Turkey Hunting 101

By Travis Arnott

Veteran turkey hunters all too often hear the phrase “I don’t know where to go” or “I don’t know anyone to show me the ropes” when talking with new hunters. A quick look into how I got started may help put your fears at ease.  After all, hunting in the spring when the temps are in the 60’s and 70’s and not 38 and raining, is a nice change from the grey Pacific Northwest that we deal with quite often.

With turkey hunting not being a traditional hunt in the PNW, very few had mentors to turn to. My journey was no different, so I bought a couple calls, read everything I could find and watched any content I could to help. It took me 3 years to finally find tracks, scat, and what I considered SUCCESS!

On my 4th year, everything fell into place but not without struggles. Applying all the tricks I learned in areas that looked like they would hold turkeys but with no luck and zero response. I made sure to set up each and every time before calling, as to not get caught by a turkey that would appear outta nowhere. Nothing was working. I was all but done with this crazy turkey hunting thing, but I decided on one last stand. Instead of prepping for an encounter, I fired off some yelps on my box call and was once again disappointed with zero responses. As I stood up disappointed and frustrated, I stepped in front of a large Cottonwood tree and something caught my eye. Standing there was a turkey, with its red head, 3-4” beard and all its glory! I was in disbelief! Thankfully I had my gun in hand and the tom ended up in my truck and went home with me that year. That was in 1999 and 22 years later I am a full blown Turkey Nut!

So let’s get started on some of the simple points to get started, shall we?

Being where Turkeys are and knowing where to go

Washington has 3 subspecies of wild turkey: Merriam’s, Easterns (found in Western WA ironically), and Rio Grande. WDFW has great maps and layouts of where the different subspecies are spread out through the State (link to map and WDFW resources). Generally the NE corner holds Merriam’s, SE corner holds Rios, SW WA holds Easterns, and Merriam’s are also found along the east slopes of the Cascades and the Klickitat region.

Scouting

As with any game animal scouting is the best way to find them and learn their habits.  E-scouting is a great new tool to find Topo info, public/private lands, access points, and a host of other valuable information. When digitally scouting, look for accessible areas within the regions that you are hunting.

Boots on the ground

Digital scouting is great, but nothing beats getting out there and looking for yourself. It will also gain you “street cred” with other veteran turkey hunters into maybe giving a bit of advice they normally wouldn’t to the average Joe. Look for tracks, scat, feathers and other tell tale turkey sign. I hear often that a lot of newer hunters being discouraged about an area because while they find sign, they never seem to see birds. Don’t worry, they have eyesight 10x or more than a human. They most likely saw you already and since they know how far down the food chain they are, they didn’t risk becoming an easy meal.

Locator calling before season

Locator calling is also a good way to scout and have a turkey disclose his location without fear of him running to you. Toms have an involuntary reflex known as the “Shock Gobble” where loud noises can cause them to gobble, exposing their location. Owl calls, crow calls, coyote calls and even elk bugles can elicit this response. I carry a mix when scouting and also during the season. When attempting to locate birds, I generally stay high on ridges when shock calling to broadcast at a longer distance and to hear birds that could be further away. The flora in Western WA especially, will dampen their responses quite a bit.

I recommend being in the woods before daylight. As dawn approaches, turkeys are very social creatures in the spring time and are looking for suitors. They will call to each other every morning in hopes of reconnecting. Being out there listening to their magic will help you identify where the toms are located.

Using turkey calls as locators

Can you do it? Yes. Is it bad? Possibly. There is an old thought that using turkey calls at any point other than the hunting season educates the birds to become call shy. I’m on the fence with this one because when done with caution, it will not educate them because they think they’re just answering another turkey. But if they happen to run in, confront you and spook from the encounter it may cause them to use more caution next time, thus educating them.

Calls

The market is flooded with turkey calls of all kinds, shapes and sizes. Two main types are friction and air operated. Don’t be afraid to try out a few different styles to see what you like. Calls range from extremely simple push pin call to some that take practice to get good at. Keep in mind that you do not need to be a calling champ in order to call in a turkey. Some of the worst turkey calls I ever heard were from turkeys.

Friction calls

Friction calls come in two basic types. A pot call, which is a pot with a surface of either slate, fiberglass, acrylic glass, or metal such as aluminum, brass, or copper. Using a Striker (peg) they can mimic almost any turkey sound except the Gobble. They can take some practice to use and get good at. By dragging the striker/peg across the surface creates the sound and depending oh your movement creates different sounds. Strikers are made from wood, carbon or acrylic. Each different type of striker will cause a different sound. Thus one pot call can sound like many different turkeys just by using different strikers.

Box calls come in a variety of shapes and styles. The hinged paddle call is the most common. It is very user friendly that anyone one can sound like a champ the first time out with very little practice.

Air blown calls

Air blown calls fall under a few categories such as mouth calls or more commonly referred to as reeds or diaphragm. There are also wing bone calls, made from the turkey’s wing bone or trumpet calls and a variety of others. Most of these take some fairly extensive practice but have their benefits. For this article we’ll talk reed/diaphragm calls.

I predominantly use mouth calls for a lot of reasons. You can mimic the complete vocabulary of a turkey. You also can call loud or soft and most importantly there’s no external movement that can give you away in the middle of a hunt. They do however take some practice. With some practice and experimenting with many types or diaphragms that work for you, you will find what works. I helpful practice tip is to call while you are driving in the car. It took me a while before I finally got it and was fortunate enough to become the 2007 WA State Turkey Calling Champion. So if I can do it, you can do it.

Turkey Vocabulary:
  • Yelp – All turkeys, even Toms and Jakes (yearling toms) yelp, it is the mainstay of their vocabulary. You can kill turkeys with just yelps. But adding in other parts of their dialect will add realism and convince an old weary long-beard to give you a closer look.
  • Clucks are a short burst sounds like ”pop” or “put” and are usually linked in with yelps and purrs. They are predominantly a sound of contentment.
  • Putts are a loud cluck that usually is a danger signal just as a cow elk barking. If you hear this, usually the gig is up and time to rethink your strategy.
  • Gobble – The gobble is the sound we are chasing. The sound that gets us fired up. Toms gobble to tell hens to come see them. For you elk hunters, it’s the Bugle. There are devices that can make gobble sounds but I will spread caution to really be careful if you use this call when hunting. And yes, toms can respond to it just as a herd bull responds to another bugle near his harem. I recommend NOT using this call for safety reasons. As you will more than like, on public ground, call in other hunters. A successful hunt is the one we come home from.
  • Purrs: A low volume contentment call that usually used in close range by all turkeys as they’re feeding along. The can also make an aggravated purr which is a very loud sound heard usually during a fight or when agitated.

Practice as many as you can and use what you feel comfortable with. All call makers give instructions on how to make each sound and can get you in the ballpark. Or look for videos or audio recordings of turkeys and their sounds and practice.

Gear

Camo

Camouflage is not an absolute necessity, but anything to conceal your whereabouts is a good idea. Using masks or face paint and gloves will help. Anything that blocks out large solid patches of our bodies and clothing is ideal. Find camo that you think works best for the region you’ll be hunting, but they all will work.

Vests

They run from full on frames to allow for more comfort to fanny packs with suspenders on them for the ultralight hunter. Depending on what you carry in the field depends on what will work for you. Consider your calls, mountain money (toilet paper), water, decoys, food, and other things to when choosing a vest. I prefer one that allows more comfort than cubic inches of payload to keep me less fidgety so I can sit longer and not have a leg fall asleep.

A variety of vest styles
Decoys

As with everything I’ve mentioned it comes down to you and what you like or want. I personally carry a small collapsable 3D hen and small runt looking Jake, while others carry a whole flock. I have a dear friend that looks like a camouflaged Santa Claus carrying his large sack of decoys as we take off running after a distant gobbler. If you’re hunting more open territory I would probably use 1 or 2 hens and possibly a Jake or Tom decoy. More wooded tight quarters hunting, I tend to leave them in my vest. Usually by the time the Tom is in view, he’s in range of my shot.

Turkeys one day will run to your decoys and the next flee the county. Depends on their mood, how often they got whooped by another tom or hen, and if they even feel like dealing with the drama that day. Keep in mind what works today may not work tomorrow. There is no 1 specific way to call them in and hunt them.

Weapons

Washington State allows for shotgun, muzzleloading shotgun, and archery, including crossbows for spring turkey season. If you are in other states, check your local regulations.

Shotguns

Shotguns from 12 gauge down to .410 can be used to effectively hunt Turkeys depending on your range and payloads. Extra tight chokes and specific loads are the norm and finding what works best for your gun will be a trial and error. Yes that old 870 or grandpa’s side by side will work. You just need to know your effective range. Most try to hold a max to around 40 yards.

When patterning a shotgun, the rule of thumb I go by is to hit no less than 100 pellets in a 10″ circle. Once that density drops below that you’ve found your max distance. I strongly suggest also patterning your gun at 10 yds for the same reason. The shot hasn’t really had time to open up much and is almost like shooting a rifle. I believe there are more misses at close range than further out do to this as one of the factors. My Son last year shot his Tom between 8 and 12 steps from us and there was a nice thumb sized hole where he aimed.

It can take some time finding just the right combo, so I suggest starting early and grabbing a few different brands of shells and shot sizes. I have two guns that take the same choke and each one likes a different load even when just swapping the chokes back and forth. We owe it to the finest game bird to be as diligent as we can when preparing our weapons for the hunt.

Archery

Archery is a bit more tricky for Turkeys due to all the movement one requires to draw their bow. Those eyes that are staring at everything in a 280 deg radius without turning their heads will catch you moving and is why I recommend a blind when archery hunting.

Shot placement varies depending on the presentation given. Broadside shots, offer two opportunities. Look for high near the shoulder shots or at the base of the thighs. Shoulder shots in the higher areas will hit the vitals. A turkey’s heart and lungs are tucked up toward the spine and in fact the lungs are intertwined in the rib cage. An old adage on this shot is “Hit ’em high, watch ’em die. Hit ’em low, watch ’em go.” I have lost a turkey with too low of a shoulder shot. You can also draw a line up the leg to where it intersects the thighs. This is two fold a great shot. First it incapacitates the legs for running or thrusting airborne and it also usually catches the femoral artery. 

On frontal shots, aim where the beard attaches to the breast thus catching the boiler room. Head shots are ideal if you’re a top notch shot.

Rear shots are also very ethical and good shots. With the tom facing away from you can help in two ways. If he fans his tail, the fan can obstruct his view of you drawing back and also exposes his vent, which would be your point of aim, allowing the arrow to pass into the heart and lungs.

Blinds and other gear

Blinds come in all shapes and sizes and will once again be dependent on how you hunt. The big pop up types offer full concealment and weather protection. I’ve been known to pack one deep into the backcountry for turkeys but generally I use a small collapsable shield type to hide me a bit and allow for some movement. Even a length of burlap draped over you like your favorite blanket will work.

The large pop up blinds will not affect turkeys unlike deer or elk that require time to get comfortable with a blind suddenly appearing. Turkeys pay no mind to a 6 foot tall pile of brush just appearing overnight on their favorite trail, so feel free to setup and take down as you hunt. I’ve had turkeys run right into the side of my blind without even a thought of danger. Chairs, stools, pads are also great to have when using blinds. I believe them to be some of the most important gear to stay comfortable, keep me out there longer and keep me from moving more.

An example of a shield blind with a chair

Hunting

My theory is go early, stay late. I like to get in either a known area or an unknown area before daylight with enough time for the woods to settle down from my disturbance and to let the morning tell me what it might bring. I’ve had Toms gobbling half hour before even a sliver of light was on the horizon. Using darkness as cover, you are less likely to bump turkeys because they are less weary because many things go bump in the night. I also tend to let them talk first if around. This technique can help you get close to them without them knowing where you are. Turkeys can pinpoint you almost to an exact location from the first call. If I do call, it is almost always starting with locators such as crow or owl.

When you get a response, it’s go time and the chess match starts. Listen for turkey sounds and if they seem like they are moving or staying stationary. This will determine how the tom wants to be hunted. It can vary so be patient.

Michael Chamberlin, a national turkey biologist has done repeated studies that a tom will visit the location that the call emanated from at some point that day. Other studies have shown that 80% of the time, turkeys come to the callers location. This can be a half hour or up to 4 or 5 hours later. When you call and they answer they know where you are within a few feet. Patience is the key.

A good friend told me, “When you think of moving, wait another ten minutes.” Last year I witnessed that first hand on a bird that we could not get to commit. So we got up and made a plan, but the bird had moved to under a 100 yards, so we sat right back down. 5 minutes later he fell to my gun.

Over calling can end more hunts than not. When a tom gobbles, he expects the hens to search him out and he is waiting for you to appear. Another downfall is unseen and unheard hens may also out flank you and carry him away. Each situation needs to be fluid and your ability to assess the situation and change your tactics is a necessity.

Midday can be the best time to hunt as the hens are spreading out to find or make a nest. Toms realize the party is over but still want to dance at this point, so around 10am to 2pm they are out trolling for that lone hen that needs a buddy. Late afternoons can be good if you can find areas they seem to frequent for afternoon feedings or dustings. Early evening just before roost time, Toms may announce their intent on where they decided to roost for the night and put out the feelers for companions once again.

For more insight, listen to my episode I recorded with Johnny Mack on The Soulful Hunter Podcast, where we dive deeper into everything Turkey 101!

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