Turkey Vest Essentials

You are welcome to carry two of everything into the turkey woods this spring, but "essential" does not necessarily mean "more." Our expert explains.

by Bob Humphrey

Our light breakfast over, my friend George Mayfield and I prepared our gear for a morning of turkey hunting. Actually, I was doing most of the "preparing" while George stood by the door waiting patiently.

As we stepped into the moonlight, we looked about as different as two turkey hunters could. A single striker protruded from George's breast pocket, which also showed the ringed impression of the solitary slate call it contained. A lanyard around his neck held several of his favorite mouth calls. After stuffing a handful of shells in his pants pocket and hefting his gun, he was ready to go; he had all he needed.

I, on the other hand, was weighed down with a heavy vest and all of the various and sundry items it contained.

George's meager equipment list suited his run-and-gun hunting strategy. He likes to move fast and far, finding the birds wherever they are. This being his first day in camp, he also planned to spend a considerable amount of time scouting and becoming familiar with the territory.

I prefer the more traditional approach: roosting birds, setting up on them and calling them to me. I also had the advantage of being familiar with the area and hadn't really planned on covering much ground. I would set up in a known location and wait the birds out. For that style of hunting, I felt everything I carried was quite necessary.

Later, though, as I set out my decoys and settled in against the bole of a big tree, I began to ponder the differences in the amount and type of gear we had each carried afield.

A turkey vest is an excellent investment, not only for carrying all the essentials for a successful hunt, but for transporting the results back home, too. Photo by Steve Carpenteri

Truth be known, there's almost no limit to the stuff turkey hunters can carry into the woods with them. But if you wanted to bring along one of everything, you'd need a band of hardy Sherpas to carry it all. Much of what's available as "essential" turkey gear these days could be considered optional accessories or even vanity luxuries. Yet a good deal of it can, under various circumstances, be quite necessary. Deciding which is which can also vary from person to person and day to day. You may be able to get by with just a few items for a quick morning hunt, but if you're planning on spending the day in the woods, or there's a chance of rain, you'll almost certainly need more and different equipment.

The following are some suggestions of what I consider the more essential items your turkey vest should contain, with some options for various circumstances and conditions. You can add or subtract from the list to suit your individual needs and hunting style.

I recall an opening morning several years ago when, as is often the case in turkey hunting, things didn't go quite as planned. I'd roosted a bird the night before and set up on him well before daylight. My decoys were out and I greeted the dawn's early light with a soft serenade of tree calls, later followed by a fly-down cackle and some full-blown yelping. When the old tom bailed out, however, he had other ideas. He hit the ground and began gobbling at my every call even as he headed away in the opposite direction. I tried to circle around ahead of him and was about halfway there when a shotgun blast ended his gobbling, along with my morning plan.

The sun still hadn't crested the treetops and I knew there were other birds around, so I moved down the hill, reset my decoys and laid out my calls. I started with a few loud yelps on a box, but there was no response. I switched immediately to a slate with the same results. Then I popped in a diaphragm, but before I could finish my opening sequence, I was answered with a nearby gobble. My next attempt was cut short as well, and I'd scarcely settled my shotgun on my knee when a resplendent red, white and blue head and a fanned tail materialized over the rise.

I always carry a variety of calls and that morning was a good illustration of why more is better when it comes to calls. On occasion, gobblers will be finicky. Different birds respond to different calls, and the same birds may react differently on different days. Sometimes you have to do a little experimenting to find the call that appeals to a particular bird on a particular day, and the more options you have, the better the odds you'll be able to strike the right chord.

Variety is particularly important if you travel to different states, as I learned during a recent spring hunt. I found that the calls I'd used two weeks earlier in one state's low country just didn't seem to suit the next state's high-country birds. It took a little experimenting, but I soon found the birds responded much better to higher-pitched calls. Comparing notes later with one of my companions, I learned he'd discovered the same thing, and our luck soon changed.

I always carry at least two box calls, two slates and roughly a half-dozen diaphragms with me on every outing. I try to pick box calls with different tones, and if there's any chance of rain, I'll make sure at least one is made of synthetic material so it will still work when wet. If your favorite or only box call is made of wood, you can now buy a rosin material that will make it waterproof and maintenance-free, or simply carry and use it in a resealable bag.

If you decide to carry only one box call to save on weight and space, try to pick one with diverse features. Most boxes can be used by drawing the paddle across one side rail or the other, and some are made so that each side gives a different tone. You can also change the tone by adjusting the tension on the hinge screw, and at least one style call has a slotted paddle that can be adjusted to five different positions, each rendering a different tone.

You can further increase your options by carrying slates made of different material. They now come in slate, Plexiglas and a variety of metals, including aluminum, titanium and bronze. In their never-ending quest to meet hunters' demands and needs, call manufacturers now make split-face slates with two, three, even four different surfaces on a single call.

You can also increase the diversity of an individual slate by carrying several strikers made of different material, including graphite, Plexiglas and various types of wood. Some strikers even come with interchangeable tips of different material, each of which renders a slightly different tone. Carrying a four-faced slate and a striker with three different tips gives you 12 different calls in one!

I also carry several different diaphragms that cover a range of tones, and because they take up so little space, I can carry more - typically four to six. Again, sometimes you have to find just the right tone or pitch to get a bird to gobble. A high pitch might bring in a 2-year-old bird, but a real limb-hanger might be holding out for the mature voice of a raspy old hen. A tom that already has hens may not respond to any call, but if you can irritate the dominant hen by imitating her exactly in tone and cadence, she might come in to fight and bring her boyfriend with her.

Also, sometimes competition works better than seduction, and when a henned-up tom won't respond to your sweet, seductive hen calls you can use a low-pitched raspy call to make jake yelps. A higher-pitched call that allows you to break into kee-kee runs may also work better sometimes on jakes, which are timid from being run off by more dominant birds and are merely seeking companionship.

You'll also need a locator or shock call, and as with turkey calls, the more options you have, the better. Most hunters use an owl call at dawn or dusk to locate roosted birds. Later in the day however, you should switch to another type. While you can use a turkey call, you could be caught out of position if a nearby gobbler decides to respond quickly. I prefer to use a crow or woodpecker call. That way I can get the bird to gobble without attracting his attention. Then, if I need to move around to a better set-up location, or to get ahead of the bird, I can.

Carrying both is better because, like the tom that will gobble at one slate and not another, some birds will react to one type of shocker and not another. Most shock calls are small, and at least one company makes one that allows you to dial in crow, woodpecker or owl sounds as needed.

I rarely hunt without decoys. One of the leading causes of gobbler hang-ups is birds that come to the call expecting to see a hen but don't. If nothing else, a hen decoy adds confidence to your calling. Furthermore, it gives the tom something else to focus his attention on besides you when he's in the "red zone." Fortunately, decoy manufacturers have addressed the issue of portability by making decoys light, collapsible and easier to transport in your vest. Three decoys and their stakes weigh only a few ounces and will fit neatly into the game pouch on most vests.

Motion in your decoys can also be a key to success, so I prefer the type that can spin on their stake with the wind. Incidentally, it doesn't hurt to carry an extra stake or two in case you lose or break one.

There's almost no limit to the number and variety of other items you can take with you into the woods, but there are several that, like the above items, should be considered necessities.

First and perhaps foremost is a call care kit. Most friction calls require some maintenance as you use them. You'll need chalk for your box calls, and small patches of sandpaper and scrub pads for your slates. All of this will fit neatly into a snuff can or a film canister.

Several companies make call tools, some about the size of a toothbrush, with faces of various abrasive materials for roughing up your slates.

You'll need a flashlight for finding your way in the dark. Pick a small one that works on two AA batteries, or even a penlight, to conserve space and weight. Some hunters even go so far as to use lights with red or green lenses, believing the white light will spook birds. In my experience that hasn't been the case, but if you feel a colored lens is better, buy one.

Another essential item for any turkey-hunting vest is a compass. In fact, of all the items you take with you afield, a compass may just be the single most important. Take a bearing on the road you start from, and your direction of travel, before you head in. You may also want to take bearings throughout the day to keep track of where you're going and the quickest way out. If you should wound a bird, you can also take a bearing on which way he went, as wounded turkeys often travel straight away, and a compass can help you maintain your line of travel.

A multi-purpose tool is handy for fashioning decoy stakes, dislodging jammed shells, trimming brush, adjusting box calls and more.

If you plan on being in the woods for any length of time, you should bring along a small water bottle. On warm, dry days you'll find it well worth carrying the extra weight and should you get lost, it could even mean survival.

A light snack will help re-energize you and stave off hunger. I usually throw a few bite-sized candy bars in my vest for that reason. You may also have to tend to other bodily functions, and while you can always resort to leaves, a wad of toilet tissue in a plastic bag is a more comfortable option.

Make no mistake about it, statistics show that turkey hunting can be dangerous. Other hunters also use most of the places you hunt. For reasons of safety and consideration for those I share the woods with, I carry an orange vest. Once I've bagged my bird, I load it into my turkey vest, and then I drape the orange vest over it. Some vests are manufactured with orange flagging that can be stowed in zippered pockets until needed.

A couple more things you might want to consider include an extra facemask and a pair of camouflage gloves. These take up almost no space and add little weight, yet could come in handy in a crunch. I have a tendency to lose things, and these two items are at the top of my "missing items" list.

Another item that will be on your list of things to take with you is a vest. What you carry, and how much you carry, will, to some extent, determine the right vest for you. I already carry enough gear afield, so a stool, seat or pad is just more gear. That's why I always wear a vest that has a padded seat attached. You never know how long a gobbler will keep you pinned against a tree, and the key to waiting him out is comfort.

Because I carry so much stuff, I like a vest with many pockets. More, smaller pockets keep me from fumbling through a few larger pockets to find what I need. It's also important that the pockets can be fastened, with zippers, buttons or a touch fastener. I learned this the hard way - some of my most cherished possessions still lie out there somewhere in the turkey woods.

A waterproof game pouch should also be considered a necessity. The pouch can be used to carry decoys into the field and harvested birds out. It's also a good place to put excess clothing as the day warms and you begin to strip off layers. Waterproof also means blood-proof, so your hunting clothes won't become bloodstained from toting out your hard-won prize.

Today's outdoor market is flooded with all sorts of turkey-hunting gadgets, most of which are quite useful, but many of which could be considered non-essential. By carefully selecting the right items to take into the woods, you can ensure you'll have what you need when you enter the woods . . . and increase the odds that you'll be carrying m

ore weight on your way out.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe Now!

Recommended for You


No Kidding: Angler Smashes Record for Lake Trout

Scott Bernarde - May 21, 2019

The Pennsylvania man's trophy fish was more than two pounds heavier than the previous record.

Trout & Salmon

How to Catch the Biggest Trout in the Stream

David Paul Williams

Several factors need to be evaluated before reaching a conclusion about what fly, lure or...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

MLF Pro Tips: Go-To Baits for the Spawn

Major League Fishing pros talk about the first lure they choose when targeting spawning bass.

Mustad's Inkvader Octopus Live Jig

From big fish to small, just about any saltwater game fish out there will love the new Mustad Inkvader Octopus Live Jig that Mustad's Russ Whisler shows to OSG's Lynn Burkhead.

New Abu Garcia Baitcasting Reels

In the booth of one of fishing's all-time great reel makers, Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead and Andrew Wheeler of Pure Fishing discuss one of the brand new baitcasting reels from Abu Garcia being released at ICAST 2019.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


7 Best Bets For New Jersey Largemouth Bass

October 04, 2010

From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll...


12 Great Catfish Baits

Jeff Samsel

Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, including these five great...


10 Most Common Reel Performance Problems

Anietra Hamper

Fishing reel maintenance provides a steady stream of business for The Fisherman's Warehouse

See More Stories

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.