Turkey isn’t a prized game meat like elk or venison. You can buy it for cheap in your grocer’s freezer. So why would anyone want to hunt turkey?
Simply put, turkey is one of the most challenging game animals out there. To begin with, they have better vision than people. They can see you blink from 60 yards away, making camouflage a challenge. They’re also smart enough to run when they see people. They won’t hesitate like a deer. Worse, they can learn to recognize turkey calls over time, and may actually run away when you call.
If that’s not enough, most states require you to hunt only male turkeys. The problem? They stick close to the females, and most states limit you to a shotgun or bow for turkey shooting. You’ll not only need to be close enough for one of these weapons, and you’ll need to be able to shoot without accidentally hitting a female.
This is a smart animal that can see you before you see it and adapts to your hunting techniques, and you somehow have to get within about 40 yards of it. That’s what we call a challenge!
If you’re skilled enough to bag a gobbler, you’re in for a treat; the meat is leaner and more flavorful than grocery store turkey.
The real question is, why wouldn’t someone want to go turkey hunting?
In this guide, we’ll go over the fine – and not so fine – points of turkey hunting. So strap in, because we have a lot to cover.
Beginner Must-Know Tips For Hunting Turkeys
Before we get into some of the nitty-gritty type questions, let’s get a birds-eye view of turkey hunting. Here are a few of the things you’ll need to know before you get out in the field.
Learn the Difference Between Gobblers and Hens
In the wild, male turkeys are called “toms” or “gobblers”, and females are called “hens”. Why is this relevant to hunting them?
Because most states only allow you to hunt gobblers. This makes good sense from a game management standpoint; one gobbler can impregnate several hens in a year, but the hens’ survival is essential to guarantee a good harvest next season.
Fortunately, turkeys are sexually dimorphic, which is a fancy way of saying the males and females are easy to tell apart. There are four ways you can tell which one you’re looking at.
- Head color – This is the easiest difference to spot. Males have red, rubbery, featherless heads, and may have big red wattles hanging off their neck. Females have blue-grey heads, usually with normal feathers.
- Beards – Male turkeys grow beards. This thin, feathery protrusion hangs from the front of their breast, and gets longer with age. Most females are beardless, but some aren’t. Don’t use this as your only indicator.
- Leg spurs – Male turkeys have bony spurs on their legs that look like extra toes. Females almost always don’t. Again, a few females do, so use this only in conjunction with other indicators.
- Tail fans – Gobblers have big tails. They’re not peacock big, but they’re fairly large, and the birds love to spread them out to display them, particularly during mating season. Hens have relatively small tails, and don’t spread them out.
- Body size – Male turkeys are about twice the size of females. This doesn’t help if you’re only looking at a single turkey, but if you see five turkeys and one of them is enormous, it’s the male.
A lot of game animals are only active in the mornings and evenings. As a result, many novice turkey hunters will give up if they haven’t seen a gobbler by 9 or 10 in the morning. This is especially true for people who have experience hunting other game like whitetail. And it would be true for those other species.
But turkeys are different. Thanks to their fast metabolisms, they remain active throughout the day, foraging to get all the calories they need to survive. They’re even more active in the spring, during mating season.
At this time of year, gobblers have one thing on their mind: finding a hen to impregnate. As long as it’s still light out, you stand a chance of a sex-crazed turkey strutting past your blind.
Shoot For The Head
There are two kinds of wild turkey meat: the kind with pellets in it and the kind without. Needless to say, we prefer the second type. While shotgun hunters may be used to taking quick shots, the best way to bag a gobbler is to take your time and nail it right in the head.
To do this, you’ll need to wait for the turkey to raise its head above its body. One solution is to use a decoy. Since gobblers are very competitive, they’ll often try to dominate it by strutting with their head raised, giving you a perfect target. If you don’t have a decoy or the turkey isn’t responding to it, be patient, and wait for it to raise its head on its own. It will, eventually.
What Can I Use to Hunt Turkeys?
As we’ve already mentioned a few times, there are only two commonly-used turkey hunting weapons in the US: shotguns and bows. We’re sorry, rifle hunters. Most states don’t want you using a rifle, simply because turkey populations are limited and shooting them with a rifle is too easy – it’s why we call a military disaster a “turkey shoot”.
What Makes a Good Turkey Gun?
For a shotgun, you’re going to want something powerful, ideally, a 12-gauge, although a 20-gauge is good enough to get the job done. The reason bigger is better is because you want to maximize your range. The more power you have, the more reliably you can bring down a gobbler instead of just winging it.
Pump action is the most popular choice, but a semi-automatic is even better for follow up shots if you can afford one. A semi-auto also has less recoil, giving your shoulder some relief. The one thing you definitely don’t want is a shiny gun. Leave your blued steel museum piece at home, and bring a black one hunting instead. A camo pattern is even better.
Remember how we said you don’t want to get pellets in the meat, and you want to shoot for the head? That’s only going to work if you have a choke on your scattergun. Without that, your spread is going to be all over the place. That’s good for killing birds but terrible for your meat. The exact choke you need will depend on the type of shot you’re using.
Most turkey hunters prefer #4 pellets due to the larger size and increased killing power. A .670 choke works just fine for these. If you’re using #6 or #7 ½ shot, you’re going to want a tighter choke to compensate for the wider spread. .660 should do it.
Besides a choke, you should also consider investing in a sight. This isn’t trap shooting. At 40 to 50 yards, with the right choke, your spread should be the size of a softball. So this is like rifle shooting with a shotgun. A good sight can make all the difference. Fiber optic open sights are particularly popular since they let you line up a shot as quickly as possible.
What Makes a Good Turkey Bow?
Unlike with shotguns, the last thing on your mind with a turkey bow should be the power. A turkey is much easier to kill than a deer; any bow with 40 or more pounds of pull will put an arrow right through its body.
Yes, we said “body”. There’s no reason to aim for the head when you’re using a bow, although you don’t want to hit the back half of the body since you’re liable to puncture the intestines and foul the meat. You want to hit just below the breast and above the drumstick. A hit there will break bones and puncture the heart and lungs, leading to an almost instant kill.
The main consideration when choosing a turkey bow is ergonomics. You want a bow that’s short enough to maneuver in a small blind, and you want to favor accuracy over strength.
A high let off is good, and a compound bow is better than a recurve bow. You’re only going to get one shot, and you don’t want to move quickly to draw and release a recurve. On the other hand, a compound bow allows you to draw, hold, and take your time getting that perfect shot.
What Are the Best Broadheads For Turkey Hunting?
When it comes to turkey hunting broadheads, there are two schools of thought.
The first school of thought says that you should use the sharpest arrow possible. These archers often favor mechanical broadheads, with a 2-inch or greater cutting diameter. The goal here is to sever an artery or to shoot the neck and take the gobbler’s head clean off. This certainly can be done, provided you’re a good enough shot.
The other school says that you should use a heavy broadhead with a relatively blunt tip, to deliver as much impact force as possible. These hunters almost always favor body shots.
About the only thing both schools agree on is that broadheads are better than standard arrows. A standard, narrow-tipped arrow is liable to pass through the body without hitting anything vital. Believe it or not, this does happen!
Whether you choose a sharp, wide broadhead or a more standard, slightly blunted broadhead, there’s no replacement for practice. You’re only going to get one shot at this, so make sure you’ve trained enough to reliably nail your target from whatever range you’ll be hunting at.
What’s the Best Time to Hunt Turkey?
Turkeys are roosting birds. This means that they fly up into bushes or small trees to spend the night. When they wake up, they return to the ground to forage. If you’ve managed to track them to their usual roosting grounds – more on that later – you’ll be good to take a shot. If not, you’ll need to attract them while they’re foraging their way through the woods.
Like many game animals, turkeys behave differently throughout the year. Unlike most game animals, however, most states have two seasons for turkey hunting: one in the spring, and one in the fall. Depending on when you’re hunting, you’ll need to take a different approach.
Hunting Turkey in the Spring
Springtime is mating season for turkeys. At this time of year, males and females begin by foraging separately, but as females begin to choose mates, they cluster around dominant males. Less dominant males continue to wander alone, searching for stray single ladies.
On the one hand, these single gobblers are easy to target. On the other hand, they’re generally small compared to the more experienced, dominant males. But the dominant males will be surrounded by a gaggle of hens, making it harder to get a clean shot.
Either way, you can attract them with a female turkey call. Single males will come running. Males with mates likely won’t, but female turkeys are territorial. The alpha female will likely respond to your call to chase off this new competitor, and the other females will follow her. The male will come with because the gobbler always follows his gaggle. If you’re lucky, he’ll be slightly behind them, giving you a good opportunity to shoot.
Hunting Turkey in the Fall
By fall, the females’ eggs have hatched and the chicks are independent. At this time of year, females cluster with other females, while males also band together in their own separate groups. This makes it easier to avoid shooting a female by mistake.
It also means you’ll want to use a different turkey call. Since males are looking for each other, a male call is going to be your best choice.
Turkey Hunting Weather
Turkeys are smart animals, so they’re less predictable than most other game. Consider the following list as a set of guidelines, not rules. An individual gobbler may surprise you by violating all of them.
- Fog – Most turkeys won’t leave the roost unless they can see the ground. If you’re experiencing early morning fog, be patient; it will lift eventually, and when it does the turkeys will be hungrier than ever.
- Heat – Depending on where you live, it may get hot during the end of the spring season or beginning of the fall season. In this case, turkeys will cluster under dense shade, usually near water. If you hear turkeys nearby, post up in a good blind and be patient. They’ll come to get a drink eventually.
- Cold weather – Turkeys seek out high-calorie food when it’s cold out. If it’s unseasonably cold, look near the edges of farms and pastures. They’ll often flock there to eat grain or soy. They even love to eat corn out of cow pies.
- Windy weather – Turkeys don’t like wind or the noise of branches rustling. On windy days, they’ll seek out areas with tall trees and little undergrowth to minimize noise. They’ll also hang out near power lines and in deep, windless hollows.
- Rainy weather – Like us, turkeys like to stay dry in the rain. If it’s raining hard, they’ll avoid leaving dense undergrowth unless they’re very hungry. In light rain, they’ll seek out areas with overhanging canopies, like the edges of clearings.
- Clear, calm weather – This is the best weather for hunting gobblers. They roam freely through the woods, eating as much as they can manage.
Whether you’re hunting in the spring or in the fall, remember that mother nature is fickle. If you wait for a perfect day to go turkey shooting, you may wait all season without getting a chance. Fortunately, turkeys can be found in any weather, as long as you know where to look.
Preparing For the Hunt
The most important part of any turkey hunt is preparation. If you know where the gobblers are roosting, you’re more likely than not to have a successful hunt. If you don’t, then you’re just shooting in the dark. You’ll also need to have the right gear. We’ve already talked about the right kind of gun, but you’ll also need plenty of other accessories.
Let’s take a look at each of these things.
Finding Turkey Roosts
The best time to find a turkey roost is before hunting season even begins. Why? Because it can be time consuming, and you don’t have time for that nonsense when you’re in the field with a turkey tag.
If you’re going to be hunting on private land, make sure to get permission from the owner before you go scouting, just as you would if you were going to hunt there. If you’re hunting on public land, access is even easier. Turkeys move around a lot, so you can’t get away with doing this weeks before opening day. Ideally, you’ll want to go just a day or two beforehand to get the most up-to-date information.
There are two ways of finding roosts: looking and listening. Listening is a luck-of-the-draw type thing. If you happen to wander near a roost, you’ll hear plenty of gobbling. If not, you won’t, nor will you have any idea of how to find one.
To get closer, look for signs of turkey activity. These can include tracks, droppings or dusting areas (places where turkeys roll around in the dirt). If there’s still snow on the ground, identifying how recent tracks or dusting areas are is easy. If the bare ground is dry, they’re old. If it’s wet, the turkey activity was recent. Droppings are even easier. If they’re dried up and crusty, they’re old. If they look wet and shiny, they’re fresh.
The next step is to go back to that area in the late afternoon, the day before your hunt. As quietly as possible, scout around, keeping both ears open for gobbling. You want to find out where the turkeys are roosting for the night. Listen carefully for the sound of fluttering wings, which are a sure sign of turkeys going in to roost.
Finally, get some sleep! You’ll want to come back to this same area before dawn, and you’ll need to be wide awake when you do.
Bringing the Right Gear
Okay, you’ve found an ideal spot for turkey hunting. So what kind of gear should you bring with you?
To begin with, you’ll need basic survival gear. A GPS is helpful, as are a map and compass. You’ll also want to bring some food with you since you’re liable to get hungry. Granola bars are calorie dense and easy to carry. Obviously, you’ll want to bring water, too.
Beyond the basics, you should also consider a turkey vest. These vests are designed with plenty of pockets for extra shells, a map, and turkey calls. Some even include a large pouch for carrying your gobbler back home. Turkey vests are costly, but they’re well camouflaged, and they also negate the need for a game bag – which can be expensive on its own.
Regardless, you’ll need a camouflaged shirt and pants. Realtree pattern is the best, but anything that breaks up your profile is better than nothing. You’ll also want a sturdy pair of boots. Since turkeys usually roost near water, waterproof, calf-high boots are your best choice, since they’ll keep your feet dry if you need to cross a stream.
You’ll also want a hood. Preferably, it’s a camouflage hood attached to your vest or jacket, but any hood is better than none. Turkeys can spot you turning your head a mile away, so anything that obscures your motions is good. Similarly, you’ll want a balaclava, to cover as much of your face as possible.
A distance marker can also be useful. This can be as simple as a stick that’s painted on one end, or even a distinctive rock. The idea is to pace off the distance between you and the marker – or just measure it with a laser range finder – and position the marker so it’s at the far end of your weapon’s range from wherever you’re hunting. This makes it easier to hold your fire until you’re sure your gobbler is close enough for a kill shot.
Finally, it can be a good idea to invest in a camouflaged, pop-up hunting blind. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it makes your hunt a lot easier because you can move freely inside. Without a pop-up blind, you’ll have to find a natural one or build one out of branches in the pre-dawn hours.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Everyone will tell you to take your gun or bow to the range, and they’re right. What a lot of people will forget to mention is that you want to practice in the same clothes you’re going to use for hunting.
This is important for turkey hunting because you want to move as little as possible once you have sight of a gobbler. If you can take the safety off your shotgun and shoulder it without turning your head or body, you’ll move less, making it less likely that you’ll get spotted by a gobbler. This requires muscle memory, which you can only get by practicing.
When and How to Use Decoys
There are three types of decoys: hens, jakes, and strutters. Hens are designed to look like, well, hens. Jakes are designed to look like young male turkeys, called “jakes”. Strutters are designed to look like dominant male turkeys on full display. When and where to use each type of decoy depends on the local conditions.
If you’re in an area with a dominant gobbler, a hen and jake combination will come in handy. If the gobbler spots them, his dominant instincts will kick in, and he’ll want to fight the jake to gain the hen as another mate. However, less dominant gobblers won’t want to risk a fight and will leave the pair alone.
Similarly, a strutter is a great way to get the attention of a dominant gobbler. An older male won’t be able to stand another dominant male in his territory and is likely to attack. Individual younger males are liable to steer clear, but you can hit the jackpot with them; if there’s a gang, they may decide to attack the strutter as a group, giving you the chance for multiple kills if you’re quick with your shotgun.
It may seem counterintuitive, but there are actually times when it’s a good idea not to use a decoy. Here are just a few of these situations:
- Hunting pressured turkeys – Pressured turkeys are turkeys that have seen hunters before during this season. Remember, these are smart birds, and they have good vision. If they’ve already been shot at while approaching a motionless plastic turkey, they’re going to think twice about approaching one again.
- Hunting in thick brush – If you’re in deep, dense woods, a turkey’s superior vision isn’t going to help it see your decoy through the trees. It’s one thing if it spots the decoy from a hundred yards away and comes to investigate. It’s another thing if your gobbler only spots the decoy from 10 yards away. In that case, he’s more likely to run away than anything else. If you’re hunting in dense woods, rely on underbrush for hiding, and your turkey call for attracting gobblers.
- Hunting in areas with a lot of hunters – If you’re hunting on public land, where other hunters are active, a decoy may cause another hunter to fire at it. If you’re sitting next to it in flawless camouflage, blowing on a turkey call, you’d better hope the other hunter doesn’t miss the decoy and hit you instead.
Rules, Regulations and Licensing
Depending on where you live, turkey season will be at different times. Generally, the season will start in late February or early March in the southern states. In the northern states, late March to mid-April is the usual starting time. Conversely, the season ends earlier in the south, and later in the north, sometimes extending into early June.
The fall season usually starts in September in the north and can start as late as mid-October in the south, where it can last as late as Thanksgiving. Basically, the warmer your local weather, the closer turkey season is to winter, and the cooler your weather, the closer it is to summer.
No matter what state you live in, you’re going to need a hunting license. Check your local regulations, but most states also require you to attend a hunter safety course if you’re a first-time hunter.
We’ve already mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth repeating for those of you who are skimming the article: most states only allow you to hunt turkey with a shotgun or bow. In many states, even being in the field with a rifle and turkey tags is a violation. Make sure you know your local laws before you go hunting.
As you can see, turkeys are one of the most challenging game animals to hunt. These aren’t some dumb deer wandering near your stand. These are smart, sharp-eyed birds that are wily enough to evade even experienced hunters.
More so than most other animals, proper gear is essential. If a turkey spots your outline, it’s going to run, which means you’ll miss out on your fat gobbler. Good camouflage and a hood are requirements, and you’ll need to train yourself to keep as still as possible.
Your weapons are also fairly limited in most states. Shotguns and bows are the general rule. For deer hunters, this can take some getting used to, since your maximum range is extremely limited.
Pre-hunt tracking makes a huge difference on opening day. Knowing where the turkeys are will allow you to set up your blind in an ideal location, putting you one step ahead of other hunters.
No matter how good your blind is, though, you’re going to need a turkey call and a decoy. And you’ll need to know how to use both of them. Using a call, in particular, requires practice, patience, and an ability to adapt.
Finally, you’ll need to understand the turkey’s habits and know where and when to hunt. This at least is common for all types of hunting, as any hunter can attest.
If you can master all of these things, you’re in for one of the most fun, challenging – and rewarding – outdoor experiences of a lifetime. Not to mention, the meat is delicious.