Turkey Hunting 101

Welcome to the National Wild Turkey Federation where sharing our passion of hunting wild turkeys with new hunters is part of the mission. The NWTF's Turkey Hunting 101 is considered the premier educational tool to learn everything you need to know about wild turkeys, their behavior and planning a successful hunt, and we’ve compiled that information here.

Below, you will find basic information on preparing to hunt wild turkeys and links to more detailed articles on different aspects of learning to hunt and more advanced hunting techniques.

From choosing your first camo, call and gun to finding like-minded hunters, this site has you covered.

Turkeys are intelligent wild animals that are wary of humans. Their keen eyesight makes up for their lack of smell and they can detect even the slightest amount of movement, so hunting them does present a challenge. We encourage you to learn all you can before hitting the woods to begin your turkey hunting adventures – a safe and successful hunt depends on it.

The best way to learn to hunt wild turkeys is to reads a great beginning. However,

Extras to be included below

http://www.ihea-usa.org/hunting-and-shooting/requirements/state-provincial-information http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/hunting-trip-plan

Table of contents

Wild turkey basics
Hunting seasons
Gear up
Prepare For the Hunt
On the hunt
After the hunt

Extras

Wild turkey basics

Appearance

There are two wild turkey species, the Ocellated turkey of Central America and the North American wild turkey. The five sub-species of the American wild turkey are Eastern, Merriam’s, Gould’s, Rio Grande and Osceola.

Eastern

Is the most widely distributed subspecies east of the Mississippi River. They are also the most abundant. The can be found in 38 states and numerous Canadian provinces. They are characterized by chestnut-brown tips on their tail feathers and white and black bars on their wings. Adult males or toms weight 18-30 pounds while females or hens typically weigh in around 8 to 12 pounds. Eastern toms have what is considered the strongest gobbles of all subspecies. They also tend to have the longest bears of all the subspecies.

Florida or Osceola

Gets its name from its home location as its only found in Florida. They are characterized by dark-brown tips on their tail feather, mostly black wing feather with very small bands of white. Adult males typically weigh in around 20 pound while the females weigh in around 8 to 12 pounds. These turkeys have long legs, strong gobbles and very long spurs, while their beards are usually shorter than their Eastern counterparts. They are considered among hunters to be the toughest species to call into range.

Rio Grande

Is concentrated in western desert regions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other western states. Mexico also has a healthy population. They are characterized by tan-colored tips on their tail feathers, equal black and white barring on wing feathers and moderate gobbles and beards. Adult males weigh in around 20 pounds while their female counterparts weigh in around 8 to 12 pounds.

Merriam’s

Is the most abundant in the mountainous regions of the West. The Rocky Mountains are considered the central hub of the population.

They are characterized by light colored tips on their tail feathers with more white and less black on their wing feathers. Adult males weigh in around 18 to 30 pounds and the females weigh in around 8 to 12 pounds. They are considered to have the weakest gobble of all the subspecies and have short to moderate beard lengths.

Gould’s

Are only found in Arizona, New Mexico and the Sierra Madres of Mexico. Population wise, Gould’s are few. They are characterized by snow-white tips on their tail feathers with long legs. Adult males weigh in around 18 to 30 pounds while the females weigh in around 12 to 14 pounds. These wild turkeys have moderate gobbles and beard-lengths.

Ocellated

Are found in about a 50,000 square mile area in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, northern Belize and the El Peten region of northern Guatemala.These beautiful birds are characterized by their unmistakable rainbow-like iridescent feathering, grey tail feathers that feature blue and gold tips. Adult males weigh in around 11 or 12 pounds and females weigh in at around 6 to 7 pounds, making them the smaller of the species. They have a unique, high-pitched “gobble” that is preceded by a hollow drumming sound. Even the males do not have beards but they do have very long spurs.

It is important to learn how to distinguish adult toms from jakes and to know when you are looking at a hen. It sounds simple, but when you are out hunting, the differences may be less noticeable, especially from a distance. A good time to practice is out scouting before the season begins. Take along a good pair of binoculars and take the time to make a positive identifications. 

To get more in-depth information about wild turkey appearances, visit our Wild Turkey Basics page.

Sounds

Wild turkeys have a complex vocabulary with as many as 30 different sounds, though far fewer are utilized by hunters. More common turkey vocalizations include:

Gobble (the science of gobbling)

The gobble is a loud, rapid gurgling sound made by male turkeys. The gobble is one of the principal vocalizations of the male wild turkey and is used primarily in the spring to let hens know he is in the area. Hunters must be cautious using a gobble, especially on public land where it may attract fellow hunters to your position. It can also be a double-edged sword. A gobble may draw a dominate tom to you looking for a fight or you might drive away less dominant birds who want to avoid a beating. It is often used as a call of last resort. However, it can also be used effectively late in the evening when trying to get a tom to gobble on the roost.

Cluck

The cluck consists of one or more short, staccato notes. The plain cluck often includes two or three single note clucks. It's generally used by one bird to get the attention of another and a good call to reassure an approaching gobbler that a hen is waiting for him. This is a great call while trying to encourage gobbler to come into range if he starts to hang up. It can also be used while birds are still on the roost to subtly let a gobbler know you are there.

Plain Yelp

The plain yelp of a hen is a basic turkey sound and is often delivered in a series of single note vocalizations. The plain yelp can have different meanings depending on how the hen uses it, but it is basic turkey communication. It is also commonly used by a hen to communicate with a gobbler during mating season. This is a basic turkey hunting call. If you can yelp, you have a chance of being able to call in a turkey.

More turkey sounds

While all adult male turkeys gobble, and all hens cluck and yelp, each turkey truly has a voice of its own. Each cluck, purr or cut has different inflections particular to each bird. 

Listen to and learn the more common turkey sounds of the wild turkey. You will surely up your outdoor skills if you can properly identify wild turkey calls in the field.

Habitat

In the 1940s, Eastern and Osceola turkey populations remained only in remote areas of extensive timberland. These areas supported turkeys because topography made them inaccessible and kept legal and illegal hunting to a minimum. Inaccessibility also made logging and agriculture difficult, so these areas remained forested. As a result, biologists began to associate the wild turkey with big timber, but that wasn't exactly accurate. 

Once timbered areas were re-populated with wild turkeys (thanks to trap-and-transfer programs) wildlife managers began experimenting with turkey transplants in other areas. Turkey populations blossomed throughout the United States and with up-to-date research, biologists and conservation managers have identified a few very important ecosystems that provide optimal habitat for the wild turkey including habitats around rivers and streams (riparian zones), oaks and grasslands, pine savannas and wildlife openings (often called, forest clearings, meadows, pastures). Learn more about the 4 Great Wild Turkey Habitats. 

General wild turkey habitat requirements: 

  • Trees: provide food, daytime resting and escape cover, and most importantly, nighttime roost sites
  • Grasses: provide food for adults and are especially important to poults as environment in which they can forage for insects
  • Moisture: a direct and indirect key feature to wild turkey survival and reproduction

From the sounds to identification of species, there is a lot to learn about wild turkeys. Learn why gobblers strut, the science behind their gobbling and what they do all year.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/why-the-strut
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/life-turkey-nest
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/4-great-wild-turkey-habitats
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/lifestyle-breeding

Wild turkeys like most wildlife do have predators. From raccoons stealing their eggs to coyotes grabbing poults from the ground, a turkey’s life begins on rocky terrain. They not only use their amazing eyesight to help stay out of harm’s way, they also use other senses.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/population-threats
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/five-senses-wild-turkey

(back to the top)

Hunting seasons

Doing some research on your state’s department of natural resources website can literally put the law in your hands. Knowing the laws concerning the prey you will be hunting is extremely important. Can you shoot before sunrise? After sunset? How long after sunset can you shoot? These are questions that are best answered straight from the source. Just because uncle Bob said you can shoot up to an hour after sunset, does not make it the law. Know the laws before you hit the woods.

Each state declares their own seasons and bag limits for each game species. They base those decisions on science, harvest totals and much more. Whether small game or wild turkeys, be sure to know not only the season dates but also bag limits.

Before their population declined, wild turkeys were typically hunted only in the fall. When the spring seasons were introduced, fall turkey hunting became less pursued. In recent years, as populations have climbed and then stabilized, many states reintroduced fall turkey seasons. In 2017, 42 of the 49 states that offered turkey hunting, had a fall season. Check your local regulations for season information or use our Spring and Fall Hunt Guides to get you started.

https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/2017-fall-hunt-guide
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/preparing-for-hunt

Gear up

Camo
Because wild turkeys have incredible eyesight, you will want to conceal your movements as much as possible while out hunting. A good camo pattern for the terrain you are hunting is essential.

Mossy Oak is the official camo for the NWTF and their Obsession pattern is our go to. Embedded with the NWTF logo, it is an awesome spring camo that blends well with the green up that happens each year. You can also be assured a portion of your purchase also comes back to the NWTF to put conservation work on the ground. http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/mossy-oak-pattern-history

For those hunting from a blind, Mossy Oak debuted their Eclipse line late last year. This is the first camo designed for blind hunters. http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/mossy-oak-ground-blind-camo

Be sure to keep your hands covered, as well as your neck and face. Turkeys can spot the slightest movements and you don’t want that to be the reason for spooking the big tom off. NOMAD offers gloves and gaiters to keep you in stealth mode while waiting out those toms.

Gun or bow
To hunt wild turkeys in most terrains, you will need basic gear. Most hunters choose either a 12 gauge or 20 gauge shotgun or a bow to take their turkeys. Most gun manufacturers produce both 12 and 20 gauges and all should do a good job at taking down a turkey. There are many turkey loads to use in both gauges with new loads coming out each year. (Can link any stories from SHOT about the new turkey loads.)

Many hunters choose to use a choke with their turkey guns to help keep the pattern of the shot tight. Most choke tube companies have “turkey” choke tubes which are designed for turkey hunting.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/choking-winchester's-long-beard-xr
https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/new-turkey-guns-ammo

If you choose a bow, either traditional, compound or cross bow, make your choice something you are comfortable shooting from a seated position as most turkey hunts happen from the ground. Also to consider, hunting with a bow does present some logistical issues when hunting from a ground blind. Room is at a premium for drawing back your bow. Be sure to sit in the blind and practice drawing back your bow prior to your hunt.

This will ensure you are not trying to draw too much weight on your bow as well. If you cannot comfortably sit and draw back your bow, you need to reduce your draw weight. Drawing too much weight can not only be awkward, but it can cause injury, create a safety issue and can put a damper on any hunt.

https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/bow-hunting-for-beginners
https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/bow-hunting-fall-turkeys

If you are bow hunting, a broadhead is one of the things you’re going to want to research. We’ve put some to the test and found our favorites.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/broadhead-test-2017

Calls
To be successful in turkey hunting, usually hunters rely on calls to help bring the birds within shot range. Beginners usually find a box call the easiest to get a consistent sound out of. There are diaphragm or mouth calls, pot and striker type calls made with glass or slate, wingbone calls and many others. Some take more practice than others. Start with one call. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive box or pot call, just a good quality call will do the trick.  Learn the basic sounds like cluck, purr, putt and yelp, to start. As your ability increases, you can add the more advanced sounds and learn to create dynamics within those sounds to keep the birds listening.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/help-my-mouth-calling-stinks
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/help-my-friction-calling-stinks
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/common-calling-errors

Other gear

As you become more familiar with the basics of hunting wild turkeys, there is certainly additional gear you may want to purchase. From high end binos to live maps, the array of gear available is endless. One item that is common for hunters to pack is a first aid kit. Hopefully the need for one never arises, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

There are also what some hunters consider “necessities”. A quality knife and a Thermacell are two on the top of that list, especially down in the south where the mosquitoes never really disappear. A war with mosquitoes or other biting insects is certainly not going to help you sit still while waiting on those gobblers. While a knife can be good for a lot of tasks in the woods, notching that turkey tag is one of our favorites.

There is plenty of additional gear turkey hunters like to take into the woods with them.

https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/what-is-in-your-vest. There is also a checklist that new hunters find helpful.  http://www.nwtf.org/resource-library/detail/turkey-hunter-checklist

If you find you are lugging a bunch of gear to the woods, you may be ready for a turkey vest or a backpack. Each comes with a unique set of pockets and compartments and some can be lifesavers while out of the hunt as they incorporate cushioned seats into their designs. There are many vests designed for turkey hunters including the ones our partner ALPS Outdoorz has designed.  https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/turkey-vest-changing-game

ALPS also has an array of backpacks for your hunting needs. And ladies, have no fear, there are backpacks designed with you in mind as well. https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/outfitting-woman-hunter

No matter what gear you decide on, it will need care and attention through the season and after the season to stay in top working order. After the season is done, your gear can use a little clean-up before being packed away.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/after-season-gear-care-1
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/after-season-gear-care-2

Preparing for the hunt

One of the important things you can do as you go through the process to learn to hunt is to learn to pattern your gun. Not only will this ensure you are ready when the gobbling tom walks your way, you will also get to spend some time with your gun becoming familiar with its operation so you will have confidence in your handling abilities once you are out on a hunt.

To pattern your gun, you will need your gun of choice and a box of the shells you intend to use during your hunts and a few targets. Every gun and shell work differently together, often only small differences are noticed.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/setting-up-your-gun
https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/evaluate-turkey-gun-pattern

If you are going to be hunting with a bow, time spent on the archery range is well spent. Practice from different yardages and from different vantage points as you may find it necessary to take a shot without standing or from a stalk.

https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/bow-hunting-for-beginners

On the hunt

From the moment you decide to become a hunter, we hope you’ve had one thing on your mind. Safety. As excited as we all get for spring turkey season, safety before the hunt, on the hunt and after the hunt should be at the top of everyone’s mind.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/firearm-safety-for-the-win
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/checklist-safety-success

The best advice for new hunters is mostly to try to absorb what the experienced hunters around you do and say. Those hunters, many of whom have decades of experience, have a wealth of knowledge to pass along.

If you do not have an experienced hunter, some advice from novice might help quell the fears of hunting for the first time.

http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/advice-to-new-hunters
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/8-things-a-new-hunter-needs-to-know
http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/solo-guide-to-hunting

With safety covered, time to head to the woods. If you are not hunting from a ground blind, first thing is to find a substantial tree to lean against during your hunt. Watching for vines, briars and the like, finding the perfect tree becomes second nature after a few hunts. http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/how-to-pick-turkey-tree

Once you set out on your hunt, keep a close watch on your surroundings as turkeys often leave subtle clues amongst the towering pines or sturdy hardwoods. http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/tracking-turkeys

Once settled in your blind or next to a sturdy tree, relax and get comfortable. If you are on a morning hunt, chances are it is still dark. Watching the world come alive as day breaks is one of the best parts of hunting. After the flydown, you are going to want to call those birds within range. Start soft and slow with your calls. When you get an answer, you are in business. There are many scenarios that play out even after you get that answer. https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/solo-guide-to-hunting https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/category/on-the-hunt for a wealth of stories of how others have conquered the wild turkey.

After the hunt

After a successful harvest, you need to know what to do to get the most out of that harvest. From field dressing your bird to mounting suggestions, we have you covered.

Making the decision to field dress your bird starts before your hunt. You will need to make sure you take a good sharp knife to do the job quickly and efficiently. There are several ways hunters prepare their birds for cooking. Whether you decide to pluck or skin your bird, you will find many recipes for taking that bird from the woods to the table.

Extras

If you are looking to expand your knowledge, or just want to see hunters give those birds a run for their money, check out the NWTF's Streaming TV Shows, provided by CarbonTV.

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