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Etiquette of the Spring Turkey Hunting Season
Turkey hunting brings higher rates of hunter conflict, so some basic principles of etiquette will go a long way when sharing the woods
The tom roared back at my call as it stepped out of the field and onto the trail where I sat, concealed, both sides thick with woodcock habitat that I had frequented the previous Fall. I knew this path was his only option and his commitment to my call was evident. I love taking my shots close—like shake the ground and my heart when the bird gobbles kind of close. It is an all-consuming experience, and although he was comfortably in shooting range at 30 yards, he was coming at a heavy clip and the thought of that 10-yard shot clouded my judgment.
The gap kept closing. There was one other trail that joined with this one about 20 yards from me. As the tom stepped across that trail, my 870 pump at the ready, a shot shattered my Zen-like moment.
The turkey flopped, shot by another hunter waiting in ambush on the other trail. Don’t play with your food, I thought to myself.
Of all the game I have hunted in my life, I will say that turkey hunting has the most hunter-to-hunter conflict. This makes it all the more important that we become conscious of how we interact with other hunters and respect some unspoken rules of the turkey woods.
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Never argue with another hunter
There was a time in my life when I would have been both devastated and furious with what had just happened. I have had my setups trampled, birds shot from underneath me, birds chased off so I could not shoot them, and even a hunter shoot a bird as it flopped on the ground from my own shot. All of this is a very unfortunate byproduct of the nature of turkey hunting and sharing the land with fellow hunters. Quite frankly, the argument—or the justification of said argument—is just not worth it.
Tempers and guns do not mix and a turkey is not worth the road rage equivalent of a hunting encounter. Walk it off, find another bird, and enjoy the experience of calling in another one! If an encounter becomes so outrageous that even safety is an issue, let a game warden do their job, not you.
First come, first served
One issue that often presents itself is a sense of entitlement to a hunting spot. All of us put time into scouting and often roosting birds the night before a setup. For me to think I am the only one that did the leg work is a foolish idea. In my early 20s I learned that “setting up early” was not based on the sunrise, but rather who was willing to get to a spot the earliest. The lone truck sitting in the darkness is a quiet nod to the “first come, first served” idea of turkey hunting etiquette. It is something that we should respect with fellow hunters. If you roll up to your spot and there is another hunter, move on to somewhere else. It is a reason to always have multiple backup plans.
The experience of having someone sneak in on a bird you are working is not a pleasant one, not to mention the inherent danger associated with such behavior. There is a big difference between out-calling someone for a tom’s attention and shooting a bird that is going into someone else’s call.
Let the best caller win
There will inevitably be a moment when, unbeknownst to them, two hunters will be calling against each other. I remember an incident while hunting suburban turkey with my mentor when we were calling a bird. We didn’t realize it, but another hunter had been working that same bird on the other side of the woods and field. My mentor’s turkey talk seemed to do the trick and the tom committed to the prospect rather quickly. As the turkey started making its way into the small opening, a hunter suddenly came running through the woods and scared the bird off.
It’s hard to not feel the sense of frustration when a turkey, especially one you work for a significant amount of time, decides the grass is greener on the other side. But that is Mother Nature and something we cannot control.
If someone else is working a bird, leave it alone
Sometimes hunters will not realize that they are working the same bird. It happens. But when it is evident that someone is working a turkey because I can hear them calling and the bird calling back, I leave it alone. If they fail, the bird will be there another day or even later that same day when the hunter has moved on. Let them have their moment.
Never stalk a turkey
Stalking a turkey is a good way to get shot, which is a great reason to never do it. Multiple hunters in full camouflage with a potential target can spell disaster to even the most experienced hunters. The unspoken rule of not stalking turkeys prevents these accidents from ever happening.
In addition to the safety considerations, there are the ethical implications of sneaking up onto a bird sounding off to another hunter’s call. In my opening story, the other hunter preyed on the results of my effort. There will be another bird, another day, and another chance. Stalking a bird is not worth your life or the risk of taking someone else’s.
Always know your backdrop
This is more than ethics and etiquette, it’s about safety. Turkey hunting involves people in camouflage. Depending on where you hunt, it can also mean hikers, bikers, or other people with whom we share our outdoor spaces. This is something that all of us should have learned in hunters’ education before we got our first hunting license and there is good reason for it. This point becomes even more relevant when you consider the advent of TSS loads that can be deadly at 70 plus yards. No turkey is worth a mistake like this.
A legal turkey is a legal turkey
Somewhere along the road, parts of our hunting culture found it appropriate to shame or judge others based on the size of an animal they shoot. But a legal animal is a legal animal and, like many everyday hunters, my freezer and stove do not discriminate.
A jake (a first-year male turkey) will often become the subject of a hunter’s tag. That’s a personal choice, and unless the law says otherwise, that is a choice not subject to anyone else’s judgment. Hunters do not need to be discouraged from their prospects; their experience is theirs alone. Do not let other people’s behavior discourage you.
Adhering to the etiquette of the turkey woods will give you an experience that is safer, more enriching, and still rewarding by behaving as a good neighbor. Considering the fact that turkey hunting carries more risk of hunter-to-hunter conflict, setting a good example and following good practices will help everyone to share the woods appropriately. You will most likely experience some people not following these principles of etiquette, but taking the high road can go a long way in many things in life.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.
That was a very good article that should be read by everyone that Turkey hunts, new or seasoned hunters. I think that the ethics of the sport hasn’t been focused on nearly enough..