By: Tracy Jones Mull
Last spring, I tried my first serious turkey hunt. I’d been out here and there in the fall, but I had never done much spring hunting and was excited to finally get my first bird. Well, I didn’t get a bird. But I did learn a lot, and I think novice hunters can learn from my mistakes.
Know the Regs
The first thing to know when hunting any animal in any season is what the regulations are. In my state of Pennsylvania, spring turkey hunting is more appropriately called “spring gobbler season,” because only bearded birds are in play during the hen’s spring nesting time (though there are, apparently, bearded hens, which are legal).
The tom turkeys are out looking for hens and strutting their stuff, which serves the hunter in two ways: First, mature males are fine trophies, and second, you have the excitement of calling them in, because they will potentially come to challenge other dominant males or to find mates. And by not shooting nesting hens, hunters can help ensure future generations of wild turkeys.
In many areas, at least in Pennsylvania, spring hunting ends at noon for the first two weeks. As the day warms up, the hens are able to leave their nests to forage. Keeping hunters out of the woods in the afternoon means fewer hens are mistakenly shot. Some states, like PA, open up afternoon hunting later in the season. As daytime temperatures increase, the hens move in the morning as well, and the afternoon hunting ban is therefore unnecessary.
Know Your Shot Size
You must use a shotgun instead of a rifle. In Pennsylvania, for several seasons now, shot size has been limited to number four and smaller because regardless of regulations (no calling while moving!), people will move through the woods stalking turkeys. This sets up a situation where a person calling may be fired upon mistakenly, and the range is more limited with the smaller shot size. This is also why rifles are forbidden. There are a variety of turkey-specific shotgun loads commonly available for both 12 and 20 gauge shotguns, and you can find appropriate loads in other gauges, too. Sixteen gauge is a viable choice, while 28 gauge would have to be kind of a stunt. But if you can call the bird in close, and you have a load that is achieving the pattern density you need at that range, you can take the shot.
Don’t Forget to Pattern Your Gun!
If you haven’t yet, pattern your gun. It only takes a shell or two and a few minutes of your time, and it can mean the difference between a turkey dinner and feeling like a turkey. A turkey is a bird, not a mammal, but you still have to respect the game and the sport enough to ensure a clean, humane kill. (Refresh your memory on patterning your shotgun with this article.)
The number one rule of turkey hunting is…find turkeys! (Besides the safety rules, of course.) You can’t shoot turkeys if there are no turkeys around, so scouting is important. I hunt an old mining property that’s been stripped and replanted, with large flat areas and high steep cliffs, and flocks of turkeys can be seen (tantalizingly!) strolling through the woods and meadows in the off-season. They leave very distinctive tracks, and these can be invaluable when deciding where to hunt.
I used to wonder how seagulls had made a little stop between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. It never dawned on me that these were turkey tracks. I had never seen a turkey in my life, even though I had spent so much time out and about in the woods riding dirt bikes and ATVs. I saw deer and grouse aplenty, but no turkeys. That’s what makes turkeys such a great quarry for the hunter. They are so wary and so well camouflaged. Turkeys do have a few habits the hunter can exploit, however. They like easy paths, such as old logging roads and deer trails, especially when the grass is wet. Toms will strut in clearings early in the season, and fresh puddles will draw birds in for a drink.
Not a seagull track.
Keep an eye out for “J” shaped droppings a couple of inches long and look for turkey scratches in the dirt. Like most, if not all, birds, turkeys are omnivores, but like humans, they prefer “meat” – in their case, the insects they dig up. Deer and turkey both scratch, and it can be hard to distinguish one’s marks from the other’s. Sometimes you’ll see them both together! Look for claw marks from turkeys, and larger, deeper hoof marks from deer. The turkeys are going to be able to find any number of insects crawling and flying around, while the deer are going to be hungry and waiting for fresh vegetation to sprout and will be digging up acorns.
Always look at mud puddles when you can find them. Turkeys drink out of puddles and walk right through them, and if you’re in a hunting location that’s not too well traveled, their tracks can last for days, and even weeks, as can the tracks for deer, and you can get a good idea from that whether you’ve encountered a good turkey environment or whether it’s only deer.
Toms have been strutting here.
What to Wear?
If you have a strong lead on a gobbler, the only gear you really need for spring turkey hunting is your gun, a turkey call (more on that later), and weather-appropriate clothing, depending on the orange requirements for your state. In Pennsylvania, the spring turkey hunt has no orange requirement, and many hunters choose to wear camouflage. I recommend wearing at least a fluorescent orange hat when you’re moving your shooting position and setting up. Reversible hats are available so that you can just flip to the camo side once you’re in position. Of course, never wear turkey colors like red, white, or blue in the woods and be wary of exposing skin. A flash of pale hand or ruddy face may be all it takes to set off a trigger-happy huntsman.
The author in her ghillie suit.
Movement Is Important
Because most of my gear is for deer hunting in the fall rifle season, it’s mostly blaze orange. Can turkeys see orange? Yes. At least, they have the photoreceptors for it, and something that bright and unnatural might spook them. Much more important, however, is movement. The turkey relies on sighting a moving hunter, so if you can sit still and break up your silhouette, the turkey will be much less likely to spot you, even if you are dressed like a giant Cheeto.
Turkeys are hunted from both above and below. Raptors are a menace during their younger years, but the predominant predators are what you’d expect: fox, coyote, racoon (for the eggs), and so the turkey is going to be acutely attentive to you as a hunter in a seated position. Their primary sense is sight, so again, movement and bright colors are going to be the main obstacles for a hunter. Here we’re talking about blinking an eye, which may be something they’ll see, but moving your entire torso, slowly, may not trigger a response from the turkey.
The speed of movement is, in my experience, maybe more important than the movement itself. So, in other words, if you find yourself with your shotgun resting on your knee, turkey 20 yards away, it may be that shifting your entire body slowly to bring the gun to bear, and I mean over the course of many seconds, so that you barely notice the movement yourself, will not spook the bird, while a sudden craving to scratch your nose or a shake of the head to dislodge a biting fly will immediately send a tom off into the wild blue yonder.
Remember, with all hunting, you are in the game’s house. The turkey, deer, whatever, goes to a different “room” and is a little bit annoyed when you spook it. You have wasted a day. Turkeys can see small movements a long way off, so if you’re fidgety, you may want to use a ghillie suit, available under $50 these days, and well worth it. It works for every sort of hunting if orange isn’t a requirement. It’s also great for hilarious pranks on your neighbors, but don’t hold me responsible if they’re CCW.
Consider a Blind
A blind is another good option. Many calls require the use of both hands, which obviously interferes with concealment, so if at all possible, one really ought to utilize a blind, especially if one is apt to indulge in iPhone checking while on the hunt. It will also make those rainy days a lot more bearable. Again, make sure to check your state’s regulations. In PA, all turkey blinds must be artificial and provide 360-degree concealment. The first time I used a blind, I was able to watch a hen stroll past at a mere 10 yards, clucking to my decoy to follow her. I had high hopes, but these were soon dashed. It turns out blinds can help, but they’re not magic.
Late in the afternoon, I found a clearing absolutely covered in turkey tracks. That evening, I carefully set up my blind, a pop-up, single hunter, “outhouse” style I had purchased for less than $50 from a local sporting goods store.
The next morning, I set up my decoy outside the blind and slipped in at dawn. A few hours later, I heard it – the distinct sound of two gobblers talking to each other from close by, just out of sight to my right. I raised my gun, but I wasn’t quite in shooting position. It’s amazing how long a turkey can take finally to come into sight, and I was afraid I’d wear out my arms long before they appeared.
A shooting stick is a nice piece of equipment to have on such occasions. Breathlessly, I waited, and then – finally! a tom popped his head around a bush, maybe 30 yards away and looked me dead in the eye. Blind or no blind, he spotted me, and that was it. Before I could take proper aim, he and his buddy were trotting straight away up the opposite hillside. Were they in range? Maybe. Could I have hit one if I had taken the shot? Probably. But I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t shoot. That was my error. I should have had my gun up, ready to shoot, and I should have looked him in the eye over my sight, ready to pull the trigger.
You can’t ask more than that from your hunting experience. At that time, I was sure I would have another chance, and with two more weeks of hunting left, I didn’t want a missed shot to scare the birds away from the area. As it turned out, that was the last chance I would have at a bird, even though I was out there every day from dawn to dusk. While you should never take a potshot at a bird you’re not sure of, don’t be too afraid to shoot if you do get a reasonable opportunity.
To Decoy or Not to Decoy?
I mentioned a decoy before, and this is something a lot of hunters will swear by. Decoys can be as fancy, realistic, and expensive as you please, but some folks say a black plastic bag tied to a bush will work just as well.
I chose to go the less expensive, but still somewhat realistic route, and purchased a hen for around $10 from a big box store. She fooled the aforementioned real hen, but none of the gobblers who came within eyesight seemed interested. They may have realized she wasn’t real, but their disinterest may have been due to the fact that I started using the faux bird later in the season when the gobblers were pretty much done with the real thing as well.
When the bachelors start pairing up with each other, they are much less inclined to chase down a hen, real or imaginary. Decoys are designed to bob and weave a bit in the wind for added realism, but if your decoy is spinning like a weathervane, she won’t be fooling anyone, and she’ll be scaring off any wild animal.
And speaking of fooling anyone, be careful if you do plan to use a decoy. Always keep it covered while you’re moving through the woods, and set it up so that you’re not in the line of fire if some other hunter tries to bag it. I suggest, if possible, to set yourself up on a higher elevation than your decoy, so that errant missiles will land below you. In all hunting, as in any strategic situation, high ground is better. This may sound silly, but at one point my heart stopped as I looked out of my blind and saw a turkey had sneaked up well within range. Yes, it was my own decoy. When a hunter wants to see a turkey, he’ll see a turkey.
If you hear a turkey coming in, that’s the time to be at your most cautious, because it could well be another hunter. If it is another hunter, resist the urge to wave. If he sees the movement and thinks his “turkey” is leaving, that hunter may fire off a quick shot. Give a shout. Better to spook nearby birds than to get a face-full of number 4 shot.
Let’s Talk Calls
Much of the delight about this season comes from the fact that you can actually call turkeys in, and it’s in line with fly fishing or calling in a bull elk during the rut. That kind of interaction with the prey really immerses the hunter in the life and environment of a dominant, healthy animal.
Bring at least one mouth call or push call on your hunt, something you can use without moving if you’ve got the skill. Like decoys, calling is a lot less effective later in the season. While there were times I got gobblers to answer me pretty vigorously, it wasn’t enough to bring most of them in. Some might respond as they rejoin their buddies when the mating is over, but if you’re not confident in your ability to call them in, it can sometimes be better to just keep silent and not risk spooking the bird, especially if hunters, including yourself, have been trying to trick him earlier in the season.
Turkeys may not be the most intelligent animals, but they are canny, and they learn quickly when fired upon. When the season opens, though, calling is the way to bring in the birds, and even if you haven’t been practicing all winter, there are a range of calls that can make talking to toms basically foolproof.
Mouth, or diaphragm, calls can be tricky, but they leave your hands completely free and require no movement that might give away your position. There are plenty of videos online to help you master the mouth call. Some people, though, just can’t stand the feel of the thing – it gags them, or the vibration sets their teeth on edge. No fear. You have options.
Push button calls are easy to use, sound pretty good, and can be attached to the gun barrel with a string running to your finger for minimal movement and practically hands-free use. That’s a great piece of equipment to use when you have the tom on the opposite edge of the clearing, and you’d like to just have him straighten up and look around so you can get the shot. If you get an annoying clicking sound when the call returns to rest, a little piece of foam glued to the inside of the box will solve the problem.
Wooden box calls are one of my favorites. They sound good, they’re easy to learn, and they make a variety of calls. That’s your go-to if you have a secure blind situation, because it does require putting down your gun and dedicating yourself to operating the call. Also, you have to keep them chalked, and they are sensitive to moisture.
Slate, or friction calls (as not all are actually made of slate) are a tried and true piece of equipment. They take a little longer to master than the box calls, some won’t work when wet, and they do require some movement; however, they make a very broad range of calls and can be quite loud, so they’re a great choice to bring in a far-away bird.
Shaker gobble calls are fun. They can make quite a realistic gobble. Shaking the call obviously makes a lot of movement, but they can also be pumped like an accordion for a more subtle gobble.
Locator calls are another option. These sound like anything that will startle a turkey into gobbling, such as crows, owls, and coyotes. They can be especially effective in the morning and evening when you’re trying to locate the birds on their roosts.
I like to bring a mix of calls, using the box, slate, or shaker gobble for farther birds, then switching to the mouth call or push button for closer action. Make sure you practice your calls when you’re not in the field. You will annoy your pets and loved ones, but that’s better than spooking a bird with a bad call. If you’ve got a turkey starting to move out of range, though, you’ve got nothing to lose. Try to make a turkey sound, kick a rock, cough, whatever. Put your safety off, give a noise, and the turkey will tend to just freeze and look for an instant, giving you a shot.
Calls, clockwise from upper left: Box call, two types of shaker gobble calls, push button call, slate with three strikers, two mouth/diaphragm calls, locator style “yelper,” locator crow call.
A Bad Call Leads to a Good Sighting
A bad call did lead to one of the best moments of my hunt, an incident which just about made the whole venture worthwhile, despite my not bagging a bird. It was nearing dusk, and I had abandoned my blind in favor of my ghillie suit. I was sitting in the middle clearing of a narrow stand of planted pines with my back to a small tree, hoping to catch a tom on his way to roost. I brought out a brand-new call I had tried once earlier in the day. It was a locator style call, but with a double reed designed to sound like a hen. In the kitchen that afternoon it had sounded perfect, and I was excited to try it in the field. I raised the call, blew, and…nothing.
No sound, just resistance. I tried again, harder, and was rewarded with a squeal like a small dying mammal. I tried one more time, got the same result, and put the call away in disgust. (Later I discovered the reeds had glued themselves together.)
I sat very still and just admired the setting sun for the next twenty minutes, and then, I heard it. A snap of a twig, and three distinct footsteps from a few feet behind me. I held my breath. Was it another hunter? Ghillie suit or no, he had to see me. I saw a flash of brown out of the corner of my eye. A turkey? From behind me? I prayed it was a hen and not a tom out to taunt me, as there was no way I could get my gun into position and bag a bird that close.
The creature moved to my left and stopped about twenty feet away. Slowly, I turned my head. My first thought was, “fox?” and then, “tiny mountain lion?” Standing there, outlined by the golden rays of the early evening sun, was a bobcat. I had never seen a bobcat before, outside of a zoo. I didn’t even know they lived in the area. We stared at each other for about a minute before it slowly sauntered off. I’m sure the cat was disappointed I wasn’t the dying rabbit I had mimicked, but I’ve never been happier about a bad call, and considering its keen eyesight, I couldn’t imagine having better validation of the ghillie suit as effective camouflage, even this cheap ghillie suit.
So, while my first real spring turkey hunt was technically a bust, I can’t say I have too many regrets. I had an opportunity, I got to spend time outside on beautiful mornings, I tried a bunch of new gear, and I saw some promising bucks I’ll try to reconnect with in the fall. The solitude, fresh air, and slow dawning of spring in the flowers and trees were rejuvenating.
I learned a lot about turkey habits and habitat, and the fall season will be here before you know it. I really should have taken that one shot, but next time I’ll be a little braver, a little more ready. I know I can’t wait to get out again and try my luck with the wily, elusive, fun-to-hunt eastern wild turkey.
Tracy Jones Mull writes from Pennsylvania.