Hunting spring turkey is one of the most fun and unique hunting experiences in the world. These are majestic birds, large, powerful, cunning, and a culinary delight for those who know how to unlock their potential.
I was completely hooked after my first turkey hunt, there was no going back. The sights and sounds, the thrill, the challenge, were all like nothing I had ever experienced. And the truth is, you can experience all of this and have success by just following a few realistic principles.
There is no shortage of books and articles on how to hunt spring turkeys, but I have found that very few of them are practical for people brand new to the sport. People who want to get into the woods and taste turkey hunting without devoting hundreds of hours to study and practice. No, this article will not make up for a lifetime of experience in a few minutes, but it will enable you to pursue spring turkeys with a fair chance at filling your tags!
If you want to take the plunge and go in all the way, check out my archive of turkey hunting podcast episodes where I have years’ worth of free turkey hunting content organized and sorted by subject matter. I will also use this article as an outline to organize videos, articles, and podcast episodes so you can do deeper in many of these areas. Use this resource, bookmark it, and study it to learn everything you can!
How To Find Good Turkey Habitat
Turkey habitat often shifts year-round. Where you saw birds in the fall or winter is not always indicative of where they will be in the spring. In the springtime turkeys are mating and they flock to habitat that is ideal for that mission. I have found that some areas hold few turkeys year-round but, in the springtime, they are turkey magnets, every year. The reason is they have the perfect blend of cover, open areas, food, roosting trees, and hiding places.
Turkeys are ground birds, but they sleep, or roost, in trees for protection. Every morning they fly down and begin to eat, socialize, and mate. So, this time of year they look for a unique mix of habitat features. They need big trees to roost in and they also need ground cover for safety, both so they can hide and so they cay nest and lay their eggs.
But cover alone is not enough, they need space. Birds want large open areas where they can see predators from afar, where they can see other turkeys from afar, and where they can easily move and forage.
Groves of hardwoods are frequented by turkeys in the spring, clearings and empty fields are often used, but as vegetation begins to get too high as the season progresses, they may shift to other areas. You see in addition to making it easier to spot predators and food, turkeys need to see each other.
The tom, AKA gobbler, the male turkey will gobble, puff out his feathers, and strut to attract mates. Those hens, the female turkeys, need to be able to see these displays to be attracted to them. If all the vegetation is four feet high, this is not likely to happen. So, they search out open areas.
Many people have limited options when it comes to private land but that can work just fine, check out this article I did: How To Hunt Turkeys On Small Properties.
Scouting For Spring Turkey
The single largest mistake that turkey hunters of all ages and experience levels make is they do not scout for turkeys before they hunt. There is no greater thing you can do to succeed hunting spring gobblers than scout for birds and hunt where they are.
Whether it is public land or private property, you MUST first determine if there are turkeys around. Spending money on high end gear or becoming a master caller will do nothing to help you unless there are birds around to hunt.
You do not need to scout for weeks and weeks either. Often just a few outings into the woods is all you need to find an area with turkey activity. Now scouting is its own discipline that you will grow in over the course of your life but there are a few main things to look for.
- Tukey tracks – Tracks are maybe the most distinguishable sign you can search out. It is ideal to go looking for tracks 1-2 days after a good soaking rain. This can wash away old tracks and soften the ground, so new footprints are easy to see. Look in moist areas and places you can see bare dirt or mud; puddles are also a good place to find tracks. Nothing leaves a track quite like a turkey. Do not worry so much about trying to identify tracks as male or female, if you have one nearby you will likely have both.
- Turkey gobbles – If you go in early to mid-morning, you may very well hear turkeys gobbling, especially a few weeks before the season. The gobble tells you everything you need to know, yes there are male turkeys here, and they are in that direction.
- Turkey droppings – If the weather is dry and the ground is too hard for tracks, droppings can tell you what you need to know and can be found in the same places. The dry weather that makes it hard to leaves tracks actually enables droppings to stay visible longer. Logging roads, gas line roads, potential feeding or strutting zones can be good spots to look.
- Turkey scratches – Turkeys spend a lot of the day eating, and often scratch up the leaves looking for old mast, bugs, grubs, or anything else they can scrounge up on the forest floor. If they spend a lot of time in an area you should be able to find patches of leaves that have been disturbed.
- Turkey feathers & strut zones – Sometimes turkeys just lose feathers going about their business, but strut zones are prime places for feathers to wear loose while toms are puffed out and strutting their stuff. If you find feathers you know there were turkeys, there.
- Turkey images – Trail cameras can be a hunter’s best friend for scouting. Set these on trails, clearings, or food sources to see if you can locate any turkey activity. The best thing is you can see what time of day the birds were there.
I scout year-round in a sense but practically speaking it is most efficient to head out starting maybe three weeks before the season begins. It is the last week before the season starts that matters the most. For more info on scouting, check out these podcast episodes that I created for you.
- The 4 S’s Of Spring Turkey Scouting
- Five Multi-Spot Turkey Scouting Strategies
- How To Find A Great Turkey Hunting Spot
- The Best Times To Scout For Spring Turkey
- How To Use Trail Cameras For Spring Turkey Scouting
Turking Hunting Guns & Ammo
I say it all the time, the best shotgun for a new turkey hunter to use is the one they already have, can easily borrow, or buy used and cheap. The reason is you need to get into the woods and actually hunt to learn if you like turkey hunting and to learn what kind of gun features really matter to you. Spending a lot of money your first year on a turkey gun could easily get you a shotgun that is not a good fit for your style and preferences.
Keep in mind, most turkeys are taken with the first shot. Rarely does a second shot bring home a turkey. And the third shot only serves to let every other hunter in the woods know that you missed with the first two shots. Almost any shotgun can be a good turkey gun.
I am partial to semi-automatic shotguns and recently upgraded to a Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey with a Holosun 507k red dot, full shotgun and optic review here. But you can use anything to great effect, a single shot, and over-under, a pump action, even a bolt action shotgun will work just fine. You only really need one shot.
People ask maybe the most questions about ammo and what they should use. For me it is simple. Start with lead, specifically the Winchester Long Beard XR. There is no better lead turkey load on the market, there is no close second place either. It is the best.
Then once you have your bearings, upgrading to TSS #9 shot can help give you some extended range if you are taking far shots. I have done reviews on BOSS Tom and APEX Turkey. Both are great. But start with lead, it is much cheaper and frees up budget and focus for other things you need to get started.
Gearing Up For Turkey Hunting
One of my favorite things about turkey hunting is that you do not need much gear at all to get started. If you have arms and ammo covered, you can get by with one call, some camo and piece of foam to sit on. That is it. Granted, some additional gear can certainly help and I recommend more gear, but you have to start where your budget allows.
However, I do really like how you can be a minimalist turkey hunter and carry very little in and out of the woods with you. Here is a video I did going over the bare bones of gear.
To go further still, here is a podcast episode I did on the subject: Turkey Hunting Gear – Beginners Guide. Like every other kind of hunting, you can buy more than you need. Just focus on the core components of turkey hunting, you need to stay warm, stay dry, sit for periods of time, call to turkeys, and be concealed. I’ll talk about decoys and calls more in coming sections, but do not over think this. Less is more!
How Turkeys Are Hunted
Turkeys are hunted during the spring breeding season, a time of year where their patterns and behavior change drastically, making them much more fun to hunt.
To make a long story short, toms are trying to attract mates in the spring. So they gobble to let hens know they are around. When they gobble they expect the hens that want to breed to come to them.
To take it further, they will puff out their feathers, spread out their tail fan and strut to display their size and strength to entice hens and demonstrate their place in the pecking order. The tom expects the female turkeys to come when they call or at least come for a look and the strutting works to seal the deal. Turkey hunters make hen calls to try and entice the toms to come to them. This tactic goes against nature, yet it still often works.
A lonely tom is likely to come find a mate if he can hear her. The challenge comes when he gobbles and then expects the hen to come to him. The hunter often calls back repeatedly trying to get the tom to gobble more because it is exciting. However, this often causes problems.
If the hen is very eager, she should go to the tom, or she may entice the tom to stop his advance and begin strutting instead. Over calling has caused many problems for many turkey hunters. More on that later.
The goal is to call just as much as is needed to get the tom to come into shotgun range, no more no less. Though that can take a lifetime to perfect. But the bottom line here is call as needed and be stealthy and shoot the bird when it comes into range. That is how the game is usually played.
Basic Turkey Hunting Strategy
There are three turkey hunting strategies that are probably the most used. They include sitting, running and gunning, and active recon. There is no right and wrong way, there is no best and worst way. Often it depends on the situation, the land, the conditions, and the opportunities and limitations you have to pick the best option for you.
- Sitting. There are many ways to determine when and how to sit but let’s keep it simple. You decided based on scouting that an area is good for turkey hunting, so you come in before dawn and lean up against a big tree or setup a hunting blind. You then wait to hear gobbling or for legal shooting light and work to call the turkeys into your position.
- Running and gunning. This involves actively covering ground and stopping every few hundred yards to call and see if there are any close by turkeys that will answer you. Then you take up a good position and ambush them as they come in. This works, it can be fun, but you need to have a lot of land you can cover, and it can take a lot of energy out of you.
- Active recon. This hunting style involves getting into the woods early and trying to find a listening post. Somewhere with some elevation and you can hear a long way off. You wait until you hear the first gobbles, even as far as half a mile away, and then move into position for the most promising prospect. You want to get within maybe 200 yards or less of where the turkey is roosted or loafing and then try to call the bird in.
Many people begin the morning hunting one way and then finish the hunt another way. This can work great to break things up and give you some variety, if you have enough land and opportunities to do so. I have talked alot about turkey hunting strategy on my podcast, here is a great episode to get started with: 4 Strategies To Hunt Spring Turkey.
Basic Turkey Calls & Calling
There are many different kinds of turkey calls you can buy, build, or improvise. Slate calls, glass calls, mouth calls, box calls, push pull calls, wing bone calls, and dozens more. You do not need to be a good caller with all of them, in fact you only really need to learn how to use one or two to be effective.
I believe that the box call is the best one for new hunters to learn, it is one of the easier calls and you will use it your entire turkey hunting career. Fancy calls do look pretty and can have nice tones, but I’ve called in plenty of birds with a simple cheap box call just like this one.
Turkey calling is a lifelong pursuit, a skill that you continually develop and refine season after season. That said, you can gain 80% of the benefits from 20% of the skills. Which is a great thing for new hunters. There are three main calls you need to learn.
- The Yelp – This is the main turkey call that hens make when trying to locate a gobbler. If you know nothing else, you can still kill turkeys with this one.
- The Cluck – This is a short loud note often used for locating other turkeys but also by excited hens.
- The Purr – These are low soft tones used to put other turkeys at ease and to let gobblers know there is a hen around here somewhere.
Typing long paragraphs about how to call makes difficult writing and even more difficult reading, so here is a video to help you learn more.
Decoys or No Decoys?
The question of whether or not you should use decoys to hunt turkeys is not an age-old question. It is a very modern question. Only in the last few decades have decoys become both popular and accessible.
Decoys do bring some advantages under certain hunting conditions. However, they also have some significant disadvantages under other hunting conditions. Personally, I do not believe the new hunter needs to use decoys, in fact I recommend against it.
You are more likely to hurt your chances of success than help them if you are new to the sport of turkey hunting. However, this is a lot behind that recommendation, alot of experience, science, and perspective. Which is why I wrote an entire article on the subject. Check it out to learn more: How To Hunt Turkeys Without Decoys & Be Even More Successful.
The 3 Big Mistakes To Avoid
I think there are three things that cost hunters more turkeys than every other common or uncommon mistake combined. These are problems that can change the course of your turkey hunting career if you can fix them now. And you can absolutely fix them, it may require a little bit of effort, but it is doable.
Not stealthy enough. This is the biggest issue. Turkey hunters are too noisy and move too much. Lack of stealth does not just cost you the birds you see running away, it costs you birds that you never knew where there. They snuck in at 100 yards out of view, heard or saw you and melted away without leaving a trace. Practice walking quietly, sitting quietly, doing everything with the upmost attention to sound and motion, and you will see and shoot more turkeys.
Over calling. This is the easiest problem to fix. All you have to do is nothing. Just call less. And stop calling when the bird starts to come in. Calling nonstop all morning is not natural, hens do not do it. You must call less often, and even when you do get a gobbler excited, you can get and keep him too excited, and he may stop at 100 yards and strut and never get close enough. Soft calling is maybe the most underestimated turkey hunting skill. I did a whole podcast episode on the subject: The Art Of Soft Calling – The Turkey Hunting Advice Of Sages.
Underestimating range. Almost all new turkey hunters will underestimate how far away a turkey is. They figure it’s 30 yards and it’s really about 50. They assume 40 yards and its closer to 80. We have all been there and have most all taken shots at hopeless distances only to scare the birds away, or worst wound them to die slowly and painfully over the next few days or weeks.
Learning to judge your distance is not only better for hunting but it ensures that birds do not suffer needlessly. Get a cheap range finder and just practice estimating and checking distances when you are scouting. If you need to, get higher grade ammo like TSS shot that will give you more margin to ethically take longer range shots.
So, what are the big conclusions for those who have read this far? First and foremost, this is not just an article packed with information, it is also filled with resources. This guide is an outline that links you to the in-depth information you need to become an effective turkey hunter and I will add more resources and links to it over time.
Be attentive to the podcast episodes, videos, and other articles and resources that I linked to. I created and organized all of these resources over the course of years. Use them to become a great turkey hunter and send me pictures of your first couple birds!
Be sure to listen to The New Hunters Guide Podcast and check us out on YouTube.
Till next time. God bless you, and go get em in the woods!
George Konetes Ph.D. – Founder and Host of the New Hunters Guide.
The New Hunters Guide is simply what George wishes he would have had when learning how to hunt; a single place to get practical hands on knowledge about different kinds of hunting, gear, strategy, and tips that can improve your comfort and fun factor in the woods.