How to Hunt Turkeys
Written and Compiled by Will Brantley, Tony Hansen and Steve Hickoff
Think of this as your ultimate spring turkey hunting guide. We've compiled pages of tips and advice explaining the basics, and then spiced it all up with numerous links to in-depth videos and articles that'll benefit first-time hunters and Grand Slam holders alike. The end goal is simple: to teach you how to hunt turkeys more effectively.
Of course, just reading this won't make you a better turkey hunter. Despite possessing a brain the size a peanut, a wild turkey is one paranoid critter. You would be too if you were walking around wearing a suit made of Thanksgiving dinner. That legendary wariness is a big part of what makes turkey hunting so damn much fun, but also quite difficult.
No, you'll have to take what you learn and apply it in the woods. Out there, we can't tell you what to do. So take good notes and remember for yourself.
Or, bookmark this guide and hope your hunting spot has 4G cell service.
Table of Contents
- Where to Hunt Turkeys: How to find turkey habitat on private and public land
- When to Hunt Turkeys: Planning your hunt around season dates, the breeding phase and the weather
- Turkey Season Starts with Scouting: Pre-season scouting and tips on roosting
- How to Call in a Turkey: The setup, the sounds you need to know and the types of calls you'll be using
- Turkey Hunting Gear: Decoys, shotguns and accessories, shotshells, camo, vests and footwear
- Bowhunting for Turkeys: Ground blinds, bows and broadheads and shot placement
- How to Clean and Cook Your Turkey
Habitat. Because Turkeys Gotta Live There...
The biologists and land managers who are paid to create and enhance wild turkey habitat all say essentially the same thing about good turkey habitat: Diversity is key.
At one time, it was believed that wild turkeys require substantial chunks of unbroken timber to thrive. That's simply not the case. The gobs of turkeys roaming the open expanses of the Great Plains are proof positive. Ideal turkey habitat contains the three basic needs of most living creatures, turkeys included: Food, water, shelter.
Turkeys roost in trees, so trees big enough for roosting are required. Aside from those roost trees, however, turkeys can thrive in areas with sparse timber so long as there is adequate food, water and cover to hide them from predators. Most turkey biologists will tell you ideal turkey habitat contains 10 to 50 percent open, non-forested lands.
Hunting Public Land
Private land is often better than public land for big game, like elk and deer. But the playing field can be more leveled when it comes to turkey hunting.
Public land turkey hunting can be exceptional. Turkey populations are booming across the United States, and excellent numbers of turkeys can be found on public lands across the nation. Public land turkeys are likely to face more hunting pressure than those on private land with controlled hunting pressure, of course, but the nice thing about public turkey hunting is there is usually plenty of room to roam and escape the pressure.
Finding a place to hunt turkeys can be as simple as consulting state wildlife agency websites and searching for public hunting areas. In the Midwest, large tracts of state and national forests are home to impressive numbers of turkeys. In the West, BLM, National Forests and state-owned areas offer thousands of acres to chase turkeys.
Regardless of the region, look for those key habitat features. Trees for roosting. Water. Food. Open areas. And cover to escape predators.
Gobblers Need Grub. So Plant a Food Plot.
Food plots for turkeys? Yep.
Green food plots planted for deer can be just as attractive, even more so, to turkeys. In the spring, especially, the birds are attracted to those green havens for several reasons: cover, greens and bugs.
A lush food plot provides turkeys with abundant forage. Clover, chicory and winter wheat plots, for example, offer turkeys nutritious forage from the plants. Those plants also attract a ton of insects. Hens require a heavy protein intake in the spring to produce eggs, and most of that protein is acquired from insects. A lush plot also provides excellent brood habitat for poults and open areas for gobblers to strut.
Chufa is one of the most popular plants for establishing a food plot. Chufa, a relative of nutsedge, produces hundreds of peanut-sized tubers underground in the fall. Turkeys love these tubers and will readily dig them out of the ground.
Books have been written, and entire companies established, to help hunters and land managers create better food plots for wildlife, wild turkeys included. As a good resource for getting started, we recommend the many articles, videos and food plot tips found in the Land Management section of Realtree.com.
Is the Season Open in Your State?
Every state except Alaska has a spring turkey season. Opening days may be early as March 1, late as May 3. Deep South states are usually wrapping up by mid- to late-April, just about the time things are kicking off in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. In Maine, home of Realtree turkey editor Steve Hickoff, the season doesn't traditionally end until the first part of June.
That is, in other words, plenty of potential time to get your gobbler. Season dates and regulations (including how, when and where to get a turkey hunting permit) vary by state. There are more details than we can include here. But you can find it all on Realtree's Turkey Hunting Nation.
Not only does it provide a state-by-state resource for regulations, season dates, license fees and applications, but our expert turkey reporters have also assigned each state a grade based on the numbers of birds, public land availability, hunting pressure and other factors. If you're planning a turkey hunt, Turkey Hunting Nation is a resource you don't want to miss.
Fifty Shades of Spring: Use the Breeding Season to Your Advantage
Spring is turkey breeding season, and the gobbler's desire to breed hens gives you an edge. Take advantage of it. Increased daylight signals a shift toward mating time for hens. Gobblers may vocalize earlier, especially during warming trends, but just because male turkeys are gobbling doesn't mean actual breeding has begun. They gobble in the fall at times, too. Frequent strutting and gobbling synchronizes the breeding effort.
Male turkeys gobble to tell hens where to find them. They strut to provide a visual to go with this vocalization. Often the hen responds as well, clucking and yelping. When the hen is nearby and in view, dominant gobblers often only strut. Most of the time, hens that are ready to breed go to the gobbler — not the other way around.
Eggs are laid as spring actually arrives. Hen turkeys nest on the ground, often near food sources. This ensures hatching poults will have bugs, plants and seeds to eat later. Incubation takes around four weeks, and clutches average roughly a dozen eggs.
Once hatched, poults stay with the brood hen through summer, fall and even winter. Older gobblers run together through this period. Spring dispersal begins as turkeys move to new locations the following year and the turkey breeding season starts again.
Early Season Hunting Tips
Loud gobbling in the spring announces a male turkey's location to hens. Breeding insists on this. Hunters listen as well to know where to begin their hunt.
Early season gobblers can be fooled in a number of ways. Find a male turkey roosting alone and call him in at fly-down time or during the hunting day. Locate a gang of gobblers without hens and do the same. But "henned up" birds — those that are already strutting for numerous female turkeys — are a frequent obstacle in the early season. A gobbler surrounded by potential mates has little reason to come to your distant calling.
You can fall back on a few strategies to combat this, though. Hunt a breeding flock and fire up the boss hen. This territorial turkey might come to investigate your calling and bring the group with her, including the gobbler you want. It doesn't happen every time, but when it does, it's fun.
The more consistent option is to pattern unpressured birds to nail down their daily movements. Scouting during the weeks before opening day, as we highlighted above, is crucial. If you know where the birds are likely to go, set up and intercept them. Use a blind if it'll help you sit longer.
Patience kills spring gobblers. The more you hunt a particular bird, the closer you come to tagging him.
Late Season Hunting Tips
Late season turkey hunting comes faster than most would like — especially if you have yet to kill a gobbler.
Depending on where you turkey hunt south to north, some hens will likely be nesting during the late season. A few poults may have even hatched. Younger hens might still be with gobblers as their breeding activity begins later and finishes sooner than older female turkeys. Hens running with gobblers may still continue to challenge you as they did in the early season.
Find a gobbler or gobblers without hens, as these male turkeys still look to breed, and you could have a memorable hunt. Eager gobblers sometimes commit to calling better in the late season than at any other time of year.
Another seasonal transition will challenge you next: gobblers searching for other gobblers.
Say what? As spring becomes summer, hens nest and hatch broods, and gobblers reform male-only groups. They stay with this flock through summer into fall. If the spring turkey season is still open, calling like another gobbler might bring the bird you want into range.
But your calling tactics will change. Early in the season you imitated hen clucks and yelps to interest gobblers that wanted to breed. Now in the late season, gobbler yelps and even gobbling can be more productive.
How Spring Weather Affects Turkeys
The best weather for turkey hunting arrives the day you have free to hunt. Ever heard, "You can't kill them on the couch?" It's true. But the weather does influence turkey movement and gobbling activity.
It terrifies an outdoor writer to make generalizations on how the weather affects game and fish. There are always exceptions to the rules. But for turkeys, here's what you can often expect:
- Early morning fog keeps turkeys on the roost later. He may sit up there and gobble, but if he can't see the ground, he won't fly down. Just sit tight and be patient. The fog will eventually lift.
- Extreme heat will make birds loaf in shaded areas near water. This is another time to stake out and be patient.
- A late snow in the spring will temporarily cause birds to abandon their spring feeding and strutting routines and revert to wintertime flocking behavior. As such, look for high-calorie winter food sources, like picked corn and bean fields, and even cow pastures. Turkeys love scratching grain and goodies out of cow pies.
- Clear and calm spring mornings with a bright rising sun often result in good roost gobbling. These mornings are the most pleasant for you to hunt as well. If you're planning vacation time around the weather, these are the days to choose.
- Turkeys go to calmer locations on windy days. Wind-tossed branches create enough noise to challenge a turkey's hearing — yours too. Birds tend to favor less disturbed locations like sheltered pastures, fields inside big timber, open hollows and other treeless slots like power lines. Use loud calls. Box calls are windy day favorites.
- Daily turkey patterns may change on rainy days . Birds often fly down later. But during a light shower can be a great time to hunt, as turkeys usually remain active and will often move to open fields. Heavy rain may find turkeys under edge cover canopy, trying to stay dry. Either way, you'll want to pack rain gear, maybe a pop-up ground blind, and water-resistant friction and mouth calls.
- Fact is, it's spring and the weather changes constantly. If you waited on the perfect day not too much turkey hunting would get done. Turkeys can be killed almost regardless of the weather conditions. So get out there.
Your scouting objective is to locate as many gobblers as possible before opening day. So, ideally, a combination of private land permission and public land access provides opportunities for finding turkeys. Once obtained, you can locate birds visually and by listening.
Turkeys are messy. Look for turkey tracks in mud, sand and snow. Scratching is left behind by turkeys scraping at the ground to feed. Check hardwood ridges full of mast trees, like oaks and beech nuts, for scratching left behind by large winter flocks of turkeys. It's unmistakable when you find it. Later in the spring, once birds have dispersed, scratching sign will be more scattered.
Regardless of the time of year, old scratching will look dry and, well, old. Fresh scratching will reveal moist leaves and dirt underneath. It's the same deal with droppings. What makes for a good turkey turd, from a scouting standpoint? The same thing that makes for a bad dog turd in the yard. Soft and moist means fresh. No need to touch. You can tell by looking.
Dusting areas remain where turkeys have rolled belly-down in loose soil or sand. Drag marks appear on dirt roads and in strut zones where gobblers drag their wing tips while strutting. All of these bits of sign confirm turkeys are living in a given area. Listening for them is the next step.
Get out early to listen for gobblers waking up on their roosts. Do this from an elevated location if possible. Actually seeing birds strutting in a field — and knowing how they entered that field and when — is icing on the cake.
Truth is, scouting for pre-season turkeys can be as much fun as hunting them.
How to Roost a Turkey
Finding where turkeys start and finish their day gives you a hunter's advantage. Roosting a gobbler — and the other birds it runs with — makes this possible.
- Start in a location where you've found turkey sign by scouting. Maybe you've heard gobblers waking up on the roost in a general area. Maybe you've seen them strutting in a nearby field. Now you want to pinpoint the exact location where these turkeys sleep. Do this the night before your hunt so you can make your setup there in the morning before fly-down.
- Slip into an area in mid-afternoon where you've heard birds before, or maybe just where you've found some decent habitat. Sit quietly and listen. If you're close enough, you'll hear wing beats as they fly up; maybe even soft calling or gobbling as turkeys approach roost trees. With any luck you'll see them. Once in the trees, birds will often move from branch to branch, wings noisily flapping as they reposition. When they're settled, let it get dark and sneak out.
- Get some sleep yourself. You'll be back in this spot well before daybreak. When you sneak in, get as close as you can without spooking birds. If the birds are unpressured and you saw them the night before, set up within gun range of where they were standing. Chances are good they'll land close by after flying down.
It Starts with the Setup
You've found a place to hunt. You've done your scouting. Now it's time to think about potential turkey hunting setups. Choose a spot as close as possible to the gobbler you want to kill, but without spooking the bird. It should be along a fairly predictable travel route. Calling in a turkey is much easier when you're sitting where he wants to go anyhow.
Before you sit down, look around first to make sure you have open shooting lanes for when the gobbler comes in. If possible, use the terrain to find a location where, as soon as the turkey steps into view, he's also in range. This might be the edge of a ridge top or pasture corner trail. If possible, sit with your back against a broad-trunked tree facing this spot. Put your seat cushion there. Get ready, placing calls nearby.
If you've roosted turkeys, make your early morning setup near where birds fly down, which is often an open area. A decoy or two might help them come to your calls. If you've patterned field birds and found strut zones, make your setup there. Portable blinds also work well in such situations.
Turkey hunting setups will change as spring gobblers (and the hens they follow) move through the hunting day. You can sit, call and passively wait on birds to come to you. You can also go to the turkeys and close the distance with your next setup. Many turkey hunters do a little of both.
Eventually you'll find yourself sitting at your setup with the gobbler hunting down your position. That's when you'll know you've picked the right spot at the right time. There's no thrill like it.
Turkey Calling Sounds You Must Learn
When looking for flock mates, or other lone hens and gobblers, turkeys call. It's an effort to get another bird to call back, step into view and reveal its exact location. It's basically a wild turkey asking, "Where are you?" or saying, "Come over here where I am." By imitating those sounds, you can call turkeys right to you .
While roughly 30 turkey calling sounds can be heard in the wild, fewer than half of those vocalizations are usually used while hunting. Many spring gobbler hunters make just two basic calls: the plain cluck and hen yelp. Those two calls kill plenty of turkeys. But other good sounds to learn include roost clucks and tree yelps (a.k.a. "tree calling"); fly-down cackles; cutting (loud and fast clucks); lost yelps; purrs; gobbles and even the kee-kee sounds of young birds.
A cluck is the single-note sound made frequently throughout the day by both gobblers and hens. Clucks are often spaced out, with two or three seconds between notes. And sometimes the bird might just cluck once.
The plain hen yelp is usually three to eight notes long, and it's the calling option most often employed by spring turkey hunters to lure gobblers to setups. Hen yelping is higher-pitched than the deeper, coarser yelping of gobblers. Tom turkeys yelp with a slower cadence as well, and yelps are generally fewer in number — often three notes: yawp, yawp, yawp. In the spring, a jake will often yelp, rather than gobble, on the approach, so it's an important sound to recognize.
These sounds are easier to learn by listening to them than reading about them. Real turkeys are the best teachers of all, but just in case you don't have a live hen hanging out in your office, check out this video.
How to Use a Box Call
Learn how to use a box call and make most of the wild turkey's vocabulary, including the gobble. Most box calls are made of wood. When you scrape the paddle bottom against a side panel's lip (many have two; some just one) the hollow chamber inside the narrow, rectangular box makes a sound — ideally one a wild turkey would like to hear.
Tune your box call with chalk, rubbing it along the paddle's bottom. Avoid oil-based options. Carpenter's chalk works best. Be sure to keep the call dry in your vest. Waterproof box calls are also available.
Veteran turkey hunters like to say they want a box call with a flock of turkeys in it. Try several to find one you like best. It may become your versatile, go-to favorite during in the woods.
Watch this video to learn how to use a box call.
How to Use a Slate Call
Slate calls vary by style, but they have the same basic design. A striking surface — slate, glass or aluminum — is attached to a hollow pot that often has drilled holes underneath to create sound resonance with the inner chamber. The peg, usually called a striker, is the other half of this two-piece, hand-held turkey caller. Pegs are made of wood, carbon, plastic, glass and even turkey wing bone. Friction is needed to create sounds, so "dress" (rough up) a slate call's surface lightly with a Scotch-Brite™ scour pad. Use fine grit sandpaper on glass or aluminum.
Hold the pot, striking surface up, with your thumb in the nine o'clock position and middle finger at three o'clock. Grip the peg like a pencil, thumb in the striker's center. You can make a variety of turkey calls by varying the stroke pattern. All vocalizations require keeping the peg tip on the surface.
Learning how to use a slate call takes time, but they can create some of the most realistic sounds of any type of turkey call.
Watch this video to learn how to use a slate call.
How to Use a Mouth or Diaphragm Call
Why choose a turkey mouth call? They're inexpensive. They make realistic turkey sounds. A diaphragm, as they're often called, offers hands-free operation, too. Turkey diaphragms are made by stretching latex rubber — often called the reed — across a horseshoe-shaped frame centered inside a plastic skirt. You blow air across the latex reed (or reeds) to make turkey sounds.
To call, use your tongue to fit the diaphragm against the roof of your mouth. Face the straight edge forward. Try for a tight air seal. Now put your tongue lightly against the reeds. To yelp, push air between the top of your tongue and the reed. Saying words as you do this can help. What's the best word? That depends on the caller. But "chick," chirp," "chop" and "chalk" are popular. Whichever word you choose for this vocalization, make your yelps with snapping, beaklike lips, just as a turkey would.
Running your mouth diaphragm call with the right number, rhythm, length, volume, spacing and pitch of notes will improve your turkey calling game. Listen to real birds. Learn from your mistakes as you practice. Soon you'll be able to make the many turkey sounds and fool a wild bird into range.
Watch this video to learn how to use a turkey mouth call.
In the spring, gobblers are often so amped up that they'll gobble out of reflex at a loud sound. That's a convenient thing for turkey hunters. Most of us call it "shock gobbling." Turkey locator calls are used to make those loud sounds in hopes of locating a gobbler.
Traditional locator calls include the crow or barred owl. Duck, goose, coyote and even hawk calls work too, among others. Turkey calls are used to locate gobblers as well. Excited yelps and cutting often shock a tom into gobbling.
Gobblers often sound off on the roost as day breaks. If you haven't heard one that morning, try owl hooting. If this doesn't work, crow call if the timing seems right. Crow calls also work during the day as you run-and-gun, prospecting for turkeys.
One school of thought is using non-turkey locator calls when birds are still on the roost. After fly-down, switch to turkey calls. Remember the idea is to fix a gobbler's position so you can pick a setup spot and try to call the bird in. Gobblers will shock gobble at loud turkey calls, but you need to be prepared for birds to begin coming your way if you use them.
Locator calls should be used sparingly. If a gobbler is hearing so many crow calls and owl hoots that they no longer surprise him, he'll stop shock gobbling at the sounds. Use them to locate your bird, but making him gobble at them repeatedly only hurts you in the long run.
Watch this video to learn how to make locator calls.
Full Camo is Essential
Total camouflage when hunting turkeys isn't an option – it's a necessity. A camouflage shirt, jacket, gloves, pair of pants and a face mask or face paint are crucial to staying hidden from a gobbler's sharp eyes.
Color is important as well. In early spring or in areas with little foliage, opt for a camouflage pattern that features plenty of browns and greys to match the surroundings. As spring progresses and the woods green up, mix in more green and lighter colors to mimic the local flora and fauna.
In arid, western environments, you'll want to choose a pattern that's more open and better matches the coloration and patterns of the area.
Why You Need a Turkey Vest
Turkey hunters carry a lot of gear. Calls, strikers, flashlight, snacks, water, shells, decoys, maps. You'll need a place to store all those goodies, and nothing does the job as well as a quality turkey vest. A good turkey vest not only totes all of your gear, but keeps it organized, secure and silent. Turkey vests feature a multitude of pockets that are designed to hold specific gear.
There are pockets designed to hold pot-style calls, box calls, strikers and spare shells. And when you finally get a bird, many vests have blood-proof game bags to make hauling your gobbler back to the truck clean and easy.
In addition to carrying your gear, a turkey hunting vest allows you to hunt more comfortably. Most quality vests have an attached seat cushion to make sitting on the ground a bit more bearable for longer periods of times. Padded areas on the back of the vest also protect your back when leaning against a tree and provide another measure of comfort.
Turkey Hunting Boots. They're Made for Walking. And Sitting, Too.
To hunt turkeys right, you'll need to cover ground. Choosing the right pair of boots for turkey hunting is important. That choice starts with identifying the type of terrain you'll be hunting and the weather conditions you're likely to encounter. Will you be hunting in cold weather? Will you be hunting in wet areas? Will you be hunting in areas with snakes? All of this information should be considered when choosing boots.
Calf-high rubber boots are good when hunting relatively flat terrain where you're likely to encounter wet conditions. They'll keep you dry and comfortable enough for moderate walking. In hillier terrain or on longer hikes, a comfortable leather or Cordura boot is a better choice. They provide more ankle support for longer hikes and difficult. If you're likely to encounter water, make sure the boots feature Gore-Tex or other water-proof material.
In areas with venomous snakes, you should consider a tall, snake-proof boot design.
The Best Turkey Decoys
When to Use Hen and Jake Decoys
Gobblers are a fickle bunch. But if there's one thing that you can count on when dealing with a hard-headed longbeard, it's his sense of pride. Mature gobblers will seldom tolerate an uppity jake putting the moves on a lady of the harem.
A hen and jake decoy combination will challenge most gobblers, but particularly those vocal 2-year-old birds that often travel in pairs during the bulk of the spring season. It's these 2-year-old longbeards that often make up the majority of the harvest each spring. They're aggressive and still just a bit reckless. But they aren't the dominant birds in the area, which means they're looking for hens that the boss tom hasn't yet claimed for himself. Seeing an insubordinate jake with a hen is often more than they can stand.
When to Use Strutter Decoys
Strutter decoys often make or break a hunt. For challenging dominant turkeys, there may be no better option.
The sight of an intruder in full strut can often make the most dominant of gobblers throw caution to the wind and do the fast-waddle to the gun. But sub-dominant longbeards are often reluctant to approach a dominant-looking, full-strut decoy.
The use of a strutter decoy should be confined to areas where a dominant bird is known to frequent or there is a pack of sub-dominant gobblers running together. A single sub-dominant turkey may not approach a full-strut decoy. But give him a wingman or two and the game changes, and you can often bring the entire boy band in on the run with intentions of ganging up on the strutter.
When Not to Use a Decoy
Decoys. Love them. Hate them. Perhaps no tool in the turkey hunter's arsenal draws more conversation than the use of decoys. When should you not use a decoy? Well, there is no hard and fast rule, but there are some best practice guidelines:
- When hunting turkeys that have been pressured most of the season, especially if they've been hunted over decoys recently.
- When hunting in areas of heavy timber or dense cover. In these instances, turkeys can't see long distances. When they do spot the decoys, they may be quite close, and could even spook at the sight of the unexpected decoy. It's better to use the terrain to your advantage in this situation.
- In some places, heavily hunted public land, especially, using a decoy in conjunction with calling and full camouflage can be dangerous. You don't want to be sitting next to a jake decoy that another hunter decides he wants to shoot. This is a judgment call left solely up to you.
Shotguns for Turkey Hunting
The traditional way to hunt spring turkeys is with a shotgun and because of that, many serious turkey hunters have a dedicated "turkey gun." Shooting a turkey with a shotgun is a deliberate, precise act, more similar to rifle shooting than wing-shooting. An instant kill is the goal, and to do that on a tough bird like a turkey, a shotgunner needs to aim for the head, break the spine and instantly disable the bird's central nervous system. A single pellet can do the job, but a dense swarm is better.
All dedicated turkey guns are set up to deliver a tight pattern of shot at typical turkey hunting distances (traditionally 40 yards and closer, although many modern guns and turkey loads can stretch the effective range to 50 yards).
Types of Shotguns
Only a few things are required from a turkey gun: It must throw a good pattern where you aim it. It needs to fit you so that you can shoot it well. And it needs a non-reflective finish, since turkeys will catch the sight of a shiny blued gun about every time. We recommend Realtree camouflage, of course, but even a matte-black gun will work.
Single-shot shotguns work for turkey hunting. They're lightweight and typically the least expensive option. Though most have fixed chokes, those with full chokes often pattern quite well. They have some major drawbacks, too. The biggest is that you only get one shot. They also have fierce recoil with heavy turkey loads.
Pump-action shotguns like the Remington 870 and Mossberg 835 are more popular with turkey hunters. Most popular models are available in camouflage, turkey-specific models with 12-gauge 3-inch or 3 ½-inch chambers (as well as 20-gauge versions). Most pumps have interchangeable choke tubes, so you can swap your extra-full turkey choke out for a modified choke for ducks in a few seconds. Pump-actions are middle-of-the-road, price wise. They offer a fast follow-up shot in the hands of an experienced shooter, but, with turkey loads, still kick hard as an elephant rifle. And that's not an exaggeration.
Semi-automatic shotguns are the Cadillacs of the turkey woods. They provide instant follow-up shot capability with less recoil than pump-action guns. The Benelli Super Black Eagle II, Remington Versa Max, Browning Maxus and many others are outstanding choices for the turkey woods. They're also expensive. Because turkey hunting isn't a high-volume shooting sport, most hunters who use a semi-automatic use that same gun for a variety of other hunting purposes.
Accessories for Your Turkey Gun
Most turkey hunters prefer a gun with a shorter barrel — 26-inch or less — for ease of handling in the woods. Some dedicated turkey guns have pistol grips, which are more comfortable to handle during a long sit. You'll want a comfortable gun sling for a long day in the woods.
Turkey hunting choke tubes are available from a variety of manufacturers in a variety of constrictions. Typically, if you favor bigger shot, like No. 4 pellets, a more open version of a "super full" turkey tube is the better bet (say a constriction of .670). Conversely, if you want the densest pattern possible with No. 6 or 7 ½ shot, you'd probably opt for a tighter constriction (like .660).
All turkey hunters miss at some point. But it happens to some more than others. Because you'll be taking careful aim with your gun and throwing a pattern of shot the size of a softball out to 20 yards, you might consider a sighting system beyond a plain bead and ventilated rib. Fiber-optic open sights are popular with many turkey hunters, and quite a few even use optics, such as low-power shotgun scopes or electronic red dot sights.
Choosing a Turkey Load
Twelve-gauge 3 and 3 ½-inch magnum shells are the most popular choices among turkey hunters. A few hunters favor the even larger payload of the 10-gauge. Increasingly, better ammunition components have made the 20-gauge more popular, but the only advantage offered by that smaller shell is a lighter gun and less recoil.
Lead shot in sizes 4, 5 and 6, is the most popular choice for a turkey load. Heavier pellets made of various blended metals — like Hevi-Shot, Federal Mag-Shok Heavyweight and Remington Wingmaster HD — often have superior downrange performance than lead, but usually with a higher price tag.
Once you've found a turkey gun, it's important to spend some time on the range with several different turkey loads to see which of them provides the tightest pattern. We like to see a minimum of 15 pellets in a turkey head target at 40 yards, but more importantly, the pattern should be tight at the center and evenly broadcast on the edges. If a particular type of shell frequently produces holes or gaps in the pattern (and some of them will from your gun; every gun is different), try something else.
The birds' incredible eyesight and mechanical wariness make bowhunting for turkeys difficult. A deer may stomp, snort, and even investigate when it senses danger, and that can be a fatal flaw, since it gives a bowhunter time to draw his arrow.
Turkeys are different. They do not care what the potential danger is — only that it's danger, and they are leaving, right now. While the basics of getting a turkey into bow range don't differ much than getting one into shotgun range, it's the shot itself, particularly coming to full draw, that makes bowhunting for turkeys so difficult without some help. That help comes in the form of good decoys and modern ground blinds.
Quality decoys, as we've outlined above, captivate a gobbler's attention and keep him in one spot long enough to make a good shot. Choose your decoys according to the area and birds you're hunting, and set them close. A 20-yard bow shot at a turkey is fine. A 15-yard shot is better.
Run-and-gun shotgun hunting is an aggressive tactic that often works. But day in and out, bowhunters need to be patient. Find a field or ridge frequented by turkeys, stake out in a ground blind blind, set your decoys, and stick it out.
Thank God for Ground Blinds
The pop-up hunting blind has done more to improve bowhunter success rates on turkeys than any other piece of equipment in the last decade. Most of these blinds can be set in minutes, and they fully enclose the hunter. Though their exteriors are camouflage, you're really hidden by the shadows. Turkeys, for reasons known only to them, rarely spook from the blinds themselves, so "brushing in" your blind to blend with the natural vegetation, as deer hunters often do, isn't really necessary for turkey hunting. Plenty of turkeys have been shot from blinds set in the middle of an open field.
Bowhunters need to consider a few primary things. First is room. Some shotgun hunters like to use blinds, and they don't require much room to shoot. But drawing a bow is another matter. Your blind should provide enough room to sit in the center or the back of the blind and shoot out the front and side windows. It needs to be tall enough that your bow's cams have clearance from the ceiling and ground.
Other factors to consider are weight and ease of setup. Bowhunting for turkeys from a blind is much more stationary than your typical shotgun set, but you still may move a couple times during a week's hunt.
What Bow and Broadhead to Use for Turkeys
There are more dedicated shotguns and shotgun shell combinations for turkeys than we can list here. But the same is not really true for bows, arrows and broadheads. Most bowhunters hunt other game — and the bow you use for deer and elk will work just fine on turkeys. The only differences in a dedicated turkey bow and arrow setup and a big game setup might be:
- A shorter axle-to-axle length for maneuverability inside a ground blind
- A lighter draw weight and higher let off. With turkeys, it's all about accuracy, as any modern compound pulling 40 pounds or more will punch through a bird. Lighter draw weights and higher let off simply allow you to hold at full draw more comfortably for longer periods of time.
- There are specialized turkey broadheads. Some, like the Gobbler Guillotine, are designed for head-shooting. Most have wide cutting diameters, and often blunted points, to impede pass-through penetration and impart more shock on the bird. Fact is, though, when hit in the right spot, the fixed-blade broadheads you use on deer will work just fine on turkeys.
Where to Shoot a Turkey with a Bow
When shooting big game with a bow, the idea is to put a razor-sharp broadhead through the lungs. The animal will usually run, but it'll leave an easy-to-follow blood trail behind.
It's different with turkeys. The damn things can fly. Even if mortally wounded, finding a turkey that's taken flight after being shot is a low-odds proposition. So, as with shotgun shooting, you want to instantly disable the bird. You have two options: shooting them in the head or hitting them in the body.
Head-shooting usually results in a miss or an instant kill, especially if you're using a broadhead specially designed for head-and-neck shooting, like the Gobbler Guillotine. The problem can be getting a turkey to hold its head still long enough to take careful aim. The head is a small target, but it's not an especially difficult shot for an experienced archer inside of 20 yards.
The easier, more forgiving option is in the body, just above the drum stick. Many hunters make the mistake of aiming for a turkey's breast or wing butt. A turkey hit there will escape most of the time, as the vital organs sit farther back and lower in the body. Aim just above the turkey's hip, at the crease of the thigh, and you'll hit vital organs and break bone. Turkeys shot here, regardless of broadhead type, die within seconds.
You hopefully have a gobbler to cook! One of the best things about turkey hunting is wild turkeys are so delicious to eat. Check out this selection of videos, tips and recipes for cleaning and cooking your turkey, and be sure to look for more on Realtree.com.