Tackle Your First Time Turkey Hunting
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you probably know that I grew up hunting white-tailed deer and small game in northern Minnesota. I’m really grateful and proud of the strong traditions we developed in my family. But I decided to shake things up a bit last October…
I’ve always been fascinated with turkey hunting, particularly in the fall. The idea of putting a fresh Thanksgiving turkey on the table for my family and friends is one of the coolest things I can think of. No more serving a store-bought domestic bird from who knows where, but a wild turkey that I hunted myself. My guess is that it probably sounds great to you too.
But there was kind of an issue with that…
There weren’t any turkeys where we lived.
It was too far north or there were too many predators or the habitat wasn’t right. Or maybe a combination of all three.
At least that was the case until a couple years ago. Those few years brought the wild turkey range further and further north into our area. Now they’re everywhere and it’s possible to hunt them.
Determined to go out for my first time turkey hunting, I started researching the turkey hunting basics. I consumed dozens of online articles, talked to several friends who turkey hunt, watched turkey hunting videos, and attended turkey hunting seminars. I tend to get pretty obsessive over these things…
To help you on your first time turkey hunting, this post discusses what I learned. It also has my personal observations from my first season of fall turkey hunting. The hope is that you can learn from my mistakes and apply the lessons-learned. Hopefully you’ll end up with your own wild turkey in the freezer or on the dinner plate.
Studying the Wild Turkey
When I started my research, I relied heavily on the National Wild Turkey Federation website. It’s loaded with great information about wild turkey biology, habits, and habitats, as well as turkey hunting 101. I’d recommend you read their material as they cover it in great detail. They also have some great resources on the various turkey vocalizations, so you can practice with your own turkey call (that’s how I learned).
As a general overview, though, here’s what you should know.
Male birds (called “toms” or “gobblers”) start to court females (“hens”) in the spring. That’s why the spring turkey hunting season coincides with it. Toms are very vocal with hens during the spring, often gobbling in response to any hen cluck or yelp.
You can generally tell a tom from a hen using four different characteristics: a tom has a bright red and blue head, a beard (feathery clump at the bottom of their breast), spurs on their legs (looks like thorns growing off the back side of their legs), and they spread their tail feathers (called “fans”) and fluff up their feathers to appear twice as big as they actually are (called “strutting”). Hens have grayish blue heads, rarely have a beard or spurs, and are smaller.
I compiled these differences into an infographic below, which you can print out and bring with you to the field. If you find it helpful, please consider sharing it with others who are first time turkey hunters!
(Click infographic to enlarge)
TIP: Study pictures of turkeys before your first time turkey hunting to make sure you know the difference between toms and hens.
Turkeys require roosting trees to sleep in at night, a food source to feed in during the day, and good habitat/cover in between. Roost trees are typically mature trees with large open branches that they can easily land in (such as pines, oaks, or maples). Basically, the roosts keep them safe from ground predators at night. Food sources are variable, from herbs, grasses, and insects in spring forest openings to hard nuts/soft fruits in the fall. Cover should be thick enough for them to hide but open enough to move through it. Though turkeys have capable wings, they will typically only fly if they are roosting or flushed by a predator.
In the spring, toms fight one another for breeding rights to the hens in a given area. Young males (jakes) will sometimes gang up to fend off more mature toms. They will usually answer hen calls readily by gobbling back and strutting. In the autumn, toms lose these rivalries and stick together in bachelor groups. They usually respond to other male turkey calls more than female calls during this time. Meanwhile, hens and poults (young turkeys) stay in groups in the fall and respond to other hen or poult calls.
First Time Turkey Hunting Techniques
After you’ve learned more about where to find turkeys and their specific habits, it’s time to focus on turkey hunting. Spring is the most popular time to hunt turkeys; the birds are very active/vocal and the toms are dressed in mating colors. You can typically only shoot a tom in the spring seasons. But in Minnesota, for example, there is also a fall season where you can hunt either a male or female of any age. This drastically improves your chances at getting a bird for the Thanksgiving table if that’s your primary concern. But since spring is coming up fast, here are a few spring turkey hunting tips. Oh, and the conclusion to my fall hunt…
Basic Turkey Hunting Equipment
Since I hadn’t ever been wild turkey hunting, I needed to gather some necessary equipment before I started. Luckily there’s not all that much turkey hunting gear for beginners compared to some other types of hunting.
You’ll obviously need a shotgun, which is the most expensive equipment item on the list. If you want to read about the process of buying your first shotgun, you should check out this post. I’d recommend a 12 gauge among all other turkey hunting guns, although a 20 gauge would work if you’re close enough. I used a modified choke tube on my first hunt, which I had tested at various distances to make sure the pellet count was high enough. The guidance is different on this subject, but the best vital area of a turkey for shotguns is the head and neck. I drew a life-size turkey head on a piece of cardboard and included a rough six-inch circle in one-inch increments. I wanted to make sure I had at least 10 BBs in the head and neck, as well as a good shot pattern within the six-inch circle as well. As you can see below, this would be a very quick and ethical death for any turkey.
As far as the best ammunition, I used Remington® Nitro Turkey™ shells. They are 3” shells loaded with number 4 shot. They did a great job in the field, and I was very happy with the results.
You’ll also need some good turkey hunting camouflage clothing. Turkeys have amazing vision and can spot even the smallest details that stand out. Plan on having everything but your eyes camouflaged, which means you’ll need a camo jacket, pants, boots, gloves, hat, and face mask (or use face paint). Depending on where you hunt, this pattern should change to match the environment. But for most spring hunts, you’ll need a drab brown background color with bright pops of green on it to resemble the almost neon-looking new leaves on the otherwise bland background. For fall hunts, any camouflage clothing that blends in with where you’re at is good.
Aim for something like this…
You might also want a place of concealment to hunt them from too. You can hunt turkeys by simply sitting still in camouflage clothing against a wide tree trunk, but it’s hard to get in position for a shot since they have such sharp vision. If you’re feeling up to the challenge for your first time turkey hunting, skip this item.
I tried using both a ground mirror blind (GhostBlind®) and a wooden tree stand meant for deer hunting. The mirror blind worked great; I couldn’t see it from several yards away (picture below). But the turkeys weren’t around the day I used it. They were on the day I sat in the tree stand, however. You could also get a fully enclosed blind to hide within, which works great to hide your movements.
TIP: If you hunt without a blind or in a partial mirror blind, try to sit against a tree for support. Your back will thank you later.
Turkey Decoys and Calls
Those are the basic equipment items you’ll need for your first time turkey hunting. But honestly, being able to use a turkey call and having a turkey decoy in-place will really improve your chances at bringing a turkey into shooting range. I bought a basic Primos® jake decoy (in the picture above) and one Knight & Hale® turkey diaphragm call for my first fall hunt.
Learning to use the mouth call was a little tricky and definitely took some practice over the summer to get the hang of it. Using a box call would be much easier for a new hunter (or if you’re just learning to use one this spring), but I liked the idea of having both hands free with the mouth call.
The video below is excellent for teaching the basics of a mouth call, but don’t be intimidated by learning all five at once (I still can’t get a natural purr sound)! I only learned how to cluck and yelp for my first hunt. And as you’ll see below, it called a gobbler in like he was on a string!
Where to Hunt Turkeys
Once I had all the gear, I needed to figure out where to hunt turkeys. According to all the online research and turkey seminars I sat through, the best places to find turkeys will be similar in spring or fall. Generally, small woodland openings, field edges, and mature woods are great spots because they will have mature roost trees and feeding areas nearby.
If you’re wondering exactly how to find turkeys when it’s your first time turkey hunting, you’ll need to take a day to walk around and do some scouting before you hunt. Look for mature trees with turkey sign around the base (e.g., feathers, scat, etc.). Also keep an eye out for clover patches, which will attract turkeys too. Agricultural fields (corn or soybean fields, especially) are amazing turkey magnets because they can feed and easily travel across the open ground.
TIP: You can “roost” turkeys the night before your hunt by calling loudly with a crow or owl call right before sunset. The toms will usually “shock gobble” back to you, thus revealing where they’ll be in the morning.
I started my search by looking at online maps of public hunting land near me, and called the local wildlife agency office to see if they had any more tips for the habitats I was looking for. Don’t just ask them for the best place to hunt turkeys. However, my in-laws have a hunting property they graciously allowed me to use for my first turkey hunt, as they had been seeing a large flock of turkeys hanging around in their clover food plot throughout the year.
I placed a trail camera on a tree near this clover field in September to try to understand their daily patterns. I got lots of great pictures, and eventually found out that they were typically entering the field in the mid-morning hours and lounging around the rest of the day. Using the trail camera was extremely helpful because it let me see how many toms were using the field and at what times they were accessing it. But I absolutely wouldn’t call it necessary for your first time turkey hunting.
Calling Turkeys and the Moment of Truth
I used a turkey decoy and called to them both times I hunted last fall. On my early morning hunts, I set the jake decoy up so that it was slightly quartering away from me in the clover field. I sat quietly to let the woods settle down for the first half hour or so. After that, I let out a few slow and raspy sounding tom yelps (check out the video above again for those vocalizations) every 20 minutes. That worked for fall turkey hunting, but spring gobblers would respond better to hen clucks and yelps.
After yelping, I would listen intently for any kind of response. Around 10 AM, I heard a few yelps and clucks in response to my call and slowly (almost imperceptibly) turned my head to investigate.
TIP: Having a hood on helped me to turn my head without any visible movement to the side.
I saw a tom turkey running across the field, looking like a miniature raptor. It ran across to the forest opposite me, and I called a few times. He yelped back. I yelped again and he finally poked his head out of the woods and walked back out into the clover field, trying to find the elusive turkey calling to him. Once he rounded a tree, he saw the decoy I had placed about 20 yards in front of me. He then sprinted over to check out the newcomer. When he passed behind a spruce tree, I slowly positioned my shotgun (so he could not see my movement) and aimed for the head/neck (i.e., the most ethical turkey shot placement with a shotgun). One quick shot later, I was kneeling next to my first ever turkey (and a great tom for the table, no less).
Going head-to-head with a wild turkey and calling him into range across a field was intense and exciting. Plus, I ended up with a fresh turkey for the Thanksgiving table. After that amazing first time turkey hunting, I can say with about 99.99% confidence that I am hooked.
If you haven’t tried hunting turkeys in the spring, you should definitely give it a try. I hope these tips for first time turkey hunters will help you with that.
Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions about the process, experience, or specific gear suggestions for your first time turkey hunting. Until next time!