Tips for a Safe and Successful Turkey Hunt

Turkey hunting can be an exciting and memorable experience, but it has associated dangers that the hunter must keep in mind. The wild turkey has a keen sense of sight and can easily detect movement and colors that are out of place in the woods, making the use of complete camouflage or drab colored clothing almost a must. Camouflage not only reduces the turkey's chance of seeing the hunter, but also has the same effect on other hunters. Each year, hunters somewhere in the U.S. are mistaken for turkeys and are shot. Several factors are responsible for these accidents. Hunters sneaking up on (stalking) other hunters who are calling and hunters who are wearing turkey colors (red, white, blue, and even black) are involved in a high percentage of the accidents.

Three solutions to these problems are:

  • Don't stalk birds; sit or stand and call the turkeys to you.
  • Don't wear red, white, blue or black anywhere on your body where the colors might be exposed during your hunt.
  • Don't hide in a place where your view is obstructed.

Being completely sure of your target and what is beyond it before you shoot will reduce the number of hunting accidents and the number of hens that are mistakenly killed during the spring season. Peer pressure and the underlying human desire to succeed sometimes contribute to hunting accidents. If you or your hunting companions feel you must be successful to prove some point, it is best you stay out of the woods. The true sportsman knows that hunting is not a competitive sport. Remember to hunt defensively and follow these suggested tips.

Locating Turkeys

Pre-season scouting is important. By walking ridge tops and driving back roads in areas populated by turkeys, and then stopping to give an occasional hen a call, owl hoot or gobble, plus doing a lot of listening, you should be able to locate some gobblers. Give yourself and other hunters a "break" by not calling in or "working" birds prior to the open season. While in the woods, look for turkey signs such as scratching in leaves, droppings, tracks or even feathers. Once one or more gobblers are located, it is best if you can determine their roosting areas. The most productive times to be afield listening for gobblers are early morning just prior to sunrise and again just before sunset. The gobbler is generally the most vocal at these times as he lets local hens know where he is.

State Forests and State Wildlife Management Areas are often favored turkey hunting areas, but privately owned lands provide much of the turkey hunting opportunities in Massachusetts. Even when private land isn't posted, ask landowner permission. Farmers and other landowners will generally cooperate with sportsmen who treat them fairly.

In the spring hunting season, many hunters try to "roost" a gobbler the night before they will hunt him. The next morning try to get within 100 - 150 yards (depending on cover and terrain) of the gobbler before it gets light enough that he will be gobbling. Try to get uphill of or at least on the same level as the gobbler.

  • Be sure to select a calling position where you can place your back against a tree or other natural obstacle that is large enough to break up your human outline, while protecting your back from unsafe and unethical hunters who may try to sneak in on you and shoot the turkey you are calling.
  • Be sure that you have good visibility so that you see incoming turkeys and other hunters approaching your calling position. Some hunters tie bright survey tape in a branch above their hunting position to alert other hunters to their presence.
  • DON'T STALK the gobbler-call it to you. (see below paragraph) Stalking is seldom successful and does lead to hunting accidents.
  • Respect the other hunter-don't "cut in" on areas where other hunters are working birds, or get between another hunter and a bird.

During the fall hunting season, the same safety considerations must be used during the fall season. Successful fall hunting often requires considerably more scouting to locate birds and pattern their movements. In the fall, some hunters will roost turkeys and try to call them in when they come off roost, or ideally, they will scatter a flock off the roost or later when feeding. They then pick a spot to sit near the break-up point and start calling for about 10-15 minutes, unless they hear calling before that. The best call to use in this situation would be the lost call of a young turkey, - also called the Kee-Kee run. Another good call is the assembly yelp of the adult hen. Once you get a response from a bird, just try to imitate the sound the bird is making.

Calling

In the spring, several soft tree yelps or clucks are generally enough while the gobbler is still on roost; just enough to let him know a hen is nearby. If he gobbles right back, resist the urge to do more calling. In nature, the gobbler attracts the hens to him through his gobbling and courtship displays. If you call to frequently while he is still on roost, he may stay in the tree longer than normal and continue to gobble. This may attract real hens or other hunters, either of which could ruin your chances of success. If another hunter does approach your position, remain still and call out to him in a loud voice. Do not wave or sound your turkey call to get another hunter's attention.

Once the turkey flies down from his roost you can again start calling, but remember that calling to loudly or too frequently can cause the gobbler to become suspicious and "hang up." He may continue to gobble and display from the same spot and come no closer. To avoid this, call just enough to keep him coming. Muffle your calls so as to give the impression that the hen is moving away. If the gobbler goes silent, you never know for sure if he left or if he is coming in silently looking for that stubborn hen that wouldn't come to him. The gobbler can appear from any direction. This is one of the most nerve-racking and exciting times of a turkey hunt and is a true test of your patience. Don't move, and listen carefully for footsteps or the sound of the gobbler displaying.

Many successful turkey hunters are not expert callers, but use their knowledge of turkey habitats and woodsmanship to their advantage. There are many turkey calls on the market and most are effective. The novice hunter generally starts with friction- type call because they are easiest to learn and are very realistic in sound. The box call, slate call and push button calls are all popular friction calls.

Because the friction calls requires some body movement to operate, many hunters also learn to use a diaphragm call, which is placed in the mouth. These calls are a little harder to learn to use, but are very effective, especially when you wish to call and still have both hands on your gun.

The gobbler call duplicates the gobble of the male turkey. This call is generally a bellows type call that must be shaken to operate. This requires a lot of movement. It is a good call for locating gobblers before the season or in the evening when trying to roost a gobbler. Don't use this call while actually hunting- you don't want to imitate the bird everyone is trying to shoot.

There are numerous turkey calling tapes and hunting videos available to help you learn the basics of turkey hunting, but there is no teacher like personal experience. Hunting with an experienced turkey hunter can provide a new hunter a wealth of information.

Local chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation also hold seminars throughout the state to educate hunters on calling, hunting techniques and to promote safe and ethical hunting. Novice hunters are strongly urged to attend a turkey hunting seminar before participating in this sport.

Before You Shoot

If a turkey does appear, positively identify your target and what is beyond it. In the spring season only a "bearded" turkey can be legally harvested in Massachusetts. Know how to identify the sex of the turkey by head color, body color, and finally be sure it has a beard before you shoot. Be especially careful that other turkey hunters are not in line with the bird you intend to shoot and that no hunting companions or other hunters are behind or beyond your intended target.

Know your effective shooting range and make sure that the gobbler is within that distance before you shoot. Pattern your shotgun before the season to determine which load will work best overall at various ranges. Shoot your gun at ranges of 35 yards and less. You must be able to consistently place 6 or more pellets into the skeletal area of the head and neck. Full choke barrels and premium shot shells with buffered loads of copper coated lead or steel shot are good choices. (Check your Massachusetts Hunting Abstracts for legal shot sizes.) Remember head and neck shots only and let the turkey get within your effective range.

Once your turkey is down, get to it quickly. Practice safe gun handling and be sure to put your safety back on. If your turkey is not fatally hit it could escape. If on a hillside or near a ledge, a flopping turkey can go quite a distance even though fatally hit. Be careful of leg spurs and flopping wings when holding a gobbler down. Detach the "turkey tag" from your turkey permit, fill out the required information, and attach the tag firmly to the bird before moving it from where you shot it. For safety reasons carry your turkey from the woods in some sort of camouflaged or blaze orange carrier. Carrying a turkey out of the woods over your shoulder with flopping wings and tail can invite a hunting accident. Some hunters also wear a blaze orange hat while carrying their turkey or while changing calling locations. Remember that you must bring your turkey to an official turkey check station within 48 hours of killing the bird. 

District offices of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife can provide information on check station locations .

MassWildlife and the National Wild Turkey Federation are committed to safe and ethical turkey hunting. Putting these turkey hunting tips to use will help to insure that turkey hunting will remain a safe, enjoyable outdoor experience for all of us. Remember to read and understand the rules and regulations in the current Massachusetts " Abstracts of the Fish and Wildlife Laws" regarding season dates, open zones, hunting practices and other aspects of your sport.

The above information is provided by both MassWildlife and the National Wild Turkey Federation.