Waking up at 4:30 in the morning might seem crazy, but when it comes to spring turkey hunting, it’s well worth it to me and thousands of other hunters in North America. A fresh cup of coffee, a bagel, and a look at the weather is just the beginning to a wonderful day in the woods.
One hunt last spring, after I got set up and the sun began to rise, the woods erupted with sound: Toms gobbling and hens yelping filled the air. I started calling with just a soft yelp on my slate call before the toms flew down, in hopes of drawing one right off the roost. Finally I heard the familiar sound of wings and turkeys flying down from their roost – one, then another, and another. What an awesome feeling of anticipation.
Sometime later, a hen came into my decoys with a tom in hot pursuit, and one well-placed arrow later, I knew my turkey tag was filled.
Spring turkey hunting is a great pursuit for beginner hunters because the weather is usually bearable, the gear is relatively inexpensive, calling is fun, populations have been on the rise in recent years, and turkeys are not an intimidating animal to process for the dinner table. It’s an inexpensive and enjoyable hobby, and a few tips will give you a better chance at success.
Rule the roost
First and foremost, scout for roosts. Turkeys are very consistent in what they do from day to day. They roost in trees, frequently along creeks or rivers, flying up at dusk and flying down at dawn.
There are a few ways you can find these roosting spots. First is to go into the woods during the midday and look for droppings under big mature trees along creeks or rivers. Turkeys are like any other bird – they relieve themselves often. Droppings will be white in color, and when you find a roosting spot, it’ll likely be obvious. If there are sycamore trees along the creek, check those first. Sycamores are good roosting trees for turkeys because of the big open limbs. Mature oak trees are also a good roosting tree. Tree species obviously depends on your region of the country, but look for big, old trees.
The second way you can accomplish finding roost locations is to arrive at your hunting spot before the season and stand near the creek bottom. Turkeys are very vocal birds, especially in the spring. Male birds – jakes, which are 1st-year males, and toms, which are 2-year-old males or older – will gobble on the roost, giving away their location. Being mobile is advantageous since you can move on the spot and pinpoint their exact location. Once you find the area in which they are roosting, you can bet they’ll continue to roost in that same area as long as they are not pressured.
When I find a roost spot, I’ll go a couple of times to make sure they continue to roost in that same area, and to see what they do after flying down from the roost. Typically they will fly into open crop fields or pastures. Toms strut in open areas in order to attract hens in spring, so they like to be visible to other birds. Toms also have what are called “strutting grounds” – places they prefer to strut. If unbothered, they’ll stick to those areas from day to day. Again, they are consistent in their routine, which is why scouting is an important element to successfully hunting this elusive bird. Finding their behavior pattern after flying down from the roost helps you pinpoint where to set up.
Tools and techniques
There are a couple of key attributes to know about the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). They have exceptional eye sight, and their hearing is top notch. In order to beat their eyes, you need a good set of camo from head to toe, including a face mask or face paint. You also want to make sure that all of your movements are slow and methodical, as they will catch any quick movement, even from a hundred yards away. They rely heavily on sight and hearing for their safety.
Turkeys are usually hunted with a shotgun. Once you have located birds, look for a good tree to sit under. I typically try to find a tree that is bigger than I am. This will help conceal you and not allow them to silhouette your figure.
Decoys are another valuable tool. When I first started, I had one hen decoy for years, and was successful. Don’t let someone tell you that you need a whole flock of decoys. That said, my favorite setup is three decoys. I like to use two hens, one feeding and one alert, and then one male decoy, usually a jake. A strutting decoy can work well too, if you encounter a bird that is very dominant. Usually once a tom sees decoys, his focus will turn to the male decoy. These are very territorial birds, so when they see another male with hens, they will be looking for a fight.
Decoy placement can also be important when hunting turkeys. I use a V formation: the two hens being about 10 yards and the jake being the point of the V at about 15 yards. I also always face the male decoy toward me. The reason for this is because when a tom comes in to fight, he will usually face his opponent. This allows you to get away with movement when he’s facing away from your location.
Calling is the next thing to consider. You don’t have to be an expert to call turkeys. I prefer a slate call because they are versatile. You can call soft with light pressure, and you can call louder on windy days with heavier pressure. With a little practice – and research on cadence and tone – they are probably the easiest turkey call to master.
And don’t over call. This is probably the most common mistake among beginner turkey hunters – I know I’ve been guilty of it. When you get a tom to respond to your call, it’s exciting, and it takes some discipline to not call too much. What you realize when calling is that you are actually acting opposite Mother Nature. Naturally, the tom gobbles, and the hen will come find the tom. When turkey hunting, you are calling as a hen and getting the tom to come to you.
So remember that toms are used to the females coming to them. I always call according to how the tom responds. If he is gobbling two or three times during your sequence, then you can be a little more aggressive. It is a sit-and-wait game when calling in these creatures. You call, he responds, and then you wait. What you are trying to do is make him curious enough to leave his area and come find you. If I get a good response, I will usually sit and wait, let him gobble a few times. Usually if you sit quiet for a few minutes, he’ll start heading your way. You want to call just enough to keep him interested and for him to hone in on your location. Once he is within sight, the decoys should do the rest of the work.
Turkeys have thousands of feathers – 5,000 to 6,000 on adults. When they come into range and are strutting, they look big, and it can be overwhelming. It is very deceiving because you would think you could shoot them anywhere and get the job done. They’re just a bird, right? Wrong. They are one tough bird. The only clean ethical kill is to shoot them in the head and neck. Any bird shot within 30 yards in the head and neck with a full choke and heavy turkey load will drop in its tracks and expire quickly. Check your state’s regulations for maximum shot sizes and other regulations.
There are multiple ways to hunt turkeys. The traditional method of sitting and calling, trying to lure a gobbler to your location, is rewarding when it works. Another popular tactic is what turkey hunters call “run and gun,” which means when you find a bird gobbling, you use the creeks and terrain to your advantage to sneak up on the turkey and get in range for a shot. This tactic requires extreme stealth. The best success when doing this is to find out which direction they are heading and to get around them and head them off. Sometimes they might be in one spot and you might have to do a bit of army crawling to get the job done. If you’re on public land, exercise caution, and hunter orange might be required or advised – check your local regulations.
After harvesting a bird, you want to clean it as soon as possible. There are two ways you can clean your bird. The first and easiest is to breast the bird out. Simply pull the feathers and skin away from their breast, exposing the meat, and cut the breast meat right off the bone. You can also remove the feathers and skin from their legs and cut them at the joint for an easy drumstick treat. The other cleaning method is to remove all the feathers from the body, cutting the wings and legs off. This takes time, because you want to leave the skin on the bird in this process. Just pluck the feathers, a handful at a time. If you choose this method, you will need to remove the organs as well, similar to eviscerating a chicken.
Turkey hunting can be one of the most exhilarating hunting experiences you can have. This spring, you too can be in the woods chasing these beautiful birds of the North American countryside.
Basic Hunter's Safety
Depending on your state's regulations, there are generally two turkey hunting seasons: one in the spring and one in the fall, and shooting-hour regulations and season dates may vary depending on whether you hunt public or private land. Spring turkey hunting coincides with the wild turkey's reproductive season, so generally spring turkey hunting is more popular. Fall tactics include more of a sit-and-wait approach.
In this article, the author recommends full camouflage for turkey hunting. In most states, wearing hunter orange isn't required for turkeys, but if you are on public ground or any place where other hunters could be present, it's generally recommended to wear hunter orange — if only during the walk from the truck to your setup point — for your safety and the safety of those around you.
The first step for any beginner getting into hunting is to take your state's hunter's safety education course and complete the necessary certification. Next, look into the dates of the current year that turkeys are in season as well as obtaining all the licenses required by state and federal law.
Todd Foxx grew up in southeast Kansas, hunting ducks, geese, turkeys, deer and more. He took the Kansas hunter’s education course when he was 9, and has been an avid outdoorsman ever since.