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A Turkey in the Bag

by Terry Knight

In just a few short years California has become one of the top turkey hunting states in America and experts are predicting that this year the spring season will be better than ever. The dry spring last year resulted in a higher than normal survival rate among the young birds and the state is literally awash with turkeys. The season opens on March 28 and runs through May 3. Bow hunters get an extended season and can hunt until May 17. There will also be a special youth hunt on March 21-22.

For those new to turkey hunting, or even experienced veterans, I recommend attending the annual Wilderness Unlimited Turkey Expo on March 1 at the W.U. RV Camp located on Highway 20 just outside of Williams. The Expo will cover everything from A to Z about turkey hunting including the latest camo, calls, how and where to hunt and even how to clean and cook that old gobbler. Once again this year I will be joined for the seminar by National Wild Turkey Federation biologist and fellow W.U. member, Ryan Mathis.

California has basically three species of wild turkeys: the Rio Grande, Merriam and Eastern, plus hybrids which can be mixtures of any of the three. Each species has its own type habitat. The Rio Grande prefers the drier lower elevation oak woodlands, the Merriam tends to stay in the high country above 5,000 feet and the Eastern prefers the denser wet forests.

The foothills in the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley contain mostly Rio Grandes. The mountains in the Mendocino National Forest, El Dorado National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Siskiyou County and San Bernardino National Forest are home to the Merriam. Eastern turkeys can be found along the North Coast and in the Cleveland National Forest.

Twenty years ago wild turkeys were found in only a few areas around the state, but thanks to an aggressive relocation of birds, the turkey population is at an all time high and they continue to spread. For example there are a number of W.U. properties that a few years ago had very few turkeys but now offer excellent hunting.

Of course before you can shoot a turkey you have to locate him and then call him in. Many novice turkey hunters think that all you have to do is grab the shotgun and go out and shoot a big old tom. Nothing could be further from the truth. As any experienced turkey hunter will tell you, it takes a lot of skill and a little bit of luck to bring home a gobbler.

While the season is still more than a month away, it’s not too early to prepare. That means checking out your camo clothing, pattern your shotgun, order turkey calls and plan where you’re going to hunt. For hunters who plan on hunting Wilderness Unlimited properties then go over the maps and select the ranch. The next step is to apply for the hunt.

In regards to selecting a shotgun, you don’t need a 10-gauge shotgun or even a 12-gauge that shoots 3 1/2 inch shells. A standard 12-gauge that shoots either 3 or 2 3/4 inch shells is fine for turkey hunting. The shotgun should be either camouflaged or a flat black color. The best turkey loads are either size 5 or 6 copper-coated lead shot.

Next on the list is to pattern your shotgun. Even though you shoot a turkey on the ground, remember you’re aiming at the head, which is only the size of a tennis ball. Most misses are because the hunter shoots over the turkey.

Camo selection is also important. With today’s wide array of camouflage clothing, a hunter can buy camo that completely blends in with trees and foliage. One trick is to put on your camo and sit against a tree. Have your partner look at you from a distance of 40 yards. If you have the correct camo you should be practically invisible.

Of course you will also need a good turkey call. Without question, the best call is a box call. There are several brands on the market and all will work. Go to the local hardware store and buy several bricks of blue carpenter’s chalk. Break the brick into at least four pieces. All box calls require frequent chalking on the lid or striker. In fact, it’s impossible to over chalk a call. Along with the turkey call, you’ll want to buy a crow call. This is the call that will locate turkeys in the roost tree.

On the day of your hunt be out in the woods at least 45 minutes before the legal shooting time. Blow your crow call. If a gobbler is roosting within hearing distance from you the chances are that he will gobble back. Once you have located the roosting tree set up about 100 yards away. At first daylight give a series of soft yelps on your call. The tom should gobble back. Once the tom flies down, give a few more yelps to let the bird know where you are. If the tom starts toward you, call only enough to keep the bird interested. Don’t call too much or too loud. Wait until the turkey is within 40 yards or less and then aim at the base of the neck.

I’m often asked what part of the season offers the best chance of scoring. Normally the gobblers are most active during the period from April 10 to April 30. Whereas just about everyone wants to hunt the opening weekend, it’s often the worst part of the season. Regardless of if you’re successful or not, turkey hunting is an addictive sport and you’ll be hooked for life.

Terry Knight Articles

Terry Knight conducts several training seminars annually on hunting wild turkeys throughout Northern California. He was instrumental in organizing the first Wilderness Unlimited Wild Turkey Seminar in 1994, the success of which led to partnering with the California DF&G and the National Wild Turkey Foundation, in 1996, to form the Wild Turkey Expo. He is also the past-president of the California State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

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