by Chris Larsen
Turkey hunting carries it’s share of mystique. Veteran turkey hunters speak of wily toms as if they were ghosts; beings put on the planet only to rattle the psyche of those they haunt. Non-hunters think of wild turkeys as the “Bubba” of the woods. For generations, the word “turkey” was used as an insult. No one referred to as a turkey is highly respected. As someone new to the sport of turkey hunting, this disparity can be confusing. The reality of the wild turkey’s true intelligence is probably somewhere between brilliant and Bubba.
The first step in successfully hunting turkeys is location. If you’ve seen or heard turkeys somewhere, start there. If not, drive country roads looking for turkeys. They are most active in the spring and usually hit agricultural fields early in the morning or late in the day. Look for black spots moving around in distant fields. They are easy to spot in pastures and hay fields. If you find birds on public land, your job is done. If they are on private land, permission is required. Here in Wisconsin, getting permission for turkey season is far easier than deer season. Most farmers want to get rid of turkeys on their property. Of course, access is different depending on location.
After spotting birds and securing land, the hunt is on! Many hunters like to “roost” their birds. They locate the birds the evening before the hunt and attempt to pinpoint their roosting location. This information can be incredibly effective for the morning hunt. However, if you don’t spot them in a field and end up bumping turkeys in your effort to locate them, you may spoil the morning’s hunt. If you have a few days to hunt, just try to spot the birds from the road and move in early in the morning. Often times, you will hear gobbles as you walk into the woods in the morning. If you guess wrong the first day, learn from the mistake and try to pattern the birds.
Your morning setup location should be where you saw birds previously or believe they will come. The classic setup is on a forested edge of a field. Find a tree to lean against that is as wide as your body. This will serve two purposes. First, it will conceal your outline from approaching turkeys. More importantly it will protect you from being shot from behind. Even if you think you are the only person hunting on the property, this is possible. Unfortunately, trespassing is a reality and people who are willing to trespass often are willing to take ill-advised shots.
Most turkey hunters use decoys. Set up your decoy out in the field so it can be easily spotted by approaching turkeys. I like to place decoys about 15 yards away from my location so even if the turkey stops short of the decoy, he is still well within range. Speaking of range, measure out 45 yards and visualize it before going into the turkey woods. Just because most experts recommend 45 yards as a maximum distance shot on a turkey doesn’t mean it has to be yours. Personally, I like to shoot turkeys inside 30 yards but choose a distance you are comfortable with.
After the decoy is set and you are concealed, prepare for the hunt. As the sun peeks over the horizon, gobbling begins. How long gobbling lasts depends on the conditions and the activity of the flock. Once the toms start gobbling, I like to give them a few purrs on the call. This lets them know where my hen is and that she would like some company. Don’t over do it though. Spring hens typically don’t call much until after fly down. Just a few notes will get the job done. Once you hear the turkeys come out of their roosts, you can crank up the calling. As soon as you start hearing hens calling, start your calling. Mimicking the birds around you is incredibly effective. If hens are using two note yelps, call with two note yelps. If they are using one note clucks, hit them with one note clucks. There is nothing wrong with calling to hens. The toms will follow them right to your decoy.
If all goes according to plan, turkeys will begin approaching. It is crucial to remain still. Turkeys only see two dimensionally but with incredible detail. The slightest motion is easily detected. A little wind will help conceal some of your movement. However, getting your gun mounted at the first sight of a turkey is imperative. From there, it’s a waiting game. If you know how to use a mouth call, continue calling. Hand operated calls can get you spotted if you’re in the open.
If you’ve successfully called the birds in, it’s time to pick out a target. Mature gobblers will most likely fan and strut for your decoy. There are several ways to pick out the largest bird but I like to compare beards. A mature gobbler’s beard will look like a necktie on a man with a big belly. It arcs with the contour of the bird and will nearly touch the ground when the bird is strutting. If the beard sticks straight out, this is an immature male or jake. Many first time hunters bag jakes but if you have birds to choose from, go with the turkey with the biggest beard. In most states, shooting hens in the spring is not allowed.
Wait until the gobbler raises his head before pulling the trigger. Aim for a spot about an inch below where the head meets the neck. Many hunters aim for the head leaving half of the pattern to fly right over the turkey. If their aim is off, they may shoot completely over the bird. Shooting just below the head puts the maximum pellets in the killing zone. A dense pattern at appropriate range makes for easy recovery of the bird. If your shot is off the mark, fire a follow up shot. I’ve seen a handful of hunters try to chase wounded turkeys on foot and each case ended in an out of breath hunter and an eventual easy meal for a coyote. The follow up shot is the way to go but if you practice before the season, one shot is all that is necessary.
After celebrating success, be sure to tag the bird before moving it. Carry a knife to validate the tag and a cable tie to attach it to the turkey’s leg. If you are hunting on someone else’s property, be sure to thank them if you are successful or not. A block of cheese, roll of summer sausage, and a card won’t hurt either. A gracious hunter is usually invited back and if the property owner likes you, he or she will often point you in the right direction the next time you want to hunt. If you are joining the ranks of us turkey hunters this year, welcome. Turkey hunting is one of the most exciting outdoor pursuits you will experience.