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Getting Started Turkey Hunting?

March 13, 2009 by  
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Here’s a pretty good read I found on the net (Outdoorcentral.com) and thought it might be helpful for those getting started in their quest in chasing down those spring gobblers.

Turkey Hunting 101: How to bag a gobbler

The basic challenge of spring turkey hunting -- convincing a keen-eyed, experienced, wary gobbler to approach within shotgun range -- is fairly simple. In practice, however, it can be devilishly complicated.It’s true that turkeys are wary, but people have been hunting them successfully for thousands of years. Here is how to get started.

JEFFERSON CITY–A brain-rattling gobble shatters the pre-dawn silence. On a sturdy branch high in an old oak tree, a wild turkey gobbler announces to all hens within half a mile that he is the cock of the walk, ready to thrash any other “tom” foolish enough to dispute his dominance.

A hundred yards away, the lusty gobble sends shivers down the spine of a camouflage-clad hunter huddling against the trunk of his own big oak.

At his side is a wooden box call. He holds a slate-and-peg call in his hands and cradles a shotgun in the crook of his arm. He lets the tree-top tom gobble a few more times. As daylight begins to steal across the pasture he is facing, he slaps his arm against his hunting coat in a rapid succession of beats, simulating the sound of a turkey hen flying down from her roost. Then he makes a soft, high-pitched “kee-kee-kee” on his slate call.

Hearing the sound of what he takes for a romantic prospect, the excited tom gobbles again, then pitches headlong from his perch and lands in the middle of the pasture. As the gobbler settles its feathers, the hunter raises his shotgun with painstaking slowness and rests it on his raised knee.

A plaintive purr from a call in the hunter’s mouth causes the gobbler’s head to swivel like a red-and white periscope, looking for the source of the sound. Head bobbing, craning from side to side, the gobbler takes a few steps toward a hen he cannot see.

Scenes like this one play out tens of thousands of times during Missouri’s spring turkey hunting season. In more than 58,000 cases last year, the story ended with a turkey feast for the hunters’ family. For those truly hooked on turkey hunting, however, the sport is more about adrenaline than roast turkey.



For Missouri’s 120,000-plus turkey hunters, the three-week season (April 19-May 9 this year) offers a chance for friends and family to enjoy the outdoors together. They watch dogwood and redbud trees blossom and hunt for morel mushrooms on their way to and from hunting spots. Truthful turkey hunters admit to taking luxurious, sun-warmed naps during lulls in the action.

If all this sounds like your kind of fun, but you don’t know how to get started, read on. Turkey hunting doesn’t require high-dollar equipment or years of practice. Prospects for success increase with experience, but even novice hunters have a good chance of bagging bragging birds in Missouri, which leads the nation in turkey harvest.

GUNS, AMMO AND PATTERNING

The only two things you need to hunt turkeys are a shotgun and a caller. Almost any shotgun will do, although 12-gauge guns with tight chokes are preferred. If you don’t know what “choke” is, visit a firearms retailer and ask. They will be glad to explain.

You can get a new shotgun suitable for turkey hunting for as little as $250 to $300. For a used gun, you might pay $150 to $200. Nice-to-have features include a shoulder sling for easy carrying. If your shotgun isn’t camouflage-colored when you buy it, you can easily disguise it with camo tape or a camouflage cloth cover.

Ammunition for turkey hunting is easy to choose. Buy the maximum load available for your particular gun. Hunting regulations prohibit the use of shot larger than No. 4 for turkey hunting. Lead shot is legal. No. 4, 5 and 6 shot all are effective.

More important than shot size is “patterning” your shotgun before you hunt. This simply means setting up large pieces of cardboard at different distances and shooting them with the shotgun and shells you plan to use for turkey hunting. This will tell you the maximum distance at which you can shoot at a turkey with a reasonable expectation of killing it.

For a sure kill, the shot holes in a cardboard target should average no more than about an inch apart. Very few shotgun chokes not specifically made for turkey hunting can do this beyond 40 yards. You may find that your gun won’t give you a dense enough shot pattern beyond 30 yards. Remembering this and resisting the temptation to shoot beyond your gun’s effective range increases your chances of success.

CAMOUFLAGE

Turkeys have extremely keen vision, so anything that helps you blend into your surroundings is a plus. Outdoor equipment makers have developed a dizzying array of camouflage patterns, and special camouflage garments with fringes of loose fabric are amazingly effective at breaking up the wearer’s silhouette.

However, hunters were killing turkeys long before designer camo patterns arrived on the scene. If your budget is tight, military surplus camouflage clothes work fine. Waterfowl hunters can use their camouflage parkas unless the weather is too warm for comfort.

It is important to disguise your face and hands. The most common method is to wear a camouflage mask and a pair of dark gloves. You also can buy camouflage powder or paste to daub on your face. In a pinch, smear mud on your cheeks, nose, forehead and hands.

The best camouflage in the world won’t help a hunter who can’t sit still. Turkeys ignore brightly colored objects if they are motionless, but they shy away from unexpected motion.

CALLS

Turkey calls fall into two broad categories, friction and diaphragm. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

The easiest for most hunters to learn to use is the box-type friction call. This combines a 4- to 10-inch long wooden resonating box with a hinged paddle-shaped striker. When the paddle is dragged across the top edges of the box, it sounds remarkably like a turkey. In the hands of an experienced hunter, a box call can make every sound a turkey hen makes, plus the sound of a tom’s rattling gobble.

Box calls are a little more expensive than some other types, and they can be difficult to use in wet weather. They are bulky and more subject to breakage than some other kinds. One of the biggest disadvantages of box calls is that they require two hands to operate, making it impossible to call and hold a shotgun at the same time. However, their versatility and ease of mastery make them very popular with beginning hunters.

In recent years, call makers have developed box calls that can be operated with one hand. Some even strap onto the front stock of a shotgun, allowing you to hold a gun in shooting position while continuing to call.

The other main type of friction call is the slate call. This uses a piece of slate or other material, such as glass or plastic, mounted on a hollow resonating chamber. A wooden striker peg is held like a pencil and rubbed across the surface of the slate in a circular motion.

Like box calls, slate calls are very versatile, but they can be hard to use in wet weather and require two hands to operate. They are more compact and less likely to break than box calls. There is no way to produce a turkey gobble with a slate call, but they are better than box calls for making subtle hen sounds, such as the purr or the fly-down cackle.

Indians used to hold blades of grass or other natural materials between their fingers and blow through them to imitate turkey calls. Today, hunters get the same results with small pieces of supple latex rubber stretched across a U-shaped aluminum frame covered with plastic tape.

These modern diaphragm calls, often referred to as “mouth calls,” are held between the caller’s tongue and the roof of the mouth, leaving the hands free. They can make any sound in a hen turkey’s repertoire, and experienced turkey hunters agree that they can sound more real than a real hen. They are relatively inexpensive and extremely compact (some hunters carry dozens, each with a special function). Although they eventually wear out, they are almost immune to breakage.

The catch is that mouth calls are more difficult to learn to use well. Novices are more likely to make false notes with a mouth call than with slate or box calls. For this reason, some hunters stick with friction calls for life. Others start with friction calls while they work on mastering diaphragm calls. Pros use all types of calls.

Whatever your choice, practice is critical to honing calling skills. Keep your call with you wherever you go, so you can practice in spare moments. You will get better the more you practice, and people in cars next to you at traffic lights will get a laugh out of your efforts.

Instructional tapes can be helpful in learning to imitate different turkey calls and knowing which sounds to use under different circumstances. The ultimate instructors, however, are turkey hens. Spend as much time as possible in the woods listening to real turkeys engaged in real communications.

DECOYS

Turkey decoys come in hen, strutting gobbler and jake (one-year-old male turkey) models. The attraction of hen decoys is obvious. With a gobbler or jake decoy, the idea is to make a dominant gobbler angry enough to rush in and confront an apparent rival.

Experts are divided in their opinions of decoys’ usefulness. Some claim that toms often sense that something is wrong when they hear a hen but can’t see her, and a decoy prevents this. Others claim that when a gobbler sees a hen he is more likely to stand his ground and strut, expecting the decoy to do what real hens do and approach him. They say that toms sometimes are frightened by imitation gobblers.

Decoys are not necessary for turkey hunting, and having imitation turkeys near you when hunting can increase the risk of hunting accidents if other hunters are in the area. This is especially true if you are using jake or gobbler decoys.

Always place decoys so you can see well beyond them and detect a hunter who might have you in the line of fire with the decoy.

HOW TO HUNT

Spring turkey hunting strategies rely on gobblers’ desire to mate with as many hens as possible. The classic turkey hunting strategy is to spend the evening before the hunt in the woods. Listening for turkey activity at dusk and noting where birds roost allows you to position yourself nearby the next morning. With luck, you will call a gobbler to you first thing in the morning.

During the mating season, gobblers spend most of the mornings following hens around. This makes your job difficult, since a gobbler is unlikely to leave a real hen.

As hens begin laying eggs, however, they drift off to their nests some time during the morning. This makes the period from 9 or 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. (the end of legal shooting hours) a choice time for hunting.

Turkey hens wait until all their eggs are laid to begin incubating them. When most of the hens in an area reach this stage of nesting, gobblers suddenly find themselves alone. That is hunters’ best opportunity. Missouri’s turkey season is set with the goal of having the first week of the season coincide with this peak of gobbler vulnerability.

Before calling, it is always a good idea to either sit down and get ready for an approaching gobbler or at least pick out a spot where you can set up quickly. The ideal hunting spot has:
–A large tree or other object that will break up your silhouette and protect you if another hunter approaches from behind.
–A few weeds or other light foliage a few feet in front of you to obscure your outline.
–Good visibility in the direction of the gobbling bird.

If the bird answering your call seems to be more than 100 yards away, you probably should move toward it. However, don’t approach unless the terrain and vegetation provide concealment. Also don’t set up in a location that will force gobblers to approach from uphill. They know instinctively that having high ground at their backs is a disadvantage if they have to flee.

Once you are within 50 to 100 yards of a gobbling turkey, sit down and get your stand site set up. Clear saplings and other vegetation to allow you to maneuver your shotgun. A pair of pruning shears comes in handy for this purpose. Remove rocks or other lumpy things so you can sit still comfortably.

Pay attention to the approaching bird’s behavior and try to tailor your calls to its actions. A hesitant bird may need a little extra excitement to motivate him to come closer. A bird that seems unwilling to approach closer than 50 or 60 yards might be fooled into following the unseen hen if you reduce the volume of your calling, making it sound farther away.

Anything you can do to lend an air of normality and realism to the situation may help. Try raking the leaves around you with your hand to simulate the sound of a hen scratching for acorns. Make a few clucks with different callers to make it sound like several hens are keeping track of each other while they feed.

The most sought-after birds are heavyweight, two- to four-year old gobblers with long beards and long spurs–the sharp projections on their lower legs. These are the wariest birds. Trying to get the drop on an experienced gobbler can be almost impossible. One way is to break a stalemate is to study the bird’s daily routine and try to ambush him without calling. However, this eliminates the calling interaction that makes turkey hunting so exciting.

Another strategy for catching a longbeard off guard is to disrupt its routine. The best way to do this is to discover where it is roosting with a group of hens and wait there for them in the evening. After they have flown up to roost, and after it is too dark for the birds to gather again, charge into the middle of the roost, making as much noise as possible to scatter the flock. In the morning, wait in the same spot and try to call the birds back together. The gobbler may join the party.

WHERE TO HUNT

Missouri has a wealth of public turkey hunting land, including hundreds of conservation areas and more than a million acres of national forest, Corps of Engineers land around major reservoirs and scenic riverways land in the Ozarks.

You can locate public lands in the “Discover Outdoor Missouri” map from the Missouri Department of Conservation. It is free on request from Distribution Center, MDC, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65109, pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov. For more information about turkey hunting, request the free booklet, “Missouri Wild Turkey Hunting,” from the same address.

When hunting public land, be respectful of other hunters who set up to hunt in an area before you arrive. Be aware of the potential for mistaking another hunter’s calls for a real turkey and of the possibility that someone else might make the same mistake. Wear hunter orange when moving from place to place, and always shout — never wave — to another hunter approaching you.

When you experience the excitement of fooling one of nature’s wariest creatures to come to you in the flower-scented spring woods, you might become one of Missouri’s turkey hunting enthusiasts.

– Jim Low –

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