Adult male eastern wild turkeys are black or blackish-bronze with white wing bars, blackish-brown tail feathers, and a blueish-gray to red head. These “Toms” weigh about 16–25 pounds. They typically sport a 6–10 inch hair-like “beard” which protrudes from the upper chest. When a tom is strutting, its head turns bright red, pale white, or vibrant shades of blue. The tail feathers of an adult male are all the same length forming a smooth semi-circle.
Juvenile male turkeys (called "jakes") weigh about 12–16 pounds. They are black or blackish-bronze with white wing bars, blackish-brown tail feathers and a blueish-gray to red head. Jakes have small beards ranging from barely visible to 6 inches long. When a Jake struts, there are several feathers in the center of the tail fan that extend longer than the rest creating a “step” in the top center of the fan.
Females (called "hens") are about 9–12 pounds, and are generally less conspicuous. Their heads are typically dull brown or blueish-gray. Although rare, female turkeys can have beards. Bearded female turkeys are legal for harvest.
Why are beards important?
It is important to be able to identify a turkey beard in the field. During the spring turkey season, only bearded birds (2 bird bag limit) may be harvested. See all turkey hunting regulations.
Where to hunt
Wild turkeys are habitat generalists and thrive in a variety of environments in Massachusetts. They can be found in agricultural lands, in forests, but also in suburban and urban areas. Places with a mix of habitat types are the most productive for turkeys because they provide abundant food and cover throughout the year.
When looking for a place to hunt, focus your attention on areas with a combination of forested and open habitats like:
- agricultural fields of all sorts
- hayfields or meadows
- forestry operations that create openings in the woods
Tip: Ask your friends and family where they see turkeys while driving or walking. This can save countless hours of scouting! If you are tipped off to an area with turkeys, a quick look at an aerial map (using tools like the MassWildlife Lands Viewer, OnX, OLIVER, or Massachusetts Interactive Property Map) can reveal an adjacent woodlot, farm, or forest where you can hunt.
When you find an area to hunt, make sure to:
- Secure permission from the landowner for private property
- Identify parking and access locations
- Check local town bylaws relative to hunting on private or municipal property
Once you have identified potential hunting locations, the next step is to scout those areas for turkey sign. Some locations attract turkeys year after year, but others are less predictable. Turkeys can move a lot in the few weeks before the opening of the season. It pays to scout close to the beginning of the season. Read below for more tips for pre-season scouting.
Look: Bring binoculars when scouting and look carefully. This can often be done from your vehicle—taking a few Sunday drives can pay dividends when looking for turkeys. If possible, drive through some prospective areas on your way into work prior to the season, especially on rainy days when turkeys are likely be out in the open.
Listen: Use a crow, owl, or other loud call to try to get a responsive gobble from a male bird. When scouting, avoid using turkey calls as it can result in the turkey marching right into you, or even becoming call-shy. As the season draws near, drive and/or hike to a location where you think there may be turkeys. Pick a nearby high spot and just wait and listen. As the sun starts to rise, toms and jakes will often gobble which can often be heard for a quarter mile or more.
Find the roosting area: Once you locate one or more gobblers, try and find their roosting areas. Gobblers are most vocal just before sunrise and just after sunset. Listening for gobbles during this time can help provide you with roost locations. Be mindful turkeys may not roost in the same spot every day. In the spring season, turkeys don’t move much in the week or two leading up to the start of the season. Identifying the roost can be useful when setting up before light for an early morning hunt. Turkeys are quite active in the early mornings so it’s important to get close to a roost, but not too close when setting up to hunt.
Turkey sign to look for when scouting
Look for different turkey sign including scat, feathers, scratching in the leaf litter, dust bowls or turkey tracks in the mud or sand.
- Tracks: Turkey tracks can be easy to identify due to their size. Look in muddy and sandy areas for tracks. Males have a distinctly longer middle toe compared to females.
- Dust bowls: Turkeys make small depressions in the sand to “dust” themselves which helps keep their feathers clean and free of mites. These depressions can often be found on field edges, logging roads, or any patch of dry dirt. Turkeys will often use the same dust baths day after day, so a well-used dust bowl is a good sign that there are resident birds around.
- Scratching/feeding sign: When turkeys feed in the woods they often scratch leaves leaving an area roughly the size of a paper plate.
- Scat: Turkey scat is small and can be difficult to find, especially for someone just starting out. Scat is often found beneath roost locations where the turkeys spend the night and in areas where they feed heavily. If you find scat, you can determine the sex of the bird by whether the scat is straight or curled.
- Feathers: Turkey feathers can often be found under or near a roost location. Finding a lot of feathers is a great way to confirm a roost location.
Sighting in your firearm and shot placement
Patterning your shotgun before the season is critical to determine which brand of ammunition and which shot size will work best for your firearm at various ranges. Different combinations of ammunition, firearms, and chokes will produce different patterns. Identify the maximum distance/range from which you can shoot that produces a clean pattern to ethically harvest a turkey. Click here for a complete guide on patterning your shotgun.
Note: To ethically harvest a turkey, aim for the head and neck. This ensures a quick clean kill and helps keep any pellets out of the meat.
Sighting in your bow and shot placement
You must be proficient with your bow to ethically harvest an animal—this is especially true for turkeys whose vital area is small. Make sure you know your effective shooting range with the broadhead you plan to use. Some broadheads are designed for aiming/shooting at the turkey’s neck and head. These broadheads have a very limited range in which they fly accurately and are not meant for aiming at the body. Other fixed blade and mechanical broadheads can be used to aim at the neck/head or the vitals located in the body. These pictures depict the ideal shot placement locations. Get tips for bowhunting turkeys.
Turkey sounds and types of calls
Turkey hunters commonly try and create hen turkey noises to call a gobbler into their hunting location. Below are some of the most common types of calls and sounds.
- Cluck: Clucks are a common call and very easy to make using all types of turkey calls.
- Purr: Purrs are a sound often made by hens when they are content and feeding. These can be used to relax a bird and get them to come the last few yards needed for a shot. A fighting purr is much louder and aggressive than a regular purr. Hunters sometimes use the fighting purr to imitate two territorial hens facing off.
- Yelp: The yelp is the most common call used by turkeys to communicate with and find each other.
- Cutting: This call includes combining sharp clucks with yelping. Hens often make these sounds when they are excited or sometimes agitated. This is a loud call that can be used to help stir a reaction from a turkey to see if there is one in the area or used to get a stubborn gobbler to come in those final yards.
- Gobble: This is one of the main sounds made by a male turkey. It is commonly used to communicate with hens and lets them know he is in the area. As a hunter, you will rarely ever use this call since it may draw away less dominate birds or even attract fellow hunters to your position.
A “shock gobble” is a gobble made by a male turkey in response to a loud noise like a owl call or even a car door slamming shut. As a hunter, you would not try to imitate a shock gobble, but would use a locator call to get a turkey in the area to respond. Locator calls include owl calls or crow calls that cause a turkey to produce a “shock gobble” and giveaway their general location.
Visit the National Wild Turkey Federation wild turkey sounds webpage to hear these common calls, along with additional turkey calls.
Types of calls
To replicate these calls, there are three types of calls hunters commonly use which are mouth calls, box calls and pot calls. Below we will learn about these three types of calls, if you have any calls at home try practicing with your calls along with the video!
Mouth calls can be tough to get the hang of but often produce some of the best sounding turkey calls. These calls are made with different numbers of latex reeds which create sound when the user blows air over them. Small cuts in the latex can also produce different sounds. When just starting out with mouth calls it’s recommended to start with a two-reed mouth call.
Box calls are very user friendly and can be used to make several different calls. When using a box call be sure to use chalk on the paddle of the call to create quality sounds. Try to use brown chalk or any chalk color that blends into the box call.
Pot calls are commonly made from a flat piece of slate or glass and then scratched with a “striker” to create different sounds. Using different materials (slate or glass) and different “strikers” will produce different pitches and sounds. Many turkey hunters carry a pot call with 3 or more strikers to imitate different birds.
When calling, be patient, it is very easy to think nothing is there or to “overcall” a turkey. More often than not, less calling is better. Gobblers will often be unresponsive to your calls in the early morning when they are with hens. Those same birds can become very active and callable in the late morning.
Safety Tips for Calling
Remember, there are other turkey hunters in the woods and you are mimicking the sound of a turkey so it’s important to follow the below safety tips when turkey calling to keep yourself and others safe.
- Call the bird to you, do not stalk it. You don’t know if what you hear is a bird or another hunter. Stalking can lead to hunting accidents.
- Select a calling position with your back against a tree or other natural obstacle large enough to cover your human outline.
- If you see another hunter, stay still and shout “STOP” in a loud, clear voice to alert them of your position.
Turkey hunters often use decoys to provide a distraction to turkeys and encourage a male turkey to come in closer. There are many choices of decoys on the market at varying price ranges. Decoys aren’t necessary but can sometimes help.
- Hen decoys are a great choice and can be used with nearly any combination of other decoys. Hen decoys in feeding or relaxed positions are used by many hunters.
- Jake decoys are very common and can be used alone or in combination with a hen decoy. The benefit of a jake decoy is that it doesn’t intimidate other male turkeys and can often cause a tom turkey to come closer to assert his dominance over the jake.
- Tom decoys are designed to simulate a tom turkey in full strut displaying for a female. These are used most often to aggravate a mature tom. Use these decoys with caution as they can intimidate Jakes and even some mature (sub-dominant) Toms causing them to stay out of range.
No one decoy setup will work every time. Below are some general tips for hunting with decoys.
- Start with one decoy. Many hunters use either one hen or one jake decoy.
- In a field setting, decoys should be placed about 10-15 yards away from where you are sitting. If you have an idea of the direction turkeys will approach from, offset the decoys to one side as turkeys are famous for “hanging-up” just yards out of range.
- Try placing the decoys to your side rather than straight in front of you. If you are right-handed, set the decoys to your left, to the right if you are left-handed.
- Use decoys that move around a little in the wind. Some decoys have holders that allow the decoy to move. This movement makes the decoys appear more life-like and can help convince a weary gobbler.
- Use decoys that are easy to fold up and store concealed in your vest or a pack for easy and safe transport from location to location.
- When moving in the woods, conceal your decoys in a vest or bag so that another hunter doesn’t mistake them for a real bird.
Roosting a turkey
One of the best turkey hunting strategies is to find the tree where toms are sleeping the night before you plan to hunt. This practice, called “roosting,” allows you to position yourself 100-150 yards away from sleeping birds well before sunrise the next day. Once it is legal to hunt (½ hour before sunrise) you are in a perfect position to try to call in a gobbler when they are most active.
Turkeys usually fly up to their roost trees at or just after sunset. Once they are in the trees, toms and jakes will often gobble on their own but can also be prompted to gobble. A loud owl call is the best option for roosting turkeys, but most loud and high-pitched noises will do the trick. Other options for calls include coyote howls, crow calls, shutting your vehicle door, and even a quick toot of your vehicles horn. When turkeys hear the sound, they will often respond with a gobble revealing their approximate location.
After the hunt
- Upon harvesting a turkey, you must immediately fill out and attach the paper tag from your permit to the carcass. Your game must remain intact (other than field dressing), with the harvest tag attached until it is reported. After it is reported, the tag can be removed when it is prepared for food or taxidermy purposes. Learn about harvest reporting.
- Never carry an exposed harvested turkey, tail fan, or decoy while hunting; put them in a bag when carrying them out of hunting locations.
- Consider wearing hunter orange when leaving your hunting area.
- Be still. Turkeys have incredible eyesight and can see movement very well. Hunting from a blind can help conceal movement. If you are not in a blind, try to be ready with your firearm resting on your knee or use a shooting stick to support the gun. When a turkey comes into view you don’t want to move any more than just turning off your safety and squeezing the trigger.
- Never stalk a turkey, make sure to call the bird to you.
- Limit your calling. It is very easy to “overcall” a turkey. In general, less calling is better.
- Hunt in the rain. Many turkey hunters don’t like hunting in the rain, but turkeys are active rain or shine. During rainy days, focus your efforts on open hay fields or agricultural areas, as turkeys prefer these openings when it’s wet.