How To Hunt Wild Turkey
September 23, 2010
Bill did his fair share of turkey hunting, and it was a sport he never grew tired of. Here are his bits of wisdom on how to outsmart this grand bird.
Bill once told our late handgun editor, Skeeter Skelton, that his favorite hunting was for wild turkey, and he definitely knew some tricks of the trade, so to speak. This article first appeared in the September 1985 issue of Shooting Times.
I find it hard to recall a spring that has not found me clad in raunchy camouflage clothing, enjoying the breaking day in some wooded area known to be the home of the eastern wild turkey. It's a place usually predetermined to be fruitful through reconnaissance made the afternoon before. My pleasure is usually shared by hordes of flying, crawling, creeping, biting, and stinging insects, with mosquitoes, ticks, and chiggers among the most persistent. At this time of year, my stumbling advance through dark woods alerts all these insects to form an escort to the chosen spot. Although they do not await arrival to start sampling the repast I will furnish during the day, the real attack comes only after I have settled into ambush and must remain still--and thus helpless--if I'm hopeful of succeeding.
This is typical of a spring ritual followed annually by thousands of otherwise intelligent citizens. It is but an outward manifestation of a form of insanity known as spring turkey hunting.
While turkey, like chicken, is one of the more economical meats available at your neighborhood supermarket, the cost of wild turkey--in the event you are lucky enough to convert one to table fare--can be astronomical, particularly when the price of one successful hunt is multiplied by all those forays over several years from which the hunter brought back only a succession of lame alibis.
What kind of pastime is this that makes so many hunters go fumbling about in the dark, hooting like an owl and making other strange noises hopefully resembling turkey talk? Let's take a look.
With the hunter's intelligence--or lack thereof--firmly established, what about that attribute of this big bird? Don't ask a turkey hunter! He will probably tell you his quarry is the canniest wild creature in existence. No way. With the brain the size of a pea, turkeys have intelligence to match. Consider the turkey hen that goes striding into deep water. Her chicks have no better sense than to follow her and drown.
What turkeys have going for them are unmatched eyesight and hearing and a memory that immediately recognizes a discrepancy--like the addition of any strange object, animate or inanimate--in the area they customarily range. On top of that, they have no curiosity. By way of comparison, if a deer sees something unfamiliar, he will usually stand gawking at it and wondering what it is. In the same situation, a turkey will immediately put large chunks of real estate between himself and the unfamiliar something.
So much for the things a gobbler has going for him. His achilles' heel is a universal affliction of all males in the spring. Sex rears its lovely head! Bountifully endowed by nature with both the readiness and ability to take care of a whole harem of lissome young chicks, his libido so overflows as to make him a pushover for anything that sounds like an invitation to further dalliance. Like a turkey call, for example.
Listening to the perfect notes of the top contestants in a turkey-calling contest can be discouraging to a beginning caller. Lest he lose heart, a quote from an old Louisiana duck hunting guide at the national duck calling contest is worth remembering: "Those fellers," he said, "are calling judges. I just call ducks."
Bill says complete camouflage from head to toe, and especially face and hands, is most important for hunting the wild gobbler.
After many years of turkey hunting, I've concluded that just about anybody can call better than a real turkey. The way it sounds--if even remotely close--doesn't seem to make a whole lot of difference, but the rhythm does! If you can get this right, you can call well enough to fool a lovesick gobbler.
Bearing out this judgment is the fantastic array of objects used to emulate the sounds of an amorous hen: cedar boxes, snuff cans, wing bones, pieces of slate or metal stroked by a sliver of fat pine stuck in a corn cob, tree leaves, blades of grass, and diaphragm calls. Anything that can be coaxed into making a sound remotely resembling a turkey's yelp can be successful. A farmer friend once told me that he had used a wrench to break loose a stubborn bolt on a piece of farm machinery. In answer to the screech of the nut being loosened, a big gobbler came charging from the nearby woods to strut right out in the open field.
I am reminded of advice I received as a young border patrolman struggling to learn Spanish. My instructor told me, "Even if you can't speak it correctly, speak it fearlessly." This advice stood me in good stead, and it also applies to turkey calling. Speak it fearlessly!
Besides proper rhythm, knowing when to call is important. Perhaps even more important is when to shut up.
The level of difficulty encountered in the seduction of a male turkey can be closely related to human courtship. Young males come running at the slightest encouragement. Old gobblers, like old men, are not so easily enticed and require more coaxing. They are more likely to pretend disinterest in a hen's blandishments than they are to come to it. Both species have learned that nothing piques a female--turkey or human--like an appearance of being ignored.
There is another weakness that can be exploited in the fall season, when the sex obsession is still six months away: the flock instinct. Gregarious by nature, turkeys have a strong desire to get back together after they are scattered. We will get back to that, but let's first look at the generalities that apply to spring hunting.
I have always thought turkeys, like most birds, can see color. Complete camouflage, from head to toe--particularly face and hands--is most important. The shine of a face is sharply visible. It surely flares like a burning beacon to a sharp-eyed gobbler. A camouflaged net, paint, or mask must be worn. Camouflaged gloves are even more important. The most instantly visible thing in nature is movement, and the body part moved most is a hand.
While blended into background by complete camouflage and further masked by complete immobility, I have had turkeys come within
a few feet and look directly at me. On the other hand, any movement under those circumstances, even the blink of an eye, will usually be instantly noted and even more instantly acted upon.
There is no way anyone can sit for hours without moving. For this reason, great care should be taken in selecting and preparing your position. The place you select should be made as comfortable as possible by clearing it of all debris. I have learned to pamper my rump by resting it on a portable cushion.
Many turkey hunters apparently opt to hide behind cover like a tree, log, or stump. That's a mistake in my experience. In such a position, excessive movement is usually unavoidable in getting into position for a shot. The way a turkey can disappear has to be seen to be believed. I prefer to depend on good camouflage, immobility, and a large tree to lean against, both for the comfort provided and to break my outline.
All experienced turkey hunters agree that you must pattern your shotgun for the load with the best density pattern, and you must also know where to hold for placement of the exact center of that pattern.
A good field of view to your front should be considered in choosing your position. If possible, the spot selected should have obstacles to the sides and especially behind you.
A most helpful piece of equipment that I never hunt without is camouflage netting, which can be strung on sticks a few feet in front of and around your position. Sticking a few green twigs in front of this barrier will help to further disguise your position by breaking your silhouette. It is even more valuable in masking small movements.
When motion is unavoidable, make it painfully slow. Behind such a makeshift blind, I have successfully shifted my gun from its normal position across my lap in order to take a left-handed shot at a turkey that had approached unnoticed and was standing no more than 20 feet away and looking directly toward me.
When you see the gobbler you are working, he will usually be walking slowly, with frequent stops to strut or to look for danger. He will also be looking for the hen he thought he heard. At this time you should only move when the gobbler's head is behind some obstacle or turned away from you and hidden by his body, particularly while he is strutting. If the head comes back in view, freeze!
In many states, turkey hunting is open for both spring and fall hunting. Different seasons offer different challenges and require different methods for success. The spring gobbler is looking for romance and, usually alone, will respond eagerly to the seductive yelps, clucks, whines, and cackles of a hen. In the fall turkeys are usually in flocks. Then the technique offering the greatest chance of success is to locate a flock and scatter it by running at the birds or doing something that will flush the flock and scatter them as widely as possible. Your strategy is to break up the flock. If they are not truly scattered in all directions, if they only flush or run off together, you have failed and might as well attempt to find another bunch.
If successful in fully scattering the flock, you're in business. Select an ambush near the area where they were flushed, wait about 20 minutes, and start to call. If you're lucky enough to be near the center of the spot they are working back to as evidenced by their calls, it is wise to let them do the talking. The flock instinct is strong. With patience, you stand a good chance to bag a bird.
Fall hunting is most difficult, and captivated as I am with the wild turkey, I leave this season to others while I hunt other fall game. It is only in the spring that the true witchery of hunting this great bird comes to life for me. Then it becomes a thrilling contest between the hunter and the hunted. The main thing favoring the hunter is the knowledge that nothing is going to eat him if he fails.
When it comes to choosing guns and loads, there is a definite trend to short barrels, with 21 inches gaining in popularity since Remington introduced the Model 870 pump and Model 1100 autoloader in that length. Full chokes are the top choice currently, and the big 10-gauge magnums are much in evidence. Side-by-sides and semiautomatics are most favored in 10 gauge, and pumps and over-unders in 3-inch 12 gauge are next in popularity. In standard 12s, short magnum loads seem universal.
Generally, 10 gauge shooters favor No. 4 shot, with No. 2s as second-barrel loads in the doubles backing up a No. 4. Fours are also liked in the 12-gauge magnums, while the short magnum shooters opt for a No. 6 shell for the first shot and follow up with No. 4s.
With half a century of turkey hunting experience under his belt, Bill knew the tricks of the trade.
With the differences of choice in guns and calls, there are still two things on which all experienced turkey hunters agree. Your shotgun must be patterned carefully, choosing the magnum load that gives the best density pattern. But even more important, you need to learn where to hold for placement of the exact center of that pattern. Very few shotguns shoot to the exact point of aim unless equipped with some sort of adjustable sight. The second point is, never shoot at a turkey's body. If you make a hit there, he will more than likely be wounded or there will be considerable meat damage, depending on range. A head or neck hit will almost surely anchor him.
If you want to experience real turkey hunting--not just turkey shooting--there is only one type of country where it can be found (in my opinion). That's in the big hardwood or pine timber country of the South and the East. I have often heard hunters whose only experience was gained in the western states say, "Yes, I have hunted turkeys. Shot two last fall while I was deer hunting." That's not turkey hunting.
Although some of the top turkey hunters will tell you turkeys can be successfully taken at any time of day, I've found early morning and late evening to be my most productive periods, with the morning hours favored. If time allows, stay in the evening woods until you hear a gobbler fly up to roost and remember the location of the roost tree. If you locate one, unless you are sure it is far enough away to be safe, wait until it is too dark for him to see you leave. This brings on a small problem. You will need to be no more than 200 yards from the roost tree when day breaks, with about 150 yards an ideal distance. Moving closer could be a mistake because when he flies down, he may sail 50 or 75 yards. All this means is that you must be able to find the spot you want to call from the next morning in the dark.
Wait for him to gobble or until you hear
him fly down before starting to call. And remember, don't overdo your calling. He heard you and knows within a very few feet where that call came from.
If you were unable to "roost" a gobbler the evening before, the strategy is to get in the woods early and listen. During the spring mating season, gobblers gobble! They will gobble while still on the roost at any sharp sound or just for the heck of it. An owl hooting, a crow cawing--anything that startles or annoys one will bring a response. Hooting like an owl ("owling" in turkey hunting vernacular) should always be tried before moving to another location to listen.
When you hear a gobbler, get to him fast. If you don't, something--hens or another hunter--might beat you to him. Of course, you are not going to be able to pinpoint his location from one gobble unless he is very close, so move quickly toward the sound and then stop to listen again until you can slowly move up to the position you want to occupy.
If you are quite sure another hunter is before you, go find another gobbler. But be sure. I vividly recall such an experience. After roosting a gobbler and waiting the next morning until I heard him fly down before reaching for my call, it became apparent that I did not have the woods--or that gobbler--to myself. To my deep disgust, the silence was broken by the most amateurish attempt at turkey calling I have ever heard. It started off with something like a screech, rose to a high crescendo, broke in the middle, and ended up with a strangling gargle. As I started to gather up my gear and move on, the "yelps" came again, and I heard the sound of approaching steps. Shuffling through the dry leaves, cracking twigs, and yelping as he went, the author of all that racket came into view. The "amateur" caller was a young gobbler!
The true thrill of turkey hunting is being able to take advantage of a gobbler's sex drive and fool him into believing that you are a young hen just dying to have a meaningful relationship with him.
If you learn to use the calling device that most appeals to you and in which you have the most confidence, practice a little with it all year, wear the right clothing, and go into the turkey woods in the spring, you will learn that no hunting thrill can be more satisfying.
One last thought. If you think I downgraded the wild turkey, particularly in the matter of his intelligence, and that I do not respect and love the bird Ben Franklin touted over the American eagle as the national emblem, go back and read my first sentence one more time.
I'm not sure old Ben wasn't right, but one thing is for certain: I plan to be out there trying again next spring.