The first Europeans in America to see a turkey with wild blue and bright red were surprised by how beautiful and large the bird was. Interacting with the local Native American tribes, Europeans found that they went turkey hunting rarely because of their belief that the birds were powerful spirit warriors.
The turkey feathers were revered by the natives, the meat loved by Europeans and so turkey hunting became more and more popular. By the early 1900s, there were barely any turkeys left, but conservation practices have increased their numbers to 7 million with populations in every state except Alaska.
Turkey hunting is both challenging and rewarding (usually those go together!) For beginners and advanced hunters, we have created a complete guide to get started.
In this article, you will learn the following:
- Turkey hunting basics
- When and where to turkey hunt
- How to turkey hunt
- Gear and bowhunting turkey
- 6 Surprising tips to ensure a successful turkey hunt
Keep reading until the end and you will have all the tools you need to catch this elusive bird.
Turkey Hunting for Beginners
Wild turkeys are some of the most nervous game animals that you will find, but it wasn’t always this way. When Europeans arrived hundreds of years ago, they brought with them an efficient way of killing turkeys to near extinction.
The wild turkeys that managed to survive have evolved to be frightened of humans and for good reason. They are amazingly alert, aware, and fast-moving, which makes turkey hunting so challenging.
As with deer hunting and other game hunting, most people are looking for a male wild turkey called a “gobbler”. The male turkey has one clear distinction, which is a beard that hangs from the chest. Sometimes the beard is hard to see, which may indicate a young 1-year old turkey called a “jake”. This may also mean a bearded hen, but take a good look at the head and you’ll know.
The usually less colorful wild turkeys are hens. Turkey hunting on hens or gobblers produces great tasting meat, but there are certain times of the year (and methods) for hunting both.
Generally, turkey hunting is more of a sport than a way to fill freezers. While it’s possible to get a number of large turkeys, save the breasts, and have game meat for months, it will be less sustainable than elk hunting or a plump whitetail deer. This sport is about fun and challenge.
Where to Shoot A Turkey
Unlike many other big game animals, the vitals are NOT easy to hit. Most people shoot turkeys at the center of mass (their body) with a shotgun. As is the purpose of the shotgun, the shot will hit both the head and the body to disable and kill the bird quickly.
Other advice is to aim directly at the head. Doing this runs the risk of many pellets going above the animal, but there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it.
Remember: These things can fly! Hitting them precisely in small organs or the head is not easy, which is why the shotgun is a preferred weapon when turkey hunting.
When and Where Turkey Hunting is Legal
The rules for turkey hunting across the United States are slightly different based on the region and even within a state. For example, in Texas Fall turkey hunts are from Nov – January in the northern zone while the southern zone hunts the Spring from March – April.
The Spring tends to generally be the most active turkey hunting season because males are seeking mates. Be sure to do your own research by searching “turkey hunting ____” and then the state where you live to get local regulations.
Once you have found hunting season for turkeys, it’s time to figure out where you are going to find these birds. Public land (also called BLM land) is a much better option with turkeys than some other large game.
It’s possible to go on outfitted hunting trips on private land, but the odds are in your favor when hunting turkey on public land instead. Particularly useful are national forests and large tracts of land owned by the state or country.
How Does Weather Affect Turkey Hunting?
As boring as weather can be as a topic of conversation, it does impact hunting and especially with turkey. These critters are not a fan of the morning fog. If a turkey cannot see the ground, they stay on the roost until it clears up.
Snowing during the spring can cause the birds to stop strutting and seeking mates and revert to flocking behavior. In these circumstances, look for higher calorie winter foods and even cow pastures. Extreme heat will send birds to shaded areas near water, which is great for hunters who set up well.
Generally, the best weather to hunt turkeys is a cool, not too windy, bright and sunny day. This gives hunters the most time and opportunity to find a turkey with a great line of sight on the animal itself (they have a better line of sight too, though!)
Turkey Hunting Pre-Season Scouting
Beginners might find pre-season scouting to be a bit much, but going with a more experienced hunter can be helpful to learn and enjoy the outdoors. Scouting can also be a great way to set yourself up for success during the first days of turkey season.
The objective is to find as many gobblers as possible and figure out where they are roosting.
This gives you an idea of how densely populated a region is and the different paths turkeys might be taking throughout the day to strut and find food.
How to Turkey Hunt
As with any kind of hunting, there is no single “right” or “good” way to kill a turkey. There are some preferred methods, such as using turkey calls and decoys, that are different to other types of hunting.
One thing to keep in mind on a turkey hunt is how capable these creatures are. They can detect you from afar, they are usually expert survivalists, and if you are not in a great position to get as close to the gobbler as possible, you might not get what you’re looking for.
After scouting, you should have a place to hunt where turkeys are already coming through. By predicting their travel route you can drastically increase the odds of success. A bird that hears a call on their normal route is far more likely to come.
For comfort and accessibility, the best situation is to be close to the gobbler’s location, but with your back up against a broad tree. This will help break your silhouette and, with good cushions, help you get the turkey.
How to Use a Turkey Call
The sophistication of turkey language is pretty high, but for mating we don’t need to know everything they say. Realistically, we need to learn only a few different turkey calls:
- Plain cluck
- Hen yelp
These are the two main calls we will need. For those looking to emulate other noises, there are roost clucks, tree yelps, fly-down cackles, cutting, and a few others. Now you know what’s out there, but stick to the first two if you want to keep it simple (always a good idea).
To make these sounds, there are a few ingeniously designed devices we humans have developed. One of them is called a box call, another called a slate call, and finally a diaphragm call.
The box call is usually made of wood with a paddle that scrapes against the side to make turkey sounds. Ensure the box call is dry and it should help you create a variety of sounds.
Slate calls are also useful and have the same basic design as a box call. This one is a bit more complicated than a box or mouth call, though.
A diaphragm call is by far one of the most used turkey calls. These are the least expensive and with some mouth skills, they can be done hands-free. Simply put a diaphragm call into your mouth and blow across the reed (made of latex), which will make the sounds of a turkey.
With a diaphragm call, get the diaphragm on the roof of your mouth, seal it tightly, and say specific words like “chick”, “chirp”, “chop”, and “chalk”. It will help create sounds most like a turkey.
Here is a video of Steven Rinella teaching Joe Rogan and Bryan Callen about turkey calls:
How to Use Turkey Decoys
Calling in a male turkey as a hen works great during the Spring because these birds want to mate…
…but if you are looking for the biggest, baddest gobbler around you might need some turkey decoys
Turkey decoys of other males around a female will send the dominant male (called a “tom”) in a tizzy. With some good turkey decoys, he’ll come running to put an end to the competition and that’s where you can set up perfectly the way you like it.
Hunting with decoys can be a hot topic so it is best to abide by certain rules. Firstly, if it is towards the end of the season and the turkeys have been hunted using decoys, it might be best to lay off. Also, it’s not as useful in heavily wooded areas when a turkey can’t see what’s going on at a distance.
Finally, putting out a decoy and making a call could bring out other hunters shooting near you. Not only will that ruin decoys, but puts your life in danger! Use discretion if you are planning to use decoys.
Gear and Bowhunting Turkey
The easiest and most assured way to hunt turkey is with a shotgun. Unlike duck hunting where it is okay to be less precise, turkey shooting requires steady aim. You’ll be shooting at close range and with a shotgun, but the objective is a shot that breaks the spine, hits the head, and knocks out their ability to move. Considering they can move fast, this is a must.
A pump-action shotgun seems to be the most popular among turkey hunters. Something like a Remington 870 might be a bit more expensive than a standard single-shot shotgun, but it will be worthwhile for the turkeys that require a couple of well-placed shots.
Once you have the gun, getting the right shot is arguably as (if not more) important. Twelve-gauge 3 and 3.5 inch magnum shells are the turkey hunters’ shot of choice. These help ensure the pattern is tight enough to hit a turkey head at 30 – 40 yards.
You may pick up some decoys and turkey calls to increase your chances. Both pieces of gear will help your odds, but no more than a pop-up hunting blind. These small blinds can do a world of service for both shotgun and compound bowhunting enthusiasts.
Turkey Hunting Camouflage
Whether you are bow hunting or with a trusty shotgun, the camouflage is going to be one of the most important things you buy. Turkey hunting is hard enough as it is, but without good camouflage, these birds will spot you and leave as quickly as possible.
The camouflage while hunting turkey should cover every aspect of your body including face. A turkey has great vision and unless you are wearing complete camouflage (even your gun or bow) and laying completely still, it is going to be hard to find a turkey.
Some people like a turkey vest to hold all the calls, snacks, shotgun shells, and other items, but this is a luxury more than a necessity. Whatever you choose to wear, ensure you have camouflage from the environment where you’re hunting. Desert camouflage doesn’t help in the forest.
Where to Shoot a Turkey with A Bow
For bow hunters who want the added challenge with a turkey, shooting the bird can be one of the hardest parts. Not only do you need to wait for the animal to get even closer than usual, but when a turkey is in range, you have to do more movement to draw the arrow and release.
Hitting a turkey in the right spot is a whole other matter altogether. Head shots on a turkey usually result in a miss if the gobbler is moving around a lot or the shot isn’t well-placed. Inside of 20 yards the target might be small, but it is doable. Luckily, missing the animal completely might be helpful so that you can take another shot (assuming they don’t get too anxious).
Instead of aiming for the head, many turkey hunters focus just above the drum stick. This shot should go right above the turkey’s hip at the crease of the thigh and this usually kills the animal by hitting the vital organs.
As with all game, ensure plenty of practice while turkey hunting with a bow. The animals are survivalists and a wounded turkey can be challenging if not impossible to find. Of course, perfection is impossible, but we want to honor and respect the animal as much as possible whether we are bow hunting or using a shotgun.
If you want to learn more about how to hunt turkeys effectively, the Conscious Hunter VIP community has plenty of tips and tricks. You can join now for free.