Once considered a mystic art practiced only by the very best woodsmen in the nation, turkey hunting in the early 1950s and 1960s involved sportsmen who rarely shared their hunting skills or knowledge of turkeys with other hunters. These hush-mouthed outdoorsmen knew the magic of turkey hunting and kept it close to their vests, sharing their love and tactics of the sport only with family members and a few close friends. But today, turkey hunting for beginners is no longer shrouded in secrecy; aspiring turkey hunters can find spring turkey hunting tips and learn the turkey hunting basics by watching turkey-hunting videos, outdoor TV shows and YouTube videos, attending turkey-hunting seminars and reading internet blogs and books on turkeys and turkey hunting.
Bill Jones’s First and Last Turkey Hunt
Bill Jones came into my taxidermy shop back in the 1970s (when I still was doing taxidermy) and announced, “I want to go turkey hunting for the first time. What do I need to know, and what do I need to get?”
I told Jones, “Purchase a pushbutton turkey call, the easiest, simplest yet one of the best calls for turkeys. All you have to do is: use your index finger to push the dial on the call to make it purr; pat the dial with your open hand to make it cluck; and push the rod back and forth with your index finger three times to make a yelp. Those three calls are turkey hunting basics.”
“Then travel to where you plan to hunt. If you don’t have a place to hunt, go to a WMA. Walk the logging roads, listen for turkeys to gobble, and look for turkey droppings, scratchings and turkey feathers and tracks.”
I showed Jones pictures of turkey sign. I recommended he sit next to a tree bigger than his shoulders, while wearing a camo shirt and pants, hat and facemask. “Then listen for a tom to gobble and for turkey hens to yelp back. Cluck, and purr on your pushbutton box call a couple of times, put the call up, and wait. You may see the hens first but wait and expect the gobbler to come behind them. Allow the gobbler to get to within 30 yards of you, aim the bead of your shotgun at the turkey’s wattles where they meet the feathers on the turkey’s neck, and squeeze the trigger.”
I had given Bill my spring turkey hunting tips and on the first day of turkey season, he showed up at my shop about 10:00 am with a giant gobbler. I was much more excited than Jones was about his tom. When I asked him to tell me about his hunt, he replied, “I did everything you told me to do. I heard the tom gobble and hens calling back to him. However, before I began calling, I spotted something coming down the logging road toward me and soon recognized a turkey hen. She putted and clucked. Every time the tom gobbled, she’d yelp back to him. She was doing such a good job of calling that gobbler that I just let her keep on calling. In a few minutes, seven more turkey hens flew down and came up the same road, clucking and purring.
“Finally I spotted a tom strutting up the road, waited until the gobbler couldn’t see me and got my shotgun on my knee and my cheek against the stock, aiming at the gobbler. When that bird was 26 steps from me, I squeezed the trigger. I thought my hunt was rather boring. The turkey did everything you said he’d do, and I shot him.”
I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and said, “I promise you, my friend, that that will be the easiest turkey you ever take. Very few hunters ever have done that.”
“This hunt actually will be my last turkey hunt,” Jones explained. “I just didn’t get a thrill out of it. But I do want to get my bird mounted.”
Turkey Hunting Fundamentals for Beginners
My number one spring turkey hunting tip is focus on turkey hunting basic fundamentals. Taking a turkey in the springtime involves executing fundamentals like making a touchdown does. Even Super Bowl champion teams know that a game-winning touchdown results only when all the basic elements of the sport work together, including blocking, tackling and carrying out a specific game plan. Similarly, an effective combination of tactics may result in the taking of a turkey and probably increase your odds of bagging a bird by 40% to 50%.
* Know Turkeys – “I probably bagged more turkeys before I knew there was such a thing as a turkey call than I took once I discovered how to call turkeys,” says David Hale, the co-creator of Knight and Hale Game Calls in Cadiz, Kentucky. “When my home state of Kentucky legalized turkey hunting, I only knew how to hunt the birds like I’d hunted deer, squirrels and other wild game, find where they fed and slept, locate the routes they traveled during the day and then go to those places and shoot the critters when they arrived.”
If you’ve identified where a tom roosts, the direction he flies out of the tree in the morning, the trail he follows to reach his food, the places he meets his hens, the areas he loafs in during the middle of the day and the routes he takes back to his roost tree at night, you can bag a gobbler without ever calling to him.
* Learn to Read Turkey Sign – Turkey hunting for beginners is a lot about learning to spot and interpret the information around you. After you understand what a turkey likes to do, and where he likes to do it, next you need to learn to read and interpret the sign he or she leaves in the woods. Find turkey sign to choose a place to hunt. 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. The woods contain a record of what the turkeys have been doing, once you learn to see and identify it.
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 has walked 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.
If you find a fresh track, you know the turkey shouldn’t be more than a mile away. The odds are that he’ll be much closer. If the weather has been dry for several days, and you discover a soft dropping, you know the turkey is so close he may be looking at you.
* Have Turkey Hunting Basic Equipment –
1) Camo. An effective turkey hunter needs a quality suit of camouflage that matches the terrain where he’s hunting. Consider mixing and matching your camo. Always have on hand a camouflaged headnet, hat, gloves, boots and socks as well as a lightweight, camouflage rainsuit that you can put in your daypack.
2) Miscellaneous Equipment.
Making sure you are prepared for all the often overlooked scenarios is an invaluable spring turkey hunting tip. You’ll need a turkey vest with a drop-down seat, which will increase your patience and keep you from wiggling and squirming due to fanny fatigue. Plan to shoot a three inch Magnum 12 gauge or one of the new 20 gauge Magnums and the shells that pattern best in your gun, generally No. 4, 5 or 6 size shot. You may also want to consider using a full-choke barrel and/or a choke tube designed especially for turkey hunting.
Unless you’re hunting in an area that’s loaded with turkeys, you may have to walk great distances and sit for extended periods of time. If that region has any water on it, more than likely your feet will get wet, if you don’t wear the proper footwear. When purchasing boots for turkey hunting, buy the lightest, most comfortable waterproof boots you can find, as well as a quality pair of boot socks to add to your comfort, keep your feet dry and warm and absorb some of the shock from extended walking. Purchase knee-high boots, if you’re hunting where you may encounter standing water. Wet feet make for a bad day of turkey hunting. Try to have two pairs of boots with you when you plan to hunt for more than one day to give your boots the opportunity to dry thoroughly.
A quality turkey call is required for success and absolutely a turkey hunting basic need.
The wide variety of turkey calls available all will make turkey sounds. I suggest beginning turkey hunters use the pushbutton box call that’s simple-to-operate and will make the yelp of a wild hen as well as more sophisticated clucks, purrs and cackles. When you’re hunting in high-pressure places, the pushbutton box call often will bring in more turkeys than other calls will because so few hunters use it. Learn also to use friction calls and wind-blown calls. On certain days, turkeys will come to specific types of calls better than they will respond to other calls.
* Find an Experienced Turkey-Hunting Buddy –
When talking turkey hunting for beginners, you can learn more by spending a day in the woods with an experienced hunter than you can by hunting on your own for 3-4 years. If you can’t hunt with a buddy, buy or rent all the turkey hunting videos you can locate. Each of these videos takes you on a turkey hunt and shows you what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
* Cultivate Patience When You Hunt –
Someone who waits 30 minutes longer than he thinks he needs to wait before he moves after calling to a turkey often will bag more birds than a hunter who leaves his stand too quickly. My 30-minute rule I adhere to is, “If a turkey’s been gobbling and coming toward me and either shuts-up or refuses to come in, I’ll sit quietly on my stand for 30 minutes longer by the watch once I decide to move.” Remember, turkeys have short legs and take small steps, so rarely will they come to you as fast as you think they will.
* Realize You Can Make Mistakes When Hunting Turkeys and Still Be Successful
Your life won’t forever change for the worst if you make a mistake while hunting gobblers. Just do your turkey-hunting homework before going into the woods, follow these spring turkey hunting tips, and you’ll increase your chances of bagging a bird this season.
Turkey Hunting Basics Checklist
I’ve hunted turkeys for more than 50 years and therefore consider myself somewhat of an expert, because I’ve made every mistake a hunter can make at least twice. Here’s what I’ve learned about equipment you need.
1) Chokes. Many turkey hunters make the mistake of not deciding before they hunt how they want to play the game of turkey hunting. This can be especially difficult when we talk about turkey hunting for beginners. To take a turkey as soon as you see him, shoot a really tight, full/full shotgun choke. If you prefer to see how close you can get the tom to come to you before taking the shot, shoot a modified choke. Or, to take a gobbler that’s 20 – 30 yards away from you, shoot a full choke.
5) Insect repellant.
6) A small, lightweight, inexpensive flashlight.
7) A hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver.
8) A tube of black grease paint.
9) Extra shells.
11) Lightweight, inexpensive waders and a cheap pair of tennis shoes.
12) One-gallon Ziploc bags to put my extra stuff in – essentials like toilet paper, extra sandpaper for my friction calls, chalk for my box calls, extra strikers and batteries, a small compass, Band-Aids, a couple of candy bars, waterproof matches and a space blanket.
13) A water bottle.
16) Polypropylene sock liners and a pair of innersoles.
17) A well-made turkey-hunting vest that: fits you with a snap strap in front to distribute the weight in the vest more evenly; contains a large, deep game bag; and features a drop seat that has plenty of cushioning and back support for comfort.
18) A sharp knife that keeps its edge.
19) A small compact, idiot-proof camera to capture memories of your hunts.
20) A sleep machine to help me rest in hunting camps.
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More Info on Turkey Hunting For Beginners
For more spring turkey hunting tips and turkey hunting basics, check out John E. Phillips’ books, available in Kindle and some also in print and Audible (http://johninthewild.com/books#turkey). To receive and download for free “The Turkey Gobbler Getter Manuel,” by John and Denise Phillips, go to http://johninthewild.com/free-books.
This article first appeared in the March 2019 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.