Spring Turkey Hunt

by Chris

One of the reasons I wanted my own land is for hunting. It is a way for me to escape and be one with nature. Sitting out in the woods early in the morning alone and quiet, usually without cell phone service, is surreal, especially when you are used to city living where you can’t have a minute of silence.

The other thing that makes this time special is all of your senses are on high alert. You hear every sound, and small rushes of adrenaline shoot through every time a twig snaps or a bird ruffles through the leaves. I am not the type of person who is just out to shoot and kill something, so the wait and chase of the hunt is what excites me.

The first season that came up after our land purchase was spring turkey season. We see a ton of turkey activity at the property. Usually we scare the birds off of one of the fields and there are always scratching signs on the ground and gobbles from the woods.

wild turkeysThe Birds
We’d noticed over the winter and into the spring that we had about 20 hens and 4 dominant toms. Spring season allows you to hunt bearded birds only. Bearded birds are mainly male, although females can have beards, too.

Tennessee spring season allows 4 birds in total with a bag limit of 1 bird per day. I decided early that I would only hunt for 2 toms as to not take all of the mature breeding birds off of the property. I think this will keep the flock together and even invite new toms in for next year.

The Blind
During the winter I decided that a hunting blind would be good for deer, turkey, and coyote hunting thoughout the year. We also have a great camping area at the top of our main field, so the structure could double as a cabin.

We wanted something that would last and look nice. A Google search for “Hunting Blind Plans” found plans for a 6×6’ hunting blind framed like a house on MyOutdoorPlans. The website told me everything I needed for the build.

My carpenter neighbor and I went to the hardware store. We decided to make the blind 8×8’ since we would be camping in it and because lumber comes in 8-foot sections. We assembled the walls and floor in our garage and put everything together onsite. When everything was together, we built the roof and shingled it.

hunting blind
8×8′ hunting blind in process

We positioned the blind at the edge of the woods, with the campsite behind it and the field in front of it, and camouflaged it with cedar branches. It could not be in a better location.

I was worried that we’d built it too close to the season opening, so I went to the Farmers Co-Op for a 50lb sack of wheat seed (our power guy said turkeys would eat a whole bag of corn in no time but that smaller wheat seeds would keep them scratching and returning). I threw half of the sack out 10-30 yards from the blind. This gave the turkeys a month to eat the seed; you aren’t allowed to hunt over food in Tennessee, and all food must be gone at least 10 days prior to hunting.

The game cam showed that the turkeys didn’t seem to care about the blind at all. The seed was gone within a week.

Figuring It Out
Since I had never been turkey hunting, I went into research mode online and talked to anyone I could around town and at work. The first thing I learned is that these birds are not easy to hunt.

People think turkeys are dumb and easy prey, but with their exceptional eyesight and keen hearing they’re hard to get close to with a shotgun.

One of the questions I asked was whether I needed to cover my scent like I would for deer hunting. The answer is no: if turkeys could smell you, no one would ever shoot one.

Because of their eyesight, you do need to invest in great camouflage. Even if you have a blind, sometimes the birds won’t come to you, so you need to leave the blind and set up in the woods. I used a ghilli suit. You will need to cover your face and hands. If it’s a warm spring where you are, remember to go light.

You’ll want decoys and a call. A box call is the easiest for a beginner to operate. I bought a Primos Hook-Up Magnetic box call and practiced with YouTube tutorials for a week.

I bought a Gobbstopper tom and hen decoy set, a male and female made out of pliable plastic for around $40. Decoy prices vary, so do your research to find the most realistic ones in your price range. Inflatable decoys are cheaper, but I’m guessing they don’t last. They look like balloons. It’s hard to think of them fooling turkeys with their great eyesight. Plus, it’s all over if you accidentally shoot a balloon.

Like with the call technique, I researched decoy positioning to learn the best way to get a reaction from a dominant tom.

Next was gun and ammo shopping. I was lucky enough to have a 12-gauge Remington 1100 that my dad left me, so the shotgun was covered, but when it comes to ammo, everyone has their opinions. The consensus is that shot size should be 4-6 with #4 being for longer shots and #6 being closer up. They also have combination shot shells that have all 3 sizes to cover multiple distances.

I didn’t know how far I would be shooting, so I went in the middle. After talking with the guys at BassPro, I ended up with Remington’s Nitro Turkey #5.

I decided not to use a choke in my gun because I knew I would be close enough for the pellets to stay together. If you think you will be taking longer shots, you may want to look at chokes to ensure a humane shot. Buy enough shells to shoot a few beforehand to know your spread and the best distance with your gun.

Remember to ask questions everywhere you go.

The Hunt
Thirty minutes to an hour before sunset the night before the hunt, go to your hunting site and sit quietly. This will let you hear where the turkeys roost for the night. We are in the mountains, where the turkeys like to go up a ridge above the trees so they can coast down onto their roosting branches. When they do this, they make noise and calls.

The reason to know where they roost is to set up the decoys where the turkeys will see them in the morning and to avoid walking too close to the roosting area when you’re walking to your hunting spot.

From what I’ve read, the birds like to look out on fields and valleys and will glide down in the morning when they know it’s safe and clear. The morning of the hunt, get to your spot at least 30 minutes before it even starts to get light.

I woke up late that first morning and set up the decoys just as it was getting light, positioning the decoys in front of the blind and 10 feet apart like the tom was chasing the hen. Thirty minutes after sunrise, I did my first call, a series of yelps and clucks. I couldn’t believe it when a turkey answered from down in our lower field. I decided it would be best to ghilli suit up and sneak down to the woods between the fields.

I stealthily crept across the field directly into our neighbor Jerry, sitting in his SUV, staring up at my decoys. He asked if I had heard those turkeys and hadn’t realized he was hearing my calls. Haha!! He couldn’t apologize enough. I knew that the hunt was over for the morning. His wife asked me later if I had gotten anything, and I told her the only turkey I fooled that day was her husband.

wild turkey decoys
Successful decoy setup

Over the week, I did more research on decoy set ups. One of them was to put the hen on the ground with no stand and to place the tom directly behind and over her like they were having sex. This was supposed to upset dominant toms and elicit an aggressive response.

Later in the week, a big cold front was blowing in with nasty weather, which actually seemed like it would work in my favor. I figured the turkeys would be restless and moving around, so I got up early and made it out with forty minutes until first light.
I set the decoys up twenty yards in front of the blind and waited for light. I had decided not to make any calls and to just let the morning play out.

I had a feeling where the turkeys were roosting and knew they would see the decoys. We had also set the game cam in front of the blind and had video of toms strutting in full display at that location.

At about 7:30, 30 minutes after sunrise, there was a purr 50 yards to the left. A lone female was looking at my decoys. Hens will lead toms away from your decoys, so this wasn’t necessarily a good thing, but her purring was also the perfect call to bring a tom into the field, in direct view of the decoys.

I watched her for about 15 minutes until she disappeared into the woods at the top of the field. I sat back and relaxed. I heard a thump. A big, upset tom was standing in front of my decoys. I think the thump was him kicking the male decoy, trying to separate them.

I grabbed the shotgun and shot. It happened so fast. I hit the tom perfectly in the head and dropped him instantly. Now, the real work would begin.

Dressing and Mounting
I took the bird directly home to began dressing so nothing would spoil. Beth is awesome and made sure we were going to use every bit of this animal.

I once again got on YouTube to find out how to dress the bird and preserve the tail and beard. There are so many videos on how to do this, and I watched about five before feeling like I had the gist of things.

I can’t say enough how much shot placement counts. Not only does a head shot ensure a humane kill; it protects the meat and feathers. I have also read stories where body shots with smaller shot will not penetrate their feathers.

A YouTube with a father walking his son through the process of dressing and cleaning the turkey was very helpful. I figured if an 11-year-old could do it, I could, too. I followed along, pausing where needed.

wild turkey liver and onions
Wild turkey liver and onions

To begin, I removed the tail feathers and beard and set them aside then got the rest of the bird dressed and into the freezer. We kept the tenderloins out to cook the next night. The giblets, neck, and breast bones are going into stock, and Danish gastronome Beth cooked up the heart (boiled) and liver (pan-fried with caramelized onions in butter). Like I said, we used everything we could.

Having a mount was important to me because it was my first turkey. I cut all the meat off of the tail feathers. I cleaned between the quills where they were attached to the bird as well as I could without them coming apart, even scraping away the fat and connective tissue with a wire brush.

wild turkey tailfeathers fan

I soaked the bottoms of the quills in Coleman camping fuel for an hour to remove any leftover meat and connective tissue. After that, I spread the tail fan out on a large cardboard box and pinned it into position. I applied Borax liberally where the quills had attached to the bird and hung the cardboard on the wall in a safe, dry place.

The Borax will dry the remaining meat and fat and keep bugs out of the mount. You can use salt, but most professionals use Borax.

Next, I cleaned the meat off of the beard and placed it and the feet, positioned how I wanted them, in Borax. I let everything dry for 7 days before mounting on a walnut mounting plaque.

wild turkey fan and beard mount

We now have meat in the freezer and a beautiful mount over the couch. I will never forget this experience and can’t explain how happy I am that this all happened on the land that we own. I will be back out later in the season to enjoy the woods and maybe take a second bird.

Hopefully this will help some of you bag a turkey of your own, in a humane way that you will be proud of and that will give you some great food, like this wild turkey leg confit.

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