Turkeys make a delicious addition to your dinner table, even when it’s not a holiday. These big, beautiful birds provide enough savory meat to feed multiple guests and provide lunch meat leftovers.
Turkeys run wild all over the Eastern U.S. and in some parts of the West, and local authorities usually allow them to be hunted in the fall. Although turkeys are not as sensitive to smell as deer, they are still easily spooked. They are also smarter and faster than their gobbling and awkward gait would suggest.
Hunting them successfully requires just as much preparation as hunting other animals. Turkey calls in particular take some careful studying and practice, especially later in the season when turkeys may be more cautious. Here are nine steps to take for successful fall turkey hunting.
1. Scout Terrain Thoroughly
Some turkey hunters don’t bother scouting much if there are ample turkeys nearby. However, scouting ahead of time helps increase your chances of harvesting a turkey as you can observe turkeys’ natural patterns of behavior and where they roost. Look for trees with low branches that turkeys can easily fly up into, and stake them out before nightfall to see if turkeys approach.
Also, look for sources of food, especially acorns. Although turkeys eat other seeds as well as berries and insects, acorns are an abundant, high-protein food source they target in the fall. When you stumble upon an oak tree with acorns nearby, mark its location and prioritize it during your hunt.
Make sure to be just as quiet and stealthy while scouting as you would while hunting. You want to observe the turkeys’ activities. Scaring them off prematurely could deter the turkeys from reentering the area, giving you inaccurate data about where turkeys traverse and feed.
2. Wear the Right Camouflage
Turkey hunting gear needs to match the surrounding underbrush and cover as much of your body as possible. This means that instead of using standard whitetail deer hunting gear that helps you blend in with trees, you’ll need specialized clothing that has darker shades of green and brown.
You may also want a camo gaiter, mask or paint to cover your face since turkeys have good eyesight and may be spooked by visible skin. In addition to hiding your hair color, a camo hat also keeps ticks and other bugs out of your hair.
Some hunters use ground blinds to conceal themselves further. However, these may limit your mobility and make it harder to stalk your prey. Many prefer to bring a comfortable, portable pad for sitting on logs or boulders.Shop All Nomad Turkey Hunting Clothes and Gear
3. Get a Decoy
Turkey decoys are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, including flat 2D cutouts, lightweight foam and highly detailed plastic. Depending on your hunting tactics, a flat decoy may be suitable. However, these won’t work well if a whole flock is approaching you from multiple angles.
Hyper-realistic plastic models are great for aggressive hunters who like to face birds directly. You can hide behind the decoy while making calls to make the turkey come toward you more quickly. Some hunters even use multiple decoys, although this can make it more challenging to get a clean shot at an approaching turkey if done incorrectly.
Choose your models carefully, as a model of a tom may scare off more subordinate jakes or a tom that has recently been in a bad fight. You may need to get a model of a jake or hen to draw in weaker male turkeys, especially later in the season. For multi-decoy spreads, stick to hens to appeal to toms and jakes during the breeding season.
You may also experience trouble due to the tom noticing your silhouette behind the decoy. Depending on the time of day and lighting, you may be highly visible–even if you’re hiding in the brush. Consider placing the decoy a short distance to the right or left from your location to keep yourself out of the tom’s direct line of sight.How to Set Up Turkey Decoys
4. Practice Calls
Cackles, purrs, clucks and yelps all mean different things to turkeys, and learning how and when to use each one requires field experience. Ahead of the start of the season, get used to making at least the basic clucks and yelps, and practice turning up the volume to attract more birds.
Box calls and pot calls are easy tools for making accurate turkey yelps. They require a little more practice to make purrs and clucks with, and need two hands to use. They’re best put to use on hunts with two or more hunters around to help.
Diaphragm calls use a thin piece of latex over a reed to create a turkey yelping noise. They can be carried and sounded just using your mouth, so they’re suitable for solo hunting and hands-free use. However, you usually have to change the diaphragm to create different types of sounds.
Electronic calls and apps are an excellent push-button option that only require one hand to operate. However, it is harder to customize their sound, and they are often expensive.
No matter which device you use, only use gobbles as a last resort when a mature turkey is losing interest and wandering away. Because only male turkeys gobble, a gobble could actually scare off a turkey who is otherwise curious about your hen calls.
5. Go with a Partner
Turkeys respond well to calls, but once they spot you, they may disengage quickly. Having to use a call box or other device means you’ll need extra time to pick up your gun and line up a shot. An experienced hunting partner can help you by calling the turkey toward them, giving you two free hands and a good view of the turkey from the side as it wanders toward your partner.
Naturally, this requires careful planning and coordination to keep your partner out of harm’s way. Make sure you and your partner are both aware of each other’s location at all times. If a small trail or narrow clearing runs directly in front of you, your partner can hide in the bushes far to your left and call turkeys toward them.
Your partner will be even more helpful if they have experience in turkey hunting. If you have any local hunting mentors, it’s worthwhile to reach out to them and see if they want to join you for the hunt. They may have invaluable tips relevant to the local terrain and turkey habits.
If hunting with a young novice partner, make sure they fully understand the tactics involved in attracting and hunting turkeys. You will need to be extra sure that they understand the safety considerations involved in hunting turkeys, especially if you won’t be beside them every moment of the hunt. It’s much better to go alone than with an inexperienced partner who isn’t ready for the responsibility.Turkey Hunting Safety Tips
6. Arrive Early
Turkeys may be active any time of day until nightfall, but they are at their slowest first thing in the morning. It’s best to set up your spot near their roost well ahead of first light to prevent them from spotting you too soon.
Most hunters try to get to their spot an hour before sunrise and begin hunting as soon as it’s legal. Legal hunting hours usually start at dawn, but double-check your area’s regulations to make sure it’s not earlier or later.
Arriving early also gives you a chance to shoot at turkeys as they come down from their roosts. If you’ve scouted your terrain well ahead of time, you should be able to find them before they come down from the tree. Aggressively calling to turkeys who are roosting will usually draw them out, giving you a clear shot while they’re on the ground.
If you don’t harvest a turkey early in the morning, don’t give up. They will often return to their roosts an hour before sundown, which should give you a chance to take another shot.
7. Pay Attention to Size and Color
Most states require you to shoot only bearded turkeys, and you can spot a beard from a distance with the right binoculars or even with the naked eye. However, mature turkeys, young jakes and even some hens may all have beards of varying sizes. If you want to shoot the most mature turkeys possible, you’ll need to pay close attention to their size and head color.
Although there are slight variations among turkey species, as a general rule, toms will have white on top of their heads and bright red and blue on other areas. Jakes will only have dull, pale red and blue all over their heads.
Both toms and jakes have tail feathers that are brighter than those of hen feathers. However, toms have tail feathers that are all the same size and length, creating a near-flawless fan when spread. Jakes have center tail feathers that are longer than the ones on either side.
8. Be Patient
Remember that the range on a shotgun or bow is limited, and you have a low chance of making an effective shot over 50 yards away. Most hunters try to wait until the turkey is within 45 yards, or even closer if there is heavy brush.
If a turkey is approaching you, don’t let off another loud call right away. Let out a cluck or purr if the turkey starts wandering away from you; otherwise, let it slowly make its way toward you or your partner making the calls. Louder calls like yelps and gobbles may backfire.
Stalking turkeys is unwise, especially since you could end up heading straight toward another hunter. If you have a clear view in front of and beside you, such as in a field or very light brush, it may be safe to stalk a wayward turkey for a short distance. However, turkeys are perceptive and spook easily, and they will run off as soon as they sense something behind them.
9. Line Up Your Shot
Because turkeys’ heads and necks are so fragile, they can easily be killed with a shotgun. To avoid ruining the turkey meat with pellets, aim when you have a clear shot at the side of the turkey’s head.
This may be easiest when the turkey is heading sideways instead of directly toward you, so it’s helpful to have a partner to do calls. It’s also usually easier and more stable when shooting from a crouched position instead of standing.
Bowhunters should aim for the middle of the chest or back if the turkey is facing toward or away from them. When shooting the turkey broadside, aim for the joint where the wing connects to the body, as this should allow you to pierce both lungs successfully.
Keep in mind that a shot that only wounds the turkey may cause it to run off, becoming easy prey for coyotes or other predators. That can also cause safety issues for you, so don’t pursue a wounded turkey unless you’re sure it won’t make it far before collapsing.
If you’re inexperienced at judging distances, try measuring the distance from your waiting spot to nearby landmarks like trees and builders ahead of time. Although counting your paces works in a pinch, an electronic rangefinder provides more accurate results. Watch turkeys closely as they enter your range and then compare their location with known landmarks to approximate distance.
The Thrill of a Successful Hunt
Whether you’re hunting for Thanksgiving dinner or just for a great weekend meal, turkey hunting is an experience unlike any other. The satisfaction of successfully calling in a huge gobbler makes a great story to share with family and friends.
Your hours in the field won’t be fruitful unless you learn best practices and tactics ahead of time. Scouting and practicing calls are crucial to get results, especially because of the fickle and nervous nature of turkeys. As long as you pay attention to locals’ advice and are patient during the hunt, you’re likely to harvest a turkey well before the end of the season.
Gregory Crosby Jr./Shutterstock.com