In the United States, Thanksgiving Day has just passed by, celebrated by the all-too-familiar tradition of delightfully eating platefuls of delicious, home-cooked food. Although it was once advocated that the wild turkey be the national bird for the United States, it is now an indispensable part of most families’ Thanksgiving dinners.
No dinner is complete without the turkey as centerpiece, and it is every hunter’s pride and joy to go out into the fields and harvest his or her own turkey for the table. Since the bird is native to the United States, this article will focus on providing information on bow hunting turkey for hunters in the U.S.A.
Hunting wild turkeys is a difficult task, and when the hunter to hunt turkey with a bow the task is made all the more difficult. Although the threat of danger is tiny compared to stalking a grizzly bear, wild turkeys require cunning, intelligence and patience to harvest a meaty bird to eat.
They fly at the first sign of danger, and they move quickly. Despite their skittish nature, a hunter who thinks and plans ahead won’t have any problem bagging a big turkey, even with a bow.
Step by Step
Here’s a quick rundown of the steps to a good turkey hunt that will be expounded upon below.
- Step #1: Plan ahead and prepare early. The hunter needs to pick his or her bow and become comfortable and accurate using it.
- Tools Required
- License and permits
- Bow and arrows, plus a quiver
- Full body camouflage
- Turkey call (which type is hunter’s preference; more on them below)
- Decoys (optional, but encouraged)
- Hunting blind (optional, but highly encouraged)
- Step #2: Scout the potential hunting areas, looking and listening for signs.
- Step #3: Set up early. Set up near the roost before dawn, along a trail the turkeys are known to use. This includes setting up the blind and decoys the hunter plans on using.
- Step #4: Wait and call. Once hunting hours have begun, the hunter can now plan on waiting for the turkey to come in sight or the hunter can begin attempting to call the turkey out.
- Step #5: Breathe slowly, and aim carefully. Draw your bow, and let the arrow fly.
- Tools Required
The first step in any hunt is going to be preparation, which includes planning ahead. With many hunts, planning ahead focuses on learning the logistics of the hunt: obtaining permits and licenses, and traveling. With turkey hunting in the United States, this is all relatively simple.
See also: Turkey Hunting in The Rain: Make The Most of The Bad Weather
Turkeys aren’t protected as endangered, and they have been hunted for hundreds of years as a part of American culture. There are rules surrounding a turkey hunt, of course, but these rules are relatively simple compared to more exotic hunts.
Obtaining permits and licenses differ for every state, but it is never too complicated. Visiting the state’s Game and Fish website will give any hunter all the information they need on obtaining licensing. This information includes the different hunting zones and season dates as well.
Beyond the simple logistics of it all, turkey hunting requires planning to actually take a turkey. The next step for the hunter after getting all the paperwork in line is scouting. As noted earlier, turkeys are skittish.
In fact, they are famous for this trait. What this means for the hunter is there is a need to get the jump on the bird and use every bit of advantage the hunter can get his or her hands on. This step is made even more important due to the bow hunter’s proximity to the animal: the bow hunter needs to be within twenty-five yards for a decent shot on a turkey.
All this first comes with scouting the areas to be hunted. First, a hunter would do well to look into the areas of the state that are most populated with wild turkey, and understand which hunting zones to apply for when licensing.
In Wyoming, for example, it wouldn’t do a hunter much good to apply for a turkey license for the west side of the state.
Turkeys are far too sparse for all but the luckiest of hunters to find success. Hunters must learn the state they want to hunt in, and find the best spot for their hunt.
After locating the general geographical area of the hunt, the hunter’s next job is to focus on the specific parcels of land they are going to hunt. This could be land belong to the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, or it could be private land.
Private land always requires permission to hunt, but it is often the most fruitful. More research is required to fine-tune the hunter’s specific destination but can make the difference between a successful hunt and a pair of empty hands.
At this point, the hunter has pinpointed exactly where he or she is planning on hunting. Next, the hunter has to scout the area, and the earlier this process starts the better off the hunter is going to be. This is where a strong knowledge of the prey comes into play.
The hunter needs to understand the turkey and know its various proclivities. First and foremost in this quest is the habitat that is most likely to yield a few birds.
Habitat and Shelter
Turkeys, like all animals and birds, need food, water, and shelter. Understanding water sources is easy, but what turkeys like to eat and where they like to shelter themselves are a little more nuanced, particularly their preferred shelter.
Turkeys are omnivores. They eat both meat and vegetation, but the meat comes in the form of bugs as opposed to mammals. Hunters should think mostly grains and grasshoppers. Take a few days prior to the hunt to get a good look at the parcel of land you will be hunting to be certain that the food needs of the turkey are being met.
Then look at their shelter. Turkeys will roost in the trees, so there needs to be some trees around, and those trees need to be big enough to hold the turkey in them. After the roost, all the turkey needs is a shelter from predators. Anything that provides adequate hiding and protection will do fine, and turkeys seem to do best when there is a good mixture of shelter and open air.
Looking for Turkey Signs
After finding the prime turkey hunt, a hunter’s next step is to look for signs. Turkey leave signs of their presence all over the place, from scratches to scat, and hunters with an intimate knowledge of these signs will have the best chance of harvesting a prize turkey.
Learn the footprint of the turkey. Look for two short lines in the dirt with a longer line in between, all generating from the same direction where a hunter will often find a small circular depression. Scouting in the winter before the spring season, hunters can find turkey prints in fresh snow easily. Prints will be easy to locate near the banks of a water source as well but can be difficult in the dry dirt.
Hunters that are completely comfortable finding and identifying turkey prints are going to have an easier time locating their big bird.
Turkey scratches are going to look exactly what the average hunter might think: like a bird has been scratching at the ground. Like prints, scratches are easiest to locate when they are fresh. In areas that are covered by leaves and other fallen foliage, scratches will look like small dirt clearings amongst the vegetation with straight gashes in the dirt from the turkey’s claws.
Fresh scratches will churn up dirt that appears wetter, and are easier to spot. Turkeys scratch towards the back, so hunters can tell which direction the turkeys are moving by looking at where the pile of foliage is in relation to the scratch.
The hunter’s best bet is to find the birds before the hunt begins. Many hunters start scouting their area a month before the season opens so that they may get a good idea of how the turkeys move through a plot of land and where their favorite spots to roost might be. If the hunter can establish where the birds are going to be, the hunter can better situate him- or herself for the perfect shot.
The Bow Hunt
In the week prior to the hunt, the hunter will have hopefully located a group of turkeys and found their favorite roosting areas. From there, the idea is to find a position from which the hunter will have his or her best shot at taking a turkey.
Although it has been said that a hunter has the same chance at taking a turkey at dawn and at noon, most turkeys are harvested within an hour of sunrise. The hunter should get there in the dark, and be prepared to sit and wait.
Different hunters are going to have different levels of comfort with their proximity to the turkey roost in the pre-dawn stillness. Turkeys are famously skittish for a reason: there is no investigation when they sense danger. Their first and only reaction is to fly.
The closer the hunter gets to the roost, the more she or he has the chance to spook away the birds, but bow hunting requires the hunter to be extremely stealthy and close. Hunters will want to get as close as possible without letting the birds know of his or her position.
Which Bow do I Want?
Hunters will most often use compound bows, but some will still opt for the more traditional recurve if they are so minded. Compound bows are rigged with a cable-and-pulley system, designed to lower the strength needed by the hunter to draw the bow while increasing the arrow speed. There are certain traits about the compound bow that are important for hunters to consider.
- Compound bows can be found with a fairly short distance between axles, which is ideal for crawling through the brush without having the bow snag on branches.
- Compound bows allow for more comfort, as many come with trigger mechanisms and they don’t require the same strength to hold the bow at the draw.
- They can generally shoot farther, due to increased arrow speed and sights mounted on the bow.
- They are heavier and more expensive.
For those who are looking for a more traditional route, many might try the recurve bow. Recurves are simpler in design, but the hunter can expect to exert him- or herself while trying to hold the bow at draw for aiming purposes. The recurve is lighter and cheaper, but is also more difficult to aim.
Whichever bow type the hunter chooses, shot placement is important and accuracy is necessary. A bow shot at the head is difficult because the turkey moves its head so quickly and so often. Head shots are difficult with an arrow, but body shots don’t always result in the same instant-kill.
If the hunter wants to go for the body shot, the ideal placement is just above the turkey’s thigh. All the vital organs sit slightly lower and further back in the turkey’s body, and a shot placed here has a high likelihood of damaging these organs.
As for the tips of the arrows, hunting companies make plenty of broadhead options for turkey hunting with a bow. Some are made specifically for head shots, and some are made specifically for expanding once inside the turkey to deal the most damage.
Broadheads that are designed for removing the bird’s head will have three long prongs sticking out from the arrow that spins around quickly as the arrow flies. They often create a much larger shot diameter than the arrow would have without them, and as such are ideal for removing the turkey’s head.
For the hunters who don’t want to risk the pinpoint precision required for the headshot, broadheads that expand once inside the turkey are the way to go. This allows the hunter to take aim at the area above the upper thighs, which is a naturally larger target. See our piece on how to choose the top broadheads for your reference.
Comfort Levels with the Hunter’s Weapon
More important than the broadheads or the compound-versus-recurve debate is the hunter’s comfort with his or her weapon. Archery is not an easy hunting method and even sighted compound bows require practice.
The hunter needs to know how the bow feels in his or her hand, because they are going to be spending a lot of time with the bow in less-than-ideal conditions, and could possible need to shoot the bow from odd angles. The best way to do this is to spend the month before hunting season (while the hunter is scouting and planning) shooting the bow at an archery range. Check out how to choose the best hunting bow for your needs.
Calls, Decoys, and Blinds
Calls, decoys, and blinds are important tools for all turkey hunters to use, but the importance is greater for bowhunters. This is because bowhunters need to be so close to their prey. These tools are going to draw the birds in and keep the hunter hidden, so the turkey will come within range.
Some hunters favor decoys in certain situations above others, and certain calls in this case but not in this one. No matter the particular style of the hunter, it is important for them to at least know how to use them to their advantage. As with all things, this comes best with practice, but here are some ideas to get the hunter started.
These are important due to the turkey’s keen eyesight. These birds see everything, so other than covering themselves in full camouflage (which is an absolute necessity), utilizing a blind is the best thing a hunter can do to stay hidden.
After finding the turkey’s roost, the hunter will want to set up his or her blind on the edge of a nearby clearing or field, to allow for a clean line of shot at the birds.
Decoys require more of the hunter, and a better knowledge of the turkey’s behavior. Decoys generally will operate in a way that shows live turkeys it is safe for them to land here. However, when chasing gobblers (males), the hunter’s best chance is to challenge the turkey’s masculinity.
Setting up a dame and gobbler decoy system shows any nearby gobblers that there is another male in the area challenging his dominion over the females, and will likely draw him into the area. Strutter decoys are also designed to enrage other male turkeys.
Decoys can be useless if deployed areas where the turkeys are unlikely to even see the things. Hunters should make sure their decoy location can be seen easily from a decent distance away. Even then, sometimes a call must be used to get the live turkey’s attention in the direction the hunter needs it to be.
Turkeys call to each other to communicate, and a hunter who has mastered the art of imitating turkey calls can bring them right into range. There are slate calls, box calls, and mouth calls that are all used to imitate particular sounds that turkey are known to make. Box calls offer the widest variety of turkey sounds, but slate calls are easier to learn on and use.
No matter which call the hunter opts for, practice makes perfect. Hunters should spend time watching videos or listening to recordings of live turkey calls in order to mimic the sounds appropriately. The perfect turkey call will bring those gobblers the last few yards to within the perfect range for the aspiring bowhunter.
Turkey hunting is as much a part of the American Tradition as apple pie. Their timid and skittish nature makes them a difficult target, but bowhunters with patience and forethought can succeed more often than not.
Taking part in this tradition is exciting and a joy for hunters of all backgrounds, and sitting around a table with turkey that was harvested with their own skill and fortitude is a satisfying sort of fulfillment. Good luck to all the turkey hunters, and always be safe when on the hunt.
Check out our article on the best hunting turkey guns for more information.