Turkey Hunting Tips
I learned to hunt wild turkeys through trial and error, beginning in 1988. I stuck with it, and after a few seasons of experimenting with calls, equipment, and techniques, I learned how to get close to this wary bird. If you’re interested in doing the same, be sure to read up on your local turkey hunting regulations before you do anything else.
Wild turkeys are extremely skittish and moody. No single technique works on them every time. Consistently filling turkey tags requires learning several different techniques, being flexible, understanding all you can about your quarry, scouting the territory, developing your outdoor skills, and knowing your weapon.
Bearded Tom and Matted Hen
Male turkeys have black, shiny, iridescent feathers; a beard, which is a clump of stringy feathers that grows from their chest; and spurs growing from the backs of their legs. While strutting, they change the color of the skin on their featherless heads to bright red, blue, and white.
As males age, their appearance changes. (See “Distinguish a Tom from a Jake, below”) Jakes are yearling males. They have short beards and spurs. The middle feathers in their fanned tails are longer than the outside feathers, forming an uneven fan. Toms are 2 years and older, and they have long beards and spurs. Their tail feathers form an even fan when strutting.
Hens are ground nesters, and, as a result, they need camouflage. They have dark-colored, matte feathers. Their featherless heads are pale blue; however, when they’re agitated, this can change to a dull red.
Most states allow the harvest of a bearded turkey during the spring hunting season.
Wild turkeys have excellent eyesight and hearing. They’re food for many predators, and they know it. They travel in flocks, so there are always several pairs of eyes and ears watching and listening for danger.
They see color, just like us, and they can see ultraviolet light, which we can’t. To overcome the birds’ excellent eyesight, hunters should wear head-to-toe camouflage clothing. In my experience, the camo pattern isn’t as important as washing the clothing in a laundry detergent that doesn’t have ultraviolet brighteners, and sitting in places where you blend into the background. These advantageous places include against a tree that’s wider than your body, and in clumps of brush or other undergrowth. If ground cover is sparse, you many need to lay on your belly to hide, or use a blind. (For more information on blinds, see my article “Get Lost in Ground Blinds.”
Turkeys are extremely good at detecting unnatural movements. If you must move, do so slowly, when the bird isn’t looking directly at you. When stalking, don’t walk with the rhythmic pace of a human, and avoid letting your pant legs rub together as you step. Place each step wisely. Avoid dry vegetation and twigs. If you can’t avoid dry leaves, then walk like a feeding turkey: Use short, light steps. Pause and scratch the leaves on the ground. Learn to mimic the purrs of contented feeding turkeys, and use those calls while moving to avoid detection from your watchful prey.
A Typical Turkey Day
On a typical day, turkeys fly from their roost in the morning to forage for food and water and to preen. In the evening, they fly back into trees to roost.
Wild turkeys prefer to roost in tall, open-crowned trees. Here in northeast Kansas, those are cottonwood, sycamore, hackberry, and oak. These trees typically grow near water or along timbered hillsides.
Wild turkeys are opportunistic omnivores, and they eat a wide variety of plants, insects, small reptiles, and grains. Once they find a good feeding area, they’ll return to that place day after day. Dusting areas are usually located on the edges of fields where they feed.
Spring is mating season for wild turkeys. In early spring, when the toms are trying to attract mates, they strut and fight each other to establish dominance. Strutting zones are in open places that are visible from long distances, so hens can see them. Later in spring, when the dominant toms have gathered a harem of hens, they’ll follow the hens everywhere and drive away rivals. When the hens are nesting, the toms go back to their strutting areas, or move through their range looking for receptive hens.
Scout It Out: Finding roosts, feeding areas, travel routes, and strutting zones can all contribute to harvesting a tom. A good time to scout for roosts is midday, when turkeys are away feeding. Start by finding large open-crowned trees near water, and then look for turkey droppings on the ground. Turkey dung is typically 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in diameter; up to 3 inches long; and white, gray, or green in color. Tom droppings will be thumb-sized and curled. Hen droppings are typically smaller and straight. Shed feathers will often litter the ground under roosts.\
One of the best ways to hunt wild turkeys is to sneak into the landing areas near roosts well before daybreak and wait for the birds to fly down. Turkeys prefer to launch and land into the wind, so choose the landing zone based on wind direction. In other words, if the wind is from the south, choose a landing zone to the south of the roost. Roost areas are good places to hunt late in the day as the birds return.
If the land you hunt doesn’t include roosts, then find feeding, strutting, dusting, preening, and travel routes, and sit in those areas. Finding these places will take a little more detective work, including walking game trails, sitting, watching, and listening. Like barnyard chickens, turkeys scratch when feeding. The ground in favorite feeding areas will bear the marks of this scratching. Dusting areas are typically on field edges where turkeys feed. They’re shallow, turkey-sized depressions, where the soil has been turned to powder. Travel routes will have tracks, droppings, and shed feathers. They’re often the same trails used by deer and other animals.
Look for terrain that you can use to move unseen from place to place. This includes creek beds and other low spots deep enough for you to hide in while traveling. Overgrown fence lines or ridgelines can also be good travel routes. Practice crawling from tree to tree so if you find a tom and hens moving through the woods, you can approach while the birds aren’t looking.
Talking Turkey: Turkeys are social critters that have their own vocabulary. Learning a few hen calls can often help bring in a tom. Toms make their presence known by gobbling and strutting, and expect the hens to come to them. Convincing a tom to come to a hen is going against their nature, but, fortunately, toms without hens will come looking for them.
The primary hen call is the yelp, a long-range call they use to locate each other. Typically repeated 5 to 7 times, yelps let other turkeys know the hen’s location and that she’s safe. If you learn only one call, learn to yelp.
Another helpful call is the feeding purr and putt. Turkeys use this short-range call to keep in contact and to let other members of the flock know everything is OK. I often use this call when moving, or to calm alarmed birds. When using purrs and putts, be careful not to putt aggressively. Loud putts are alarm calls that alert the flock to a predator. Excited hens will cackle, usually when flying down from the roost. When no other calls are working, sometimes cackling will bring in a tom.
Toms communicate too. The most iconic tom call is the gobble, which lets hens know where the tom is and calls them over. Toms will aggressively gobble from roosts and strutting zones. Strutting toms drum and spit. Both are quiet calls, and I can only hear them at short ranges. Drumming is a low-frequency sound that I feel more than hear. It sounds and feels like “thoomph, thoomph.” If you feel and hear drumming, the tom’s very close. When toms fight, they use fast, aggressive purrs. Fights gather a crowd. Mimicking a turkey fight will sometimes bring in toms.
The market offers a variety of manufactured calls, such as box, slate, push-button, and mouth. When calling, keep movement to a minimum. Mouth calls are best for this, as box, slate, and push-button calls require hand and finger movements to operate. I’ve used all types of manufactured calls, but I enjoy learning and making sounds with my own voice. The advantage of voice calling is that I can mimic the emotion, tone, and tempo of the calls to match the turkeys’. Most inexperienced hunters call too often. Listen to what the turkeys are doing and base your calls on what you hear.
When you’re hunting fields and meadows, note that a tom will often stop and hang just out of range, expecting the hen to come to him. When this happens, stop calling and let him think the hen has lost interest. When he begins to move away, call softly like the hen has moved away.
If you’re hunting with a partner, have the caller move 80 to 100 yards farther away from the tom, with the shooter in between. If the tom comes looking for the hen, he’ll walk up to the shooter.
To Decoy or Not to Decoy
I’ve used a variety of decoys, with mixed results. I’ve had times when toms ran to the decoys, and times when they saw the decoys and ran the other way. In my experience, decoys work best on early morning hunts and in areas where the turkeys don’t have much time to study them.
Get the most realistic decoys you can afford. If you can only afford one, buy a hen decoy. If you can afford more, buy two hens and a jake. Set the jake decoy where you want to kill the tom. Set the hens off to the side, out of the line of fire. Sit about 20 yards from the jake in a spot where you’re not directly within view of where you expect the tom to approach. If everything works, the jealous tom will run in to drive off the jake and court the hens. When it works, it happens quickly, so be ready.
But be alert for other predators. I’ve had numerous coyotes, bobcats, owls, and hawks come looking for a turkey breakfast while I was trying to entice a tom.
No Strut, No Rut
Whatever weapon you choose, practice shooting from different distances and positions. When using a shotgun, you’ll aim for the turkey’s head and neck, so shoot turkey targets at different ranges to see how many pellets hit inside the head and neck area.
I prefer to shoot a tom when his head and neck are extended rather than when he’s strutting. To get a tom to break strut, I’ll line up for the shot, push off the safety, and give a soft alarm putt. The tom will typically break strut and raise its head. If toms are in a group, you’ll often have the opportunity to “double up,” or kill two birds. The toms are so intent on establishing dominance that any sign of
weakness triggers an attack. After the shot, the startled birds will run a few steps. If they’re still in range, another shot is possible. However, the toms will often come back to spur and wing whip the dying bird, giving you an opportunity for another shot.
Distinguish a Tom from a Jake
Turkeys’ flight feathers are shed and regrown a few at a time. A 1-year-old turkey has shed and regrown 4 to 6 tail feathers. This is why a jake’s fan is uneven. At 2 years old, males have full-grown tail feathers.
Male turkey beards grow about 3 to 4 inches per year. If healthy, a jake will have a 2-to-4-inch-long beard in spring. A 2-year-old’s beard will be roughly 6 to 8 inches. An older tom’s beard will be 9 inches or longer. Maximum beard growth is determined by the environment.
Male spurs grow around 3/8 of an inch each year. A jake will have nubs. A 2-year-old will have round-tipped spurs between 1/2 and 3/4 inch long. At 3 years old, a male has 1-to-11/4 inch spurs that are sharp, pointed, and beginning to curve. Length and curvature are added each additional year. Be careful when picking up a downed tom. Even in its death throes, a tom can deliver painful stabs with its spurs. Hens have the spur buds on their legs, but they don’t grow long or sharp.
Dennis Biswell is a frequent contributor to Grit. He’s an avid outdoorsperson and turkey hunter.
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