How to Turkey Hunt: Essential Tactics for Spring Gobblers

A pair of toms strut in a spring green field. John Hafner Photography

I’ve been turkey hunting for just shy of 30 years. For the first half of that time, everyone hunted turkeys pretty much the same way, using hen calls and woodsmanship to get a gobbler to within range. But turkey hunting has changed dramatically over the past 15 years, as advances in gear, particularly decoys and blinds, have created some big changes in hunting tactics. As a result, learning how to turkey hunt, or taking your hunting to another level, probably means adopting a few new tricks.

Some of the latest tactics have proven controversial, especially lately. Modern turkey hunters who are worried about declining turkey numbers love to argue over which methods are best and morally superior. I interviewed a hunter last spring who told me he wouldn’t shoot a turkey in a field because he thinks it’s unsporting. I think that’s crazy talk.

All of the four proven tactics below are perfectly acceptable ways to hunt spring turkeys, provided they’re legal in your area. Some work better in certain types of habitat or at certain points in the season—but they all work. Which gives you choices. If the very idea of crawling behind a fan or sitting in a blind leaves you feeling mad enough to kick a puppy and write your senator, then maybe pick a different method from the list below. Or maybe just keep your options open. I turkey hunt for the fun of it, and I’ve always found it more fun when I get a turkey. Assuming that you probably will too, here’s a breakdown of the top tactics for how to turkey hunt in the spring and walk out with a bird slung over your shoulder.

How to Turkey Hunt: Classic Run-and-Gun

Run-and-gun hunters walk out with a pair of gobblers. Getty Images

Spring turkey hunting as we know it today has only been a thing for about 50 years, after all-but-extirpated turkey populations were restored in amazing fashion during the latter half of the 20th Century. For many of those 50 years, the few turkey decoys that did exist were atrocious imposters that spooked as many turkeys as they lured. As a result, few hunters carried them, and what we now think of as the classic style of turkey hunting—a simple combination of woodsmanship and calling—ruled the day early on.

This is how I learned to hunt in the hardwoods of Kentucky, and it’s still my favorite way to do things. Use terrain, like the break of a hill, to sneak in as close as you dare to a gobbling tom, whether he’s still on the limb early in the morning or on the ground later in the day. It’s certainly possible to call a hot turkey in from a long way, but your odds of success skyrocket anytime you can set up within 100 yards before making the first yelps. Use the crest of a hill within comfortable shotgun range (about 30 yards) between you and the bird as your “decoy.” Any gobbler that wants to see the source of your hen calling will have to top that hill. When he does, and you can identify him clearly, you shoot him.

Where This Turkey Hunting Method Works

This tactic works best rolling, wooded terrain, but it can work anywhere, including on the prairie as long as you can use the terrain to stay hidden. It does require that you finding a gobbling turkey, and that often depends on covering ground. You can do that on a huge private farm or multiple small ones, but if you’re stuck on public land, take heart. I have access to good private ground, yet I do most of my turkey hunting on public land by choice, simply because a big WMA or National Forest provides more room to roam—and to eventually find a gobbler.

When It Works

The classic run-and-gun works all season long, and you should hunt every day that you can, because you might strike a hot gobbler anytime. That said, the late season, when hens are nesting, gobblers are desperate, and the foliage provides concealment, is the best time for this method.

Gear You Need

Wrecking Machine’s Crazy Cutter mouth call. Wrecking Machine

This style of hunting relies on good calling. Friction calls can get you most of the way, but you’ll kill more turkeys if you learn to run a diaphragm call. Find a cut you like, and stick with it. I’ve been running a Wrecking Machine Crazy Cutter the last couple springs, and it has the range for both soft, close-in work and raspier, aggressive notes, too.   

How to Turkey Hunt: Get in a Ground Blind

You can pattern turkeys, sort of. They move around all day, and a tom is as likely to follow a hen into a food plot at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. as he is at daybreak. When turkeys aren’t gobbling but you know they’re around, waiting them out can be the best way to kill them. Sitting against a tree works fine, until a silent gobbler sneaks in and catches you scrolling on your phone or shifting weight to the other butt cheek.

For a long sit, nothing beats a pop-up, hub-style ground blind and a comfortable chair. They’re especially good for concealing extra movement, like when you need to draw a bow or hide a fidgety kid. I especially like to use blinds when I’ve patterned turkeys visiting particular fields, either with optics or trail cameras, and doubly so when rain is in the forecast. Turkeys love to stand in fields while it’s raining, and strut in them once the sun pops back out.

Much has been said about turkeys ignoring ground blinds, but that’s not universally true. While gobblers are usually more relaxed around blinds than deer, I have seen them get leery of new blinds set in the wide open. It’s usually best to tuck ground blinds just inside a treeline or against some other backdrop of cover. If the field is small enough that turkeys will probably get within gun range anyway, leave the decoys at home. But if you’re bowhunting, or if you might need to pique the interest of a tom from across a big field, a jake-and-hen combo is tough to beat.

Where This Turkey Hunting Method Works

The best placed to pop up a ground blind and wait include small, private properties with open crop fields, food plots, or hayfields where turkeys don’t get a lot of hunting pressure. Blinds can also work well around strut zones in the timber, such as open, mature hardwood hilltops or on logging roads.

When It Works

All season long, especially when other tactics are less likely to work. I use blinds when the going gets tough, like in the mid-season when turkeys are henned up and not gobbling. Blinds definitely make bowhunting easier, too. If turkey hunting in the afternoon is allowed in your state, blinds are good for waiting out the last few hours of the day, when toms can be more focused on feeding than breeding before flying up to roost.

The Gear You Need

A rangefinder is important to have when hunting an open field from a ground blind. Leupold

Well, you need the blind, of course. But also, a lightweight rangefinder like Leupold’s 5-oz RX-1400i is almost a must. Blinds are usually set around fields, where judging the distance to a gobbler can be tricky. Better to know he’s 40 yards than to find out he was 60 after you shoot and he flies away.

How to Turkey Hunt: Stake Some Fakes and Wait

A jake and hen breeding pair will get the attention of a jealous gobbler. John Hafner Photography

Realistic decoys that imitate male turkeys changed the go-to strategy for many hunters. The first full-strut gobbler decoys, like the Carry-Lite Pretty Boy and Primos B-Mobile, paired with a real, dried turkey fan proved that challenging a gobbler’s dominance was sometimes more effective than luring him with hen calls. A few years later, decoy brands like Avian-X and Dave Smith Decoys put injection-molded, hyper-realistic decoys, hens and jakes both, on the market. Those decoys look so real, and turkeys can become so fixated on them, that it’s possible to bow hunt over them without a blind. I’ve done it successfully plenty of times.

Hunting over a spread of decoys is best done as a surgical approach, and though it’ll work all day, I’ve had the most luck right after fly-down through the mid-morning hours. Turkeys are most aggressive while assembling in the early morning, and that’s when you’re likeliest to pick a fight. Unlike the classic approach, where you want you and your setup to be totally hidden until a tom is within range, here you want turkeys to see your decoys from a distance. So select a spot, preferable within 150 yards of a roost, where you have good cover, but your decoys will be highly visible to the turkeys. Closer can be better, but not too close. I’ve set up right underneath turkeys and had them pitch into the decoys, but they seem most comfortable when they have space to land, size things up, and strut their way in.

A full-strut gobbler decoy or quarter-strut jake paired with a couple hen decoys works well. Set the male decoy closest to you, and in the best shooting lane, and leave at least 6 feet between him and each hen decoy. Aggressive gobblers will usually face jake decoys head-on, so quarter the decoy toward your setup. When a circling strutter spins his fan to you, it’s the perfect opportunity to settle on your shotgun or draw your bow.

Where This Turkey Hunting Method Works

Multi-decoy setups usually works best in farm country, with plenty of broken fields, small wood lots, and good numbers of turkeys. It’s my go-to strategy for hunting pastures and large crop fields. Obviously, you can hybridize the approach. Run-and-gun hunters in open country might want to scale back to just one or two decoys for convenience. On the other hand, I once hunted over a spread of a dozen decoys from a ground blind, down in Florida, and we shot two nice Osceolas for our effort.

When It Works

You’re likeliest to pick a fight early in the season, when turkeys are still sorting out their pecking orders and still in prime fighting condition early in the breeding season. Partly because decoys can be so effective during this timeframe, a number of states have delayed their opening days and some (like Alabama) even prohibit decoys in the early season.

Gear You Need

An Avian-X HDR jake decoy staked in a spring field. Avian X

Not every gobbler will come to a male decoy, jonesing for a fight. But in all my years of turkey hunting, I’ve only had a handful of good experiences with a single hen decoy. Often, they just cause gobblers to hang up and strut out of range. If I’m only going to carry one decoy, I make it a half-strut jake, like an Avian-X HDR (   

How to Turkey Hunt: Fanning and Reaping

F&S contributor Jace Bauserman shoots his turkey-reaping bow.

Remember when I said some tactics were controversial? This is the main one I was talking about. Fanning and reaping were popularized by Youtube videos of hunters crawling across open fields behind dried fans and specialized, full-strut decoys. Sometimes, aggressive gobblers will charge in for a fight, and the action can be intense. 

Some people claim reaping makes turkey hunting too easy, that it flies in the face of tradition, and that it is disrespectful to the bird. On the other hand, there’s anecdotal evidence that Native Americans used dried fans all the time to lure turkeys into range—and I know a number of old-school hunters who say the same thing. Reaper decoys, and the idea of using them to go right after a gobbler in the open, is fairly novel, but the reaction it generates from gobblers is nothing new. A mean turkey will do the same thing to a stationary stutter or jake decoy. Probably, a bird that’s being shot in the head isn’t thinking much about a respectful death. And finally, anyone who says reaping is easy hasn’t done much of it. It’s the most physically demanding form of turkey hunting there is, bar none. I personally think it’s way more fun than waiting over a spread of decoys or in a blind.  

Reaping won’t work on every gobbler, either. It’s at its best on a single tom strutting with a harem of hens, or on a group of longbeards running together. Turkeys seem to feel emboldened to fight in either situation. Use ditches or folds in the terrain to sneak to within 200 yards before showing the turkey the decoy. Raise it into view slowly, maybe with some aggressive yelping. Most times, you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s going to work. An aggressive gobbler will usually stand his ground and strut with a snow-white head. If he does that, start crawling his way, making sure to keep yourself as hidden as possible behind the decoy. Don’t get in a hurry, but do gain ground. Sometimes the gobbler will come toward you, maybe even at a run.

When he’s at the edge of range, I like to stake the decoy into the ground in front of me, sit on my butt, shoulder my gun, and get ready. Turkeys are expecting to see some movement, so you can typically lean to the side of the fan, or press your gun barrel through the feathers, to take careful aim and shoot the turkey when he gets to about 25 yards. Dropping the fan and “quick-drawing” the gobbler at 10 feet, like you see on video, is a really good way to miss.  

Where This Turkey Hunting Method Works

The clichéd advice is to only reap turkeys on private land for safety reasons, but I’ve had as many run-ins with other hunters on private land as I have on public, and have reaped more than a few turkeys on public ground. Understand that using a gobbler decoy anywhere has risks. Reaping should take place only in the open, well out of shotgun range of any nearby cover where other hunters might be hiding. 

When It Works

As with standard sit-and-wait decoy tactics, reaping seems to work best in the early season. But anytime a gobbler is strutting in an open field, especially with other turkeys, you’ve got a chance.

Gear You Need

The Scoot-N-Shoot reaping decoy, fitted with real wings and tail fan. Mojo Outdoors

The original Mojo Scoot-N-Shoot is one of my favorite reaping decoys because the flared wings help keep you hidden. The new Scoot-N-Shoot Max has those wings, but you can remove them, either for a more portable profile or to swap them out for real wings.

How to Turkey Hunt: Four Bonus Tips

No matter which of the tactics above you decide to use, here are four general tips that will make you a more successful turkey hunter.

Take the High Ground: Whether you’re calling to a gobbler with no decoys or reaping him, it’s always best to have the high ground. Responding turkeys are more comfortable walking uphill than down.

Be Patient: Thinking about leaving? Always give a setup an extra 15 minutes after making your last calls. You’ll be shocked by how many silent turkeys sneak into your setup.

Go Early, Stay Late: Turkeys don’t gobble every day, and I’m convinced they gobble less on the limb now than when I started decades ago due to hunting pressure. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. Persistence works.

Practice Restraint: I don’t care how you or anyone else wants to hunt, nor do I care if someone judges me for how I hunt. But I don’t have to kill every turkey allowed by the law to have had a great season, either. I hunt multiple states each spring, but rarely kill more than one bird in any of them. The ones that beat me are the ones I remember best.   

The post How to Turkey Hunt: Essential Tactics for Spring Gobblers appeared first on Field & Stream.

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