Follow these basic tips on calls and gear to hunt spring gobblers right now.
Wild turkeys can be alternately the easiest and most available game animals to hunt and also the most elusive and diabolically maddening. They live in nearly all suitable habitat across the nation and sometimes are so easy to dupe in the spring that it can seem like you’re taking advantage of their love-struck oblivion. However, the next minute their prodigious senses may kick in and they’ll demonstrate their legendary ability to survive.
But that’s what keeps hunting wild turkeys so interesting. They are one of America’s original game animals not only because of their availability, but because they’re so thoroughly vexing. After all, if every turkey hunt ended in a gobbler cooling in your vest, you’d lose interest in pursuing them. Luckily, every longbeard encounter has its own unpredictable script, a narrative that changes based on variables of weather, terrain, season of the year, and even time of day.
Here are 4 basic tips on calls and gear to help you bag your first spring gobbler right now!
Wild turkeys spend the night in big trees. It’s their aerial defense against terrestrial predators like coyotes and bobcats. Because these roost trees are knowable, based on your pre-hunt scouting or just good luck in finding them the evening before your hunt, your best bet is to get out of bed uncomfortably early and hike to that special tree, arriving well before sunrise and being quiet and stealthy in your approach.
Turkeys—there will be a mix of hens and gobblers in the roost tree—will become active a full hour before sunrise. Once they start moving, clucking, and yelping on the limb, you should not move at all. But if you’ve arrived good and early, you can stake out a decoy or two—these are the fake turkeys that we’ll discuss below—in an opening 100 yards below the roost tree. The idea is that these fake turkeys will dupe the real turkeys into thinking that they have friends to meet, right there on the ground below the tree near where you’re waiting with a shotgun.
If the toms (male turkeys) follow the script, they’ll gobble on the roost before they fly down. You can make a few calls to fool them into thinking your decoys are eager hens, but don’t overdo it. Once the birds fly down, throw them a few subtle hen calls, then shut up and wait for them to strut into range, which is somewhere around 30 yards for most shotguns and beginning shooters.
Of course, the script rarely flows that seamlessly. More often, the birds fly away from you off the roost, or you call too much and the real hens lead the toms in the opposite direction, or you move and spook the birds before they get into range.
All is not lost, however. You can still salvage your hunt by walking the woods and calling, loudly this time, until a gobbler responds and you can pitch yourself against the base of a tree and call him into range. Or you can leave the fly-down spot and find cooperative birds elsewhere. Just be careful about walking and calling on public-land hunts as this can be dangerous depending on how crowded the woods are with other hunters.
What all turkey hunts share—cooperative birds or not—is the need for body-covering camouflage, a basic shotgun that will throw a tight pattern consistently, a variety of calls, and a backpack or vest. There are endless variations on all these topics, but here’s how to get started.
Wild turkeys have prodigious eyesight. An old-time hunter once told me that they can see the sweep of a watch’s second hand at 100 yards. Maybe. Maybe not. But they see extremely well, and they especially see movement.
You want to cover yourself up to hide shiny or off-color parts, but mainly to blur your outline. If a gobbler struts 10 yards closer to you before he realizes the blob against a tree trunk is lethal, that’s 10 yards that you don’t have to move toward him. Complete your outfit with lightweight camo gloves, a facemask, and a hat. And don’t neglect your boots; the shiny leather and eyelets of hunting boots have saved many a gobbler.
A key piece of kit that many beginners overlook is a vest. Classic turkey vests have an abundance of pockets to hold calls, shotgun shells, rain suit, and miscellany like bug repellant and pruning shears to trim limbs, but they also have a padded seat that will literally save your butt during long sits on hard ground. And most have an oversized pouch in the back to haul your gobbler if you’re lucky or good enough to kill one.
It's also a good idea to carry a hunter-orange vest and hat to throw on after you’ve tagged your gobbler, so you’re clearly visible in the woods when you walk out.
Quick Tip: Avoiding pressure—and danger—on public land. Because turkey hunters are donned entirely in camouflage, they can be hard to see. And because they’re calling and sounding like real turkeys, they can be easy to hear. That’s a recipe for an accident if two hunters mistake each other for turkeys. If you hunt public land, try to get as far away from other hunters as possible. Park at a remote trailhead, and then plan to hike far away from access points. You’ll be rewarded with more callable gobblers, and far fewer risks of being mistaken as a turkey by fellow hunters.
You can buy a purpose-made turkey gun with fancy camouflage. Or you can use the same shotgun you’d use for ducks or pheasants. The specialized turkey guns typically have extended extra-full choke tubes and after-market sights to place payloads consistently out to 50 yards or farther. If you go with your versatile shotgun, make sure it’s capable of shooting very tight patterns of turkey loads. That generally means the ability to screw in choke tubes of either modified, full, or extra-full. It needn’t be chambered to handle big 3-1/2-inch shells, but make sure it’s capable of shooting high-power 3-inch loads.
The specific choke constriction needs to match the load you use, and here’s where spending time experimenting with different combinations of load and choke will pay big dividends. You want to find a combination that will produce a pattern density of at least 10 pellets in a 10-inch circle. Most load/choke combos will do that consistently out to 30 yards, but how about 40 yards? 50? Experiment with different shot sizes from different manufacturers. Maybe you get the best results with #6 shot from a 3-inch Federal Heavyweight. Or maybe it’s #5 shot from a 2-3/4-inch Winchester Long Beard XR. Once you find the combination that produces that 10-pellet density out to the longest range, that’s the load-and-choke you should use in the field.
Make sure your shotgun has sling swivels. You’ll be carrying your shotgun a lot more than shooting it, and the ability to sling it over your shoulder for long walks will save a lot of aggravation. And if it’s not camouflaged, consider adding camo tape or even spray-painting it to cover up any shine or gobbler-spooking gleam.
The reason we hunt turkeys in the spring is because that’s when gobblers will come to a call. It’s their breeding season, and by imitating the sounds of a hen in heat, you can unlock the wariness of a wily tom. Even beginning hunters can easily make effective calls as long as you stick to the basics. Beginners’ repertoire consists of two main calls: the yelp and the purr.
The yelp is simply a searching call, used to announce that “you” are a “hen” looking for love. If a responsive gobbler is in the area, he’ll generally respond with a thunderous gobble. If he’s really eager, he’ll strut in to shotgun range. Sharp, shrill, and loud, the yelp is like a chicken’s cluck, only louder and more insistent.
The other call is a “purr,” and it’s really a sound of contentment. It’s a soft trill that tells nearby turkeys that you are happy and that there’s nothing to fear by approaching.
Turkey calls come in a variety of styles. The easiest for beginners is the box call, which is about the size of a hot dog bun and makes sounds by sliding a lid across the thin sides, which are chalked to reduce friction. You might also consider a slate call, sometimes called a pot call. It’s a hand-sized piece of slate or hard resin or even metal that’s encased in a wooden or acrylic pot.
By scratching the calling surface with a striker, a wooden or acrylic stick, you can make all the sounds you’d make with a box call. You can also try a mouth—or diaphragm—call. It’s a couple of pieces of thin latex stacked together that you put in your mouth. With practice, you can blow air over the reeds, making them yelp and cluck and purr.
The benefit of mouth calls is that they leave your hands free to do the shooting, which is the happy outcome of a successful hunt, and hopefully what this short primer has prepared you to do.
About the Author: Andrew McKean is a longtime outdoor writer and the former editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life. He lives in northeast Montana with his family and yellow Lab. You can follow his adventures on Instagram @aemckean or on Facebook @andrew.mckean.