Turkey hunting is a popular pastime for generations of Americans. A successful turkey hunter needs to draw on a variety of skills and tactics to bag these wily upland game birds. The payoff for hunters is a delicious game animal and the potential for beautiful trophy birds. Getting into turkey hunting can be intimidating, so we put together this guide to get you started. We recommend finding someone local that you can hunt with to learn the finer points of wild turkey hunting.
Turkey Hunting For Beginners
People are inspired to learn to hunt turkeys in lots of ways. These days, turkey hunting videos are responsible for introducing the sport to a new generation to enjoy. Turkey hunting is done with a shotgun, bow, or crossbow.
Ohio hosts turkey hunting season in the fall and again in the spring. Both seasons are just 38 days long, which means that a hunter needs to have the right equipment and knowledge about turkeys to find success. Turkey may seem like an ungainly and stupid animal, but they are not. They are smart, alert, and elusive – so you need to be well-prepared for the turkey hunt.
A great place to start is the National Wild Turkey Federation website. The site offers turkey hunting tips that help create a safe and successful hunt.
Wild Turkey Basics
People are often surprised at the difference in flavor a wild turkey has over its store-bought and farm-raised cousins. It has a bolder flavor and less fat due to its diet. In the fall, the turkeys feed primarily on nuts and acorns, while during the spring turkey season, their diet consists of green shoots and fresh plants.
Turkey hunters should learn as much about the habits and behaviors of the wild turkeys to give themselves the best chance of success. There are several types of wild turkeys in the U.S., but the largest population is Eastern Wild Turkey.
The male turkeys are called toms and can be distinguished by the waddle on their nose, the long beard on their chest, and the showy display in the spring to attract hens for mating. The toms puff up their feathers and spread their tail feathers, drop their wing feathers to the ground, and gobble loudly. Toms will fight with one another for dominance and the right to mate with hens.
Full-grown wild turkey toms can stand four feet tall and weigh as much as 30 lbs. Turkeys spend most of the day scratching on the ground for food in woodland areas. At night, turkeys roost in tall trees. Wild turkeys are better flyers than domestic turkeys.
A small number of wild turkey hens will have a beard. In Ohio, rules stipulate that only "bearded turkeys" can be taken during the spring season. A little more than 1% of turkeys taken in 2022 were hens with beards. Hens are generally smaller than males and weigh less than 12 lbs on average. Hens will often have a "snood," which is a fleshy appendage on the beak. Tom's snoods are larger and longer than hens.
Wild turkey hunting season dates are established by state wildlife agencies and vary by state and county in some cases. In Ohio, the fall hunting season begins in early October and ends in November. The exact start day is set by the Division of Wildlife each year. Turkey hunters can take one turkey of either sex during the fall season.
Spring season starts in early April with youth-only hunting. General hunting opens later in the month in the southern part of the state. The northeastern zone opens a week later. Both zones close in May, with the Southern zone closing one week before the northeastern zone.
Beginner turkey hunters should read up on the most current hunting regulations on the Department of Natural Resources website. We suggest that first-time hunters take an experienced hunter safety education class before going hunting.
Prepare for the Hunt
Many turkey hunters begin preparing for the spring turkey hunting season months ahead of time. Hunting turkeys requires special gear. The first and most important part of any hunter's gear is a valid state hunting license and a permit to hunt turkey. Without these documents, individuals are poaching, not hunting.
Hunting license sales and tags are the most effective way that states can protect game species populations and ensure that turkey hunts happen for generations to come. Being a properly licensed hunter is the first step. Hunters can buy hunting licenses online through the Division of Wildlife.
Hunting gear will also include turkey calls. Turkeys talk to one another using a variety of vocalizations. Turkey calls are among the most well-studied bird sounds, and some of the more useful calls are useful to hunters for luring birds. One of the reasons that turkey hunting is enjoyable is the interaction between calling a bird and having it respond and using vocalizations to set up a shot.
Experienced hunters rely on slate calls or box calls to replicate the types of sounds turkeys make to communicate. Calling turkeys with mouth calls is an art form most turkey hunters learn to add to their basic calls.
Clothing for Hunting
Turkeys have excellent eyesight and can instantly camouflage into the environment, sitting silently as the hunter attempts to find them. Even during the breeding season, turkey flocks will sometimes go silent and evade many hunters. A good-fitting hunting jacket in woodland camo or neutral colors with similar warm pants is a good starting point. Layering clothing is important because the hunt can be cold and damp. Some states require specific clothing for hunting. Ohio does not require hunters to wear a blaze orange turkey vest.
Hunting Weapons for Turkey
Most turkey hunts do not allow for rifle or handgun hunting during turkey season. Instead, shotguns are the most common weapon in use. Quality turkey loads are available and are a better choice than standard loads.
Bow hunting for wild turkey is an increasingly popular sport. Traditional longbows, recurve bows, and crossbows are all used for turkey hunting. Bows should have at least a 40 lb draw weight, while crossbows should have at least 75 lbs of weight. Broadheads specifically designed for turkey hunting are available in a variety of styles that include mechanical, fixed blade, and a specialized point called a guillotine broadhead.
Turkey hunts can involve stalking and calling birds, hunting from tree stands or in brush cover, or ground blind hunting. Many hunters will identify areas that turkeys are using by looking for turkey tracks, turkey droppings, and areas where food plots are grown. Corn fields are a favorite of turkeys and are an excellent location for setting up a Jake decoy – just pay attention to the fact that turkey decoys are not legal in all areas.
After the Hunt
Most states have strict rules about the steps that hunters must take once they have successfully taken a turkey. In Ohio, hunters must fill out a turkey permit and attach the turkey tag to the turkey immediately after the bird is down.
Hunters must also inform the Division of Wildlife of the turkey and receive a certification number before the bird can be processed. This rule applies to hunters on private land or public turkey hunt areas.
Turkey tags are one of the ways that wildlife officials monitor the turkey populations in the states. Over the last several years, Ohio has seen a decrease in the turkey population after a resurgence in the last century. In the early 1900s, turkeys had been hunted to extinction in the state. Current science indicates that extreme weather has disrupted the breeding season in recent years, leading to fewer hens that produce eggs.
Most hunters will process wild turkey themselves, but there are facilities that can do the dirty work for you. The process is fairly straightforward and involves removing the feathers, gutting the carcass, and cleaning the cavity, then cooling the carcass as quickly as possible to avoid decomposition and bacteria growth. A sharp knife is an essential tool for processing wild turkeys and other game animals.
For more tips, you can read our blog post breaking down how to clean a wild turkey.