Wild turkey can easily claim the title of the most American game bird of all. It penetrates the American lifestyle so much that Benjamin Franklin even suggested it would make a better national symbol than the bald eagle. He made the suggestion in a private letter and as a joke, of course, but the significance of the turkey to First Nations and first settlers alike is undeniable. And for a long time the only way to put that bird on the table was to hunt it.
Wild turkey is also one of the great successes of hunting-funded North American Conservation Model. A hundred years ago many conservationists believed the species couldn’t survive in the modern agricultural environment and was doomed for extinction. Now, with the Eastern turkey range covering half of the country, and together with Osceola turkey in Florida, Rio Grande turkey on the Great Plains, Merriam’s turkey in the Rockies, and transplanted and hybrid populations in many other localities, there’s is some turkey hunting in just about every US state. Throw in Mexico and Canada for good measure.
Turkey meat tops almost every list of healthiest foods, but there’s more to it than filling the freezer. The “beard” – a special batch of feathers that gobblers grow across their lifespan, the spurs, and the “fan” – a turkey’s tail in spread position – are the material mementos of the turkey hunt, a.k.a. the trophy. Real turkey hunting affectionados cherish the “Grand Slam” – each of the four subspecies found in the USA – and those afflicted with turkey-fever for whom there’s no cure,they go after the “Big Six”, a great challenge to collect all six subspecies found in North America.
How to Hunt Wild Turkey
Most wild turkey populations are numerous enough to allow over-the-counter tags, with as many as four birds per season limit (mostly it’s two, however). But occasionally a hunter might have to enter a draw. For some species and locations (most notably Gould’s turkey in Arizona and New Mexico) success is far from guaranteed.
By far the most popular way of turkey hunting is by calling. Hunters use box calls, the invention of the First Nations, diaphragm calls, or other voice or friction calls to imitate the sounds made by the birds. Electronic calls are illegal. A hunter may imitate a hen, an adult male (known as tom, or gobbler), or an immature impudent male, known as jake. Turkeys are exceptionally wary and seem to have built-in 10x binoculars in their eyes, so advanced calling and camouflage skills are required. Hunters may even put up decoys to distract the attention of the wary bird.
Sometimes hunters do their calling from blinds erected in likely spots, or use “run and gun” technique to actively seek, locate and approach the bird. In most states and provinces it’s illegal to hunt turkeys with a rifle – shotguns or archery gear are the rule. A turkey shotgun is a special breed of firearm, meant to deliver a very tight pattern of small shot to hit the bird’s head and neck and ensure instant kill. Special arrows are used by bow hunters.
Hunting at roost sites, with dogs, and with artificial (electronic) calls is forbidden. It is also not allowed to hunt turkeys over bait. In many locations a hunter or outfitter can use artificial feeding to attract the birds to the area, but the hunt itself must take place a certain distance away from the bait. Typically, only bearded birds (males and an occasional transgender female that wears a beard and may be easily confused with the male) are legal in spring, and either-sex birds are legal in the fall. Pay special attention to the harvest report, which you may be obliged to do shortly after harvest.
The hunt is usually preceded by scouting during the previous evening, with the aim to locate the birds at their roosts. Hunters often use the so-called “locator calls” – voices of animals such as coyote or owl hoot that make turkeys respond with alarm cries called “shock gobbles”. However, in many areas today turkeys are so abundant that hunters don’t always have to scout for a gobbler before trying to attract the bird in range, but may even call from ground blinds built in areas where birds are known to frequent.
Spring or fall?
There are two main seasons for turkey hunting: the spring and the fall. The spring season happens during the mating season, which occurs from March to June depending on the latitude and subspecies. The Osceola turkey season typically starts earlier than other subspecies, while Eastern turkey in the North and Merriam’s in the Rockies start later. If the hunter who is set on nothing but a big, old gobbler in full glory, and experience the ultimate turkey hunt, should schedule the hunt for spring.
The fall season may happen anywhere between September and December, depending on the state, offers less variety. It is usually more about taking “any turkey” to fill the freezer than a big male tom for trophy. In the fall turkeys don’t respond to calling as readily as in the spring, so other hunting methods are applied. Hunters may ambush the turkeys at feeding areas or routes, stalk them, or scatter the flock and then call a bird in when they try to get back together again.
Four subspecies of turkey – Eastern, Rio Grande, Osceola and Merriam’s – comprise the American Turkey Grand Slam, and with the mostly Mexican Gould’s and ocellated turkey it becomes the Big Six.
The Eastern turkey is the most widely distributed subspecies of turkey in America. It is also the biggest of the American turkeys, with birds in the Midwest sometimes tipping the scales at 30 pounds. It has a long beard and spurs, and highly characteristic black-and-gold feathers that make a unique color pattern when the bird’s wings are closed. This is the original turkey that first settlers encountered, and the one that Ben Franklin wrote about in the famous letter where he suggested the turkey might make a better national symbol than the bald eagle, so to hunt Eastern turkey is to continue the American hunting tradition.
The Eastern turkey range stretches from the Great Lakes in the north to the Mexico Bay in the south, and from Atlantic coast in the East to Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas in the west. It has also been successfully introduced to some of the Western states.
Eastern turkey is often considered the second hardest turkey to bag after Osceola turkey. It is supposed that centuries of hunting pressure made the eastern turkey more waryand more careful than other varieties. Eastern turkey is the creature of a forest (although it may adapt to more open land if appropriate roost sites are available), which adds to the problem, as it’s almost impossible to visually spot them.
Rio Grande Turkey
Rio Grande turkey is lighter in color than the eastern subspecies, but darker than the western populations. It’s not the biggest subspecies of wild turkey, with males seldom growing bigger than 20 pounds, but has long legs and sharp spurs. With its open and wide-spaced habitat, a hunter must be more active and focus on the “run and gun” tactics, which attracts those who are liable to get bored with sitting in a blind. Rio Grande turkey is not only an essential part of any turkey slam, but an exciting hunting quarry in its own right.
The range of the Rio Grande turkey mostly covers the the dry and semi-dry scrub areas in the southern parts of Great Plains, the west of Texas and the north-east of Mexico. This subspecies has also been introduced into Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, and California. Most hunting opportunities are in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.Rio Grande turkeys can often be seen in the open, so a hunter can spot the tom from the distance and stalk them.
Named after the famous Seminole nation chief of the early 1800s, Osceola turkey exists only in Florida, and not all over the state at that. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) only recognizes birds as Osceolas if they are taken south of a line drawn between Taylor and Dixie counties on the Gulf to a line running between Nassau and Duval counties on the Atlantic coast.
Osceola turkey is the second smallest subspecies of wild turkey (after ocellated turkey) and the smallest of the subspecies in the United States, and is an indispensable part of the Turkey Grand Slam. Osceola turkeys are characterized by darker plumage, and longer spurs. Its name spells the romance and drama of America’s early years, and your Osceola turkey hunt will match the emotions the name stirs.
Osceola turkeys are considered the most difficult to bag, especially for an out-of-state hunter. The challenge is both the unique habitat of Florida that most hunters aren’t accustomed to, and the fact that Osceola turkeys are not very active callers, and shut up quickly as soon as they sense something’s wrong. But on the other hand, it makes Osceola turkey hunting is an unforgettable experience.
Merriam’s turkey is nearly as big as the eastern turkey, but typically has smaller beard and spurs. It has unique light colored plumage with white accents, and even more unique habits – it’s more adapted to living in wide open spaces than other turkeys. The Merriam turkey gobblers are said to be more aggressive and defensive of their territory than other subspecies, and would come to the call more readily. This offers an unforgettable hunting experience, and adding a Merriam turkey to a turkey grand slam is typically only an excuse for those who love to travel and hunt the amazing landscapes of the American West.
Merriam’s turkey range is scattered all over the West. It’s original home range is believed to be in the Rockies, including Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. However, it has also been introduced to other states, such as South Dakota and Nebraska. Bag limits are typically less generous than for some other species, and in some areas tags are available only through draw (while in others you get one over-the-counter tag, and may apply for an additional tag through draw). One bearded bird per day is the limit in many areas.
The biggest challenge of Merriam’s turkey hunting is the wide open spaces the birds favor. That means more ground to cover in search of birds, and less cover to hide the hunters from their all-seeing eyes. Scouting the evening before the hunt, is essential.
The Gould’s turkey is the largest turkey in America in terms of body size and has big legs and feet. With long central tail feathers, white-tipped and sometimes separated and thus resembling eyelashes, Gould’s turkey “fan” stands out among other turkey trophies. Not many American turkey hunters, however, can boast of this trophy. Gould’s turkey hunting is a rare achievement and a unique experience.
The biggest part of Gould’s turkey range is in Mexico. There are also some populations in Arizona and New Mexico, near the Mexican border. However, hunting Gould’s turkey in the USA depends on your luck of drawing a tag, which is not always easy. Mexican tags are over-the-counter, but the hunt requires access to private land.
Mexican outfitters typically hunt Gould’s turkey from ground or elevated blinds set in areas which birds are known to frequent. When a gobbler appears nearby, the guide uses the call to get it in range. When the stubborn bird goes away instead, the hunter and the guide may try to intercept it, and call from an improvised blind.
Not to be confused with Osceola Turkey, the oscillated turkey got its name from its unique rainbow-like iridescent plumage, with blue and gold-tipped tail feathers. It’s one of the smallest kinds of wild turkey, with adult males weighing only 11-12 pounds. They have a unique high-pitched gobble preceded by a drumming sound, very long spurs, but no beard. Being the most remote and exotic species of North American wild turkeys, ocellated turkey is usually the crown of a turkey hunter’s “Big Six Slam”.
The range of ocellated wild turkey covers the southern part of the North American continent, most notably the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Most ocellated turkey hunts take place during the mating season, that runs mid-March to late April, when the chances of bagging a big tom in full splendor are much higher. The autumn season, however, offers more options in combining the turkey hunt with hunting other exotic birds and animals such as curassow, peccary, or brocket deer.
DIY or Outfitter?
There is a special pleasure and pride in arranging every bit of your hunt, from obtaining licenses and tags to finding and harvesting the quarry, without any assistance. However, with turkey hunting that’s not easy to do. Good knowledge of roost sites, and general layout of the woods, along with expert calling techniques, is required for success, and a hunter from a different area will usually not have enough time to scout and learn the lay of the land or even get access to good hunting land. The best way to jump-start your turkey hunter’s career is to hire a professional outfitter or guide.
Gould’s and ocellated turkey hunts in Mexico are a different story. On the one hand, hunting in Mexico requires access to private land. On the other hand, the birds being CITES species, a lot of paperwork and contract with an approved taxidermist are required to legally import the trophy into the USA. Both are nearly impossible without an outfitter.
Prices for Wild Turkey Hunts
You can find a wild turkey hunt for as low as $250-$300, but that would most likely be a fall hunt, often a semi-guided one. Eastern turkeys are usually most affordable, most outfitters will charge you about $1,000 for a spring hunt with decent chances to get a gobbler. Comparable Rio Grande turkey hunts may go up to $1,500-$1750 range, and Merriam’s a tad higher. Osceola turkey, with is limited range and being coveted by diehard turkey hunters who need it to complete a slam, is the most expensive, with most hunt starting at just over $2000 and may go as high as $3,000. Expect to pay $2,000-$3,000 for a more exotic species like Gould’s or ocellated turkey.
But what is money compared to the rush of emotions when a big, old, experienced and wary tom bird, gobbling and strutting and fanning its tail, tall on his strong legs and with the big breast bubbled, is almost, but not quite in range?
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