Beginner's Guide to Turkey Hunting

Two hunters calling in a turkey

At its most essential, turkey hunting success comes down to understanding a handful of variables. Starting with the wild turkey and the places they live and considering the gear and techniques necessary to hunt them effectively, this Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Guide to Turkey Hunting provides a foundation from which to start chasing gobblers.

Wild Turkey 101

Wild turkeys are experts at staying alive. That the wild turkey can survive in diverse environments across North America stands testament this incredible ability.

Wherever they may live, wild turkeys’ eyes are their primary defense against all of the creatures would like to eat them. Keen eye sight becomes all the more important when you consider that all turkeys begin their lives as small, flightless poults that grow up in woods full of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, owls, bobcats, snakes and all manner of hungry animals that would like to consume them.

Turkey track

You can hardly blame a turkey for being wary. The keen ability to spot things that are out of place (be them equipped with four legs or two) combined with an eye for movement that seems to never stop watching are trademarks of the wild turkey.

Be it a Rio Grande, Eastern, Osceola or otherwise, any attempt to harvest a gobbler starts with the ability to remain undetected. Depending on your situation, this may involve gearing up in technical hunting apparel or employing a ground blind.

The Gobbler in the Spring Time

The next step to becoming a successful turkey hunter involves understanding what is going on in a gobbler’s mind. In the springtime, male turkeys are cruising the woods compelled by the most basic of biologic compulsions—the need to spread their genes.

Spring time is to the turkey woods what the rut is to elk season. Fueled by testosterone, gobblers are in search of two things: potential mates and potential intruders to their territory. In the spring time, gobblers are not of any mind to tolerate challenges to their manhood.

The wild turkey’s reproductive strategy, much like that of elk, involves a dominant male working to win over females. As the season progresses, gobblers travel the woods looking for receptive hens while also driving off would-be male challengers.

This, in fact, is the foundation of spring turkey hunting. It is also why hunters are able to call them in.

Wild turkey

Decoys and Turkey Calls

Because turkeys can see so well, in most situations spot and stalk is not the preferred option (though in some cases hunters swear by this approach). Your best option often lies in calling them into range.

Turkey calling is an artform. Some hunters are so good at it that they might as well sprout feathers and spurs.

The number and variety of calls can make the prospect of choosing the right one for your situation intimidating. It doesn’t have to be (our Guide to Turkey Calls provides a breakdown). Fortunately for the new hunters, modern turkey calls are good and consistent enough to allow anyone to use them.

At its most fundamental, calling takes two stages. The first involves locating the gobbler. The second transitions to calling it in.

Locator calls are used to elicit responses from any gobbler within ear shot. These calls may sound like crows or owls (a testosterone-fueled gobbler wants to advertise that he is the loudest bird in the woodsand he doesn’t take kindly to any loud hoots) or calls from other male turkeys.

Jake calls imitate the sound of a young male. Gobbler calls present full-fledged challenges from grown birds.

After touching off a locator call, you listen for the response. When a turkey gobbles, you listen for not only distance and direction from which it emanates, but for tone. A deep, guttural full gobble comes from a big, old gobbler. A higher pitched half-gobble betrays a younger bird.

Once you locate a prospective shooter, it’s time to set up. Though the exact details of the process vary by hunter, it generally goes something like this:

  1. Deploying a spread of decoys.
  2. Concealing yourself in a place where you will be able to both see the bird and shoot it.
  3. Calling the bird into range and harvesting it.
Women Watching Decoy

A Word on Decoys

The use of turkey decoys provides a number of advantages to the turkey hunter. Our Guide to Turkey Decoys breaks down the options and benefits to each.

No matter the model or type you choose, fundamentally decoys provide several things:

  1. Proof to the eyes of a gobbler that the calls you are making are actually coming from a “turkey.”
  2. An anchor point that draws the gobbler into shotgun or archery range.
  3. Hen decoys represent potential girlfriends. Jake and gobbler decoys represent intruders that are trying to swoop in and run off with the gobbler’s potential new girlfriends.

You will want to place your decoys between yourself and where you think the gobbler will likely come from. Putting yourself between the gobbler and the decoy runs the risk of the bird seeing you as he heads to the scene of the turkey party you’ve created for him. Be sure that the decoys are within comfortable range, so that if everything comes together you can close the deal.

Hiding and Calling

Pick your hiding spot in a place that allows you shooting windows. If possible, choose a place (like the base of a large tree) that breaks up your silhouette. This will give your camo an even better chance of working.

Once you’re hidden from view and have deployed your spread of decoys, it’s time to call your bird. At this point, the calls generally transition from would-be challenges to invitations for love.

The hen call tells the gobbler that there’s some romance awaiting him in your neck of the woods. The calls need to be enticing.

Combining hen calls with the sight of decoyscomplete with several hens and a male turkey who appears ready for actioncan be ample persuasion. To add to the appeal, some hunters (at some points during the season) will mix in jake calls.

If you’re hunting public land or places where other hunters may be in the woods, we do not recommend using male turkey decoys or calls. You might accidentally call in another hunter…

Hunter calling turkey in using slate call

Closing the Deal

Once you’ve got your bird closing the distance, it’s time to line up the beads and send some shot down range. While 12 gauge may still be the king of the turkey woods, advances in modern ammunition now make it common place to harvest gobblers with 20 gauges and .410s. The Guide to Turkey Guns provides a step-by-step guide to getting the right gun for you—or your turkey hunting youngster.

Whatever gun you choose, make sure to pattern it before you go into the woods. You’ll also want to make sure that your gun is equipped with the right choke—an x-full turkey choke is the most commonly used. Our guide to turkey shotguns is a great resource—that can save you lots of time and money, while ensuring that you get the right set up for your situation.