Wild turkeys existed in 39 states when the creaky hull of the Mayflower met the coast in the early 1600s. It’s not a sure thing that this wily bird was carved on the first Thanksgiving, yet history reflects America’s affinity for the flesh of this plump galliform to the extent that this species nearly went extinct by the mid-1800s. Today’s population of wild turkeys has skyrocketed with the help of established hunting regulations and conservation efforts. No doubt, we are in the golden times of turkey hunting in the United States.
The wild turkey is the second largest game bird in North America. A mature tom stands 46 inches tall and weighs 20 pounds on average. Hens reach a height of 37 inches and 10 pounds on average. The wild turkey plumage appears dark from afar, but close inspection reveals the contrary. Feathers shimmer with bronze, green and copper colors. The wings of these mysterious birds have strong barring that contrasts between dark brown and white. If you watch enough PBR Rodeos, you’ll see one of these wing feathers tucked into the hat band of a cowboy crawling on top of a bull.
The tail feathers of a mature tom tend to send hunters into tunnel vision. A mature tom is easily distinguished by the uniform tail feather length. A dark band extends near the top of the feathers, with the light feather tip coloration glowing warm tan and orange colors in the early morning light.
The necks and heads of turkeys are slender and generally featherless and reddish in color; the heads of males can change colors from blue to red depending on their mood. Males have spurred legs and a feather tuft, or beard, protruding from their chest. Beards on mature males can be 10 inches or longer. Perhaps as many as 15% of hens will have a beard as well, though they are generally much thinner and less conspicuous than the beards of males.
The meat from these birds is a treat. Their breast is comprised of tender white meat, while tougher, dark meat is found in the thighs, legs and wings. The birds are often roasted or smoked whole, but handling the light and dark meat differently will reward wild game cooks. The giblets, including the gizzard, liver and heart, are not to be missed.
Traditionally there are a number of turkey subspecies recognized by hunters and biologists: The Eastern and Osceola of the Eastern U.S. and Florida, and the Merriam’s, Rio Grande and Gould’s of the West and Southwest. Each variant has its own subtle differences in appearance, though it usually requires a trained eye to tell them apart.
Opportunities to Hunt
The opportunity to hunt these elusive birds is available in 49 states. Most tags for turkeys can be obtained over the counter, but some require hunters to enter a lottery. The lone state without a turkey season currently is Alaska, although reports of pen-raised birds being released into the wild are causing sightings throughout southern Alaska.
As mentioned before, turkey numbers are exceptionally widespread. This availability has allowed wildlife agencies to create separate spring and fall seasons. Spring hunts usually target male turkeys, while fall hunts usually allow either sex. Fall hunts can be used by agencies to lower populations in areas where flocks are too big.
Spring Turkey Hunting Methods
For spring hunts, you want to bring the turkey to you. This is the time of year when males fill the woods with the sounds of their raucous and unmistakable gobbles, which serve to both attract females and challenge rival gobblers.
While it’s possible to kill gobblers in a variety of ways, including ambushing them along travel corridors and in feeding areas, turkey hunters who want to consistently kill turkeys should learn to target gobblers by scouting locations, calling and decoying the birds into range of either a bow or shotgun. If there’s a mistake that beginner turkey hunters make, it’s thinking that these boisterous birds are easy prey.
Scouting and Locating Gobblers
Locating a gobbler should begin with pre-season scouting. The first day of your hunt is no time to wonder if a particular woodlot or valley has a population of resident turkeys. Scouting will save you time and frustration when the time comes to head into the field.
Scout prospective locations for evidence of turkeys or the actual turkeys themselves, making careful note of roost trees, feeding areas and travel routes. Scouting trips can be as easy as driving around on forest service access roads or as involved as multi-day backpack trips through likely turkey country.
There are tell-tale signs of turkey activity, if burning boot leather is your style of scouting. Look for tracks, feathers, salad bowl-sized dusting bowls, scratch marks from feeding on the forest floor and wing-tip drag marks on dusty roads or field edges where males strut during breeding season.
When scouting, don’t worry if you’re only seeing hens. As long you find the females, you can be fairly certain that some toms are already in the immediate area or will be in the area once the spring breeding season approaches.
Your ears, eyes and a few pieces of gear should be enough to zero in on spring gobblers. If you get on the hens, listen in the early morning or late afternoon hours for the unmistakable gobble. Quality binos, at a 10×42 range, will give your eyesight the reach to allow for male identification amongst a flock of turkeys.
The shock gobble is a must-have tactic in the toolbox of a turkey hunter. Male turkeys will often gobble at any loud noise they hear. Truck doors slamming, stop signs getting pinged by rocks and crow calls are all tried and true tactics for getting the toms and jakes to sound off.
Shock gobbling is preferable in the early evening hours. Once a gobbler gives up his location, put glass on the area. Chances are the turkeys will be roosting in trees close to where they gobble in this time frame. Scouring this area with glass will allow a hunter to devise a plan to sneak in the early morning hours undetected within striking distance to the roost location.
Set the Ambush
There are considerations to keep in mind when entering the woods to set up on pinpointed gobblers. Understanding the capabilities of a wild turkey helps the hunter in the pursuit. The keen eyesight of a turkey puts a timber ghost Midwest whitetail to shame. Wild turkeys have been known to bust a hunter due to the movement of eyes alone. Placing decoys will help give incoming gobblers and hens a visual target to clue in on.
Understand the lay of the land where you intend to set up and think about where the turkeys will approach. Midwest turkeys are known to travel on agricultural edges next to timber or along creek bottoms. Western birds work terrain and benches in their movements. Find the avenues of approach with the least resistance. The birds will often take this route.
Decoys work extremely well for turkeys. This is especially true on birds that have never encountered them before. A single hen decoy can be effective, though it seems to work much better if you pair a hen or two with a decoy of a young tom, or jake in strutting mode.
The sight of a jake strutting for females seems to outrage mature males, and they will often run up to attack the decoy. Place your decoys on level ground in an open or semi-open location where they are visible to approaching birds. For bowhunting, place the bird facing you at 20 or so yards.
Turkey hunters utilize a number of calls to emulate the sounds of turkeys. The slate, box and diaphragm calls are a trio of tried-and-true devices to sweet talk a mature tom into striking distance. Each of these three styles of turkey calls have their own strengths and weaknesses. A hunter is best off by giving each a try to see what they are best at.
A hunter will most often be more successful making turkey sounds with the slate or box call. The slate call sound is made by drawing a wooden peg, called a “striker,” across the call’s surface, which is made from slate, glass or aluminum. The applied pressure of the striker to the surface will produce the necessary clucks, yelps, putts and purrs with a beginner friendly ease of use.
The other friction style device is the box call. This crafted wooden box creates sounds when the friction of the lid is stroked across the top edges of the box. The noises produced vary with the amount of pressure applied, chalk on the lid and type of wood used to create the box. A hunter can cut through stronger winds with the volume a box call creates.
The diaphragm call is the hardest turkey call to learn and master. It benefits the hunter in allowing them to become hands free. This is especially useful when the turkey is close enough to see your every movement but still needs some coaxing to close the final distance and get into range for the shot.
Turkey Talk 2.0
The vocabulary of a turkey is fairly small and easy to understand once you become familiar to their language. Watching YouTube videos of wild turkeys or tutorials from professional callers is a great place to start. As you spend time in the field, nothing will beat the experience of listening to birds in their natural environment.
When it comes down to it, you can kill turkeys with just two sounds, the cluck and the yelp. If done loud enough for gobblers to hear, it works well to get their attention. From there, learn how to purr and cut. A purr is a quiet call that seems to signify contentment, this call just seems to drive gobblers nuts, though they need to be close to hear it. It’s especially effective on gobblers that are reluctant to come in close enough for a shot.
Learning how to make turkey calls is much harder than learning when to use them. Most novice turkey hunters make the mistake of calling too much, which really seems to turn gobblers off. You want to call just often enough and just loudly enough, to get a gobblers attention and move him ever so slowly in your direction. Be mindful of the cadence of your calls. You can learn all of the right words, but if you don’t have the proper tone and rhythm you’ll never be an effective caller. Master these skills and you’ll have years of wild turkeys in the freezer for holiday meals.
Aim, Breath and Squeeze
A patterned shotgun is a blessing for the turkey hunter. This allows you to know how the pellets will hit at certain distances, giving you the ability to aim correctly. Most hunters will pattern their turkey gun with a full choke for 30 yard shots. Most shotguns will hit their mark at this distance when the hunter aims for the waddle underneath the head of the gobbler.
The moment of silence before the shotgun erupts in the timber can be excruciatingly difficult. Adrenaline levels tend to spike with the gobbler sounding off in full strut. It’s a wildlife audio and visual display that will be burned into your memory for years to come.
In this final moment, remember the fundamental rules. Place your cheek to stock, aim the BB at the location on the bird determined by the distance and slowly squeeze the trigger. Let the turkey load surprise you.
Watch the turkey carefully when the shot goes off. A bird that isn’t quickly killed will either need a follow-up shot or the hunter to quickly jump on the bird and dispatch it with their hands. Tuck the wings under your legs as you sit on the bird and mind the spurs on the turkey’s feet.
Feature image via John Hafner.