Hunting is a rite of passage in our country, and turkey hunting, in particular, has grown in popularity over the years. These birds may be challenging to hunt, but with this helpful guide, you'll be prepared to bag your first tom.
Anytime you're heading into the woods or fields with a weapon to hunt, safety is the most important thing to consider. If you've hunted other game before and are new to the sport of turkey hunting, or you've never hunted a day in your life, you should be well aware of how your weapon works. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and other organizations hold events where you can try shooting different types of guns and bows to see which method works for you.
Whether your state does or doesn't require a hunter’s education certification, you must learn how to safely hunt in your area. Check with your local department of fish and game to see where a course may be held.
Make sure you're aware of local laws and regulations and have a current hunting license for your area. Head over to your local Academy Sports + Outdoors store to pick up a hunting license if it's required for your state.
One of the first questions you may ask is, "When is turkey hunting season?" In the United States, every state except Alaska has a spring turkey season, with opening days ranging from the beginning of March to the beginning of May. Spring is the time of year when turkeys breed, and the gobbler's hunt for a hen gives you a distinct advantage.
However, the tradition of turkey hunting started in the fall, and as many as 44 states offer a fall turkey hunting season. If you miss your chance to bag a gobbler in the spring, you can always get a second chance in the autumn months if it is allowed in your state. Due to the popularity of turkey hunting, some states, like Georgia, do not have a fall turkey hunting season in order to help ensure a healthy population of gobblers and hens for future years.
If you want to land a trophy tom during either season, scouting is one of the most important things you can do to improve your chances. Whether you're hunting on public or private land, if you know what to look for, you'll be able to find the turkeys' patterns and habits.
Turkeys are a notoriously tough bird to hunt, even for seasoned hunters. You could possess decades of experience and hunting practice, but at the end of the day, you're dealing with an animal with its own impulses. Heading out on a scouting trip in the weeks leading up to opening day can be crucial to a successful hunt. This can be a time-consuming process, but it doesn't have to be. By knowing what to look for, you can decrease your time scouting and be ready to hunt.
Turkeys crave the same things we do in an ideal habitat – food, water and shelter. Turkeys roost in trees, so look for large trees with sturdy branches. They can also thrive in areas with minimal timber, just as long as there is enough cover to hide from predators. Lush, green food plots provide greens, insects and open space for strutting. Hens like to nest on the ground near food sources, so hatching poults will receive ample bugs, plants and seeds to consume as they grow. During the fall, turkeys will scratch through leaves to find acorns and berries, hunt for waste grain in fields and search for insects in grassy areas.
Turkeys are messy birds, and they don't hide their activities well. They leave tracks in mud, sand and snow, which make it easy to follow them to their spot. If you uncover an open area with scratchings on the ground, you'll discover where they like to eat. You can also look for soft scat, which can be determined by sight and indicates freshness. It’ll tell you that turkeys have recently been in the area. Also, the birds like to roll belly down in loose soil or sand to clean their feathers, and these dust areas remain after the bird has left. Walking along dirt roads or in strut zones can lead to discovering drag marks, whichis when a gobbler's wing tips drag through the dirt on either side of his tracks. These marks indicate his preferred route and his favorite strut zone to attract a hen.
By learning to recognize these indications of turkey activity, you'll get an understanding of the bird's patterns and daily routine, so you can confidently be in the right spot to take down a tom.
Additionally, if you think you've found areas where turkeys are active but you are still unsure, you can always set up game cameras to further document their patterns. This can also help decrease the amount of time scouting. If you don’t have a game camera on hand, head to Academy Sports + Outdoors to check out the large assortment of game cameras.
Once you've scouted a gobbler, you can work on roosting the bird. Head into an area around the middle of the afternoon when you know the turkeys will be gone, and sit quietly. The birds will return, fly up and reposition themselves from branch to branch – this will be very noisy, so remain in position and quiet. When they're settled in, wait until it gets dark and then sneak out.
The next morning, wake well before daybreak, slink back into your spot from the previous day and get as close as you can, making sure not to spook the birds.
If you're hunting turkeys during the fall, locating the birds can be a bit more challenging. While you can focus on loud gobbles to find flocks in the spring, you’ll have to rely more on quieter turkey sounds and scratchings to find flocks in the fall. This is because turkeys are more spread out searching for food sources in the fall. According to the NWTF, a "typical range for a fall flock is between 250 and 400 acres," which makes scouting the birds a greater priority for success.
After careful scouting, you've found your spot. Now, you need to bring the toms closer. There are a number of ways to entice gobblers, and we'll focus on the main two: calls and decoys.
Turkeys of all ages and genders produce various types of calls, including plain clucks, hen yelps, roost clucks and tree yelps, fly-down cackles, cutting, lost yelps, purrs, gobbles and kee-kee sounds (the last one being made by jakes and young birds).
Hunters have the choice of box, slate, mouth, diaphragm and locator calls to invite turkeys to their location.
Mostly made of wood, a box call is used by scraping a paddle bottom along the side panel's lip. With a hollow inside chamber, the call provides a distinct note that appeals to the birds.
The slate call features a striking surface constructed of slate, glass or aluminum inside a hollow pot with holes drilled underneath. You'll grip the wood, carbon, plastic, glass or even turkey wing bone striker like a pencil and move it along the striking surface.
A diaphragm or mouth call is an inexpensive choice that creates authentic sounds, and it keeps your hands ready to take aim with your firearm. A diaphragm call boasts a U-shaped frame with latex rubber stretched across. You will press it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue and blow air across the latex reed to create the sounds.
If you enter a new area and you're not seeing any signs of activity, you could use a locator call. Also known as shock gobbling, a locator call makes a very loud sound to place a gobbler. These should be used sparingly, but can be helpful in getting the birds ready to be called in.
As a new turkey hunter, it's important to learn basic calls, like the cluck and the yelp.
But make sure not to call too much. Legendary turkey hunter Eddie Salter says it's important for nature to take its course, and if you're calling too much it might come off as unnatural to turkeys.
Gobblers are a proud bunch, and mature ones will hardly enjoy a jake trying to move in on the hen. If you set up a hen decoy in your hunting area, it's sure to attract an aggressive 2-year-old longbeard. Or you can use a jake and hen combination to irritate the boss tom and make him come to claim the hen.
However, if you're in an area where a dominant bird is known to visit or there is a pack of sub-dominant gobblers, a strutter decoy may be an ideal choice. The look of an intruder in full strut is enough to send an alpha gobbler in.
There isn't a steady rule of when to use decoys and when not to, but there are a few guidelines for best practice:
Turkeys can't see long distances, but they have keen eyesight up close. Their sharp eyes will be able to discern between the natural surroundings and something that shouldn't be there – meaning you. This is why it’s essential to remain completely hidden during the hunt. Dressing in full camouflage from head to toe allows you to blend in with the grasses, tree bark, fallen timber or rocky terrain.
While scouting turkeys and getting to your hunting spot, you'll be traversing a variety of terrain, so you need to be comfortable and protected against the elements. Before picking up a pair of boots, you need to know what kind of land you'll be on and what weather conditions you'll experience. Boots made of rubber with a calf-high height are ideal for flat lands with wet conditions. If you're traversing a lot of creeks, marshes and wetlands, boots with waterproofing or Gore-Tex® are preferred. If you're in climates where snakes are prevalent, make sure you have rugged boots that protect against bites.
With calls, strikers, extra shells and snacks to keep you going throughout the day, there's a lot of gear that a turkey hunter needs on a hunt. If the goal is to remain as quiet as possible, how do you carry everything?
Turkey vests are loaded with pockets to hold your gear, and they offer an attached seat cushion and back padding to keep you comfortable when sitting on the ground or leaning against a tree for extended periods of time.
Regardless of whether you choose a shotgun or a bow and arrow, the ultimate goal for turkey hunting is an instant kill. You want to aim for the head, where it will disable the central nervous system right away. To achieve this, you'll want a shotgun with a tight, dense shot pattern, or a bow with specialized turkey broadheads.
If you're new to hunting, finding that ideal firearm is crucial. Northern Missouri hunting guide, Mike Binkley, has said that "fit and comfort should be the highest priority for a new shotgun shopper."
With that in mind, there are a few other items of note that will help ensure your hunt is successful:
There are numerous shotguns available that can deliver the shot you need to bring home the bird. A single-shot gun offers only one round, but produces strong recoil. Pump-action shotguns deliver strong recoil as well, but can be used with interchangeable choke tubes. Semiautomatic shotguns supply less recoil than pump-action guns.
Some hunters prefer the challenge and silent firing of a bow and arrow. If you choose to go that route, look for a bow with a lighter draw weight and higher let off than normal, as you'll be holding the draw for longer while the gobbler gets into position.
While shotguns can fire shot from up to 40 yards away, the pinpoint precision of an arrow requires the turkey to be closer for an accurate kill shot. A great way to remain concealed while still maintaining the space to fire a bow is to use a pop-up hunting blind. You can stow away in the camouflaged shelter and aim through the windows as the bird approaches. If you'll be using a blind, make sure your bow has a shorter axle-to-axle length to comfortably fit inside.
Archibald Rutledge once said, "Some men are mere hunters; others are turkey hunters." With this guide, you now have a wealth of knowledge to get started in the sport of turkey hunting, and with Academy Sports + Outdoors, you'll be geared up and ready for your first hunting trip. We hope it’s one you won’t soon forget.
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