Avoid These Mistakes to Kill Your First Turkey

Avoid These Mistakes to Kill Your First Turkey

Few things rival the sense of accomplishment that accompanies killing your first turkey. This is especially true if you commit a few seasons’ worth of blunders along the way.

The season I killed my first bird, I managed to miss or spook a legion of turkeys all in the first two weeks. I put on a masterclass for how not to kill a turkey, and more than a few longbeards honed their survival instincts that year. However, those mistakes made my first turkey even sweeter. So sweet that when I finally ran to grab that 17-pound gobbler, his pencil beard, which might’ve eclipsed eight inches, felt like a world record to me.

While I believe those mistakes were invaluable to my growth as a turkey hunter, a heads-up still would have been nice. So, if you’re trying to kill your first gobbler, here are some mistakes you can avoid on your way to punch a tag.

Bad Setups

Learning how to set up on turkeys in the woods requires repetition. This skill also requires you to learn how to judge the general area where a gobbler is roosted if you’re not quite sure. I made this mistake a lot early in my hunting career. I’d locate a gobbler and either set up immediately or sit in a place where I wanted the gobbler to be, not where he would actually go. I took myself out of the game well before any of those turkeys ever pitched down.

If you’re new to turkey hunting and running solo, judging a gobbler’s distance can be difficult. You can read all you want about how to do this, but time in the field is your best teacher. However, if you hear a turkey gobble and it’s faint, you need to close the distance. You run the risk of bumping a longbeard off the roost, but if you’re not in his bubble, you’re not in the game. I’m not saying you can’t call in a gobbler from over 500 yards away, but your chances aren’t great. Depending on the time of year, vegetation, and terrain, try getting within 100 to 150 yards of where you think he’s roosted. But don’t stop there.

Once you’ve closed the distance, survey the area and see if there are any terrain or vegetation traps that might cause a gobbler to hang up outside of shotgun range. Is there an impenetrable thicket between you and the bird? What about a creek that he would have to cross? If so, set up in a way that allows the gobbler to come in without any of those potential barriers. Sometimes, there’s no way around these terrain or vegetation traps, but if you can eliminate any setup mistakes, it only works in your favor.


There’s a time and place to go toe-to-toe with a gobbler, but if you’re just learning the ropes, try to call as little as possible. It’s tempting to keep calling when you’re working a bird that gobbles at everything.

Unless that bird comes running in, he’s probably strutting around and waiting for a hen to appear. In that case, he’s either going to break and come in or drift away. Unless you’re in a position to ambush him, there’s not much you can do about it, and even the best turkey mouth calls can’t change that. That’s why it’s important to lay off the calling and pique his interest.

Minimal calling helped me kill my first turkey more than anything. I went in blind to a spot and as soon as that turkey gobbled on the limb, I decided I would only call every thirty minutes, no matter how much he gobbled. Obviously, you don’t have to be that rigid, and this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but it helped keep my calling to a minimum, which eventually broke that gobbler.

After three hours of calling every thirty minutes, a 45-minute window passed without a gobble. When my self-imposed 30-minute wait ran up, I decided not to call and just wait him out. Another twenty minutes passed before he gobbled again. When he did, he was clearly on the way. A few moments later, he strutted into shotgun range.

Leaving Too Soon

Whenever I talk to new or inexperienced turkey hunters, if they have a turkey story, it usually ends with them leaving a turkey that went quiet or getting up too soon and spooking a gobbler that came in silent. I did this more times than I care to admit, but it should only take a few putting longbeards to realize why patient hunters kill more turkeys.

I remember several hunts during my teens where a turkey would go quiet for thirty minutes or more. Instead of waiting, I would either go look for that turkey or leave all together. Looking back, I’m sure some of those gobblers were on their way, and I either left too soon or spooked them without knowing it.

As humans, we’re consciously aware of time. Turkeys, on the other hand, have no schedule. It’s tempting to think that a quiet turkey has gone to greener pastures. In reality, he’s probably bugging around, strutting, catering to hens, or on his way to your setup. Instead of bailing after twenty minutes, try to impose an hour-long wait from the time of his last gobble. In the best-case scenario, he comes in silent. Worst case, you level up your patience. Either will eventually lead to a dead turkey.

Putting Your Gun Down

Whenever I take a new turkey hunter to the woods, I almost always have to remind them to have their gun at the ready. You can get away with some movement in the turkey woods, but this requires time in the field. When you’re first starting out, it’s best to assume the turkey can see every move you make and sit with your gun at the ready (propped on your knee).

One bonehead mistake that’s burned into my brain happened a few hunts before I harvested my first longbeard. I set up on a bird that morning without much luck, and he eventually went quiet. After an hour or so of no gobbling, I decided to get comfortable and lay my gun beside me on the ground. Not ten minutes later, I could see something coming through the brush, but by that time, it was too late. Not one but two longbeards strolled within five yards of my setup, looked at me, turned, and went back the way they came. With my gun on the ground, I could only watch in disbelief as they bobbed out of sight.

It can be uncomfortable and seem unnecessary to sit with your gun at the ready for long periods of time, but when you’re dealing with silent toms, it can be the difference in going home empty-handed.

While these tips can help you kill your first turkey, experience and time in the woods are the best ways to sharpen your turkey hunting skills. Misses and blunders will happen along the way, but they’ll make your first bird that much sweeter when it finally comes together.

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