I've turkey hunted longer than some of you have been alive. Doesn't make me better or worse, just older and likely more experienced at getting served up an education on a regular basis from the bird we love – and surely opinionated about what I like in a turkey hunting state.
The following 10 states to turkey hunt before you die are my favorites. Wildlife agency spins, heavy-handed statistics and estimated flock populations don't come into play. Looking back over the years, many are locations I've returned to again and again around the country.
What can I say about the Bluegrass State? I've got a mock license plate on my office wall that reads: Kentucky Wild Turkey, Beyond Duplication. (I know, it's an advertisement for something else too.) There's a reason for that. I've hunted all corners of the state since the late 1990s. I'll be there again this spring. It never gets old.
Kill a pressured public-land gobbler in my home state of Pennsylvania and you've done something. Yeah, I promised not to toss out statistics, but Pennsylvania ranks high among states with the most turkey hunters. It's where I climbed ridge tops as a teenager and heard my first gobble. That's something you never forget. What's another big reason I love my native Keystone State? Fall turkeys are an inherent part of the rural hunting culture, and valued equally with the modern spring tradition.
New England is where I live now, though true Yankees born here like to tell me: "You'll never really be from he-yuh . . ." (I make my home base just over the border in Maine). My first New Hampshire spring gobbler, tagged shortly after I finished the academic imprisonment known as graduate school, still fills me with powerful memories – and it was almost 25 seasons ago. Ask my buddy Josh Grossenbacher who called in a Granite State gobbler to my 870 one spring, and he'll tell you it's one of the most beautiful places he's ever spring turkey hunted. I agree.
Anytime you can stand high up in remote, rugged mountains after driving muddy miles in an old pickup truck, then ATV, then on foot, only to see Montana in the distance, and hear thunder and shock gobbling, witness snow and rain falling at the same time, see turkey, elk and big cat tracks, only to somehow manage to call a strutting gobbler through falling spring snow, do it. I did. And not just once.
You haven't really been a turkey hunter until you've heard barred owls hooting in the pre-dawn trees, and seen turkeys flying down out of the hanging Spanish moss. It's a great way to shake off winter since Florida opens in March, earlier than most states. Osceolas are tall and intense as any subspecies on the Grand Slam trail. Swamp birds will truly school you as a spring gobbler chaser. On downtime you can fish or take in an MLB spring training game. A Sunshine State nap in the turkey camp sun is also a sweet thing.
Sure, the turkeys living here can look like Rios, Merriam's and Easterns in their sometimes hybrid forms, but a wild turkey is a wild turkey. Period. Want to hunt swarms of early-spring flocks numbering in the hundreds? Nebraska should be on your list. And the resident farmers hate them as much as we love the birds.
What can I say about the Lone Star State? Texas has great food, people and willing Rio Grande gobblers. Even the Eastern subspecies can be found in, um, eastern Texas. Last year's big jake numbers will be two-year-olds this season, and you know what that means.
Say those two words New York in a southern turkey camp this spring, and chances are you'll get an earful. The perception isn't correct though. Sure, New York City gets all the media attention, along with the raging political debates going on up in Albany, but the rest of the state is largely pro-hunting (for now), and filled with turkey hunters like you and me. I've probably killed more turkeys here, spring and fall, than most other states I've hunted. Wouldn't know, I only count season limits and haven't kept track over the many years. Downside is turkey populations are estimated at an all-time, 20-year low. That's sad news to me for a lot of reasons – but we're turkey hunters and need to manage this thing and not risk the chance of losing it.
Some of the toughest spring turkeys I've ever faced live here. They'd just as soon spit-and-drum right on top of you, as gobble a warning before coming in. Kill one, as with my native Pennsylvania, and chances are you've fooled one wary bird.
I know all about the lead ammunition ban. The politics. The reputation. Still, at least right now, California has some of the best turkey hunting you'll ever enjoy. You owe it to yourself to make the long flight east to west – or drive if you live close enough. Get it while you can, friends. Support our tradition.
What's your list of states to turkey hunt before you die? Comment below.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree.com's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more birds than he can remember. Still he kills enough to eat well, and fool with beards, spurs and fans until the next season. Pennsylvania born and raised, Maine is his home base now. A full-time outdoor communicator with a couple university writing degrees, he chases spring gobblers and fall flocks around the country.