Strategies for first time Turkey hunters

By Shaggy Outdoor Team

March 11, 2023

Strategies for first time Turkey Hunters by Kyle Shagena and BJ Shagena Ready to Hunt.

No matter your age, we have all been new to turkey hunting at some point. As a youth hunter, I had no experience hunting turkeys. Though I lived and grew up in Michigan, I had no immediate friends or family that hunted turkey and therefore I didn't hunt these birds till my 20s.

I had done my share of hunting wildlife growing up in Michigan, coming from a non-hunting family I was able to find friends and family to help and provide some guidance to encourage my deer, squirrels, and rabbit hunting.

I started hunting turkeys in Arizona in the mid-1990s. Like many of you, I hunted other animals and was interested in doing more hunting year-round. At that time, I was hunting Whitetail deer in the fall in Michigan, Mule, and Cous deer in Arizona with a bow, and when a little luck was on my side and a few bonus points, I was getting drawn for elk in the White Mountains of Arizona. 

The logical addition to my hunting was something in the spring or early summer after the winter fades. Hunting in the spring allowed me some additional time to practice my hunting skills and prepared me for my fall hunts. Having a season to focus on made me keep shooting my bow and gave me more opportunities to be in the woods. Spring turkey was new to me, but the sounds of turkey got me interested in pursuing the longbeard.

Like many of my circle of hunting friends, few had much experience chasing these exotic birds. Having no immediate coaching from an experienced turkey hunter, I spent my first few hunts frustrated but enjoying my time outdoors in nature and taking a few naps throughout the day. 

If you are looking for more turkey gear and hunting information, check out our blog on The Ultimate Gear Guide for Turkey Hunters where we give you in-depth information on all gear necessary to have a successful hunt. 

Yes, my first few hunts were unsuccessful in killing a bird, but they provided a lot of experience and information that I've used since those early years.

Lessons Learned Hunting Turkeys for the First Time.

Lessons Learned Hunting Turkeys Early On for Beginners

Hunting a new species for the first time as a solo hunter without a guide or the ease of the internet for information as we have today is very difficult and frustrating. Today, we have ample information at our fingers to search for tips and tricks to hunting a new animal.

There is no better training and information you can receive than actually doing the hunt. Getting into the woods and setting up a blind or chasing those turkeys in a run-and-gun style will give you more feedback than any video or book.

While books are an excellent tool, getting your box call wet for the first time and figuring out it won't work wet, that's real learning.  Real experiences come from living the hunt and learning by doing. However, living in an age of videos and social media all hunters can go into the woods today more prepared than I did 30 years ago. 

Lesson #1 

Don't pick up your first turkey call on the way to the hunt and think practicing in the truck on the way to camp will be good enough.

Yes, that first hunt I stopped by the local sporting goods store and picked up a mouth call for my first hunt. I squeaked and squawked on that thing to my turkey camp. I didn't have a clue, no practice, no videos, no nothing back in 1994 to help. Let's just say - it was a waste of money.

Lesson #2

Turkeys Roost... what the heck? Did you know that turkeys sleep in a tree? Well that leads me to lesson #2, I didn't know that way back in the 90s and I may have been more successful if I did. 

When a turkey roosts they are sleeping in a tree. Turkeys have evolved to sleep in trees for protection from predators. Turkeys along with other upland birds will hunker down and roost during the night. 

Lesson #3

Turkey Decoys are a gift from God. Yep, I went religious on this one. You need to understand me. When I'm on the water or when I'm in the woods, I truly believe I'm as close to nature and god as I will ever be. 

Okay, the decoy...

Decoys I've learned over the years can help me be a better hunter. I'm an average turkey caller at best, but when I put out average calls I still get turkeys interested in me. When I have a turkey decoy setup I always get more birds interested in me that when I hunt without one. 

Lesson #4

Turkeys have excellent eyesight and they see in color. 

When I hunt, I'm always in a camo pattern that I believe is right for the environment. The ability to blend in is why there are so many different patterns and clothing companies selling to us hunters.

My lesson #4 comes from my experience in the open hunting turkey in the mountains of Arizona. When turkeys are 40-100 yards from me I have no problem blending into my surroundings. When I'm calling using my slate call it takes two hands. As the bird approaches I cannot use that slate call anymore because my movements can be seen by birds at a distance under 40 yards. 

So heed my advice, know that those turkeys can see movement and that they can see you in color. Make sure you're blended into your surroundings and environment as much as possible.  

Lesson #5

Turkeys have excellent hearing. Some experts believe that turkeys can hear for miles. I don't have any experience with miles, but I do know that I've called turkeys over 500 yards from my location and they have come looking for a hen.

Like eyesight, their hearing can get you in trouble and be helpful at the same time. When you're calling turkeys to see if anyone is around, that's good but when they get close make sure you stay quiet to not scare those turkeys off. 

Lesson #6

Don't put your blind up the day of your hunt if possible. Turkeys are keenly aware of their environment. If you can purchase your ground blind and put it up a few days or weeks before your hunt the outcome will be much better. 

The more the animals in your area get used to your ground blind being a safe item, the more comfortable they will become around it. 

Lesson #7

This is the most important lesson...

A locator call will be the best investment of all the gear you buy for turkey hunting. On my first hunt, I purchased a mouth call and practiced in the truck on the way to the campsite. I was terrible...

The better call to purchase that day would have been a locator call. A crow call is what I use today. This call will help you determine if there are gobblers in your area. Crows are everywhere in the United States. They will sound different in different regions, but they are everywhere. This is why I own a crow call. No matter where I'm hunting I know that a sudden and loud crow call can entice a "shock gobble" from a gobbler. 

Lesson #8

Get involved and become a member of your local turkey organizations. I found that since I've been around other turkey hunters I've only gotten better at hunting. We all struggle with time, finding the time to be around others with the same passions as you will be helpful for you and yes they have great local banquets and events to attend. 

Check out the opportunities at The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) - find a local chapter to get involved with.

I've learned so many lessons and key information from every hunting trip I've been on over the past 40 years. I shared just a few, your lessons will be these and more. I've shared these lessons to get you more information than I had when I was on my first hunt. Everyone is a beginner at some point. Each hunt in my life is always less frustrating and more educational than the last. No matter if I'm hunting turkey in Michigan and Arizona my lessons learned over the years had helped me become the hunter I am today. 

Strategies for beginner turkey hunters by shaggy outdoors team

6 Strategies for Turkey Hunters 

You just read and learned a few lessons I learned early on about hunting turkey. Back in the mid-1990s, there was no internet to learn from and my teacher was reading a book, being in the woods, or asking questions of friends with more experience. 

Today you get all the information on the net. Here are a few of the key strategies I know every new turkey hunter will benefit from before heading out on the first day of the hunt.

#1 - Turkey Calls and Turkey Calling

There are two ways to kill a turkey in my opinion. First, you are lucky and stumble upon a flock while walking through the woods or two you are prepared and instead of tripping over them you're calling and knowing where they are.

There are three main calls every turkey hunter needs. 

  1. A Locator Call
  2. A Mouth Call
  3. A Friction Call

I have had success using locator calls only, using a friction box call only, and even using a mouth call. But there have been more hunts where I've used all three than when I haven't.

Locator Calls - these can be a crow call or an owl call. The idea of a locator call is you blow out a quick but loud call to scare the gobbler and with that scare, they will typically give you a shock gobble response. You are only using this call for location. Don't blow on the call once you know the turkey location. You don't want to scare them in the opposite direction.

Friction Calls - these are box calls, pot calls (slate, glass, or crystal), or push button calls. Friction calls are excellent for locating turkey and calling out to engage and entice the turkey to come in your direction. The push-button style call is the easiest for beginners, but with some practice, the box call will be an excellent choice. 

Mouth Calls - one of the most difficult types of calls to master, but the best when getting birds within shooting distance. This call only requires you to use your mouth, whereas the friction calls will require the use of hands and birds have great eyesight and may see the movement. Start early practicing your mouth calls. Use them in conjunction with the friction call to sound like a flock of birds. 

Your calling strategy should involve finding the birds and then calling them to come to you. In the spring, while Toms are looking for hens to breed with the calling can be exciting. If you get a tom all worked up he'll come in hard looking for the hen. Use calling in combination with turkey decoys for the best results. 

Hunting private lands you can work more gobbles. When hunting public lands be safe and make sure you are not calling in another hunter. Calling public lands can be tough, birds might not be talking if they are concerned about predators and you definitely can call in other hunters if you sound too good!

#2 - Know and Understand Your Shotgun Pattern 

Understand your tools...

I'm speaking specifically here on the pattern your shotgun will shoot. When you shoot turkey loads you have the choice of shooting #4, #5, or #6 shot size. But the question includes what distance I will be shooting, how many pellets I want to put down range, and whether should I use tungsten or lead shot. 

What you need to know before you enter the woods is how your gun shoots down range. Knowing how your gun performs and what your distance of shooting will be will indeed influence your turkey loads. 

Most turkey hunting guns have a good distance of 40 yards. Some with the right tuning and choke may push out to 50 yards. But that is your max distance for an ethical shot. Now, once you have chosen a load or two to try out you need to head to the range and see how they perform.

How does your pattern look with a full choke at 15 yards, is it the size of a baseball or softball? What about at 35 yards? Is it the size of a paper plate? Knowing this information will help you make a good shot at your bird. Steady your gun and aim at the neck and head of the animal. 

Knowing your gun, the choke, and the load will help pattern and determine your max distance. I like to stay within 25 yards if possible. That means I need to have my calling down and my turkey decoys working to get that longbeard in close. 

#3 - Early to Rise gets a Bird Every Time

Hunters can have success at any point in the day when hunting turkey, our opinion is the best hunting happens first thing in the morning.

You've done your research and figured out that turkeys are roosting on the neighbor's property. Hit that crow call early and get "wobble gobble". Only hit the locator call once if you get a response. Touching off too many locator calls can scare off the turkeys. Once they hit the ground they could go in the opposite direction if you over-call. Once you know the birds have hit the ground, start using your box or slate call.

Be ready for the early action by getting out early and getting yourself set up. Knowing turkeys are very vocal and active at first light tells you that you should be up early and ready to go. 

Be prepared by doing your research ahead of time. The night before you can pump out an owl locator call to find the birds. You can set up your blind the day or night before and get into the ground blind way before the first light. 

For those hunting public land in the southwest or mountains of the west, we suggest a crow call immediately after you get out of the truck. Before you start tackling the mountains, see if there are birds in the area. If you hit the crow call hard and you get no response you may want to move on and try down the road. Birds in the southwest can be unpredictable and many times you are hiking several miles to get a bird to respond. 

#4 Strategies for Using Decoys

Having and using decoys on your hunt can be to your benefit. You can use decoys whenever you set up and start calling. If you're hunting public lands it's nice to have and use decoys that are very portable and can fit into your backpack or vest. 

Working decoys into your presentation while calling can be done in several different poses.

  • Setup a Jake facing a hen in the breeding position can get a mature gobbler angry and he'll come in hard and fast. 
  • If you have several bird decoys, put a few in a position of eating. Giving a few purrs will let other birds know it's okay and there are no concerns here.
  • Put Jake and Mature Tom in a faceoff position. Another tom will come in and want to show off his dominance.  

When you set up your decoys try to get them between 15-20 yards from your location. You want to bring the longbeard into shooting range. Having the decoys close but not on top of you allows you to shoot out 35-40 yards if necessary.

Jakes vs Long Beard Mature Toms by Shaggy Outdoors

#5 - Know the Difference between Toms and Jakes

Know what you are looking at...

Depending on your local hunting regulations you will need to know what you are about to shoot. Can you shoot a Jake? or Any bird? or just a mature Tom?

When you know what you can shoot, now let's look at the birds. How do you know if you are looking at Jake's or Tom's?

  • Tom's have longer beards anywhere between 7-10 inches or longer
  • Jake's have shorter 2-3 inch beards

Occasionally you will see a hen with a short beard, be aware. Know and understand the different body types. 

#6 - Archery Hunters Use a Ground Blind

Turkeys have excellent vision and hearing...

If you are hunting with a bow, get the best advantage using a ground blind. Archery hunting is some of the most exciting and difficult hunting out there. 

If you have the opportunity to use a blind it is a good way to disguise yourself when you are getting ready to shoot. The movement to pull the string back could scare off the turkeys. You have to not only worry about the two eyes from the longbeard but also the hens and the jakes. 

One common discussion from archery hunter forums is what the poundage of your bow should be. If you think that you might need to hold on to the birds for a long time, consider turning down the poundage so you can hold longer.

Archery hunting turkey is fun for both the run-and-gunners and for the stationary hunter. Get your shots down by practicing on some 3D decoys.

onX maps use for finding and storing information

Final Thoughts On Strategies for Turkey Hunters

The best way for you to become a better turkey hunter is by just getting out there and doing it. Learn from your experiences. Sometimes decoys will work and sometimes they may be a distractor. Understanding your hunting environment will make you a better overall hunter.

Get out and scout your hunting area. Use common sources like Google Maps or a paid source like onX Maps. Using onX maps will allow you to mark signs and travel patterns for both you and the birds.