Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Turkey Hunting
Turkey are one of the most commonly sought after game animals in America. It’s easy to see why, they have the rare distinction of giving both fantastic sport and making a delicious meal once you’ve tagged one. If you’re planning on going turkey hunting and haven’t been out before, then read on, you’re in for a treat.
Choosing Your Weapons
There’s really only two respectable, and legal, choices to use when you’re out hunting gobblers. You’re going to end up using either a shotgun or a bow depending on the season and which one you are more familiar with.
If you’re trying to decide on which weapon you’re going to use, it can be a hard decision. Assuming you’re equally proficient with both weapons, you’ll want to take into account the following.
Reasons for Using Bows
The bow is a fine weapon, and it’s been used to take down almost every game animal at one point or another. When you’re hunting turkey, you can actually get a kill shot at a relatively long range if you’re a good enough shot.
If you’re already a skilled archer, it might be the weapon for you. They’re quieter and most bowhunters know that the main difference between a kill shot with a gun and a bow is that gun shots often feel anticlimactic.
The main reason people use a bow is sport, however. Turkey are surprisingly robust birds and you’ll have to use a sizeable arrow in order to kill one on impact or shortly afterwards.
The main advantage of a bow is that you can actually hit a turkey from almost any angle with one and have a chance of a killing shot. Even a shot through the breast can penetrate the heart, which isn’t something you can count on a shotgun with any reasonable load to do.
There’s one thing to keep in mind, however, if you do choose to use a bow. Wild turkey are fast birds and they have surprising reflexes. This means that just because you can hit the bird if it’s standing still, you might not want to take the shot until you’re closer.
Sport or meat is basically what it boils down to for a hunter who’s skilled with both weapons. You’ll need a large broad head on your arrow to take a turkey, and that can rip up a surprising amount of the meat if you take a shot at the body while a shotgun will leave most of the edible bits completely intact.
Choosing the right equipment is pretty much essential when you’re hunting turkey, as the right equipment will make all of the difference in the field.
Shotguns- Ammunition, Sights, and Familiarity
Any shotgun you hunt with should be one that you’re familiar with means knowing the range that you can score a tight group at and how well it works at both longer and shorter distances.
That said, most people are going to want to use a 12 gauge shotgun. They’re just better for most types of hunting, allowing for a wider variation of power and loads than you’ll find in a 20 gauge.
Don’t even bother with a .410 for hunting turkey, save them for the really small stuff like rabbits and quail.
One thing you might want to consider is a low powered scope, particularly if you have old school sights on your weapon. It’s not for the same reason you use a scope on a rifle, the fact is that it just makes it simpler to line up your shot on the neck of the bird and increases your chance of a kill. Don’t try to use it to increase the range you’re shooting at.
Most people will go with a No. 4, No. 5, or No. 6 load depending on their own personal preference. Magnum loads will also allow you to get another ten yards or so of distance out of your effective kill range at the end of the day.
Your best bet on deciding on the load is to set out some targets at the range and see what the grouping looks like at various distances. Familiarity with the pattern is the key to making a clean and humane kill on the bird.
Archery- Your Bow and Arrows
As far as your bow goes, use whatever is comfortable to you. As long as your shot placement and arrowheads are up to the task you’ll be fine with almost any bow that you’d trust to hunt with.
If you’re the type that prefers massive, eighty pound bows you might want to step it down a little bit however as the extra power required to kill massive game isn’t going to benefit you much here and you might end up holding the bow at full draw for an extended period of time.
Your hunting style will determine the type of head that you end up using. There are three main types which are of interest to turkey hunters.
- Guillotine broadheads
- Expandable broadheads
- The standard broadhead
Are designed specifically for turkey and other large birds, the idea being that the razor sharp blades which expand around the head will give you a good chance of taking their head clean off.
This can be an issue though, turkey are constantly moving their heads and it still doesn’t give you as big of a striking area as a shotgun. If you’re a fantastic shot, however, they’re the best way to nab all of the meat of the bird cleanly.
Have the ability to penetrate and expand, making them ideal for ensuring you get a kill shot. They should go through the rib cage easily, expand, and lodge in the innards which increases your chance of getting a one shot drop on the bird.
Essentially, you get a great amount of accuracy and pentration, which expands into a killing shot once the bird’s muscle and feathers have been penetrated. The only problem is that moving parts can malfunction, and expandable broadheads aren’t usually good for as many kills as a standard broadhead.
Is still the gold standard of hunting. These tough, sharp little pieces of metal can make short work of most animals as long as they’re flung with enough force from your bow. They can work fine and the head you choose will be a personal preference but you should probably go with at least 2” of head in order to have a good choice of getting through the feathers of the bird and into the vitals.
For most hunters, expandable broadheads are the way to go. The chances of a bird running off with your arrow, or getting a “clean through” that leaves the bird alive but wounded are much lower.
More experienced hunters may wish to go with the other types as their skills improve, but an expandable broadhead offers the best of all worlds to the majority of hunters.
Time for the Kill: Shot Placement
As in any kind of hunting, when you’re going for turkeys you need to be precise when you take the shot. A good shot leads to a bird that will drop dead in its tracks while a bad one will let the turkey go for a run and lead to you having to chase the bird down to retrieve it.
Even worse, wild turkey are fast animals and they can escape pretty easily if the shot doesn’t kill them within a few moments of impact. The last thing you want is the poor bird to run off and die somewhere hours or days later.
Aim for the Head: Shooting with a Shotgun
With a shotgun, your ideal shot placement is going to be in the head and neck of the bird.
As we stated earlier, shotguns do a good job at keeping the meat whole so that you can cook the whole bird at the end of the hunt rather than having to cut the meat that’s still good off of it.
Knowing your choke and the pattern of your gun is the key, but for the most part you’re trying to blow the gobbler’s head off and break its neck in a single clean shot. This will lead to the bird dropping pretty much instantly.
Familiarity with the weapon is the key to making your shout count.
The biggest problem with using a shotgun, however, is that you can really only get a clean shot on the bird from the front or broadside which means you’ll have to bide your time.
Don’t aim for the body, even though it can be a tempting target. The dense muscles and feathers actually make surprisingly good armor for the bird and most shotgun loads simply won’t have the penetration required to make it to the vitals.
Even if they do, the bird is going to be riddled with shot and it can ruin a substantial portion of the meat.
Bows: Aim for the Center of Mass
With a bow, a shot can be made from nearly any angle. You have to keep one thing in mind, however, a turkey’s body is actually a lot smaller than it looks. A bow will easily provide the penetration to get through the feathers and denser muscles, but you have to be very careful where you aim with it.
Aim for the exact center of mass of the bird, the arrow should penetrate the vitals and provide a relatively speedy kill.
While you can kill the bird from nearly any angle with a bow, most hunters will actually find a broadside shot to be the most difficult. This poses a problem since it’s the most common way to encounter the birds, but you have to be able to calculate where the feathers are and where the center of the bird is in an instant.
From the front you’ll want to aim a few inches below the base of the neck, while from behind it’s easiest to aim for the center of the fan. An ideal shot from behind will go through the bird’s vent and into its vitals with a surprising amount of ease.
If the bird is strutting, it’s important not to get confused by the feathers which will be fanned out. Always draw your aim point from somewhere relatively bald like the neck or backside in order to find the perfect shot.
From the broadside, it’s easiest to aim through the wing. If the bird is currently strutting, it may be best to wait until they’ve finished their cocky walk since the feathers can make the mass of the turkey hard to estimate from this angle.
Scouting for Wild Turkey
One of the first things you need to do before you go on a hunt is to make sure that you know the area where you’ll be chasing your quarry. Location makes all the difference when hunting and you need to both know the terrain and where to find them when you set out. This is especially important if you’re planning on setting up a blind.
After you’ve confirmed that they’re in the area, watch where they spend their time and when they’re not there go down and scout out the area on foot. You want to figure out where they’re eating and drinking and what paths they’re likely to take while there.
You want to find somewhere they’ll be in the open but you can take your shot from concealment in order to maximize your chances.
If you’re just trying to locate them in the first place, water is your best bet. Where there’s water, you’ll usually be able to find the birds. Keep an eye out for v-shaped scratch marks on the ground and turkey droppings, both are big clues that you’re in the right area.
Most hunters prefer to make sure they have trees to their back, it will help to break up your silhouette and keep the birds from noticing you until it’s too late.
Others prefer brush piles, which will also break up the silhouette but you need to be careful not to make much noise when moving through them. The key is to arrive early so a little bit of noise doesn’t scare them off, as with most hunting it’s quite likely you’re going to be doing some waiting before you get a chance.
While you’re scouting, do your best to avoid alerting the birds to your presence. A turkey that knows there’re humans in the area is going to be quite wary when the time comes for your hunt and that’s not a good thing.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to land which is good for turkey, then you might want to put some thought into attracting the birds. It’s a lot easier than you’d think, and by creating a good environment for them you’ll both know where they are and be able to find the good ones when the season comes around with ease.
Turkey are actually rather particular about where they’re living, so it’s a little bit of a specialized hobby but the end result is well worth it.
Of course, you’ll have to have land which is suitable for the birds in order to have any hope of getting them there in the first place.
Turkey like mature, wooded areas which can provide quite a bit of cover. One of their favorite foods is acorns, but they’ll eat pretty much any kind of mast. The best area would have mature oak growth, access to berries, and some grassy areas to attract their favored insects like grasshoppers.
Acorns are particularly critical during the winter months, when many other plants cease to produce foods edible for the birds almost entirely. Encouraging the growth of other suitable food plants in and around an oaky area will help to get them flocking to your backyard.
As we noted before, turkeys need water. The best areas will have a stream, creek, or pond naturally occurring there but you’re not entirely out of luck if your chosen property doesn’t have natural water features.
You can install your own self-filling water fixtures, even large bird baths with a pipe running to them can be a good source of water for the birds.
The more water sources around the better.
Shelter and Environment
You also need to make sure that there are numerous areas suitable for the birds to roost in spread over the property . Since they don’t like to bed down in the same spot every night, spreading them out across the area you intend to hunt in is an ideal way to make sure that they stick around.
If the whole area you’re planning to use is heavily wooded you might want to consider making your own clearings in the woods. Turkey will take advantage of these and they’ll also give you an appropriate shooting lane when it comes time to harvest.
Allow weeds to flourish in some areas, the birds will graze on them. They also add to the cover, making the turkey feel secure, and encourage insects which are vital for young turkeys and a welcome addition to the diets of the older ones you’ll be hunting.
Add all of these factors together and you’ll have a property which is amazingly attractive to the birds and you might soon have a flock or two of your very own roaming the property.
Like most birds, turkey have some predictable behavior that can be taken advantage of in order to increase your chances of making a kill.
Turkey decoys are actually a rather new development in turkey hunting. Many still forgo using them, but most find them to be an essential part of the overall strategy.
Used in conjunction with calls and proper scouting, and you have a winning combination of tactics that virtually guarantees a kill for a hunter who knows how to use their weapon properly.
Modern turkey decoys are quite realistic, and you’ll need to know how, and when, to use them. Most hunters will want a full set of decoys, that means jakes, gobblers, and a couple of hens.
This will allow you to present a variety of situations to a turkey in order to lure it. Frequently they can be used to not only bring a turkey in, but with careful placement you can also ensure that you have a clean shot from the angle you prefer.
There’s three main strategies which most hunters will want to try:
Before the breeding season, you can set up a jake and a couple of hens, making it appear that the jake is initiating breeding. This can get a gobbler right in your sights, as they know they can easily overpower a single, younger male and take the female for themselves. The other hens should appear to be grazing, as this will tempt the gobbler further.
During the breeding season, you’re best off with just a single hen placed strategically to allow you to get some shot placement. Turkey, like most animals, are less wary during the breeding season and combined with calls it should be all you need.
After the breeding season most gobblers have had their fill, but the sight of three or four hens might tempt even the most wary bird into letting his guard down enough to get your shot in.
The key here is to make sure that everything is set up close enough to your position that you can take the shot even if the bird realizes that something is amiss, roughly 20 yards away is good in most cases.
Bringing Them In With Calls
Unlike decoys, calls have been used since times immemorial for bring turkey in. There’s quite a bit to learn, however, in order to make sure that you get perfect.
Tips for Using a Ground Blind
Ground blinds are a vital tool if you’re a stationary hunter, and they’re quite easy to set up when you’re out for turkey. Turkeys really aren’t spooked by blinds, so you can set one up in your favored way once you’ve scouted out the appropriate area.
Keep the following in mind, however:
Keep your back to the sun
While the blind itself might not bother your prey there’ll definitely be some problems if they see you moving in it. Having sunlight shining on you will highlight this, so you want to be in the shade in order to avoid missing your chance at a big gobbler.
Keep your line of sight clear
Many hunters worry too much about staying hidden from the turkey to the point they set their blind up somewhere they don’t have good visibility. Avoid making this classic amateur error, if you can’t line up your shot then it really doesn’t matter if the turkey sees you or not.
Location is key
If you’ve scouted the area you should have things just about right but hunting is never a perfect affair. If your blind ends up being in a bad position, figure out how to adjust the conditions around it to make everything line up perfectly and come back another day.
This is why scouting before the season begins gives you such a huge advantage. Setting up where they’ll be feeding, drinking water, or even roosting will make sure that you can at least sight them and if you’ve done everything else properly you’re pretty much assured of a kill.
Dusting sites, where the turkey cleans themselves, are also a great place to set up with the bonus that the bird will be making a bit of noise and should be a little bit more distracted than in most other places.
General Advice for Nabbing a Big Gobbler
Of course, you can’t cover everything about a turkey hunt just by reading, but we aim to get you as close as possible. Here’s some general advice for both of the common seasons of turkey hunting to give you an even better chance of having the best season yet.
Hunting in Spring
Since spring is the turkey’s mating season, your best bet with calling is to play the part of a hen.
When you’re doing this, patience is key. Many hunters either call to frequently or try to make a move far too early in the game. Your goal is to get the turkey within 20 yards or so, allowing you a clean and easy shot.
Don’t give up. Hopefully you’ve practiced enough that you know how to make a hen’s cackle with the call, as well as some of the basic yelps.
If your calling isn’t quite up to par yet, hopefully your scouting was. If this is the case, then one of the sneakiest tactics is to find areas where the hen gather and get between the gobbler and them. They’ll be hell-bent on breeding, so they’ll be a little bit less cautious than normal and you’ll know where they’re coming through.
If you set up a blind in this area, you’re virtually guaranteed to get close enough for a shot as long as you did your scouting out properly.
Scouting is always your best friend, and keeping an eye on the habits of the flock in the area you’re hunting will give you the edge you need for whichever kind of hunting you prefer. The most important thing is to know roughly where they are and what they’re doing for the duration of the day.
If it gets hot in the spring where you’re hunting, make sure to check shadier areas even if the birds aren’t normally common there. They don’t like the heat, so they try to stay out of direct sunlight when the temperature is high.
Try to hunt when it’s clear. If the rain is mild the birds might still be active, but for the most part they’ll be trying to stay out of the rain which can make it a lot harder to get a clean shot.
Fall hunting is a little bit different. The birds are bound to be a little bit less concerned with breeding and more concerned with their day-to-day poultry affairs, which includes staying away from large predators like humans.
This means you can switch things up a little bit. While in the spring they’re bound to be wandering to mating grounds, in the fall they’ll tend to be together in larger flocks which opens up some interesting ways to get them.
One of the best tactics is to engage in flushing the birds. Forget stealth for the moment, and try to spook the flock and scatter them.
If you’re in a state where it’s legal to use a dog, this is a good time, but a partner will work nearly as well. Come in from opposite directions, making noise and generally moving quickly and causing a ruckus. Your goal is to get the birds to scatter.
Afterwards, you can pull back to a location where you’ll have a good shot and use your call to try to get them to regroup in an area where it’s entirely to your advantage.
If you’re planning on using a blind at this time of year, your best bet is to set up near food or water sources to wait it out. Calling isn’t quite as effective as it is in the spring for getting them to a blind during this season, but knowing their patterns is sure to nab you an excellent gobbler.
Some Expert Advice
Each of the following articles has some rather outstanding advice for someone who’s planning on a turkey hunt.
This article includes some great tips in a slideshow format that’ll help keep you on top of things when you’re out there. Things like keeping your back to the wind and how to control the volumes of your calls are covered in an easily readable format.
Some expert advice on hunting turkey in the spring season, covering everything from the uses of calls to using the terrain to your advantage. This is some highly recommended further reading.
Another complete guide to hunting turkey, this one focuses primarily on hunting in the spring. They cover most of the information we’ve just gone over, with an extra emphasis on spring hunting. This site is primarily concerned with firearm hunting but the tips are good for every aspiring turkey hunter.
Straight from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is a guide to hunter’s in that state. In addition to covering the best places to hunt there and some general tips for hunting the birds, you’ll also find a ton of useful information about the birds themselves as well. Knowing you quarry is one of the most important parts of the hunt and every little bit of information helps.
Turkey Hunting FAQ
Q 1- How can I get started hunting turkey?
A: The easiest way to get going is to get into the field. For a beginner, the following should be sufficient:
- A box call
- A full length shotgun
- Woodland camouflague BDUs
- A hunting license
- Somewhere to hunt
You don’t need a lot of decoys or a fancy call for your first hunt. The above will be enough to get you going, and if you get lucky you might still score a kill. While the gadgets and toys are nice, some camouflage clothing and a shotgun is more than sufficient for a beginner, as long as they have somewhere to hunt.
Q 2- What’s the best time to hunt turkey in the fall season?
A: Fall hunting is quite a bit different than spring hunting, calls and decoys are less effective and this means choosing the right time of the day. If you’ve done your scouting for a while before hand you’ll have a good idea of the bird’s patterns but we don’t always have that luxury.
The ideal time would be as soon as legal light shows up, meaning you can hit them in their roost. Turkey are entirely diurnal, however, and will be foraging for food, finding water, and wandering their range as long as the sun is up.
This means finding them is more a matter of knowing your flock and terrain, rather than their being a particularly ideal time to set out.
Q 3- Can I hunt turkey with a long bow?
A: Long bows are perfectly fine for turkey, in fact anything forty pounds and up will have no problems with penetration provided that you shoot from the proper distance. You really don’t need a compound bow for this kind of hunting.
What’s more important than the bow itself is making sure that you have the right broad heads to drop the bird, rather than just wounding it, and making sure you know how to get a kill shot on the center of mass rather than just winging the bird.
Q 4- Can I hunt turkey with a pellet gun?
A: Check your state laws first. Taking game outside of the law is unethical and hurts the appearance of all hunters. As far as we know, it’s only specifically allowed in California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
That said, in the states where it’s allowed you can generally shoot at turkey with a .20 or higher caliber pellet gun. We recommend at least a .22, although a .25 would be a better platform. With high FPS and a heavy pellet, a headshot should be able to drop an adult turkey quite effectively.
Do not do body shots with an airgun. The projectile isn’t large enough to ensure a clean kill. Aim for the head, it’ll be a challenging shot but it can be done.
Q 5- What’s a good .22 air rifle for hunting turkey?
A: If you’re intent on using an air gun to hunt turkey, you need to make sure it’s a good one. We strongly recommend the Benjamin Trail Nitro Piston 2.
One additional word of advice if you choose to use an air rifle: make sure it’s properly broken in and you have plenty of practice with the pellets you plan on using to hunt.