open creek and river bottoms to listen for gobbling.
Use a turkey call or a locator call, such as an owl hooter or crow call, to try to get a response. When you hear a gobbler, mark the location on a map. If you get a bird to answer you, don’t continue to call to him. This often causes gobblers to become call shy and they will not respond to you once the season opens. Additionally, birds that continue to gobble also tend to attract the attention of other hunters who might be scouting the area.
Finally, scout your best locations on foot. Check for signs of scratching where birds have been feeding. Droppings and feathers can also provide you with information about turkeys in the area. Gobbler droppings tend to be club shaped, while hen droppings have a corkscrew appearance. A gobbler’s body feathers are black tipped, while hen feathers are buff colored. Check along creek banks and around mud holes for tracks. In the evenings listen for birds flying up to roost. If you are able to roost birds, come back the next morning and listen for gobbling.
Make as many trips to the area as possible before the season starts. Learn the terrain features: creeks, log roads, fencerows, pastures, etc. This will help later when you are maneuvering during an actual hunt. Hopefully, by opening day you will know the location of several gobblers.
Because wild turkeys have such keen vision, camouflage is almost a must to avoid being seen. This normally includes a camo suit, cap, facemask and gloves. Don’t forget to wear dark colored socks so that they don’t show when you sit down. Many turkey hunters also wear a camo vest with plenty of pockets to carry calls, shells and maybe a snack. These vests often have a drop-down padded seat to add a little comfort while you’re working a bird.
In recent years camouflage makers have come up with a wide array of patterns and colors. Try and match the color of the foliage where you will be hunting. Early season patterns with mostly browns and grays usually blend in best, while patterns with more green mixed in blend in better as new leaves bud out. Always remember: controlling movement is most important regardless of how well you are camouflaged.
Shotguns and Ammunition
The best shotgun and ammunition for turkey hunting is the combination that delivers a dense, hard-hitting pattern at 40-45 yards. Most hunters use larger gauges (12 or 10 gauge) with tight chokes (full or extra full). Shells are usually 3 or 3 ½ inch magnums loaded with #4, #5 or #6 size shot. The smaller the shot size (the larger the number), the greater the number of pellets in a shell. However, the smaller pellets weigh less, carry less energy and provide less penetration at longer distances than pellets of a larger shot size.
Before hunting, pattern your shotgun to see which choke, brand of ammunition and shell load produces the most uniform pattern and density. Pattern performance will vary with different gun, choke, load and ammunition manufacturer combinations.
To pattern a shotgun for turkey hunting, use a target that depicts a turkey’s vital head and neck area (make several copies). The head and neck is what you should be shooting for when your turkey comes in range. Set the target up at 40 yards and shoot from a rest. Compare the number and density of pellets striking the vital area with the different choke and ammunition combinations to see which one shoots best in your gun. You should have at least 8 to 10 pellets in the vital area at 40 yards. Once you get satisfactory results at 40 yards, fire additional rounds at 25 and 45 yards. These rounds will show you what patterns you can expect at different distances and help you determine your shooting limits.
Calls and Calling
Good calling and knowing when to call are often critical keys to success in turkey hunting. Hunters typically imitate hens to call a gobbler into gun range. Hens make a variety of calls: yelps, clucks, cuts, purrs and whines. The best way to learn to call is to practice with an experienced turkey hunter or to purchase an instructional video or audio cassette and then practice the calls taught by the instructor. It isn’t necessary to become an expert in each of these calls to have success in turkey hunting. Gaining a good command of yelps and clucks will be of most benefit to new turkey hunters.
As with camo, guns and shells, a number of different types of calls are used in turkey hunting. The most popular styles include box calls, slate-type friction calls, wingbone and trumpet calls, diaphragm calls, push-pin and tube calls. Beginning hunters should normally consider box calls, slate-type friction calls and push-pin calls for their ease of use.
On a given day any of these calls will work. Each style call has its own distinctive sound. A gobbler will sometimes answer one call but not the others. So, carry several calls and take turns trying them. If one call doesn’t get a response, another one might.
When calling turkeys, less is better in most cases. Don’t over call. The more you call, the more likely you’ll hit a sour note or that your movement will be seen by an alert gobbler or hen that has quietly moved in to check you out.
Once you locate a gobbler, the next step is to move in close and call him into gun range. Your goal is to slip as close as possible without spooking him. Then you “set up” and attempt to call him close enough for a shot.
Remember: when approaching a turkey, if he spots you, he’s gone! Be careful not to be seen. Terrain and foliage normally dictate how close you can get before setting up. Veteran hunters rarely approach inside 100 yards. They may set up as far away as 300 yards if the ground is flat and there is little foliage to conceal their movements.
Use the terrain to your advantage as you approach a gobbler. Stay behind hills, thickets or other features that will screen your movements. Walk as quietly as possible in the leaves, and don’t break any sticks.
When setting up, pick a location that offers the gobbler an easy route to your location. There should be no creeks, gullies, fences, thick undergrowth or other barriers between you and the bird. Also choose a spot that is on the same contour or slightly above the turkey’s location. Don’t try to call a gobbler down a steep slope. Pick an area that provides you with a good view of your surroundings.
Sit against a tree, stump or other object that is wider than your back and taller than your head. It will hide your outline and protect your back from a hunter who might move in behind you. Face the turkey’s direction with your left shoulder (for right-handed shooters), this provides you with a greater mobility of your gun when aiming. Above all, keep your movement to a minimum as you call. If the gobbler is working toward you, then goes silent, don’t move. Sometimes gobblers will sneak in quietly.
If you set up and a gobbler answers your call but won’t come, you’re going to have to change your game plan. You may need to circle around and call from another location. You might change to another call. If you’ve worked him a long time and he’s still hung up, you might leave the gobbler and come back in a couple of hours and try again. Many hunts require several moves and/or strategy changes.
Once you get a bird working to you, get your gun up on your knee pointed in his general direction with the stock against your shoulder. When a gobbler finally walks within range (inside 40 yards), wait until he steps behind a tree or other obstacle to move your gun. When he reappears, aim carefully at his head/neck junction, and then squeeze the trigger. When a gobbler struts, the neck (spinal column) is compressed and the head is often partially hidden by feathers, making for an even smaller target. If the gobbler is strutting, wait until he extends his neck to shoot. A clean, one-shot kill should be the goal of every hunter.
It’s a great moment when a long beard answers a hunter’s call. This is when all the scouting and preparation pay off. It may not always result in bagging the bird, but that’s part of the challenge and the memories. If you listen to a veteran turkey hunter, you’ll note that the hunts most often remembered are those where the gobbler, and not the hunter, won.