Turkey Hunting: How My Son and I Got Our First Wild Birds

Turkey Hunting: Father and Son
All the research, work, scouting—and learning from mistakes—led to a successful hunt for 12-year-old Henry's first turkey.

My son’s first turkey hunt didn’t start out well. After a late start and a long drive in spring of 2013, Henry, 12, and I arrived midmorning at our hunting location to open the three-day youth hunt in Utah. As we hiked along recently plowed fields split by a winding creek, with every step I realized how little I really knew about turkey hunting. This was also my first turkey hunt. My son knew that, of course, but as a father I wanted to teach him and he was looking to me to make the right decisions.

As I fretted about this, out of nowhere a Halloween-like laugh split the morning. We stopped dead in our tracks. My son and I stared un-believing at each other. In a Laurel-and-Hardy moment, we dropped to the ground scrambling for cover. I can’t adequately describe what happens the first time you hear a tom gobble on that first turkey hunt. All I can say is that neither of us will forget the surge of adrenaline that came with it.

We stalked along the creek bed, set up decoys, and called. About every 45 minutes, the tom would gobble again from a new location, and we’d pull our decoys and move. We chased him all over the mountain. Finally, after climbing a very long rise, Henry and I stopped to catch our breath. A moment later, the gobbling ghost appeared. He was leading six or eight hens. He saw me immediately and they all took off at a dead run. By the time I’d gotten Henry’s attention, the birds had crossed a fence bearing a prominent “No Trespassing” sign. We were tired and disappointed, but smiled at the fact that we had actually seen turkeys on our first try. Those would be the only turkeys we’d see all season.

I’ve been hunting waterfowl for some time, so I had some gun and hunting experience, but this was very different than hunting from a blind for ducks and geese. My son was just getting started. Everything for him was a first impression and I wanted everything to be perfect, but it wasn’t.

Still, while that first season taught us how much we didn’t know, it also instilled in us a passion for turkey hunting. We vowed to spend the off-season filling in the gaps. Of the lessons we learned, three stand out:

1. It isn't hard to get turkey-hunting information. One of the first places we searched was our state fish and game's website. We quickly found guidebooks with the basics—applications, seasons, limits, distribution, and more. You can find articles and videos on every single aspect of turkey hunting on the Internet (just Google "gobble"), but one really critical area where the Internet is invaluable is learning to call. Every major call manufacturer has a website with instructional videos and audio samples. Calls are relatively inexpensive, so try as many as you can in order to find what works for you. Also, check out app stores. There are many, many apps that can help you learn to call turkeys. For example, I got a lot out of the Primos STL iPhone app, which has recordings of most game calls.

Turkey Hunting: Father and Son
The author benefited from diligent scouting by taking his first turkey ever.

2. As in real estate, turkey hunting is all about location, location, location. That first season, we'd didn't do any scouting. We just went where we thought we might find turkeys, but before long my 12-year-old son began asking whether we were going hunting or hiking. Finding a likely area before the hunt is critical.

Ask friends, family, and contacts if they know anybody who hunts turkeys, or has access to property that has birds. I brought it up in a duck-hunting chat room and got some leads. After seeing a news story about a community that was being overrun by turkeys during the winter, I called the mayor and asked him if he knew anyone that might let us hunt on their property. He happily gave us a few contacts. Ultimately, a friend connected us with a ranch owner who was frustrated by turkeys tearing up his hay.

Then, we scouted. By putting in the time, we found a strutting area staked out by three nice toms that led to a textbook hunt in 2014. We were tagging a turkey less than 30 minutes after parking.

3. Pattern your shotgun. This is an obvious but overlooked element of turkey hunting: If you don't know precisely where your gun is putting pellets, you can easily miss a turkey. I've been hunting waterfowl for years so I knew how to do this, but Henry didn't. Before the season I took him to a local range and set up paper targets of turkey heads—Champion's Re-Stick Targets make this easy. Starting at 30 yards, we aimed at the center of the turkey's neck on the target and shot (you don't aim at a turkey's head; you aim at the middle of its neck so more of the pattern will cover its head-neck area). We then went downrange to count the number of pellets that struck vitals. We next did the same thing at 40 yards. The gun's choke/load combination did well. If it didn't, I'd have tried different chokes and loads until I found a combination that patterned well—like any hunter, we want clean kills. This process also helps to teach you a gun's limitations. After counting pellets, we decided 40 yards would be our maximum range.

With one season under our belts and an offseason spent reading, learning, and practicing, we were ready for Utah’s first autumn turkey hunt (in which you can take either a tom or a hen turkey) in 2013. Both Henry and I were able to draw tags and looked forward to putting everything we’d learned to the test.

The day before Thanksgiving, we were set up in a hay field that was visited every day by large numbers of turkeys that would dig through the rolled hay for seeds, bugs, and other savory morsels.

Decoys set and calls ready, we watched anxiously from over the hay rolls as turkeys flooded into the pasture. Running like something out of Jurassic Park, making so many unusual sounds, they were fascinating to watch. Soon it was time to hunker down and wait for them to cross the fence and enter the hayfield.

Turkey Hunting: Father and Son
This is a spur from the Alan Peterson’s first tom. Gobblers use their spurs to fight each other for breeding right to hens.

I can only imagine what Henry was feeling as bird after bird stepped out of the fence line into the open hay field. We had agreed that we’d wait and watch a bit and see what the turkeys might do. We spent 10 minutes watching the spectacle of 50 or 60 birds crossing in front of us. Sitting behind him running a camera, I anxiously urged Henry to pick his target. A nearby hen had drawn his attention. Carefully, he drew a bead and pulled the trigger. The bird flipped and went down. We waited a few moments and then went and proudly collected Henry’s first turkey. It was a gratifying reward after many months of effort.

We thought back on our successful season and all we had learned. Will our newfound knowledge ensure that we harvest turkeys in the future? There’s no way to know. But, whether or not we end up taking a bird home, every time we hike out into the hills to hunt turkeys, we’ll be given the opportunity to see the blooming glacier lilies, watch twin spotted fawns, or spy a red fox hunting mice that’s oblivious to our presence. There’s always more to experience, and to learn.