Planning Your Spring Turkey Hunt
Planning for a spring turkey hunt can be an ordeal. Everything from pre-season scouting to acquiring and practicing calls, gathering topographic maps and researching turkey behavior are commonplace. Following months of research I was finally on my first wild turkey hunt for Merriam's.
Two long days into my first-ever turkey hunt I realized what all the fuss was about. Suffice it to say, despite the wealth of sign and several fleeting glimpses of jakes and hens scurrying to safer ground, I had to concede, turkey hunting can be tough. After several days and as many close calls, things finally turned around. As I moved across a ridge at noon, suddenly a loud gobble echoed from across the valley. From nearly a half-mile away, it was spine chilling. The still conditions of the day were perfect for carrying sound. I had a strong suspicion that if the bird was that vocal in the heat of the day, chances were good that he'd come to the call!
Trudging down into the valley and up the other side, I made a best guess as to where the calls had originated. Moving to a plateau of open clearings, a matrix of fescue and mid-sized aspens looked to offer the perfect habitat, so I quickly but carefully set out the Feather-flex jake and hen decoys and selected a nearby tree. I'd barely placed my pack on the ground when not more than 100 yards away I heard a sequence of rapid, but soft putts. But it didn't sound relaxed, but rather alarmed. Snatching my pack from the ground, I shifted to a different tree and faced the sound. Scratching out a few putts, clucks and purrs with my Lohman box call, I paused. As I stopped a loud, aggressive gobble erupted nearby. Bantering back and forth for the better part of 30 minutes, I was convinced at one point that the gobbler was moving away. Copying every call note-for-note, what I thought was just a single bird appeared to be getting more and more excited. What I experienced then can only be described as pure ecstasy for a turkey hunter. Not only did he turn and approach, but what I anticipated to be just one miraculously materialized into three birds! Between them, they gobbled at least 20 times as I patiently waited.
As their calls grew to a crescendo, suddenly a bright red head and a dark black body with iridescent feathers appeared at 40 yards. Strutting one after the other they approached the decoys. Locking the bead of my Remington 12 gauge on the most visible outstretched neck, I touched off a shot. With a thunderous boom, to my elation the bird collapsed. After nearly a week in the woods, all of my planning and preparation paid off!
Since then, I've hunted Merriam's and easterns in Alberta, Montana, Nebraska and Kansas. My best longbeard to date was taken in Montana as he strutted in, fully committed to 18 yards. That particular hunt is indelibly etched in my mind as I recall the big tom fully fanned strutting in, spitting and drumming with his head miraculously shifting from a vibrant blue to white and red.
Prior to that first hunt, I used to marvel at the sensational stories told by turkey aficionados. But if anyone tried to convince me of how evasive these critters really were, I was quick to dismiss their apparent ineptness. After all, how smart could a bird really be? Now, with a number of birds and subspecies to my credit, I'm not afraid to admit I was wrong. That first hunt lasted almost a week. Following an intense and eventually successful hunt, I gained a newfound respect for these cagey birds. Perhaps best described as borderline schizophrenic, wild turkeys have since gained my utmost respect. And so, much the same as other hunting adventures, I've learned that pre-hunt preparation is absolutely critical. By gaining as much knowledge as you can about the subspecies you're hunting, will inevitably help set you up for success in the field. From habits to habitat, learning to call, gearing up and everything in between, the following offers a few tips for consideration as you plan your own spring turkey hunt.
Thanks to conservation organizations and sound management practices, wild turkeys offer some of the most widespread hunting opportunities available today. With only two species; the North American (Meleagris gallopavo) and Central American or ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) in existence, five subspecies are found throughout the United States and Canada. The five subspecies include Eastern, Merriam's, Rio Grande, Osceola, and Gould's turkey. Distribution of these subspecies is explained in the map provided courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). With this kind of variety available across the continent, hunters can target their destination based on bird of choice.
Merriam's turkeys are generally found throughout the mid-west states and Canada's westernmost provinces and then south through Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Typically inhabiting foothills regions laced with ponderosa pine, they are masters of the hide-and-seek game. States like Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and even California are well-known places to hunt Merriam's. Recently the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta too are generating fine spring turkey hunting opportunities.
Eastern turkeys are considered most widely distributed, inhabiting the eastern half of the U.S. and parts of Canadian provinces including Ontario and Manitoba. Easterns are considered to the most abundant, accessible and consequently most hunted subspecies. Found roaming variable forest habitats from Canada south to Florida, eastern turkeys have been successfully transplanted in many different areas.
Osceola turkeys are only found in the state of Florida. With the exception of color variations and distinct markings on feathers, osceolas are considered to be similar, but smaller and darker in color, to easterns. While most hunters generally consider mid-April to early May peak breeding season for the other subspecies, osceolas breed slightly earlier with eggs being layed in April and hatching in May.
Rio Grande turkeys are another of the more prolific subspecies. Found only in the U.S., Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are well recognized as home to the Rios. Western seaboard states also host scattered populations of Rio Grande turkeys. Thought to prefer more open country, Rios favor brushy areas close to rivers, streams, mesquite, pine and scrub forests.
Gould's turkeys are the largest and least populated of all of the North American subspecies. Sparsely populated in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, they are similar to Merriam's in that they prefer higher elevations.
By studying the subspecies you plan to hunt and learning as much as you can about where they live, their tendencies and vocalizations, you will inevitably tip the odds in your favor. For instance, as I prepared for my first-ever Merriam's hunt, I checked with the local DNR and learned that, both legally and practically, they could in fact be hunted all day long. As true as this was, I learned that there were certainly prime times to focus on specific areas. In my experience, the first hour of daylight can be most critical. If a gobbler is going to make noise, the most likely time is right at sunrise. As the sun ascends higher in the sky, vocalizations can become sporadic. Once the temperature rises, it often becomes more difficult to trick a tom into giving away his location. That said, I managed to find birds throughout the day by covering plenty of territory and calling frequently.
Research & Scout Your Area
Most of us have some idea of where we want to hunt turkeys. Some of us have healthy populations living right out our back door. Others enjoy traveling to other states or provinces to hunt alternate subspecies, perhaps in hopes of achieving the North American turkey Grand Slam (taking all five subspecies). Regardless of your destination of choice, it can always be helpful to place a call to the local DNR. Local biologists can provide a wealth of information about areas that perhaps hold greater numbers than others or where access to productive lands is open to the public.
If you want to hunt public land, you're probably off to the races. If its private land you're eyeing, you'll have to get permission. Once access is secured, its time to take a closer look. Topographic maps, access/forestry maps, and aerial photos will serve you well. One of my favorite online resources for aerial photos is www.googleearth.com. On this site you can type in your location and satellite imagery is instantly brought to your desktop. By analyzing maps and photos you can learn where drainages, ridges, hillsides, meadows, fields, and other important structures are located.
Then comes the legwork. The absolute best way to learn an area is of course by hiking it. By walking through the woods, you can look for tell-tale signs like turkey tracks, droppings and feathers. Your primary focus should be on locating roosts. These will be obvious as branches are often worn smooth and turkey droppings are piled or spread out on the ground beneath the tree. When I first began turkey hunting, the best advice I received was from a good friend by the name of Scott Bennett. Working for Mossy Oak at the time, he told me to scout the area and find a good roost. He said if you can find a roost, you've done a good deal of your homework. His advice to sneak in close and call relatively close to the roost itself proved very effective.
Pattern Your Shotgun, Muzzleloader or Bow
Determining where and how your shotgun, muzzleloader or bow is shooting is another important step in preparing for your turkey hunt. Too few hunters take the time to pattern their guns. Some loads will shoot differently out of different guns. Using a poster target of a turkey head and firing at variable distances from 10 to 40 yards you will learn what kind of spread and pattern is occurring upon impact. Count the number of pellets impacting the head and neck region to ensure that it is accurate and effective.
For bowhunters, archery practice is critical. Pre-season practice on 3D turkey targets in invaluable. Turkeys have an excruciatingly small kill zone. Archers have to aim for the body versus the head and neck area. Even still, it's a very small zone. 3D targets offer a marked kill zone as a point of reference to help bowhunters determine the potential effectiveness of their arrow placement. Further, remember that broadheads generally fly differently than field tips. Adjusting sight pins accordingly and then practicing with hunting tips is necessary prior to your hunt.
Understand Calls & Decoys
As you prepare for your spring turkey hunt, be sure to practice with your calls and pick up a good set of realistic looking decoys. Remember, trying to hunt turkeys without a call might best be called an exercise in futility. That's not to say calling is the only strategy that works, but it can certainly be the most fun and productive. Yes, it can be done and in fact many hunters do find success spot-and-stalk hunting turkeys. But more often than not, with amazing eyesight, wild turkeys will invariably give you the slip. By nature, they are vocal and this gives the hunter both an advantage and an opportunity. By calling to locate and then closing the gap, then setting up and calling to entice one or several gobblers to inspect your wanton hen calls, well to many, that's simply the right way to get the job done.
Probing for turkeys in April and May is like hunting elk in September; the time and miles can pass quickly. Some days the action is hot, on others its not. But all it takes is one bird to give up his location. If pressured they'll shut down. When they choose not to yelp, purr, putt, cluck, or gobble - it can seem as though they've been beamed off the face of the earth.
April and May are prime breeding months for turkeys. During this period, jakes, toms and even hens become increasingly vocal. A plethora of varied sounds are made by both sexes. Each has its time and place and more importantly knowing when to mimic which sound can bring a turkey on the run; and let me tell you, when they get cranked up, the guttural gobble of a mature tom is spine-chilling!
Turkeys can be located using hen calls, gobbles, or other types of locator calls. If they're in the right mood, gobblers will come in on a string. If they're reluctant to approach, learning to vary your call can make all the difference in the world. Adding purrs, clucks, picking up the cadence of your call to express excitement and calling both loudly and softly can all work in variation to excite eager toms. One strategy that has worked for me is echoing or matching calls. Highly effective with jakes, by mimicking their call at the same pitch will often get them excited and in turn draw them in for a closer look.
Locator calls emulating a crow, owl, woodpecker or coyote howl are commonly used by proven turkey hunters. In my experience locator calls can be effective, but usually more so in areas where turkey numbers are high. I've seen locator calls work well on some days and in certain locations. I've also seen days where locator calls didn't do a thing.
With many calls on the market, the discerning hunter can choose from a wide range of diaphragm, push-pin, tube, slate, box, and other calls. For projecting calls with the greatest volume, for instance on windy days, a box call can be just the ticket. Even for hunters new to the turkey game, box calls are simple to use and capable of producing a variety of different sounds. Slate calls are equally, if not more popular and, in the hands of someone who knows how to use one, they can generate a wide range of realistic turkey sounds. Diaphragm calls on the other hand, are most versatile allowing the hunter to call while keeping hands free.
As you prepare for your spring turkey hunt, research the different types of calls made by hens, young turkeys and gobblers. Chances are you'll be after a longbeard, so consider what you need to do to attract a mature tom to your set up. And remember, as important as calls are, combine them with a quality decoy set and you're well on your way to knocking down your turkey.
As far as decoys are concerned, some hunters like to use one jake and two or three hens. In my experience one of each sex is sufficient in most circumstances. Once I've located an eager gobbler and moved in as close as I dare undetected, I set up my Featherflex decoys roughly 20 yards from a tree or my blind and then commence calling. Decoys serve two purposes; first they provide a visible attraction and second, they distract the gobbler, hopefully long enough to allow you to take the shot.
Turkeys are unlike any other game bird. With thick feathers, a mature tom
can average 20 lbs. in weight. Ammunition choice is critical. The author has
had great success with Federal’s Premium number 5 load. Designed specifically
for turkey hunting, it comes in a 3-inch casing packed with 2 oz. shot.
Know the Rules
As you plan for your spring turkey hunt, be aware that although many turkey hunting regulations are similar, every jurisdiction has its own list of do's and don'ts. For instance, in some places turkeys can only be hunted after a certain time of the day. I've also heard of some states implementing rules whereby it is unlawful to hunt within a designated distance of a roost. Other localities may allow the use of a turkey hunting dog or the use of blinds. Alternatively other jurisdictions may outlaw these same things. Equally important and usually considered both a written and an unwritten rule, never wear red while turkey hunting. The bottom line is to review and understand what is allowed and what isn't in the area you plan to hunt.
For more Information
With some basic information under your belt, you're well on your way. For more facts on hunting wild turkeys and turkey conservation programs, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) web site at www.nwtf.org or call them at 1-800-THE-NWTF.
Beyond the research, securing permission, pre-season scouting, and patterning your gun or sighting in your bow, it's really a matter of practicing your calls and putting them into action. With an endless supply of instructional videos, books and magazine articles, there is not shortage of tips and advice available for turkey hunters desiring to learn more.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.