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New England Turkey Hunting: Strategies for Success

Chapter Teasers

Natural History

If your goal is merely to be a successful turkey hunter, then you're primarily concerned with what goes on in the turkey's world in the spring and perhaps, the fall. Spring hunting seasons in New England span much of, if not all the month of May, and turkeys go through a lot of behavioral changes over that span. Knowing when and why can help you choose the appropriate hunting tactics. In the fall, the turkey's behavior is markedly different than in the spring, and if you try to apply the same tactics, you'll likely end up frustrated and confused. Therefore, knowing more about the turkey's natural history and behavior during these periods will certainly help to make you a better and more successful hunter.

The History of Re-introduction Efforts

For anyone who has traveled the highways or back roads of New England in recent years, and for New England turkey hunters especially, it is hard to imagine there was a time, not so long ago, when turkeys were virtually non-existent across our six-state region. In my own lifetime, I have seen them restored to huntable numbers in all six states. This is one of the most remarkable success stories in modern conservation, and much of that success is directly attributable to hunters.

Ongoing Management Programs

While restoration efforts throughout New England have been deemed an overwhelming success, there is still much to be done. Biologists and managers throughout the region are constantly looking for ways to expand hunting opportunities within the turkey population strongholds, and increase populations along the fringes. Meanwhile, in some areas turkey populations are even approaching nuisance levels and need to be dealt with. State agencies, assisted with funding and support from the various local chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, are also developing and implementing habitat improvement projects to ensure the viability of existing populations. Perhaps the greatest threat to the future of turkey hunting is urban sprawl and ever-diminishing access to private land. What follows is a state-by-state, state-of-the-state summary of on-going turkey management.

Clothing

I hadn't realized just how cold I was until the sudden rush of adrenaline warmed me up a little. I tried to keep from shaking as the birds slowly closed the distance. Picking away at waste corn they came - one hundred yards, seventy five, fifty. At thirty yards distance, a big tom stopped and his head jerked up suddenly. He was staring directly at me but it was too late; my bead was on him. The first shot rolled the bird, but he got up and made a wide loop, circling back within range again. The second shot planted him.

Several factors contributed to that success, but one of the most important was having the right clothing. A good many un-equipped hunters probably would have passed on a day like that, and a fair number of ill-equipped ones probably wouldn't have lasted long in the cold, driving rain. Being comfortable allowed me to stay long enough to fill my tag. Since then I've had many more successes, a fair number of which were partly due to having the right clothing for a variety of conditions. What follows is a run-down of necessities and suggestions for turkey hunting apparel.

Guns and Ammo

Most veteran New England turkey hunters probably took their first birds with their favorite fowling piece or upland bird gun, because that's all that was available for turkey hunting when they started. Today's turkey hunters have a lot more options, including guns specifically designed for the sport. While you can kill a turkey with just about any shotgun, if you're going to get serious about turkey hunting, you may want to consider buying or building a gun specifically for that purpose. Certain types have some significant advantages.

Accessories

Truth be known, there's almost no limit to the stuff you hunters can carry afield with you. But if you wanted to bring along one of everything, you'd need a Sherpa to carry it all. Much of what's available could be considered optional accessories, or even luxuries. Yet a good deal of it can, under various circumstances, be quite necessary. Deciding which is which can also vary from person to person, and day to day. You may be able to get by with just a few items for a quick morning hunt. If you're planning on spending the day in the woods however, or there's a chance of rain, you'll almost certainly need more and different equipment. The following are some suggestions of what I consider the more essential items your turkey vest should contain, with some options for various circumstances and conditions. As you spend more time afield, you can add or subtract from the list to suit your individual needs and hunting style.

Scouting

With turkey hunting, as with deer hunting, the more time you spend scouting the less time you'll spend hunting. Furthermore, the closer to hunting season you scout, the more useful the information you collect. The key is in knowing what to look for, and how to interpret what you find. If your time is limited, it's even more important. Otherwise, you could be wasting a lot of precious time.

Calling

The basic premise of modern spring turkey hunting is to call a gobbler close enough to shoot. That sounds simple enough, but let me assure you it's not. In fact, it's complex enough that there have been dozens of books and videos, and thousands of magazine articles prepared on the subject. Part of the reason it's so complicated is that every encounter with a gobbler is unique. The same gobbler may react differently to different calls on different days, or even at different times on the same day. Still, knowing the generalities can get you started in the right direction. Proficient turkey calling first requires a basic understanding of the types of calling devices and the common vocalizations of turkeys.

Setting Up

If you're willing to entrust your turkey hunting success to the vagaries of fate, you can skip this chapter. If, on the other hand, you want to hedge your bets, you might want to read on. There's a lot you can do in terms of where, when and how you set up that can significantly increase your chances of success.

Advanced Tactics

Knowing how to make the various turkey vocalizations is certainly an asset, but to be more successful in difficult situations, you have to know when, where and how to apply those calls as well. You also need to know when not to call at all, when to move and when to sit tight, and the more tricks you know, the better are your odds for success. What follows are some of the advanced tactics I've learned from my own experiences, as well as those of some of turkey hunting's upper classmen.

Bow Hunting

Trying to take an old gobbler with a gun is tough enough, but doing it with a bow might seem downright impossible. First, you must go against a tom's very nature by luring him to you. Next, you have to draw on a bird who's keen eyesight is un-matched among game animals. Then, you fire a projectile that travels slower than the bird's reflexes can react to the twang of a bowstring. It is a daunting challenge at best. Still, the tools and techniques for hunting with bow and gun are not significantly different. Those who have already hunted turkeys with a gun, or deer with a bow need only to modify what they've learned to take on turkey hunting's ultimate challenge. What follows are some tips for those who think they're ready.

Fall Hunting

Fall hunting differs from spring hunting in two ways. First, spring hunting is based on exploiting a gobbler's breeding urge, while fall hunting relies more on the turkey's gregarious nature. Second, spring hunting is for gobblers, only, while most fall seasons are for either sex. For these reasons, the methods you use will also differ somewhat. In New England there is a third difference; you can hunt all day. Before you can hunt them though, you've got to find some birds.

A State-by-State Round-up of the Best Turkey Hunting Destinations

The following two chapters are intended to help you in that regard. They provide state-by-state highlights of where some of the best hunting opportunities exist, based largely on results from recent spring seasons, and the expertise of the individual state's biologists. These chapters are by no means intended as a comprehensive roundup of the best turkey hunting locations in the region. That would take a volume at least as large as this entire book. Instead, they are intended as a general overview, designed to get you pointed in the right direction. This information, and contact information provided for each state will give you a solid starting point, from which you can fine tune your own search. Besides, finding good hunting grounds is a big part of a successful turkey hunt.

Ethics and Safety

Turkey hunting can be one of the most exciting and enjoyable shooting sports, when done properly. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most dangerous. Safety should always be foremost in the mind of every turkey hunter. Ethics and consideration for other hunters should be a close second. New hunters enter the sport every year, and their unfamiliarity with it can sometimes lead a novice unwittingly into an unsafe situation or result in unintentional interference. That's why knowing proper safety and turkey hunting etiquette can go a long way toward making everyone's hunt safer, and more enjoyable.

Scoring your Turkey and Preserving Your Trophy

The National Wild Turkey Federation maintains official records of wild turkeys taken by fair chase methods anywhere in the world. To do so, they have developed a fairly simple scoring system, which has also been adopted by many states and other private trophy organizations. Their system consists of a combination of three measurements: live weight, beard length and spur length, which are recorded as follows:

Regardless of weight or beard or spur length, I consider any wild turkey taken by fair chase methods to be a trophy. It could be a big, long-spurred limbhanger that meets the conventional definition, or it could be a smaller bird that offered a particularly challenging hunt. Maybe it's your first wild turkey, or your first with a bow. Regardless, each and every turkey you kill should be fully appreciated, and treated with the respect worthy of such a magnificent bird, whether it ultimate ends up in your trophy room, or your dining room.