So you want to bag your first turkey. Turkeys are some of the most popular game animals because they’re fun to hunt, but even if you’re already an experienced hunter, they have their own quirks that require specific knowledge and tactics. Before you trek out into the woods looking for gobblers, consider these seven turkey hunting tips for beginners to start out on the right foot.
Table of Contents
1. Study Up
As a kid on my grandparents’ homestead, I always thought the turkey was the weirdest animal. As an adult hunter, not much has changed. Turkeys are a bit unusual to say the least, and if you’re just getting into turkey hunting, you need to know about their biology and behavior, such as the following basic facts.
Learn to Tell the Sexes Apart
Most states have differing regulations regarding the turkey sexes and life stages, so you need to be able to distinguish them in the field.
Tom: A tom is an adult male turkey. Toms have a lot of distinctive characteristics that allow you to tell them apart, even from a distance, including:
- Black-tipped breast feathers
- Bald heads
- Brightly colored feathers
- Vibrant red flesh that hangs from the beak known as a “snood”
- Heel spurs up to two inches in length
- Gobbling (in fact, “gobbler” is another term for a male turkey)
- Larger size
- Beards of feathers descending from the chest (be careful as about 10 percent of hens also have beards)
Hen: A hen is a female turkey. For the most part, you can tell a turkey is a hen because it doesn’t have the distinctive features typical of a tom. That said, you can look for a few things like:
- Small feathers on the head
- Gray-blue skin on the head
- Smaller size
- Heel spurs don’t grow after birth
Jake: A jake is an immature male turkey. Many jurisdictions outlaw the harvesting of jakes, so you need to be able to differentiate them from adult male toms. Each jurisdiction might have its own definition of a jake versus tom, but in general, a jake has characteristics like:
- Longer central tail feathers/an incomplete tail fan
- A chest beard shorter than six inches
- Shorter heel spurs
- White barring on the wing feathers doesn’t reach the tips
- High-pitched, immature gobble
Turkey Behavior and Routine
Unlike other game animals like deer, turkeys are actually active during the day and have good vision. That means your camo game needs to be flawless.
Turkeys sleep, or roost, in trees, but they congregate in large open areas, particularly during the mating season in the late spring, where the toms strut, gobble and fan their feathers in an attempt to woo the hens.
Wild turkeys are pretty fast, something you might not expect if you’re only used to domestic turkeys. They can run upwards of 25 mph, which, unless you’re Usain Bolt, is a lot faster than you. If they decide to spread their wings, forget about it. They can fly as fast as 55 mph.
In other words, you’re not going to chase a turkey down. Turkey hunting is all about maximizing the element of surprise and making decisive, accurate shots.
2. Use the Right Gear
Once you feel confident you understand the turkey animal, the next most important thing as a beginner is to make sure you have all the right gear. The first thing on your gear shopping list should be camo. Since turkeys can see pretty well, it’s not just about breaking up the patterns of your body, but rather blending in with your environment. That means you need camo that matches your climate and local landscape. You should also cover as much of your body as possible, so you should these items in camo:
- Long sleeve shirt (in case you need to take off the jacket)
- Pants or overalls
- Neck gaiter or balaclava
- Cap, hat or beanie
- Face paint
Other essential gear for turkey hunting includes:
- Field binoculars
- Range finder (especially for archery)
- Field knife
Finally, while you can theoretically hunt without them, optional gear I’d recommend includes:
3. Learn to Scout
Scouting and tracking is one of the biggest parts of turkey hunting. It can seem impossible to find the birds if you don’t know what you’re doing, but once you learn the technique, it’s fairly straightforward.
Turkeys frequent areas with a wide range of landscapes. They have different needs for roosting, nesting, mating, drinking and eating. As a result, you should start looking for them in a place that meets all these needs. Since turkeys roost in trees, nest in grass cover, mate in open spaces, drink from natural water sources and eat from food plots, they’ll likely be in an area that has a mix of:
- Wooded tree cover
- Open grassland
- Creeks or ponds
- Agricultural fields
Turkey sign includes a lot of things turkeys leave behind that give you clues about their behavior, such as:
- Droppings: Because they decompose quickly, finding droppings means turkeys are active in the area. While a bit more solid than other bird droppings, they still have the typical white coloring that distinguishes them from mammal scat.
- Tracks: Turkey tracks look like the footprints of most birds with three splayed toes and rear heel spur. Look for them in soft mud. Tracks can tell you the directions the birds move in between habitat types.
- Feathers: Recognize turkey feathers by their white barrings. Feathers on the ground mean turkeys frequent the area.
- Dusting areas: Turkeys clean themselves by rolling around in dirt or sand. Look for areas of worn down undergrowth and disturbed soil. This is somewhere turkeys are comfortable and may return to.
I’ll get more into calling in a minute, but you can use an owl call at night just after sundown to find out where the turkeys are sleeping. Head out to the edge of the woods where you plan to hunt, and sound the call. Listen for turkeys gobbling back. This way you can pinpoint where they’re roosting.
Turkeys will come down from their roosts in the morning and go back to them in the afternoon. Consequently, now that you where they roost, hunt between that area and the open spaces where they’ll strut and feed during the day.
4. Call the Right Way
Turkeys make and react to a lot of different sounds, so imitating these sounds is a good way to manipulate their behavior. There are a ton of different types of calls, including:
- Box calls
- Slate calls
- Mouth calls
As a beginner, you can use these devices to produce a few go-to calls.
For some reason that isn’t entirely understood, toms like to answer back with gobbles when they hear owl or crow calls, particularly at night. Owl calls are mouth calls you blow into to produce the typical hooting sound. Use them after dusk or before dawn to find out where the toms are roosting.
Hens make a high-pitched yelping sound to attract toms in the breeding season as well as to call their chicks to them. It’s a good way to get toms to come closer to you. Most hunters use a mouth call to imitate this sound, but there are slate calls that can produce them too. Use yelp calls during the morning after the sun’s out when the turkeys are out and about.
Hens cluck when they’re gathered together as a social call. When toms hear it, they’re more likely to feel comfortable and let their guard down. Because it’s similar to a yelp but shorter, you can make it with a slate call using small strokes. Use it during the day as well when the turkeys are on the move in open areas.
5. Check the Weather
Hunting in nice weather is always more fun than bad weather. Luckily, it’s also the best weather for bagging a bird. Turkeys hit the open spaces for longer and in bigger numbers when it’s sunny and warm out, especially if it’s been rainy for a few days beforehand.
That said, turkeys do move on rainy days. They still have to eat and drink, after all. They’ll likely move to the open areas to dry out when the rain lets up. Just don’t expect to hear them gobble, so keep your binoculars on hand.
6. Practice Patience
Patience is important to pretty much every aspect of turkey hunting. Most people recommend hunting all day as turkeys can be a bit erratic in their movements, especially during the breeding season. Additionally, try to wait as long as possible before moving to a new spot.
You should also practice patience when shooting and calling. Let your quarry get comfortable, and he’ll come closer than you’d think. Don’t over call, either. Just because a tom doesn’t come running immediately when he hears your call does not mean he hasn’t noticed.
7. Review Local Laws
Depending on where you live, the laws and regulations surrounding turkey hunting can be a bit more complicated or more restrictive compared to other common game like deer. For instance, my home state of Arkansas has a two-bird limit, though one of the two zones only allows for a single bird.
Knowing these regulations isn’t just important to avoid fines or sanctions. You need to know them to take the best advantage of the season. For example, if you only have one turkey to take, you might decide to pass on the first one you see.
Make sure to call your local fish and game commission or visit their website to get all the details of the turkey hunt in your area.