It only takes once. When you’ve located and called in a wild tom turkey to spitting distance, had him strut right in front of you, then sound off with a gobble that shakes your core, you’ll be hooked for good. Hunting gobblers in the spring is as heart pounding as hunting gets.
Next to the excitement of turkey hunting, another great attraction is the birds’ widespread availability. Thanks to historic conservation and reintroduction efforts over more than 30 years, turkey can be found today in 49 states (only Alaska is left out), a growing number of Canadian provinces, and Mexico. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the National Wild Turkey Federation and the grassroots efforts of its members for rebuilding the numbers of this truly American bird.
Turkey hunting can be done in both spring and fall seasons in many locations. Spring is the mating season during which you’ll use the tom’s bravado and territorialism against him in trying to overcome the turkeys’ incredible wariness. In the fall, a number of methods of turkey hunting are employed to locate and draw birds into range, though none can quite match the thrill of calling in brash gobblers in the spring. In fall seasons in many states, both toms and hens are legal game.
The combination of access to good turkey habitat, the unique hunting skills required to bring a turkey into shotgun or bow range spring or fall, and the experience of years of chasing long beards makes turkey hunting a natural pursuit in which to enlist the aid of a highly-rated outfitter. Top turkey hunting outfitters offer packages from basic food, lodging, and access all the way to full-guided hunts in which all you need to do is manage to stay calm and shoot straight.
In the contiguous 48 states and Canada there are four recognized subspecies of wild turkey that constitute what’s called a “turkey grand slam”, though they readily interbreed in areas where their habitat overlaps. They are the Osceola (or Florida), the Eastern, the Rio Grande (often called “Rios” for short) and the Merriam’s.
The Eastern Wild Turkey
The Eastern Wild Turkey is generally recognized to be the largest of the primary subspecies and have the largest range of them all. A mature male Eastern can reach as tall as four feet and weigh as much as 25 – 28 pounds. The hens are significantly slighter in build, weighing about 15 pounds at maximum, but most are much smaller than that.
The Eastern Wild Turkey’s range includes 38 states and five Canadian Provinces. Only Easterns are found in: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Eastern Wild Turkeys are present in addition to other subspecies in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Washington. In Canada, Easterns are found in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.
“Big” also describes the Eastern Wild Turkey’s population in North America today. It is the most prolific, with an estimated total population in the neighborhood of more than 5 million birds across its range. Because of its numbers and its expansive range the Eastern is the most widely hunted of all the subspecies.
The Osceola (Florida) Wild Turkey
As its nickname implies, the Florida Wild Turkey is exclusive to the peninsula of Florida. It is named for a chief of the Seminole Indian tribe – Osceola – as their traditional territory was the same as the range of this subspecies of turkey.
While similar in appearance to the Eastern Wild Turkey, Floridas are usually smaller, with a darker overall appearance of their body feathers.
As might be expected, with a range exclusive to central and southern Florida, the total population of the Osceola turkey subspecies is only about 90,000 birds. However, because they begin their spring mating cycle the earliest, coinciding hunting seasons open earliest on the Florida birds as well, offering a chance for traveling hunters and those looking for the “Grand Slam” of turkeys a chance to hunt before seasons kick off closer to home.
The Rio Grande Wild Turkey
The Rio Grande Wild Turkey is native to the Central Plains states, but has expanded its range greatly, today, to the north and west. Rio Grande Wild Turkeys are found nearly exclusively west of the Missouri River with recognized small populations in eastern South Dakota and North Dakota being the only exceptions. States that are home to Rio Grandes include: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, Utah, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Hawaii. Rios are also present in northern Mexico where it borders Texas.
Rio Grande gobblers can reach weights in excess of 20 pounds at maturity in peak condition, however, they often appear to be the leanest and lankiest of the subspecies. Hens are smaller, averaging about 12 pounds in adulthood. Overall, they appear lighter in color than Easterns or Floridas.
Because trees are often few and far between in Rio Grande country, the birds adapt, sometimes using manmade structures like radio towers, telephone poles or even hulks of abandoned barns to roost. Stands of trees will draw birds for miles around to roost, sometimes amassing huge flocks of birds in small groves of trees or river bottoms.
Across their range, the population of Rio Grande Wild Turkeys is estimated at something just over a million birds.
The Merriam’s Wild Turkey
If the Rio Grande is the turkey of the plains and prairies, the Merriam’s is the mountain turkey. Though believed to have been native to what is now New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado their modern/introduced range includes 15 states and four Canadian provinces. They are: New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Texas and Nevada; British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
The Merriam’s Wild Turkey falls into mid-size among all the subspecies, though avid hunters of Merriams often believe they have the most muscular legs from running up and down some mighty big hills and mountains. The most distinguishable characteristic of the Merriam’s from the other primary subspecies is the almost white tips of the toms’ tail feathers. If you’ve ever seen a Merriam’s tom strutting along a Ponderosa pine ridge, backlit by the rising sun it’s a vision that won’t soon be forgotten. The whole bird seems to glow!
Pure Merriam’s subspecies numbers are estimated at less than 400,000 birds across their range, however, they interbreed readily with Easterns and Rios where they overlap, so hybrid numbers are likely much higher.
A Fifth Subspecies – The Gould’s Wild Turkey
Existing in extremely small numbers in tiny habitats of southern New Mexico and Arizona is the Gould’s Wild Turkey. Greater numbers of the birds exist in portions of northern and central Mexico, where outfitters assist clients in their quest for a “Wild Turkey Super Slam.”
The Gould’s Wild Turkey resembles the Merriam’s in color and feathering, but is the largest of all.
In the United States, the population of Gould’s Wild Turkeys is estimated at less than 1000 birds in total.
Another Species Unto Itself – The Ocellated Turkey
As the National Wild Turkey Federation bulletin phrases it, “There are only 2 species of turkey in the world; the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), divided into 5 distinct subspecies, and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata).”
While having some similarities in appearance to North American wild turkeys, the Ocellated is a very different bird with different habits and habitat. It is found in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and on into Central America. Its tail feathers almost appear to be a cross between a turkey’s and a peacock’s. Male and female Ocellated Turkeys both have blue heads with nodules that range from red to orange in color. They have no beards, as do theNorth American turkeys, but male’s spurs are extremely long, some times reaching to two inches or more on adult birds.
Because the Ocellated Turkey is part of the increasingly popular Wild Turkey Super Slam, outfitters in the Yucatan and some Central American countries are offering opportunities for non-residents to pursue these birds. Hunting seasons, regulations, licensing and techniques vary widely in the region, so it’s crucial to employ the services of an experienced, trustworthy outfitter should you choose to hunt these unusual birds.
The techniques of hunting the various subspecies of turkey are similar, though obviously conducted in widely varying habitats where the birds live. Florida Turkey, for example, are frequently hunted in swamps where it’s common to wade through water knee deep or more. On the other hand, hunting Merriam’s in the spring often means dealing with unexpected snowstorms, even blizzards.
Classic spring turkey hunting is done by scouting and attempting to pattern birds on land to which you have access. Depending on weather, portion of the season and hunting pressure, toms may be extremely vocal allowing you to home in on their location. Yet at other times, they will be silent nearly all day long, even on the roost, making them challenging and sometimes extremely frustrating to hunt.
In the spring, hunters traditionally use hen calls to attempt to bring gobblers into shotgun or bow range, though some states allow the use of rifles and handguns as well. Recently more hunters are adding gobble calls and decoys to their bag of spring turkey hunting tricks. Since this is the case, it’s extremely important to be certain who is hunting around you for safety sake. Veteran outfitters often have exclusive access to property over which they can maintain tight control of who is hunting there.
A hunting technique that overlaps spring and fall seasons is the use of blinds in scouted feeding areas or known routes from or to roost sites. Success depends on frequent encounters with the birds to learn their habits and preferences.
The most traditional fall hunting technique is to locate a flock of turkeys, then scatter them. In total camouflage, you sit down and use hen, jake and jenny assembly calls to bring the flock back together. In most states, any turkey is legal during the fall season. Some established outfitters have refined this flock scattering technique to include specially trained dogs that locate and thoroughly break up the flock (where this is legal.) The dog then returns to the hunter and lays down silently next to him (often in specially tailored camouflage suits) while the hunter calls the flock to assemble.
And in states where it is legal, collecting a Thanksgiving turkey can mean spotting and stalking the birds and taking one for the pot with a carefully placed shot from a rifle or long-range handgun.