I drew my first turkey tag as a teen in the mid-’90s. Turkey populations were swinging in the right direction at that time, but flocks were a far cry from today’s numbers. My dad wrote me notes to get out of school to take advantage of the 5-day season in which you could only hunt until noon.
We each donned mismatched camo, and as a last layer, pulled on turkey hunting vests. We stuffed the pockets with our various calls, shells, and facemasks. That was what the accomplished turkey hunters wore, so that’s what we wore.
With 80% of the season in my rearview mirror, a naïve two-year-old tom strutted in front of my 20-gauge bead and made me a lifelong turkey hunter. Some of the lessons from that first season have stuck with me through decades of gobblers across multiple states, but one thing hasn’t—using turkey vests.
I hate them.
With today’s performance hunting apparel and nearly unlimited styles of packs, vests have almost become obsolete. Their snaggy, baggy, and inefficient designs make me cringe more than finding a tick dug into my waistline. This might be partially due to my bent toward bowhunting turkeys, but even when I’m running and gunning with a shotgun, I’d rather keep gear in my pockets and pack. And I’m not the only one.
The Anti-Vest Crowd
Outdoors writer Eddie Claypool spends his springs hunting turkeys across the country. He’s one of the most accomplished public lands bowhunters I know, which is to say that he takes his April forays seriously. For him, no vest is big enough to handle all his equipment.
“As a bowhunter, I have a lot of gear to carry,” Claypool said. “Blinds, decoys, miscellaneous gear, and the makings for all day sits. A turkey vest doesn’t cut it for me.”
Fellow outdoors writer and dedicated turkey slayer Jace Bauserman agrees. He’d rather tote gear on his back in a pack than at his side in a vest.
“I’ve never liked them,” Bauserman said. “I mostly bowhunt birds and I don’t want to wear something bulky and cumbersome that feels like it’s always hanging on vegetation. Honestly, I feel like wearing one is like dragging a parachute through the woods.”
Bauserman does a fair amount of hunts from a blind, but also keeps a bow-mounting turkey fan in his pack at all times. If he sees the right longbeard—excitable, dominant, but stuck out of range—he’ll sneak out and make something happen. Wearing a vest while belly crawling across 250 yards of turkey habitat isn’t going to happen.
The Sometimes-Vest Crowd
Tennessee’s Brodie Swisher is a writer, photographer, and hunter who spends more time afield each spring than most sportsmen log in any 5-year stretch. When it comes to vests, he thinks they have their moments.
“It all depends on how I’m hunting,” Swisher said. “If I’m runnin’ and gunnin’ or hunting from a kayak, I’ll typically use a vest because it’s so convenient. If I’m bowhunting, the vest stays home, and I’ll use a backpack.”
No matter his hunting style or gear-toting system, Swisher says he follows the rule of the “Big 3 Ts:” tube call, tick repellent, and toilet paper. Whether it’s run-and-gun hunting or waiting out birds from a blind, his vest or backpack always has bugspray, butt wipe, and something to elicit shock gobbles.
Aaron Warbritton of The Hunting Public is also an occasional vest wearer, even though it goes against his typical hunting style. Anyone who’s watched his videos knows he’s a minimalist in the woods with very few items. For that reason, a vest just makes sense.
“I wear a vest, but I’m not always happy about it,” Warbritton said. “I haven’t found one yet with a comfortable seat, but they are nice for packing gear. I carry a couple of shells, a few mouth calls, and one glass call with an extra striker and conditioning stone. I also stash away a pen, knife, and turkey tote in case I kill one. That’s about it.”
The Pro-Vest Crowd
Josh Dahlke, founder of the YouTube series “The Hunger,” hunts multiple states for turkeys each spring. When it comes to vests, he won’t leave home without one.
“During my early years of turkey hunting I didn’t know what I was doing,” Dahlke said. “It took a long time figure out how to consistently beat turkeys at their game, and with that process I learned how a well-organized vest is critical for running and gunning. The vests of today have come a long way in fit, comfort, and functionality, so finding the right one has never been easier.”
Dahlke fills his vest with the usual suspects, but also says that he never hits the woods without a real fan, which he thinks is valuable for more than reaping hung-up gobblers.
“You can gain ground on a wary gobbler with a real fan in open terrain, for sure, but most hunters would be surprised at how well it can work to settle down a skeptical or spooked bird too.”
Examples like Dahlke, Warbritton, and Claypool seem to show a natural divide in the turkey hunting community. Bowhunters and gear junkies favor packs, while shotgunners and minimalists favor vests. But it’s less about being anti-vest or pro-vest, and more about folks using whatever gear it takes to get the job done.
Feature image via Captured Creative.