Turkey Hunting 101: A Bowhunter’s Guide to Chasing Gobblers
Wild turkeys see in full color, they have telescopic vision, their meat is delicious, and they often eagerly respond to calling. What’s not to love?
Wild turkeys are exciting to bowhunt, and you can pursue them in spring, which coincides with their breeding season. That can make them receptive to calling. A big male turkey, called a tom or gobbler, gobbling its head off while fully fanned and puffed up on display delivers a heart-pounding experience you’ll never forget.
The wild turkey is also a great conservation success story. In 1930, the bird’s population was estimated at 30,000 nationwide. In contrast, the lower 48 states today hold about 7 million turkeys. Their restoration was accomplished through the teamwork of hunters, state wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Foundation.
Wild turkeys are challenging to bowhunt because of their exceptional eyesight and hearing. And they’re fun to hunt because you can “talk” their language and lure toms into bow range with a turkey call. They’re also great eating because their meat is a leaner, healthier version of a domestic turkey’s meat. To bowhunt wild turkeys you need the right gear, tactics and some knowledge, and the know-how to care for the meat once your bird is down.
The turkey’s color vision and 180-degree peripheral vision help it see the woods in vivid detail. To fool that keen eyesight, hunters need full camo that blends with their surroundings. That requires a facemask or face paint, and camouflage hat, gloves, pants and long sleeves. And because the turkey’s head is red, white and blue, for safety never wear those colors while hunting them.
Portable ground blinds solve many turkey-hunting challenges by fully concealing the bowhunter. The most critical moment in turkey hunting is drawing a bow unseen, which is why bowhunters prefer ground blinds. Many models are portable and easily moved to sites with the hottest action.
Calling turkeys is effective and just plain fun. You’ll choose from four basic types of calls: box calls, slate calls, diaphragm (mouth) calls and push-button calls. Push-button models are user-friendly and require little practice to make realistic sounds. Box calls are great for calling loudly to bring in turkeys from long distances. Box calls are also easy to use, but take some practice to produce realistic sounds. Slate calls are easy to use, and can produce a range of loud to subtle calls to bring gobblers in close. Diaphragm (mouth) calls are the most versatile, but most difficult to use. Diaphragm calls sit on the roof of your mouth, and you call by forcing air over the latex reed. These calls take lots of practice to master, but they’re worth it. And because they’re hands-free, you can keep your bow ready while calling.
Locator calls, such as crow calls and owl calls, are also important for turkey hunting. Although toms will gobble back when hearing turkey calls, sometimes they can be “shocked” into gobbling if you loudly imitate crows, owls or even coyotes. Basically, any call can be considered a “locator” call if it makes a turkey gobble back.
Calls, camouflage and bowhunting gear are available at archery shops. When selecting a call, ask your archery pro to show you how to use the different models. The pro can also answer any of your turkey-hunting questions.
Turkeys roost in trees every evening, and fly back down in the morning, usually at dawn. In spring, toms often gobble at loud noises, including slamming doors, thunder or train whistles. This involuntary response makes it possible to locate turkeys without setting eyes on them. Listen and then move once you pinpoint their location.
A tactic called “roosting” is a good way to find turkeys, and lets you know where they’ll be in the morning. To roost a turkey, visit the site you plan to hunt the next morning, arriving before sunset. Ideally, you’ve previously seen turkeys or their sign at this site. Walk to a high point like a hilltop to watch and listen. Turkeys will “shock gobble” at loud noises, but most hunters prefer to incite gobbles with less alarming sounds, like a crow or owl. A turkey call can work, too, but if the turkeys haven’t yet flown up to their roost, you risk attracting them to your site and spooking them. Make a loud, short burst of crow or owl calls, and then listen for that unmistakable gobble. If you don’t get a response, walk 100 yards and repeat until you hear a gobble. Make more calls until you pinpoint where they’re roosted.
When returning before dawn the next morning, set up within 200 yards of the turkey’s roosting tree. Set up your ground blind or conceal yourself in natural cover. Make soft hen yelps when you start calling, and increase the volume until they respond. Once a tom gobbles back, stick to soft, subtle occasional calls. It’s tempting to call back and forth with roosted gobblers, but you’ll usually fare better with patience. Play hard to get, which drives lovesick toms crazy, and brings them in close for a shot.
Need an auditory example of the types of the sounds you’ll hear while hunting wild turkeys? Click here.
Turkeys have a small “vitals” area, which requires careful shooting. When a strutting tom comes into your effective range, patiently wait for it to come out of strut. It’s hard to identify a gobbler’s vitals and body definition when it’s puffed up. As with deer, the best place to shoot is the turkey’s heart and lung area. Turkeys present this shot when in profile, or broadside.
A turkey’s heart and lungs are just behind where the wing joins the body. Think of it as the turkey’s shoulder. As with a deer, the ideal shot strikes a turkey right behind the shoulder.
Head shots, frontal shots and even rear shots can also be lethal, but these options present a small target and aren’t recommended for new archers. It’s important to know your capabilities and acknowledge your experience level. These factors dictate your shooting distance and your definition of ethical shot placement. All hunters must determine their personal limitations, and abide by their own guidelines.
Butchering and Cooking Turkeys
Wild turkey is fantastic table fare because it’s delicious organic meat. To ensure the best possible meal, you must properly field dress, cool, butcher and prepare the bird. Turkeys have a high internal body temperature and retain heat long after dying. Therefore, field dress your turkey soon after arrowing it by opening its abdomen between its breastbone and vent, and removing its organs. Next, store the bird where it can cool, and then get it home and quickly butcher it.
Butchering a turkey is simple, but first you must skin it, which is faster and easier than plucking its feathers. For even, thorough cooking and the best use of its cuts, debone the breast and remove its drumsticks.
Turkey breasts can be brined or marinated for moist and tender meat. Drumsticks are great for ground meat, sausage, soup or pressure-cooking. The turkey’s heart, liver and giblets can also be cooked and eaten. A bowhunter’s ultimate sign of respect is eating all edible parts.
What are You Waiting For?
Spring turkey season is a great time to be in the woods. It’s also an excellent way to practice bowhunting techniques before trying big-game hunting. Turkeys are a challenging species to bowhunt. Even if you don’t release an arrow, hearing a gobble and seeing their tracks in the woods is worth those 4 a.m. wake-up calls.
To start your turkey hunting adventure, check your state wildlife agency’s website for laws and season dates. Then visit your local archery shop to get the gear you need to take on this challenging bird.