Turkey Tryouts

By Jake Hindman, photographs by David Stonner | February 18, 2014
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2014

As a youngster, it seemed spring turkey season couldn’t come soon enough. I would listen for gobbling often, spend plenty of time in the timber, and would thoroughly check my gear while counting down the days to the season opener. Now, with a busy career and family life, turkey season sneaks up on me far too quickly. To make efficient use of my time before season and make my turkey hunting time afield more productive, I use the following pre-season plan as “tryouts” for the real season that’s to come. Read along for a step-by-step guide to spring turkey season preparation.

Scout for Success

If you want to harvest a turkey, locating a piece of property that has a good population of birds is crucial. If you intend to set out on private land, make sure you gain permission well before the season opener — the earlier the better. Considering the regular spring season opens on the third Monday in April, it is not a stretch to start locating properties to hunt in January or February. Don’t discredit public property either. Missouri is a great place to turkey hunt, and the Missouri Department of Conservation owns and manages more than 400 conservation areas that allow tur-key hunting. Regardless of where you plan to hunt, make sure you have reviewed the area regulations and/or gained permission in advance, and follow any requests the landowner may have.

Once you have located property to hunt, your next job is to find wild turkeys. Obtain an aerial photo of the property you will be hunting and study the habitat features. Grab your boots and take a walk on the area as well.


Become familiar with boundary lines and where turkey hangout locations may be. While doing your pre-season homework, locate any creeks, fences, or other obstacles that may hinder a gobbler from coming to your setup and make a mental note of where these are located. During on-the-ground scouting trips, watch for wild turkey signs, including droppings (j-shaped for gobblers and popcorn-shaped for hens), scratchings, dusting areas, turkey feathers, and roosting areas.


As spring progresses and flocks begin to break up, toms will routinely gobble at dawn. Start listening for gobblers around the middle of March and, if possible, listen once a week on the property you intend to hunt. Pick an unobtrusive area on the property for listening and arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise. Listen on clear, windless mornings, if possible. Keep a log of the number of birds you hear and where they are located. Use a locator call (owl, crow, or hawk work well) to solicit gobbles if needed; however, avoid using turkey calls before season opens.


Note not only where turkeys are roosting, but also where they land after flying down. Try to observe where the birds frequent throughout the morning. By doing so, you will have a plan in place for midmorning hunts if your first setup doesn’t pan out. Mapping out the habits of as many birds as possible will give you options, thus increasing your chance for success.

Test Your Equipment

If a safe, legal, and ethical shot opportunity at a gobbler arises, you will need the appropriate equipment to cleanly harvest the bird. If you plan to use a shotgun, a patterning session to test your gun, choke, and shell combination is in order. A trip to the range before season is all it takes to complete this task (see Proper Patterning). During shot-gun patterning sessions, you are not only checking for point of impact (the gun shoots where you aim) but also pattern testing to determine the number of pellets present in your pattern. You will need adequate pellet density in your pattern (at least 230 inside a 30-inch circle) as well as the appropriate-sized pellet to effectively harvest a turkey. Missouri regulations allow for No. 4 size shot or smaller; generally hunters avoid shot smaller than No. 6. Range time is also needed if you will be hunting with archery equipment. In particular, be certain of vital archery shots and routinely practice in realistic hunting situations.

The key is to only take shots that are within the effective range of your equipment and skills. To ensure you are taking appropriate shots, learn how to subtend. As hunters, we have legal and ethical expectations to abide by. Properly testing equipment will maximize harvest opportunities and will reduce the likelihood of wounding a bird.

Brush up on Calling

The communication between a hunter and a love-sick spring gobbler is why many people turkey hunt. To increase your odds of calling in a bird, spend time before season imitating the calls of a hen. If you are new to turkey calling, attend a turkey-calling seminar, or go online for recordings of turkey vocalizations. Start simple by using a box or push-button call.

If your calling skills don’t match those of a competitive turkey caller, don’t fret. Real hens often have varied tones and, just like humans, each has a unique voice. More importantly, learn the rhythm of specific calls, what each call means, and how to apply the wild turkey language in different hunting situations. Become proficient with a variety of calls including friction and air blown. Keep your calls working well by completing necessary maintenance (chalking, sanding, etc.). At minimum, learn to reproduce the yelp and cluck of a hen with consistency.

Review the Regulations

As with any type of hunting, it is important to understand the regulations associated with the species you intend to harvest. Before heading afield, make absolutely certain you can distinguish between a gobbler and a hen turkey, as only male turkeys or turkeys with a visible beard are legal in the spring. In addition, be familiar with the tagging procedures after you harvest a bird. Pick up a current copy of the Spring Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet at your local Missouri Department of Conservation office or other permit vendor and read through it. You can also access spring turkey season regulations online by visiting mdc.mo.gov/node/132. Contact your local conservation agent if you have any questions.

Gather Your Gear

Opening morning is an inconvenient time to find you have forgotten to pack your camouflage gloves and facemask. To prepare for the season, scratch out some time to get your gear in order. While you don’t need everything in the latest turkey hunting catalog to harvest a bird, some equipment is necessary.

I find that doing a mental walk-through of a typical hunt helps remind me of the items that I need to pack. While gathering your gear, make sure everything is working properly and you know where to locate items when you need them. From a safety standpoint, make certain you avoid wearing any red, white, black, or blue colors while hunting, as these colors may be confused by another hunter as a turkey. As your turkey hunting experience and time afield increases, your gear and equipment will no doubt increase as well.

This pre-season plan is simple: find birds, test your equipment, practice calling, review regulations, and grab your gear, and you will be well on your way to harvesting a gobbler. Successfully connecting with a spring turkey is no easy feat; make sure you are pre-pared long before the first gobble on opening day.

Proper Patterning

  • Stay Safe: Keep safety in mind; make sure the muzzle of your firearm is pointed in a safe direction at all times and wear eye and ear protection.
  • Locate a range: Consider patterning your shotgun at a Missouri Department of Conservation range, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/6209 for more information. After locating a range, ensure you have an adequate and safe backstop to shoot at and place a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of paper on a target holder. Place a turkey head target in the center of the paper for an aiming point (download one at mdc.mo.gov/node/4098).

Choose your distance: After placing your target, back up to your desired distance. The distance you should shoot at a turkey depends on your shooting skill and the limitations of your ammunition. Smaller shot sizes may have a large shot charge, but do not carry as much kinetic energy as larger pellets. Larger pellets carry more energy, but due to the size, have a smaller shot charge in the shell. At a maximum, shots should be restricted to 40 yards or less.

  • Test your ammunition: Remove three shotshells from your box of ammunition, load one, and set the other two aside. Aim at the wattles on the turkey head target and take one shot. Retrieve your target, put up a new piece of 4-foot by 4-foot paper and a new turkey head target in the center. Repeat this process using the other two shotshells.
  • Evaluate your pattern: Determine the richest portion of the pattern on the paper and draw a 30-inch circle around the shot pattern (a pencil with a 15-inch piece of string works well). If the richest portion of the pattern is not located near the wattles of the turkey head target, verify the aiming point of your shotgun by conducting point of impact testing using a shooting bench. Count the number of pellet holes inside the 30-inch circle on each piece of paper, add them together, and divide by three. To lethally harvest a turkey you will need a minimum of 230 pellets inside a 30-inch circle. These 230 pellets must also contain enough energy at the distance you are shooting.
  • Make changes: If needed, make changes to your choke, distance, or ammunition to ensure that the recommended minimums to cleanly harvest a turkey are met.
  • Repeat the process: Pattern your shotgun if you change firearms, chokes, distance from the target, or ammunition (shell length, shot charge, powder charge, etc.). Keep a detailed logbook of patterning sessions and results for future reference.

Practice subtending

Subtending enables hunters to accurately judge how far away a turkey is by the size of its head or body relative to an object on their hunting equipment (shotgun bead, barrel, receiver, bow sight, etc.). This is very effective for turkey hunting, and it can ensure shots are taken at gobblers within your effective range, thus reducing wounding loss of turkeys.

Subtending Steps

  1. Compare your gun or bow to a life-size turkey (most decoys work well) at your effective range. Draw a picture of the amount that is covered up.
  2. Draw a picture of the amount that is covered up outside of your effective range.
  3. Practice and get a mental picture of the difference.
  4. When hunting, use the same comparison you used before season, positively identify a legal turkey that is within range of your equipment, and ensure the shot is safe.

Turkey Hunting Gear Checklist

Equipment Essentials

  • Turkey hunting permit
  • Shotgun or archery equipment (including shotshells, arrows, etc.)
  • Camouflage clothing (head to toe; facemask, gloves, etc.)
  • Orange hat or vest (wear when moving)
  • Turkey call(s)
  • Seat cushion
  • Food and drink
  • Cell phone or radio for emergency
  • First aid kit

Equipment Extras

  • Turkey hunting vest
  • Decoys, various types of turkey calls (air blown and friction)
  • Locator calls
  • Binoculars
  • Rangefinder
  • Saw/pruner
  • Turkey hunting blind
  • Rain gear
  • Orange bag to transport turkey

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - vacant
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Brett Dufur
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler