It has been a few weeks since Thanksgiving, and the effects of that turkey overdose are wearing off, so you can finally think about those delicious breasts and legs again. Still, you know very well that the one thing that makes your food taste even better is working for it yourself. And since fall turkey hunting is becoming more and more popular, for next Thanksgiving you can do just that, and put a wild turkey you brought down yourself on the table.
Turkey hunting has been a tradition in North America for thousands of years. It was a favorite game for Native Americans, and the sport was famously adopted by the pilgrims and their descendants. So much so, that by the 1940s the population on the whole North American continent dwindled to as low as 30,000 individuals.
Conversation efforts were put in place, and thanks to their success, wild turkey population nowadays are in the millions. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can go to any forest, randomly throw a rock and you’ll have hit a turkey.
This animal is still pretty elusive, and for a successful hunt, you need the right equipment, methods, and experience. The latter can’t be bought or learned, but the former two can and we have gathered some fall turkey hunting tips for you to get you prepared.
When? Where? And What?
There are two turkey hunting seasons every year, a spring one and a fall one, and while the spring one is more familiar to many hunters, the fall one has gained traction through the different types of challenges it presents and methods it requires for a successful hunt.
This first thing you will have to do is check with your State Department of Conservation, Hunting and Fishing to see when the season is open in your state, as each state has its own period, and some states do not have a turkey hunting season at all, looking at you Alaska.
Here you will also find tips regarding the best places for a good hunt in your area, and other sorts of advice.
In order to find a good number of turkeys, you will have to find a turkey friendly habitat, that is a habitat which offers food, shelter, water and diversity. Turkeys roost in trees, so you need a place that has trees which are large enough to hold a group of them. However, ideally, you won’t go to a thick forest, as places which are composed of 10% to 50% open areas are the ones these birds prefer.
It is also important to know what you can hunt. The image most people have in their mind when thinking about a turkey, the one with a fanned out tail, big head with no feathers and red color, also red throat, and wattles on the neck and throat and a rich brown-copper color, is the male, also called a gobbler or tom.
This is the best game, as it is quite larger than the female and has the least restrictions when it comes to hunting. Now, unlike in the spring season, in the fall season you can also hunt females (but do check your state regulations to be sure).
Females are smaller and much less colorful, with feathers and the head in shades of gray and brown. Males also have a tuft of long, soft, black feathers, called a beard, hanging out from the center of the chest. Very few females also have such a beard, but it is shorter and thinner.
What to wear
Not only are turkeys very paranoid birds, because they know how delicious they are, they also have great eye-sight. And if they get even a bit spooked, they will make an instant run for it, not like other game, such as deer, who might stomp their hooves a couple of times to see if there really is a danger.
What this means for you, is that you need camouflage gear. And that includes boots, hat, and mask. You must blend in completely. This, of course, means that you need to know what the predominant colors are in your chosen area of hunting, as these will vary depending on the local terrain.
What you might also consider investing in is a turkey hunting vest. This is very useful as it will provide you pockets and pouches for ammo and other small objects you will use during this hunt. Some models also have some sort of cushion, which you can comfortably sit on during those long waiting periods, but will not hamper you when you need to move about.
At the end, you can shoot a turkey with a Smith and Wesson Model 29, if that it is what makes you happy, but most people who do this sort of thing go for a pump-action shotgun, such as the Remington 870 or the Mossberg 835.
Some of these have turkey-specific models with 12-gauge 3-inch or 3 ½-inch chambers, just watch out for a powerful kickback. A semi-automatic shotgun is also a great choice if you have the money. These provide instant follow-up shots and a well-reduced kick-back.
What is important is that your gun has a non-reflexive finish, because of the aforementioned good eyesight. That blued steel might look pretty, but the birds will see it. If you have a camouflaged weapon that is even better.
As an instant kill is a goal, you will want to aim for the head with a shotgun + load combo which will deliver a tight pattern from a turkey shooting distance (up to 40 yards). Twelve-gauge 3 and 3 ½-inch magnum shells with lead shot in sizes 4, 5 and 6 are an ideal choice. Of course, before the actual hunt, you might want to take your weapon and loads to the range to see how they fare.
For people who prefer hunting with bows, there are not as many specialized tools as there for shotguns, still, there are plenty enthusiasts of this sport. While you can shoot turkeys perfectly well with the same bow you use for the big game, there are some shorter models with lighter draw weight, which will suit turkey hunting more.
As with the shotgun, you want to go for the head or neck to instantly kill or at least completely incapacitate the animal, so you will want to invest in some specialized turkey broadheads, such as the Gobble Guillotine, which is pretty self-explanatory.
Turkeys are very social animals, with complex and varying social interactions, which are often conducted through sound. There are around 30 different calls these birds make, and all have different meanings to them, but only around 10 are used by hunters to lure them. And, make no mistake, luring with sound, or even just getting them to respond to your sounds so you can locate them, is an essential part of turkey hunting.
There is hardly a point to go through all the yelps, gobbles, kee-kee-runs and clucks in writing, as you need to hear these sounds to identify them, but luckily there are plenty of youtube videos breaking them down.
The method by which you will make all these sounds is a little magical, wooden box called a Box Caller, which, in experienced hands, can make all of the sounds needed. This is one instrument that must not be missing from your pocket, just make sure not to get it wet. Watch some clips on how to use it, and then get one from a hunting supply store after trying out a few. With a bit of practice, you will soon speak turkey with this tool.
Decoys and Ground Blinds
Being such social animals, turkeys will not resist checking out new birds on their territory. This is why turkey decoys have become increasingly popular. These are pretty light and easy to carry and are very life like. Depending on the season, and on the sex of the decoy, other turkeys will come down to your decoy to fight it, mate with it, or just say gobble-gobble.
Ground blinds are tent-like constructions which you can set up in a few minutes. They have a camouflaged exterior and will hide you completely. If you are playing the waiting game after setting up some decoys, the blind will drastically reduce the chance of the birds getting spooked by you once they are in close vicinity.
Turkey hunting begins a couple of weeks before the actual season is opened. This period you will dedicate to scouting the grounds. This should be a relaxing and enjoyable experience, where you get to spend some time in nature and look for your prey.
After you selected the area you will hunt in, go there a few times, either very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon. Keep your ears and eyes peeled. Visually you will be looking for footprints, scratchings, dropping (the fresher the better) and molted feathers.
Listen for the above-mentioned turkey calls to home in on their preferred areas. Also keep an ear out for wing flapping sounds. Turkeys don’t fly far, but being heavy birds, they have big wings that make a deep whooshing sound when flying.
This should be especially audible when they get off or on the roosting tree, as they will do this as a group. Trees with large branches are the ones the birds will prefer for roosting, so look for oaks or similar. If a tree has a lot of droppings and feathers beneath it, you hit the jackpot.
Once you have located a flock, try and follow their movements, figure out their routines. Try to find a meadow or other open space to which they go to look for food. If there is a cow pasture nearby, make sure to check it out, as turkeys love those cow pies.
Same goes for places that have food plots for deer. Once you find such a place, see if you can locate a spot where you can hide and wait. Ideally, it would be a spot on the high ground, where open space meets forest and from where turkeys will be within shooting range as soon as they are in the open.
Good scouting ensures a good hunt from the start of the season.
The waiting game
Once the season starts you can build up your ground blind on your chosen spot, or even just sit down in the grass if you are well camouflaged and wait for the gobblers to come to you. Once they are within shooting range, all you need to do is show off what you learned in target practice.
Of course, just sitting around and waiting can get quite dull, and you might feel like you are leaving a lot to chance. To improve your odds, you can now use the decoys and the box caller. In order to do this correctly, you need to know what sort of turkey flock is nearby, as females with young will band together, and adult or juvenile males will form their separate groups.
If you have not made visual contact with the group, you can judge what sort of group it is by their calls, which is why you need to learn them. Unlike spring, when you would use female calls and decoys to attract males, now you need male calls and decoys for male groups and female ones for female groups.
If, however, it is late in the season, and turkeys have seen decoys put into action a few times, you should avoid using them, as the birds will probably far more suspicious than they will be curious. Calls will still work, though.
If you are hunting with a bow, then the waiting game is pretty much the only tactic you can use, as these birds are pretty quick, and the time needed to draw, aim and release will not allow for any fast paced action.
Scatter and gather
Another popular method is the scatter and gather, and this is also more fun if you like a little bit of an adrenalin kick. If you find yourself in the vicinity of a flock, but unable to get close enough without being seen, this is the method you want to try.
Basically, you need to run towards the group as fast as you can and scatter them. Now, why would you want to do that? Because the gobblers will run/fly away, calm down and then want to immediately regroup.
They will be drawn back to the place they got scattered from. And since you started calling them back with your box caller as soon as you scattered them, they will be even more drawn to you. And as soon as they start showing themselves, it is up to you and your trusted weapon.
The secret though is to really startle and scatter them. They need to flee into all possible directions, because if they all run in the same direction as a group they won’t need to regroup, and then all you ended up with is a flock of very alarmed turkeys.
A hunting dog might do a better job than you at scattering them, but you need to check of using a hunting dog is legal in your state and area.
Turkey hunting is a sport that requires preparation, patience, and experience. And the only way you will gather the latter is if you get out there and actually get down to it. So get your tools and decoys, practice your gobbles and kee-kees and scout your playing field, so when the time comes you can get out there and show those bird how humans earned their spot on the top of the food chain.
There is only one more thing you need, but you can get the best turkey recipe from your mom once you are back, and since you brought this bird down yourself, it is going to be delicious anyway.