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.