How do you hunt turkeys? Turkey hunting is quite fun but can also be quite difficult given that turkeys tend to be pretty frantic paranoid birds.
One of the first questions asked by a beginner hunter is ‘will a turkey attack you?’ Wild turkeys are usually scared of people and could easily be scared away by making noises, opening an umbrella or waving your arms vigorously. Wild turkeys will not easily attack you, they will fly away.
On the other hand, wild turkeys who have become accustomed to humans and feeders might not be so afraid and will attack more readily.
One of the most important aspects of turkey behavior for any hunter to know; is whether or not they live in flocks which have very specific social structures. The answer is quite simple, yes, they do.
The first basic rule is that turkeys of a feather flock together and therefore we find hen turkeys living in flocks with their offspring. It is furthermore not uncommon for several hens and their offspring to combine flocks and you could easily see 50 or more birds in such a group.
As expected; male turkeys form their own groups or flocks. An interesting phenomenon here is that male turkey flocks tend to be segregated by age classes. We often find young male turkeys – called jakes – grouping together and older males then forming their own flocks.
Furthermore, if you are out hunting and come across a group of turkeys, they will inevitably scatter and start flying around, but will immediately start calling each other loudly; hens making a harsh yelp sound and chicks a high-pitch call referred to as a kee-kee. They will keep calling until the flock is reassembled.
Turkey behavior during the autumn and winter is worth discussing here as their behavior changes with the onset of fall which implies fewer sightings than in spring and summer. The grasses where turkeys find insects and seeds now begin to die off and they inevitably have to find alternative food sources – and so now the hunt for nuts begins. Since they move deeper into the forest to find food; we see less of them on the roadsides and fields.
How does winter behavior influence turkey hunting tactics? Well, in spring only male turkeys (toms) are pursued by hunters because they are out in the open as they, of course, want to be seen by the hens. In the fall mature toms are much more alert and wary and therefore hunters might shoot either sex during this time, depending on what bird is available.
Another significant change occurs during the winter when the young males (or jakes) leave the flock. They now leave their mothers and siblings to form their own flocks. Male siblings often stick together and join other jakes to form a new flock. Mature toms are also found flocking together in the winter just to separate again when the breeding season starts.
How can you tell a male from a female turkey when hunting?
Although it is possible to distinguish between characteristics of male and female turkeys while you are on the hunt, it might be a challenging task since as young males lack some of the features of adult males.
Here are a few general tips on telling the sex of a turkey:
- The distinguishing beard – only 10 to 20 percent of female turkeys have a “beard” but male turkeys have some modified feathers running down the chest. Important though, is not to confuse the beard with the caruncle or snood. Snoods can be described as fleshy growths hanging over the bill of the bird, while caruncles are fleshy growths on top of its head.
- Sizes – although male turkeys are usually larger and heavier than female turkeys, it might be difficult to establish the size when you are far away. In addition to this becomes an impossible task when a turkey is on its own as there is none other to compare it with. For the record; the weight of adult males is between 16 and 24 pounds but adult females usually weigh between 8 and 10 pounds.
- Top of the head – the heads of most male turkeys are completely featherless. In contrast to this, female turkeys have small feathers that extend over the top of their heads.
- The overall color – the feathers of male turkeys are generally much more colorful and bright than those of the females. The feathers of males have a shimmery red, green, copper, bronze or gold sheen. As in most animal species, the female turkey has a much duller, plainer appearance.
- The tail – the tail of a male turkey is often raised into a fan-like shape. Female turkeys keep their tails down and do not fan it out.
- Leg spurs – female turkeys have smooth legs. However, the legs of male turkeys have spurs which can best be described as tiny spike-shaped bumps.
- The call – only male turkeys make the distinguished “gobble” noise. While female turkeys cluck or yelp, they do not gobble.
Turkeys can be found and hunted in all of the following states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Favorable areas for turkeys:
- Habitats around rivers and streams
These provide travel high-quality mast-producing trees and shrubs.
- Oaks and grasslands
This provides roosting areas and food for wild turkeys.
- Pine Savannas
This provides food, cover, brood habitat, and nesting areas.
- Wildlife openings (often called, forest clearings, meadows, pastures)
One to five-acre openings is best for wild turkeys.
This is what wild turkeys need:
General habitat requirements:
- Trees to provide cover for daytime resting and escape cover, food, daytime resting, and nighttime roost sites.
- Grasses to provide food for adults and for poults (young fowl) to forage for insects.
- Moisture which is a direct and indirect necessity for the survival and reproduction of wild turkey.
Nesting habitat requirements:
- Lateral cover: wild turkey prefers forests with a well-developed floor full of vegetation.
- Overhead cover: turkeys prefer areas with a canopy layer for camouflaging and also for hiding from predators.
Brood-rearing habitat requirements:
- An insect-rich environment is crucial for turkeys as it provides efficient foraging.
- Turkeys ideally need a habitat that allows frequent foraging throughout the day.
Fall and winter habitat requirements:
- Food: During the winter eating is critical to ensure sufficient growth of young. It should also make provision for building of fat deposits by young and adults. Their staple food during this time is mast or pine seed, acorns, and other fruits.
- Roosting cover: during fall and winter turkeys move more towards forested cover while at the same time decreasing their use of open spaces. This behavior is merely an effort to seek protection from harsh weather conditions.
What is the Best Time to hunt Turkey/When to Hunt Turkeys
Time of Year: We already know that the time of year influences wild turkey activity. Although the best time of year to hunt turkey depends mostly on what state you’re hunting in, it usually falls between early spring and mid-to-late fall.
There is a spring turkey season in every state except Alaska, and as mentioned the open dates vary with some being as early as March 2 and for others as late as May 3. By the time that the Deep South states are wrapping up (usually by mid- to late -April) things are kicking off in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. In Maine, the season doesn’t end until the first part of June.
Spring breeding season: A turkey hunter can use the breeding season to his advantage since the gobbler is now out in the open daylight more often for the sole purpose of attracting the attention of hens.
They also gobble and strut to let the hens know where they are. This inevitably means that you can find them too.
Lunar Calendar: In 1926 John Alden Knight described a theory that the position and fullness of the moon affect animal movement. This theory is still widely accepted today.
Time of Day: One of best times of day to hunt turkeys, is early morning. This is because they make their nest on the ground in wooded areas. They can also easily be heard yelping, gobbling and cackling as they search for breakfast.
Temperature: An interesting phenomenon is that temperature affects the noise level of turkeys. Turkeys are known to be more active in mild weather, and therefore it is estimated that they are the most vocal in temperatures of 60-69 degrees Fahrenheit.
General Weather Conditions: The best time to hunt turkeys is on clear, calm days in the mornings as well as early afternoon since this is when they are most active.
Wind: Turkeys are much quieter on days when there are moderate to strong winds. At the same time, strong winds can make it difficult for a hunter to hear wild turkeys even if they are on the move.
If you want to be a successful turkey hunter you should set out at least one decoy, whereas some hunters recommend using one or two hens and a jake. You position the jake behind the hen(s) as if he is ready to mate. This will inevitably make a gobbler angry and will, therefore, help lure him to you.
Adding movement to your decoys they will be your golden key to shooting a turkey as this will make your decoy very realistic to wild turkeys. There are decoys available on the market which have built-in movement. One such example is a “bobble head” where the head and neck move up and down to mimic a feeding turkey.
Of course, you can also add movement by putting ultra-light decoys on swivel stakes or thin aluminum stakes. This will enable them to spin even when there is the slightest breeze.
If your situation allows it, you should set the decoys up approximately 10-20 yards from you. This will give you the opportunity to still be able to get a good shot even if the turkey doesn’t come all the way in but instead “hangs up.”
If you know the turkey will be coming in from one side or the other, you might want to set up your decoy on the opposite side rather than directly in front of you. By doing this, they will be forced to walk in front of you in order to get to the decoys. You now have a perfect opportunity for a clear shot.
Calling a Turkey
Hunters mimic turkey calls successfully to lure turkeys in. Since turkeys use quite a few different vocalizations, you should familiarize yourself with all of them. And, of course, use them.
Effective turkey calling depends largely on your set up. According to experienced turkey hunters, it is, in fact, all in the setup. The first step is to choose a spot close to the gobbler you are aiming to get without alerting the bird. When choosing a spot to sit down and call a turkey, the golden rule to remember is that it is much easier when you are sitting where he wants to go anyhow.
For example, choose an open area where the birds fly down when you have roosted turkeys and feel free to make use of a few decoys to help them respond to your call.
So now you are ready to call. The most favorite calls used by hunters are clucks, cutts, yelps, cackles, kee-kees, purrs, gobbles and putts.
To learn more about calling turkeys, check out this article about how to call turkeys.
Most experienced turkey hunters will tell you that scouting for pre-season turkeys can be as much fun as hunting them.
Pre-season scouting is by far the most significant aspect of your spring turkey hunting expedition. Scouting simply means that you will be looking out for signs like tracks, scratching, and droppings.
Of course, your main objective for scouting is to detect as many gobblers as possible before open day. There are a few ways to go about when scouting and you will make use of visual as well as listening techniques in order to locate the birds.
Turkeys will leave a mess wherever they go, so be sure to look for tracks in sand, mud, and snow. You can also keep an eye open for indications of scratching. When turkeys scrape on the ground to feed, they leave behind scratching.
Now, make sure you distinguish between old and new scratching. Just as the name suggests, old scratching looks old and dry. Fresh scratching, on the other hand, will reveal moist leaves and dirt underneath.
Of course, when scouting you will look at droppings too and just the same as with scratching, new droppings will be soft, moist and fresh.
Other signs which indicate that turkeys are in the area are dusting where they have rolled down in loose soil and sand. Drag marks on dirt roads is an indication that gobblers dragged their wing tips while strutting.
After all the visual clues have been found, your next step is listening for them and you might want to get out early to listen for gobblers waking up their roosts.
Choosing/Building a Hide
When choosing or building a turkey hide, you might want to consider a portable ground blind. This will allow you to get quite close to the birds. Movement is your biggest challenge when hunting turkeys and since portable turkey blinds conceal movement, it offers you the opportunity for a successful turkey hunting trip.
Furthermore, pop-up blinds are excellent choices since they provide comfort as well as the much-needed concealment. And as mentioned they provide the opportunity to make small adjustments to your position. This is a significant feature since gobblers do not always come in perfect and you would probably have to adjust your position slightly in those last few seconds.
So what characteristics should you be looking for when choosing a blind or upgrading to a new one?
- Windows are unmistakably one of the most important features of a turkey blind. Since all blinds do have some form of windows, it is the size and number of windows that are the discriminating factors. You would want to go for a blind with multiple windows on each side because this offers you different angles to shoot from. Other variables to consider are blinds with different sizes and shapes of windows. Of course, when turkey hunting with a bow and arrow, you would opt for the ones with larger windows.
- While it is true that blinds are generally heavy and uncomfortable to carry, there are some available that are lighter and more compact than others. When hunting turkey, as opposed to hunting deer, you have to move around with the turkeys and so you need a smaller and lighter blind than with deer hunting.
- Since you would most probably move your shed quite a few times during the season, you should look for high-quality fabrics and those who can shed water well. Rugged zips are also an important feature since it guarantees smooth opening and closing for longer periods of time.
- Hunting eastern birds in the early part of the season when there are few leaves out, predicts that you will choose camo patterns with lighter tones and more grays to blend into the environment. Of course, when hunting turkeys later in May with more vegetation now visible in the environment, you need to add more greens to your camo.
- For hunting southern birds where vegetation is more present, your best option is a blind with more greens and vegetation contrasts.
- When hunting western turkeys, your blind should replicate the natural environment of the mountains and conifer vegetation and should, therefore, include a mixture of tans, grays, and greens in the camo pattern.
- Unfortunately, there are not too many camo pattern options to choose from and therefore your creativity plays an important part in setting up your blind. You can easily solve the problem by adding vegetation and debris from your specific environment in order to blend in more effectively.
In the midst of all the preparation to select the perfect blind or hide for your turkey hunt, an experienced hunter reports how he has noticed over the past few years that “turkeys catch onto blinds.”
According to him, he has hunted for many years with turkeys not even looking at his blind. However, lately, he has seen them getting more and more wary when they spot it. This leaves us with the question: “have they seen too many blinds in the woods with movement inside them?”
Turkey Hunters Patience
Patience, patience and more patience are what distinguishes a turkey hunter from a successful turkey hunter.
Many hunters describe how their impatience has ruined their turkey hunting attempts. It is easy to understand that a successful hunter is one who can sit still for two or three hours, watching his gobbler only 70 to 80 yards away. In addition to that, your patience might be tested even more when you have to stay put even after the gobbling has stopped.
So, it is not the perfect hide, the most expensive gun, weeks of scouting or the perfect turkey call that leads to your success as a turkey hunter, it is patience. This is what makes turkey hunting a bigger challenge than deer hunting since turkeys are much more cautious than most bucks.
What do you wear for turkey hunting?
Unlike many other game species hunted, turkeys can see color which makes them alert to any foreign and out-of-place objects in their environment. Because of their good vision, they perceive everything in their field of view.
This means that you have to blend into your environment as best as you possibly can.
Of course, the type of boots you wear is determined by the terrain where you are hunting. However, since turkeys are mostly hunted during spring when temperatures are fairly mild, lightweight, uninsulated or lightly insulated boots will be adequate.
In contrast to this, you would opt for high rubber boots when hunting in lowland areas such as the Deep South as they offer a little more support.
When hunting in the fall when temperatures are much cooler, you would go for more insulation or just wear warmer socks instead.
The same considerations as for boots are applicable to pants too. Most hunters, however, go for light pants with the option of wearing long johns underneath for cooler temperatures.
Since your turkey hunting trip may coincide with spring showers, you should consider waterproof pants or camouflaged rain pants to have some protection against the drizzles in open areas.
It might furthermore be necessary to opt for burr-proof or cactus-proof pants when hunting takes place in areas with such vegetation.
The golden rule is to let the selection of your gear be determined by the time of year, your area, the terrain and weather conditions.
Camouflage Shirts & Jackets/Coats
Since weather conditions can change during your hunting trip and you want to avoid physical exertion as a result of heavy gear, layering is the best way to go.
In order to make this a hassle-free option, you might add a small camouflaged daypack or knapsack to your checklist. This will make carrying your extra clothing effortless.
Although wearing a camouflaged shirt, jacket or coat is mandatory, the spring temperatures, especially in the south, can get quite warm, so here you might choose to wear shirting sleeves or even camouflaged undershirts.
When it comes to hunting turkey, a camouflaged hunting vest is a most essential item on your list. Its value is simple; it has a number of different pockets which are crucial for carrying your different turkey calls and accessories.
Concealing Head, Face & Hands
It is important to pay as much attention to the concealment of your face and hands as your legs and body. The last thing you want is for your face to stand out as a beacon scaring off wary gobblers.
In addition to this, your hands will be moving quite often when calling or preparing to shoot and should therefore also be concealed and covered.
Light, camouflaged gloves are ideal for your hands while hunting masks or head nets can be used to effectively cover your face. Camouflaged ball caps can also be used to cover your head when hunting turkeys.
A few hunters make use of face paint, but this might require some time to apply and remove.
Can you hunt turkeys with a bow?
Turkeys can be hunted with a bow but it is a bigger challenge than shooting with a rifle. Although turkeys are rather large birds, there is little area available for a deadly shot. This makes turkey hunting with a bow rather tough.
Furthermore, turkeys do not easily stand still as deer do, so you need to know exactly where to place the shot. There is little time for last minute decision making.
Here are a few tips should you decide to go the archery way:
- Always aim lower than you think.
- Aim for the spine.
- Shooting with the turkey looking at you – this is by far one of the hardest and most challenging shots but at the same time the most rewarding.
- Aiming for the rear – it is always quite a satisfying shot when the turkey is walking away from you and especially when it has a fan of feathers you might have a clear shot to kill.
- Shooting from the side – live animals, unfortunately, do not sit still like decoys and since you practice on targets which do not move, you might not have the same experience when hunting a wild turkey. They move. Consequently, if you have to shoot from the side, then you should aim for the area just above the wings, at the breast of the turkey. If you get this right, you will puncture the lungs or even hit the heart.
- Aim at the head – a good spot to hit is the head and neck. However, turkeys have small heads and necks, making this shot difficult to place. This shot will be much easier to take if the turkey is still. What makes a headshot ideal if you can pull it off, is that the rest of the bird’s meat is still available for processing.
Six mistakes commonly made by novice turkey hunters:
- Not patterning your gun or not knowing its range.
- Not scouting effectively.
- Poor set-up.
- Too much movement.
- Calling too often or too little.