Preparing for Your First Turkey Hunt
Table of Contents
2-General Species Information
3-Finding a Spot
4-How to Call
5-Keys to Success
It was the third weekend of Pennsylvania Spring Gobbler season. And I was chasing a big white-headed tom that had bested me four times already this season. He just seemed to always be one step ahead of me. Even though I knew where he was roosting, he would disappear the second he flew down from his roost. This and his abnormally white head had earned him his nickname “ghost”.
Today I figured I would take a bit more aggressive approach. I knew ghost was consistently roosting on the east side of a spur near the top of the ridge line, where a saddle was located. There was an old logging trail that ran straight through the saddle that was covered in turkey scratching. I figured that he would pitch down off his roost and then make his way through saddle. So, I figured instead of setting up where I thought he would pitch down, I’d set up in the saddle and ambush him on his way through. I also sweetened the pot with a lone hen decoy and that would be brought to life with my Deception Chamber.
One stream and a mile and a half of an uphill climb later, I was in position. It was still dark, but the song birds were starting to sing their spring tunes as the sky began to light up. My decoy was in position, I took a cold seat next to a tall oak and oriented myself up the saddle, so my decoy was behind me to my left. Now it was a waiting game, not only for the bird to wake up, but also for the sun to rise and warm the air. The cool air kept the mosquitoes at bay, but it made layering particularly challenging, mainly because I didn’t want to carry any warming layers throughout the day after it warmed up, so I just continually toughed out the cold mornings.
As the sky continued to get brighter the first gobble rang from on top of the hill, maybe 300 yards to my front. It sounded short and higher pitched, probably a Jake. But within seconds of him sounding off, a loud, long gobble thundered from down the hill off my right shoulder. I figured that was ghost letting all the other birds know he was there and he was still the boss in these parts. From the sounds of things, he was 100 yards in front of me and just barely off the side of the spur.
After he gobbled a few more times I wanted to let him know I was there, so I let out a few soft slow yelps. Nothing. I waited a couple minutes and let out some slightly louder but still soft and slow yelps. Got him! I thought as he let out a double gobble. I hit him once more with the same volume and call pattern to make sure it wasn’t a coincidence and sure enough he hit it again. Now it was just a waiting game. In the distance, I heard the familiar sound of a bird flying out of his roost. I flapped my hunting cap loudly against my thigh to imitate the sound. Then I let out another yelp, with soft clucks and purrs and got a thundering gobble in response.
Now more of the waiting game. I knew he wasn’t much of a talker once he hit the ground, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that the silence in the woods was demoralizing. But still I knew if it was going to happen it would happen quick. So, I was on edge. Every chipmunk, mouse, and bird quickly drawing my eyes to snap in that direction. Not my neck or head, just my eyes. I was careful not to move. Then he let off another gobble. It sounded like he was in the saddle but had started crossing it too far north of me, so I answered with some more gentle purrs and yelps and he immediately responded. “That’s it” I thought “No more, he knows where I am, and he is on his way.” Once again, the silence was nerve wrecking.
But then out of the corner of my eye I caught movement, a bright white head moving in and out of some thick cover. I timed my move and carefully swung my shotgun in front of his direction to a lane I figured he would pass enroot to my decoy. At this point my heart was pounding as I tracked him out of the corner of my eye coming closer and closer to my lane. So close I could hear every step, every drum, even hear his feathers brush against the oak leaves as he strutted. Finally, he was in my lane, my heart was pounding, and it felt like all the blood in my body had rushed to my ears blocking out their use. I had him full strut at 15 yards, I clucked twice with my mouth call and he extended his neck. I brought the open reticle of my sight on to where his feathers on his neck met, thumbed the weapon to fire, and slowly applied pressure to the trigger. “Click”
In this article, I hope to help you understand the basics of turkey hunting. I will explain many of the terms used from my story above and talk through some tactics that will help you get a big bird down this spring. The first tip is to always, always, always remember to load your shotgun. Old ghost didn’t take to kindly to the metallic click of the striker of my shotgun being dry fired. And for my mistake ghost is now all the older and all the wiser.
- General Species Information
For starters, all north American turkey are often simply referred to as “wild turkey” when in fact in there are multiple sub-species of wild turkey found in North America. For this article we will not be diving into immense detail of each species. For more specific information, I would recommend checking out the National Wild Turkey Federation’s webpage. The subspecies include Eastern wild turkey, Osceola wild turkey, Rio Grande wild turkey, Merriam’s wild turkey, Gould’s wild turkey, and Ocellated wild turkey. Each subspecies has their own unique characteristics and considerations when pursuing them. For this article we will be largely focusing on the Eastern wild turkey which is the most common, found in 38 states and through Canada. They are regarded as one of the most challenging subspecies to hunt. They also produce some of the largest birds with some of the longest beards.
An adult male turkey is known as a tom or gobbler for their renowned mating call. Adolescent males are known as jakes. Females are known as hens, and babies are known as poults. The easiest way to tell the difference between male and female turkey is the presence of a beard located on their chest or the coloration of their heads. Male turkeys will usually have red, white, and/or bluish heads. To distinguish a tom from a jake there are a couple methods to use. First would be size, the older toms will on average be anywhere from 6-10 pounds bigger than the young jakes. Next would be beard size, the average jake will sport anywhere from a 2-6-inch beard while toms may have 7-12-inch beards. Additionally, the two age groups of males will sport slightly different tail feathers. Toms will have an almost perfect semi-circle made by their tail feathers when they are seen strutting known as a fan.
Jakes will typically have an uneven fan with the center feathers being longer than the edges. Two ways to separate a jake from a tom without seeing it will be by the tracks and their gobble. A tom will normally have a significantly longer middle toe than that of a hen or a jake. A hen’s track will sport relatively the same length toes. A young jake will also often have a shorter higher pitched gobble than that of an adult tom, who will often sport a longer deeper sounding gobble.
As for the general day to day activities of turkey. They start their day in the trees. This is where they spend their nights in relative safety from predators. This is known as a roost. Turkey have relatively poor night vision, so they take haven in the trees at night. Around sunrise the turkey will pitch down from their roost and start their daily activities. They spend most of the year in flocks where the hens, poults, and jakes stay together. The toms make their own flock, like a bachelor group of whitetail deer. During breeding season, most male turkey will break away from their flock in search of mates. An exception to this rule is jakes and occasionally brothers, they may remain with each other year-round.
Once the flock is on the ground. They spend most of their day scavenging for food. Wild turkeys are omnivorous, most of their diet consists of acorns, nuts, other mast producing trees like hazel, chestnut, beach. They will also eat various berries, roots, and small insects. As they feed, turkeys are known for kicking the leaves off the ground leaving circles of disturbed earth. These areas of disturbed earth are often referred to as scratches. This is like the sign that a squirrel will leave but can be distinguished by an experienced outdoorsman because turkey tend to throw the leaves all over the place with their powerful legs while squirrels tend to leave a nice pile of leaves where they were digging.
After a long day of scavenging turkey will return to their roost. They will often return to the same general area to roost every night, if not the same exact tree. They will look for trees with branches that are relatively horizontal. They also prefer to walk to the top of a ridge and then fly downhill to their roost.
During the spring, turkey will begin breeding. During this time of the year the flocks will begin to disperse more. Male toms and jakes will separate themselves from the flocks of hens. In the morning toms and jakes will often gobble to try and find the hens. From there they will spend their day trying to find a receptive hen that is looking to breed.
- Finding a Spot
The best way to find a good turkey hunting spot is to simply get on the ground and do some scouting. Focus on areas with acorns or other mast producing trees. You are looking for the turkey scratches, feathers, scat, or turkey. I tend to focus on old logging roads, turkey often use these for ease of travel. As a bonus, there is normally some mud or soft ground that will allow you to find some tracks.
If you come across some turkey scratches and you are looking to determine the sex of the turkey that made them look around for tracks and scat. As discussed earlier male turkey will often have a noticeably bigger middle toe than hens, and toms even more so than jakes. When observing scat, hens will often leave scat behind that looks like normal bird scat, more liquid than solid. Jake and tom scat will often be more solid and cylindrical in nature. An experience outdoorsman can often even tell the difference between a jake and tom by the size of the scat. As a rule of thumb for this jakes will typically leave a short cylindrical scat that forms the shape of a “j”. A tom will often leave a larger scat that may even for a pile rather than just one long piece.
If you are going to be using trail cameras, focus on areas with mast producing trees with the acorns or beach nuts already on the ground. Trying and find an area that already has scratches because the turkey will often frequent the same spot. Put your camera lower than you would for deer, or just angle it down slightly. Make sure to know your state regulations if you are going to do any baiting.
Depending on the time of the year, once you’ve found a spot with some turkey and maybe some tom scat and tracks you can try to find where they are roosting. If its spring, head out to the woods in the morning and just listen, see if you can hear any gobbles. Just realize that when the leaves are still on the trees noise will be dampened, so you will have to be within around 300 yards or so to hear any gobbles. Focus your efforts on fingers and spurs. Look for evergreens that are close to, but not on top of, the ridge or hill. If you still have no luck but you have a decent idea where they are roosting, you can try owl hooting.
Owl hooting takes advantage of the gobbler’s shock gobble reflex. The theory is that a sudden loud noise like thunder, a door slamming, a shot, or in this case an owl hoot will make the turkey gobble. While I really don’t know why exactly this works, what I do know is that is works. At dusk position yourself within 300 yards of where you think the turkey are roosting, preferably uphill, and let out a loud hoot. You can either buy a call or preferably just use your mouth. The ditty when owl hooting is “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.” Now we only have a couple more things to perfect before heading for the woods.
Wild turkeys make dozens of different vocalizations in the wild, however for starting off a few basic calls is all you need. Most, turkeys are called in on only two different calls, the cluck and the hen yelp. But for a bit more diversity we will talk about purrs here as well.
Turkey are social animals for most of the year, traveling in groups. As such they have developed vocals for locating each other should they become separated. The main call that conveys this would be the yelp. This call is anywhere from 2-10 notes long and is simply made by tracing circles on your friction call. This is the call most commonly used by spring gobbler hunters. During mating season, a tom will gobble, and a hen will respond with yelps, they will continue this ritual until they find each other.
The next call we will talk about is a cluck. The cluck is a single note with a few seconds spacing in between. This call is made by both hens and toms, and can be extremely effective at getting a tom out of his strut to open a shot opportunity for you. This call is made by simply striking your friction call in a fast, short, straight motion.
The last call we will cover is the purr. The purr is often heard from hens that are feeding. It’s thought to be a call that just shows the bird is content. To make this call you want to make a reverse “C” pattern on your friction call. This should be at a slower pace than when yelping.
These calls are much easier to describe and learn through video, so check out the link below for additional information on turkey calling techniques.
- Keys to Success
Now that we have our birds located and our calling is on point, it’s time to head to the woods. This last section is my five keys to success that didn’t fit in any of the above sections.
-Remain as still as possible. Turkey have extremely good vision when it comes to picking out movement in the woods. Don’t forget these birds have been prey for their entire existence. They have adapted to survive being hunted and their eyes are one of those adaptations.
-If you haven’t had any luck after the first 3-4 hours after first light, try running and gunning. This is a method of driving your truck or hiking an old logging trail and every few hundred yards, getting out and calling. Sometimes you can find a bird that’s still hot in the late afternoon this way.
-Make sure you pattern your shotgun prior to game day to ensure you have the best load for your gun.
-Always carry a decoy, sometimes a decoy is what brings the bird in the last bit into range.
-And the last piece of advice I have is to always make sure you have a round in the chamber before pulling the trigger! Good luck! Put down some big birds and share your success story.