Wild Turkey: Turkey Hunting Tips & Techniques
Our goal is to harvest the North American Wild Turkey with Archery Tackle. The First Article of this series covered Species / Subspecies Typical to North America & Ranges in which they may be found and Species Anatomy & Physiology. The Second Article, Species Behavior & Habits and Species Habitat Requirements & Preferences with special attention to Diet. We can apply the information covered in the first two articles of this series with that covered in this article to accomplish this objective.
This article will review Hunting Tips & Techniques particular to Wild Turkey. Many of the Strategies, Techniques, and Tactics you apply to bowhunting other specie are directly applicable to Turkey as well. However, some are not and can work against you. This article by no means addresses every approach. There may be as many methods to bowhunt Turkey as there are Turkey Hunters, but we will cover the most common approaches used.
Prior to discussion about hunting techniques, We need to spend a few minutes on Archery Tackle appropriate for bowhunting Turkey. Many Bowhunters today use powerful, high speed compound bows. These bows provide exceptional penetration which is ideal for large game animals. These bows generally provide complete pass through, which is desirable for large mammals. Unfortunately, complete pass through is absolutely undesirable for Turkey. In mammals such as Elk, Deer, or Antelope, an arrow completely passing through the chest and lungs have devastating effects. The diaphragm is disrupted, air entering the chest cavity collapses the lungs, the lungs separate from the walls of the chest, and breathing stops. Due to the nature of the Turkey's respiratory system, reviewed in the second article of this series, lung shots do not have an identical impact. While bleeding profusely internally, the Turkey's respiratory system usually continues to operate in a reduced capacity, often enabling the bird to escape the bowhunter's recovery attempts.
When bowhunting Turkey it is desirable to have the arrow remain in the bird rather than to completely pass through. This results in greater internal damage and a generally better chance of recovery. For this reason, lighter poundage bows in the 40 to 45 pound range are preferred by many bowhunters pursuing Turkey. An added advantage to a lighter poundage bow is the extended period of time it can be held at full draw. Often a bowhunter must remain at full draw for long periods while waiting for a keen eyed Turkey to present a good shot opportunity. Be sure to meet the minimum poundage requirement for hunting bows in your region.
Only shots which hit the Turkey's Central Nervous System will kill the bird instantaneously. In other words, only shoots which hit the head, neck, or spinal cord are likely to kill a Turkey on the spot. While a head or neck shot is highly effective it is chancy at best. A turkey's head is about the size of your fist and is usually moving. The best shot is in the back directly through the spinal cord. During the spring season while a Tom is strutting the base of his tail is an excellent target, (1) because this spot is at the spine, and (2) because the bird is facing away from you and is not likely to see you shoot.
Since we want the Arrow to remain in the Turkey and we wish to break the Turkey down as much as possible in order to avoid recovery problems, Large Broadheads are ideal for the task. The bigger the cutting edge the better, providing you can shoot them accurately and consistently. Some Hunters use devices called arrow stoppers mounted behind the broadhead on the shaft to prevent full penetration. However sometimes these can result in insufficient penetration. Ideally we want a minimum of 3 to 4 inches of penetration. A solution to this stopper penetration problem is an aluminum extender which puts the broadhead an inch or two ahead of the stopper. Another technique used by some hunters is to solder a couple of large fishhooks to the rear of a large broadhead. This works well keeping the arrow lodged in the Turkey. Be sure to check the regulations where you hunt to insure this approach is legal.
Another device commonly employed by bowhunters pursuing Turkey is a string tracker. String Trackers have a light string which attaches to the broadhead. Large quantities of string stored in an aluminum cylinder flow out during arrow flight and as the bird departs from the position it was shot. The hunter then follows the string to the downed bird.
The bottom line for choice of tackle is that you are efficient in it's application prior to going afield.
(Before and During Season)
After you've learned what a turkey likes to do and where he likes to do it, the next step is to read and interpret the sign he leaves in the woods.
Often hunters see turkeys in a particular area and then assume that's where they should hunt. However, this is a big mistake. When you see turkeys, they have already spotted you and are retreating from where they were or where they wanted to go. So there's a very good chance they may not be in the area you plan to hunt.
Finding turkey sign is a much more reliable method of choosing a place to hunt than actually seeing the turkeys. Turkey sign has a degree of permanence. Most tracks and droppings will last until the next rain, and feathers will generally last until the next year. So what you have in the woods, once you learn to see and identify it, is a record of what the turkeys have been doing. There's a tremendous amount of evidence for the hunter who can read the sign. Experienced Turkey Hunters prefer to hunt the areas where the sign indicate where the turkeys should be, not the areas where they have actually seen a turkey.
The quickest way to learn to read sign is to go into the woods with an experienced turkey hunter. Let him show you the difference between turkey scratchings and places where squirrels have dug in the leaves for nuts. He can point out turkey tracks and probably give you reasons why a turkey was walking in that particular area. He can spot turkey droppings and teach you the difference between hen and gobbler droppings. He can show you how to tell an old scratching from a new one. A fresh scratching will have loose dirt around it. Often turkey tracks will be present in or near the scratching, and the ground will be relatively clear where the turkeys have been working. Also the toenail markings will be clear and easily defined. And if the turkeys are scratching in the leaves, the leaves will be piled up. Often, if the turkeys have been scratching there that day, the bottoms of the leaves will still be wet.
An old scratching will not have any fresh dirt around it. The actual scratches may not be well defined, and there may be leaves or pine straw in the scratched-out dirt. In an old scratching, the leaves will be relatively compacted.
The main thing you're trying to learn when you look for turkey sign is whether there are turkeys in the area you plan to hunt. If you know you're hunting where there are turkeys, you have more confidence in your calling and hunting. Your confidence will be much greater if you find a roost tree, get in the vicinity of that tree before daylight, and begin to call knowing there's a turkey that should answer.
If you find a fresh track, you know the turkey shouldn't be more than a mile away. And the odds are he'll be much closer than that. If the weather has been dry for several days and you discover a soft dropping, you know the turkey is so close he's liable to be looking at you.
Once you start to read and understand sign, you can really sharpen your turkey hunting skills and knowledge. The main thing that sign tells you is where the turkeys are. Then you can determine where to set up a blind or take a stand to call them.
Asking other Hunters and Farmers in the area you intend to hunt often can be helpful. They may be able to provide information on where the turkeys are located and what they were feeding on. Fish & Wildlife Department Biologists are always a good source of information as well. They are usually more than happy to help you.
The key to finding turkeys is to determine their primary food source, especially during the fall. At this time of year there are not many grasses or insects to feed on, so turkeys will eat beech mast, wild grapes, dogwood berries, and acorns depending on the region you are hunting. Check the listing in the second article of this series for more detailed food sources by region. Knowing what turkeys are eating enables you to find them faster. When you locate an area with turkeys and have a good idea of what they're eating, look around mud holes for tracks. Also check for droppings. Once you find droppings, you need to know whether they're gobbler's or hen's. The gobbler's dropping is shaped like a question mark, the hen's like a little curlicue. Also turkeys molt a great deal, so look also for wing, tail, or breast feathers.
Turkey tracks are most easily found after a rain in soft ground such as in washes, gullies, or fields, or around waterholes.
Another good place to look for sign, especially in national forests, is around watering holes. During dry spells in the fall, these holes are an excellent source of fresh water for turkeys. Many times a whole flock will come to a watering hole early in the morning, to get that first drink after coming off the roost.
When you've found sign, go into your hunting area late in the afternoon and listen for turkeys flying up to roost. The best places to listen are ridges. Be alert for the sound of wings beating the air. Often you'll hear an old hen cackling as she flies up, a few hens yelping to each other, or young gobblers doing the kee-kee run.
To score during the spring, you must learn several calls. In addition to the kee-kee run, you need to know the yelp and the cluck. You can learn these easiest on a box caller or on strike caller, which has a peg and an aluminum striker box.
After you learn the yelp and cluck, you're ready to go scouting. Ride the woods roads at daylight before the season begins, and listen for crows. Take a crow caller along, and as soon as you hear them cawing blow that caller about four times, good and loud. If there's a turkey in the area, he'll gobble at your call. If you get no response, take your box caller out before you leave the area, and yelp just as loud as you can. Go through this same process in the mornings and the afternoons, trying to locate three or four turkeys prior to the season. Then if you pull up on opening morning and there's a vehicle parked near the spot you planned to hunt, you'll still have other spots you can go to.
Tips & Techniques particular to Turkey
Many Regions have both spring and fall Turkey Hunting Seasons. Others may have only one or the other, check the Hunting Regulations in your area to determine which is the case for you. The Hunting Techniques particular to Wild Turkey will vary significantly based on these seasons. Other factors impacting which tactics will be useful are Region Hunted, Subspecies Hunted, Hunting Area Terrain, Hunting Pressure, and Hunting Season Weather to name a few. Preseason Scouting discussed above can help determine the best tactics to apply in lieu of these impacting factors.
In order to keep our discussion simple and generic enough to meet everyone's needs, we will address Turkey Tactics primarily by Spring and Fall Seasons. You will have to do your homework to address the other previously mentioned factors. Turkey Behavior is significantly different between the Spring and Fall Seasons. Their day to day habits are somewhat different based on the weather, food sources, seasonal human presence, and reproductive cycle. In the spring Turkeys are preoccupied with their mating and in my opinion, an easier target as a result. I have harvested eight turkeys with archery tackle and all of these Toms were harvested in the spring. I have always had a tougher time finding Turkeys in the fall by far, but not everyone agrees with this. I have talked with and read articles by other Turkey Hunters who have the opposite view. They felt that Turkeys were easier to hunt in the fall. Regardless of which opinion you lean toward, there is no question that certain Tactics are useful for Spring not Fall, and visa versa for other Tactics.
One Technique commonly practiced regardless of season is Calling. Calling Turkeys is a crucial skill to the turkey hunter. And while some disagree that Calling is absolutely necessary to harvest turkeys, the large majority of turkey hunters use turkey calls in some manner during hunting and or scouting. To many it is an art form and there are even contests for competing Callers. Calling Technique is often a source of heated debate between seasoned Turkey officiados.
There are literally dozens of individual calls and more types of calling devices and manufactures of calls. To name a few, Box Caller, Cedar Box with Striker, Crow Call, Diaphragm Caller, Friction Callers, Noble Whistle, Owl hooter, Push-button Call, Snuff Box Call, Striker Box, Tube Caller, and Wing-bone caller. To the beginner it can be confusing to say the least. I recommend the beginner to ask several experienced turkey hunter's opinions and check out the different types of calls prior to selecting one particular type. A combination of several calls may even be your choice. The Diaphragm Type call may very well be the best type for bowhunters as it is held in the roof of the mouth, keeping the hunter's hands free to operate his bow. I personally use a double reed box call, because I like the Yelp I produce with it. Just like Archery Tackle, this is predominately a matter of personal preference.
Going back to the individual calls vocalized by turkeys and utilized by turkey hunters, as I said there are many and the hunter must develop an understanding of which call is appropriate from certain circumstances. Also subtle variations in the volume, rhythm, and pitch of a turkey's call can be as important as the type of call. The following is a list of turkey vocalizations / calls:
Armed with a good knowledge of the turkey, basic calling skills, and appropriate archery tackle for hunting turkey, you are prepared to hunt this cagey bird. How are you going to go about doing so? Well let's consider our options. The generic bowhunting methods used for most game are Spot & Stalk, Still Hunting, Tree Stand or Blind Hunting, Calling or Baiting & Ambush, or some combination of these methods. Since we want to make our shot without our prey being aware of our presence, we need to evade its senses to do so. One advantage we do have is that turkeys lack a sense of smell and this removes the necessity of scent considerations. However, the turkey is well known for its phenomenal sight and keen hearing. Turkey's sight is so acute that the first two methods, Spot & Stalk and Still Hunting, are for the most part virtually impossible except under specific terrain circumstances. However, it is done and we'll get back to that later on.
Baiting Turkeys is illegal in most states and provinces. This leaves ambush from stationary positions. Calling is commonly used to lure turkeys within shooting range of ambush positions. Many gun turkey hunters merely take positions against trees large enough to conceal their outline and call birds into range. Ground Blinds can be preferable to bowhunters as they help conceal the hunter during the act of drawing his bow. Tree Stands would be ideal for this as well, but because of recovery considerations are in most cases not as desirable as Ground Blinds.
When bowhunting turkey there are two theories on recovery technique. Some hunters believe you should keep your position concealed after the shot, allowing the bird to succumb before attempting recovery. Others including myself, feel you should move as quickly to the bird as safely possible in order to grab the bird before it can attempt to leave. Several of the turkeys I have shot were initially stunned by my shot and I dispatched them immediately upon reaching them. If a String Tracker is employed, the first method may well be better.
Still Hunting and Spot & Stalk Hunting are extremely difficult, but under some circumstances with favorable terrain can be successful. Some hunters study a particular flock of turkey's movements and attempt to cut them off based on routine observation. This requires more than average amounts of scouting and a good bit of luck to say the least. I employ a similar tactic which requires a particular type of terrain. I call this technique Canyon Calling. I call it that because it works well in the steep canyons where I hunted turkey in Northern California.
During the Spring mating season before daybreak, I position myself on the opposite side of a steep canyon from prescouted strut zones. After the sun rises and the turkeys begin to strut and gobble, I begin to call from my concealed position, beginning with yelps. Sometimes it takes an hour or more of intermittent calls to convince a tom to fly over to my side of the canyon. When a tom does fly over, I can clearly see him coming and prepare for him. Next I try to get him to come in to me with purrs and yelps. They rarely were willing to come within one hundred yards of my position so I had to go to them. That's the tricky part. Using the steepside of the canyon and the gullies running down it for cover, I would slowly move toward the tom, calling intermittently to keep a rough idea of its position, peeking over each ridge until I actually spotted the tom. Once I spotted the gobbler, I would move as quietly as I could, as close as possible, using the terrain to remain totally out of sight. Once inside my effective shooting range, I would come to full draw behind cover and pop out for a shot. Needless to say, this only worked on occasion and usually the turkey escaped, but I was able to harvest eight birds with this method. Terrain plays a significant part of any attempt to stalk turkey.
Moving on to more classical methods of harvesting turkey, we'll startby covering those used in Spring seasons.
During Spring turkey season the predominate advantage the hunter has is the fact gobblers are preoccupied with the business of mating. This allows the hunter to convince some gobblers to come inside shooting range in the pursuit of a hen. One of the most common tactics is to establish your blind within a relatively short distance from a gobblers strut zone and attempt to lure him in for a shot.
Establishing more than one blind at several strut zones is a good idea. If one position is unproductive or hunting pressure interferes, you can move to other locations. One group of toms may have as many as five or six established strut zones. Proper scouting will allow you to find these and set up accordingly.
Another helpful technique is the use of decoys. A taxidermy mounted hen properly placed 8 to 10 yards from your blind can be an effective tactic. Make sure the decoy is facing the blind as toms are able to detect it's lifeless eyes. Attaching string to the decoy is also a good practice. It allows you to move the decoy slightly as the tom approaches giving it an additional illusion of a real hen.
Scout out areas where turkeys are roosting, once you know where, wait until dark and try to slip in under them. Then snatch a vine that goes up a tree, scream and holler, throw sticks, and do everything you can to drive the turkeys off their roosts. The next morning before daylight, slipback into the roost area and sit back against a big tree. Many times you don't even have to call the dispersed turkeys. They naturally return to that roost area at daybreak to try to get back together. But if you want to call them, start yelping or do a kee-kee run.
One of the easiest callers to use is a Noble whistle, which is made in England and is primarily utilized in dog training. It has a cork ball inside that should be removed. Then you just blow through it while saying, "Boy, boy, boy." This series of calls perfectly imitates a kee-kee run. So all you have to do, once you've scattered the turkeys the night before, is sit down, do a little calling - either yelping or kee-kee runs - and the turkeys will come to you.
Having turkeys in front of you, however, doesn't guarantee turkey on the table. You've got to know when to put your bow up, how to aim, and when to shoot. If a turkey answers your call or you hear him walking in leaves, get your bow up and be prepared to shoot. If you can actually see the turkey, wait until he steps behind a tree or bush before bringing the bow to full draw. That way he won't be able to see your movement.
Aim for the center of the chest where the wing joins the body or at the base of the tail if strutting. Hold your shot until the turkey is inside 25 yards.
Hopefully these tactics should help your taking a turkey. Patience,
the defining term for bowhunting in general, is even more paramount in
the endeavor to harvest wild turkey with archery tackle.
Questions? Comments? Post other Turkey Hunters at the Wild Turkey Network Message Board!
I hope you have found this series covering Wild Turkey useful and informative. The next Specie covered, in anticipation of the upcoming Spring seasons, will be Bear. Please feel free to email me any comments or suggestions at the link provided on the Series Title Page.
Until Then Good Luck and God Bless.......Stu Keck