March 13, 2023
Last spring, I mentored a veteran waterfowl hunter in the turkey woods whose waterfowl wisdom is vast and surpasses my own. I figured turkey hunting would be a cinch for him, but when he started asking questions about his first turkey hunt, they opened my eyes.
This is my 37th year of turkey hunting. I've delivered seminars around the country on turkey hunting the West, wrote a book on the subject and have called in countless toms over the decades, both when hunting and photographing them. If you're new to turkey hunting, these are my answers to the 10 most frequently asked questions I hear from novice gobbler chasers.
1. What shotgun do I need?
The most common questions I get are on shotguns and loads, usually in the form of, "Will the shotgun I have work?" My answer is always, "If you can shoot it accurately and with confidence, it'll work."
Turkey guns, chokes and loads have greatly advanced in recent years, but don't feel that you have to spend a fortune to hunt turkeys. Two seasons ago I broke out my very first shotgun from the 1970s, an old pump-action 20-gauge I shot my first ducks and upland birds with. I called a tom into 15 yards and killed the bird with it.
My father-in-law loved my story and gave me his first shotgun, one he bought for $37 in the early 1950s. It was a single-shot that was rusty and had a broken stock, but patterned well. I shot a nice tom at 12 yards with it. The following day, I filled my last tag using a .410 that'd been in my family for generations. That shot came at 9 yards.
By using calls, a decoy and even a ground blind, you can get toms close enough to shoot with any shotgun. Make sure you pattern the gun and know your effective range before the hunt, though.
A payload of No. 6 lead shot through a modified or full choke is good, as you want a dense pattern for a turkey's small head. I suggest trying both in your gun to see which offers the best pattern with the load you'll be shooting. If you want to pull a tom in close for a shot, a full choke can throw a very tight pattern, and I’ve seen many people miss because of this, so a modified choke could be a better choice.
2. Should I Use a Decoy?
Decoys aren't necessary to fill a turkey tag, but they’re nice to have. A decoy captures the attention of approaching toms, taking their focus off you. Also, a decoy can be placed at a specific distance so you know the exact range at which your shot will come. A hen decoy is all you need. When bowhunting, I like placing a hen decoy 5 yards from my blind. When hunting with a shotgun, 20 yards is good, but you can position it closer or farther depending on how your gun patterns.
3. Do I Need a Blind?
This question is usually answered with another question: "How long can you sit still?" If hunting an open field or meadow, you might see a turkey 300 yards away. Sometimes turkeys come sprinting to the call and decoy; other times it takes them hours to close within range. If you're comfortable and can sit still, you won't need a blind. But if you move around when your backside goes numb and birds approaching silently from a different direction spot you, the hunt is over.
If you can see a turkey, it can see you. Turkeys see in color and have vision comparable to an 8-power binocular. However, because their eyes are set wide on their head, they have poor depth perception. This explains why a turkey will sometimes walk right up to you as long as you're sitting still, or will brush up against your pop-up blind. It also confirms why they can bust you at 200 yards if you so much as lift a finger.
4. What Clothes Do I Need?
Because turkeys have acute vision, proper camo is important. So, too, is the comfort and functionality of your clothes. Last spring, my protégé and I hunted in river bottoms of the Coast Range and Cascade Mountains. Mosquitoes were bad, and due to all the rain, the foliage was dense and lush green. He chose to get Sitka's Equinox clothing, which is impregnated with Insect Shield. It blended in well and he didn't get a bug bite.
He also chose rubber boots because morning dew made for wet walks. The boots he picked—LaCrosse's AeroHead Sport—are lightweight and have good ankle support, ideal for hiking short distances. They’re also tough, and stood up to all the briers we pushed through.
Camo gloves and a facemask are a must. Some camo clothing, like the Equinox line, comes with a built-in facemask. Some hats have a built-in facemask, too. If you’re going to use a standalone facemask, be sure to take an extra, along with an extra pair of thin camo gloves.
5. Should I Have a Turkey Vest?
The more you turkey hunt, the more gear you'll acquire. A turkey vest is nice because it allows you to organize all your gear and have it readily accessible. Turkey vests have pouches for slate calls and strikers, box calls, diaphragm calls, extra shells, gloves, clippers and more. They also have a cushioned seat, which is invaluable.
However, a little pack is all you need to get started. Heck, even a jacket with a few large pockets works. One season, I was set on using only one type of call on each hunt. The first hunt I took two diaphragm calls. The second hunt I took one box call. On hunt number three I had a slate call with two strikers. I filled tags on each hunt. The only extra gear I carried was a decoy and a cushion to sit on. Simple still works.
Most hunters start with a box call, which is easy to work and makes great hen sounds. Basic hen yelps bring in most toms killed by hunters, and these sounds are easy to learn to make. Pack water and a snack, as a quick turkey hunt can often turn into a half-day afield.
6. When Should I Start Scouting?
It's never too early to scout. Many serious turkey hunters start scouting in January, when birds are in big flocks. When conducting preseason scouting, look for large flocks of hens and bachelor groups of toms. The hens will eventually split, and toms often follow. It's nothing for a hen to travel 15 miles from her wintering habitat to a nest site. Hens often nest in the same place every year.
Using trail cameras to scout for turkeys reveals the number of birds in an area and shows the progression of breeding. As breeding peaks, more toms will usually arrive to an area. Good locations for hanging cameras include on game trails, on the edges of fields and pointing down fencelines. If you’re looking to hunt on private land, seek permission early, not the day before the opener.
7. Should I Hunt Early in the Morning?
Early in the season, hunting can be good all day. Early mornings are usually best, but if hen densities are high, starting a hunt around 9 a.m. isn’t a bad idea because once hens head to their nests for the day, toms will cover more ground. When hens tend their nests full-time, about midseason, early-morning hunts are better. This is because toms are looking for hens as soon as they leave the roost, and there are few real hens around to distract them. Late in the season, afternoon and early-evening hunting (where legal) can be good as toms spread out to feed prior to heading to roost. Grass seeds become a primary food source.
8. Should I Wait for a Sunny Day to Hunt?
Sunny days get toms fired up, but if you wait for sunshine, you might never get into the woods. The turkey breeding season is based on photoperiodism, not sunshine and warmth. As daylight hours increase, the turkey rut progresses. Later in the season, hot, sunny days can send toms to shade by midmorning, meaning you’ll want to hunt in the timber and amid cover.
9. What if It's Windy, Cold or Raining?
One spring I hunted in a snowstorm at nearly 4,000 feet in temperatures in the teens. I called in a tom that came in gobbling and filled my tag. When conditions are cold and wet, head to protected areas like deep draws and the leeward sides of hills. Turkeys are tough and can survive incredibly harsh conditions, but they’re smart. They head for protection, out of the elements, and that’s where you want to hunt.
10. What if I Spook a Tom?
If a tom busts you, wait two or three days before trying to hunt that bird again. Sometimes you can get on the bird the same day, but often it will only further educate it. Instead, back out and head to another location. If embarking upon your first turkey season this spring, keep things simple. The more you hunt, the more turkey encounters you’ll have and the more you’ll learn what it takes to find success. Above all, make it a point to have fun along the way.
This article on turkey hunting is featured in the West edition of March's Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.