Becoming a wild turkey hunter in springtime is easy. You step into the woods at dawn and open your senses. Sunrise alters colors and shapes. Scents from soil, trees, and wildflowers mingle in cool air. Small birds chirp. Down the ridge a barred owl belts out a vocal purr that resembles “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.”
The owl’s bold call might make a tom turkey rise up on his tree-limb roost and let rip a rolling gobble just to let every creature know he’s the real boss of the woodlands.
“Yelp yelp yelp,” you might answer sweetly with a wood, slate, or diaphragm call designed to help you imitate a hen turkey looking for a willing partner in an ancient spring mating ritual.
The tom’s viral “gobble gobble gobble” reply jolts your brain, especially if the sound is close, perhaps he’s on the ground and headed your way. But you turn eyes and ears in his direction carefully and then freeze, for you want to conceal your presence from one of nature’s most keen-eyed birds. You are not separate from nature, but rather part of irrepressible natural life renewing in the most urgent season — that’s turkey hunting.
Newcomers to the sport need not be daunted by complex gobbler-versus-hunter tales oft heard in coffee shops in late April and early May. Nor should they feel compelled to acquire gear beyond a few good calls and camouflage clothing. Hunting wild turkeys can be simple and affordable.
Calling a gobbler into gun range might be easy, hard, or impossible, depending on the tom’s mood. Yet each morning of the three-week season offers a chance for success. Hunters harvested more than 40,000 toms or bearded hens during Missouri’s 2012 spring turkey season. It helps that Missouri is a great place to hunt with healthy turkey flocks throughout the state. That doesn’t always make turkey hunting easy, though, because the largest bird in the woods is also among the wariest.
But turkey hunting skills are easy to learn for those willing to look, listen, and practice. Turkeys are the best teachers, and the spring woods make a beautiful classroom.
Where to Go
Missouri’s eastern wild turkeys are a woodland bird. But they also like feeding and loafing in open crop fields and grassy meadows. In spring, their tree-limb night roosts will often be near streams with weedy or shrubby cover where hens find nesting cover.
Conservation areas offer both newcomers and veterans habitat-rich places to hunt turkeys. To look for Department-managed public hunting areas, go to the conservation atlas at mdc.mo.gov/node/8911.
Last spring, Scott Brant of Warrensburg killed a trophy gobbler and helped another hunter bag a tom at the Department’s J.N. Turkey Kearn Memorial Wildlife Area in west central Missouri. Public lands often, but not always, get heavy hunting pressure. Yet they can still offer good turkey hunting action.
“Patience is the biggest thing on public land,” Brant said. “I personally have had more success calling in turkeys late in the morning. Don’t give up.”
Tom turkeys usually gobble most from tree roosts at sunrise or after they glide down to the ground in the early morning hours. That’s the peak time for mating with hens and jousting other toms or young jakes away from hens. The gobbling reveals a turkey’s location and helps hunters know when and where to call to lure them into gun range. When the early morning gobbling ceases and the woods get quieter, many hunters leave the field for the day.
But after 10 a.m., as hens wander away to tend nests or feed, Brant has found gobblers are often still responsive to calls. Being still, alert, and persistent is important for late-morning hunting success.
“Sometimes they will come in quiet and show up out of nowhere,” he said.
Private lands with forest or with timber-bordered fields may offer excellent hunting. But hunters should always obtain permission and avoid trespassing. The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also manage land open to public hunting, giving Missouri hunters even more options.
Scouting an area that you plan to hunt in the weeks before turkey season can greatly increase your chances for success. Listen for where turkeys are gobbling in the early morning hours. In the woods, look for bare-dirt ovals where they’ve scratched back leaves to look for bugs to eat. Get to know the terrain so you’ll already know good places to “set up.” That’s turkey hunter talk for a good tree, stump, or blow down where you can sit down to call and hopefully to shoot. A tree at your back gives you something to lean against and breaks your outline to improve concealment.
Old-time turkey hunters made their own wooden or slate calls and wore whatever old clothes that blended in with the woods and kept them warm while they hunkered down on a cool, early spring morning.
Today, though, hunters can choose from a broad assortment of camouflage clothing, factory-made calling devices, camouflage ground blinds, gear vests, and life-like decoys that appear in every pose possible for a turkey. Shotguns and shotgun shells designed for turkey hunting come in a wide array.
Many turkey hunters prefer a 12-gauge shotgun with a full choke loaded with magnum shells firing No. 4 to No. 6 shot. But other gauges and chokes will work. It’s ok to make do with the shotgun at hand, one borrowed, or one bought used at an inexpensive price. Hunters should shoot ammunition designed for turkey hunting. But the critical component is that a hunter practices shooting to know how the shotgun and ammunition will perform at ranges from 20 to 50 yards. Studying pellet holes in a paper or cardboard target will help you sharpen your aim point and hone in on effective shooting ranges.
Department shooting ranges and education centers offer classes on turkey hunting and shooting skills. The ranges are also a good place to test shotgun shell patterns and to practice shooting skills.
For information about shooting ranges: mdc.mo.gov/node/6209. Also, go to the mdc.mo.gov/events to find classes and events in your area.
Green and brownish clothing in camouflage patterns — pants, hat, shirt, and face mask — are invaluable. Inexpensive versions work fine in good weather. Turkey hunting clothes, worn mostly in spring and fall seasons, can last for years. Do not wear the colors blue, red, white, or black, as turkeys have bluish to whitish heads, red waddles, and gobblers have blackish feathering. You don’t want to be mistaken for game.
Calling turkeys — imitating turkey vocalizations — is fun and perhaps the sport’s finest skill. Some experts make turkey talk with their mouth and throat. Most hunters, though, use man-made calls. Many turkey hunters start with a simple box call that easily imitates a hen’s clucks and yelps. A wooden paddle or striker is rubbed across the top edge of the box side and the friction creates the sound. Slate calls are another standby. A wooden or plastic peg is rubbed across the slate to mimic turkey purrs and clucks. Box calls and slate calls are good starting points for new hunters.
“Just a simple call that you can use effectively, that’s all you need,” said Brant, who is also a volunteer Missouri Hunter Education instructor.
CDs and tapes are available on how to make seductive turkey sounds, and these days, the Internet offers many free sites that teach turkey calling.
A compass in your pocket is handy for preventing getting lost. Many hunters carry snacks and water. Insect repellant is invaluable if the weather warms and mosquitos and ticks become active.
Gear such as life-like turkey decoys and camouflage ground blinds, which conceal hunters and resemble small tents, sometimes help bag a turkey and sometimes they do not. Enjoy them if you wish but do not consider them an essential requirement if cost is a concern. They add to your carry load and make it more difficult to move in response to gobbling or to explore the woods for a fresh setup location. Many veteran hunters prefer to travel light, move when they feel like it, and let stealth and careful calling bag the bird.
Don’t forget to bring some type of blaze orange bag or strap to carry your turkey out of the woods, which helps keep you safe. Some hunters put a blaze orange sash on the tree where they set up to warn other hunters of their presence.
Hannah Rogers of rural Warrensburg hunted turkeys as a youth with her father in St. Clair County. A few years ago, they hunted together again and she bagged a nice tom. Now, the mother of four young children is back into the sport and planning how she will introduce her own family to the tradition.
“A big thing for kids is learning how to be quiet in the woods,” Rogers said. “One of the biggest things we do all the time is to walk out in the woods and watch for animals or pick up interesting leaves.
”Those hikes help kids learn about the woods but also about quiet movement, skills that translate to turkey hunting for all ages. Wild turkeys possess excellent eyesight and hearing. They won’t grow into adult birds without using their senses to avoid dangers from woodland predators.
Movement and sound puts turkeys on alert. Many a turkey has spied a hunter turning their head, scratching an itch, or reaching for a box call. The usual result is a turkey quietly slipping back away without the hunter knowing the quarry was near.
But for Rogers on her last successful hunt, simple tactics worked. She and her father heard turkeys and saw some fly down into a field. They moved to a good spot. She sat still against a tree. Her father hid behind a tree and made the turkey hen sounds of yelps, clucks, and purrs. A tom came in within close range and she shot it.
“I was so excited to get back into turkey hunting and get a bird,” Rogers said.
Now, for her children, the next step is teaching them gun and hunting safety. She is also a Missouri Hunter Education volunteer instructor, a Protection Division volunteer, and a college student.
“One of the biggest things with kids is gun safety,” Rogers said. “Maybe I’m a protective mom, but when it comes to gun safety, I don’t think you can be overprotective.
”For information about Missouri’s hunter education and safety programs, go to mdc.mo.gov/node/3095. A hunter education course certificate is required for anyone hunting alone who was born after 1966.
Brandon Pope, a Department education specialist in Kansas City, stepped into the woods for his first turkey hunt last spring. Pope bought some basic camouflage apparel — pants, a long shirt with big pockets, and a cap with an attached face mask — for about $100. He practiced hen yelps with a box call, and he fired test patterns with a borrowed shotgun at a Department shooting range.
Then a sunrise found him seated on a ridge with his back against an oak tree.
“When we sat down, I heard a barred owl call,” Pope said, “and we saw other animals moving around like squirrels and songbirds. You could hear the river gurgling. Just hearing nature all around us was the good part.”
A hen turkey flew down off the wooded ridge where he sat and began feeding within sight in a crop field. Then another hen flew down and marched away into woods. Finally…well, no, a gobbler did not appear. The toms were all gobbling and strutting on the other side of the valley.
Regardless, “I had a good taste of turkey hunting,” Pope said. “I want to go again and I’m ready to bag a bird. But that’s just the culmination. Turkey hunting is a lot more than just shooting a gun.”