Don’t break out the cranberry sauce just yet. Wild turkeys are a lot harder to hunt than you might think, especially for beginners.
We’ve always had wild turkeys in our area, and aside from the fact that they make my dogs go nuts, I never really gave them a lot of thought. Then a few years back a neighbor managed to bag a big Tom and he invited a few of us over to check out the prep process. I have to admit that it was pretty cool, but it did make me appreciate the convenience of simply buying a Thanksgiving Butterball at the supermarket. We went back a few days later after the brine soak etc. and sampled the final product after he had cooked it in an outdoor deep fryer. It was really good and a great way to experience a wild turkey meal for the first time.
We did get talking about wild turkeys in general and the group seemed really into all of the specifics of the hunt and how challenging it was. I didn’t see it at first since the birds all just looked goofy and slow to me. How hard could it be, right? Well, after a number of outings with the boys I stand corrected.
It turns out that wild turkeys are quite intelligent, very wary of humans AND have wickedly good eyesight that allows them to detect even the slightest amount of movement. You really have to hunt these birds and that’s what makes it both challenging and exciting.
Understanding that there have been volumes written about the gear, techniques and nuances of wild turkey hunting, we can only hope to scratch the surface on the various topics here. We’ll get into more detail in a following edition. If anyone is serious about taking this up though, you should definitely learn all that you can before you hit the woods.
Seasons & Regulations
Through conservation efforts, wild turkey populations across North America are substantial. Like any hunting activity though, you still have to play by the rules and stick to local seasonal restrictions. These can differ from State-to-State and between the Spring and Fall seasons. Do the research on when and where you can hunt, bag limits, any specific harvest details, licensing and any other regulations that you’ll have to follow.
Types & Appearance
There are two types of wild turkeys. These include the Ocellated from Central America and the North American, which has five sub-species:
Eastern – the most abundant east of the Mississippi
Merriam’s – found mostly in the mountainous regions of the west
Gould’s – Arizona only
Rio Grande – Concentrated in the western desert regions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other western states. Can also be found in Mexico.
Osceola – Florida only
It’s important to be able to distinguish the differences between male and female turkeys (hens) and between mature males (Toms) and juvenile males (Jakes). This is because there are limitations as to which ones you can hunt and when. It’s the Toms that are the target for the most part, with hens being included in the Fall (when they aren’t tending to their nests) in certain jurisdictions.
Adult male turkeys are normally larger and are more colorful than their female counterparts, with colors of red, white and blue being noticeable on their head and neck. A male turkey’s feathers also will be closer to black and have a more of a sheen to them, while a hen will generally be more brown overall in appearance.
One of the biggest differences between the males and females is the bristly ‘beard’ that the adult males have on their chest. While a Jake’s beard is usually short and stubbly, and about 10 percent of hens have beards, it is only the full-on bearded Toms that are legal to hunt in the Spring.
A good time to practice wild turkey identification is while you’re out scouting your hunting grounds before the season begins. Try using binoculars, and take the time to get positive ID’s on the various types.
Many years ago, the common thinking was that wild turkeys could only thrive in heavily forested areas, but over the years biologists have adjusted that thinking. These birds actually do well in mixed terrain environments that provide the essentials they require. This would include trees for daytime rest, escape cover and nighttime roosting, open grassy areas for feeding and sources of water such as rivers and streams.
Much is made of the wild turkey call and its importance in hunting. It’s an element that should absolutely never be taken for granted and a skill that is essential when stalking these very suspicious creatures. The adult Toms are the ones that actually gobble, and the calls are unique to each bird. Jakes can gobble but it’s not quite the same. It’s the gobble that the males use to attract the females during breeding season in the Spring. Hens also vocalize but it’s more like chirps and clucks. There are a lot of different call types available and some take more practice than others to master. It’s usually best to start with a simple box call and work your way up from there.
Choose Your Weapon
Most States allow turkey hunts with a shotgun, bow or a muzzleloader. There are specific turkey loads and turkey chokes available, so a 12 or 20 gauge work well in most cases. The chokes are popular, as many hunters prefer to keep the pattern tight. If you choose a traditional, compound or cross bow, make sure that you’re comfortable shooting from a seated position, as most turkey hunts happen from the ground.
Wild turkey Hunting Strategies & Techniques is a huge subject that we’ll tackle at another time. This topic could easily be a whole series unto itself, so it’s best that we break it up a bit.
I would recommend that anyone interested in this awesome sport find an experienced mentor to learn the ropes from. There’s a lot going here, and the more you know, the better your experiences will be.
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