Tackling an official “Grand Slam” of wild turkeys is a notable feat, and one that most diehard turkey hunters will strive to accomplish before they’re pushing up daisies. Technically, a hunter can spread out this journey throughout the course of a lifetime. There’s no specified time limit or order to collecting all four of the Grand subspecies: Eastern, Merriam’s, Osceola and Rio Grande. Doing it in a single spring season is extra special — an alignment of the stars in a turkey hunter’s universe.
My first single-season Grand Slam was stressful. You know what they say about mice, men and best-laid plans. Despite following my “roadmap for success,” the turkey gods tested me at every turn and I nearly failed to seal the deal in the final hour. After blundering my shot on a close-range longbeard in Wisconsin, I managed to gain last-minute access to a prime property in Minnesota to knock down my Eastern bird and close out the Slam.
With that first Slamming experience far behind me, I was ready to go after it again. This time, nearly a decade later, I loosened the reigns and rode into the season with a well-worn saddle and a much better understanding of the turkey frontier. Most importantly, I had learned to slow my roll and take notes, because Ol’ Tom never stops teaching us lessons.
Osceola | South Florida
While it might be an imaginary line that separates Eastern gobblers from Osceolas in the Sunshine State, once you tango with Meleagris gallopavo Osceola, there’s no question he’s a bird of a different feather. An Osceola strutter looks almost jet black at a distance, glowing with enchanting green and red iridescence under the proper light. No doubt, it’s a distinct and beautiful subspecies that you’ll find only among the cabbage palms and swamps of South Florida.
This hunt would mark my third for an Osceola gobbler, and I was back to familiar stomping grounds at Mike Tussey’s Osceola Outdoors. It’s quite possible that Tussey and his crew of expert guides have seen more Osceola turkeys bite the dust than any crew in history. After two previous hunts with these guys, I felt like I had arrived at my spring home away from home when I pulled into camp and we exchanged high-fives. It was like I had never left. Without skipping a beat, we geared up and headed out to a massive working cattle ranch for an evening sit. Hot, humid air wasn’t enough to quell the spirits of a nearby tom. The bird gobbled his way toward us through the jungle-like timber, finally showing his face on the edge of an old food plot. Subordinate. He refused to raise a feather, let alone go into full strut. The coward had clearly been put in his place by a dominant bird, so when he saw our strutter decoy he slowly meandered out of sight. I wasn’t in a hurry for this hunt to end, and this early teaser turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The following morning, we slipped through the darkness onto a new property that Tussey had recently acquired. “The landowner is old school,” Tussey explained. “He said this place hasn’t been hunted in 10 to 12 years.” As the fog cleared and the eastern sky lit up, so did gobblers in every direction.
In front of us, we watched an army of turkeys descend like paratroopers from a high ridge onto a massive pasture. Two strutters took their sweet time as they worked across the buffer between their roost and our waiting ambush. I reached into my Vantage Bino Harness and pulled out some crisp Nikon glass to keep a close eye on their body language. Sandhill cranes buzzed the deck and Wile E. Coyote nearly blew our cover. Eventually, the gobbling duo gained confidence and marched into our decoys, ready to defend their turf. The standoff ended abruptly as my eager Mossberg dispatched a swarm of Federal Heavyweight TSS No. 9s.
Critical tactic: Master the hide. Tussey’s crew has taught me to leave no room for mistakes when it comes to staying concealed from the cautious eyes of gobblers at eye level. At every setup, no matter the situation or time of day, we built natural blinds with surrounding vegetation to melt into the landscape. Paired with various patterns of Mossy Oak camo, we could damned near do a round of jumping jacks in front of an approaching bird. In this case, the hide was good enough to mask five of us, including a cameraman.
Rio Grande | Central Texas
Considering 95% of the state is privately owned, DIY turkey hunts in Texas can be difficult to come by. So, when my friend, Andrew Howard, told me he had gained access to a giant Lone Star ranch for us to run amuck, it was impossible for me to decline his invitation. We would be the only turkey hunters there all season.
I’ve hunted Texas turkeys numerous times, and it seems the norm is high densities of aggressive birds. We quickly realized that wasn’t the case on this mysterious ranch, just on the outskirts of a town so small that only a post office occupied its main street. It wouldn’t be a gimme hunt, and with very few birds scouted on the 24,000-acre monstrosity, we had to hunt smart.
We discovered one traditional roost where several flocks shacked up each night, going their separate ways after hitting the ground at dawn. We punched two tags by intercepting a couple of birds on their way to a corn feeder, but they were extremely skittish — likely from a booming population of avian and ground predators.
Andrew and I jumped into his Can-Am Defender and motored to a different part of the ranch for an afternoon hunt. This killer spot was situated at the hub of several obvious travel corridors — a funnel of sorts. Rio Grande turkeys are built for the blistering Texas sun, but even this subspecies typically opts for shady relief during the heat of the day. Regardless, we scratched our friction calls with moderate hopes of luring in a high-noon longbeard. To our surprise, a pair of gobblers materialized on the far side of the funnel and bee-lined into our laps.
Andrew pulled his first shot off its mark in the excitement (and disbelief) of our circumstances, but he was able to get back on the bird with swift precision of a nimble 20-gauge Mossberg loaded with Kent TK7 Penetrators. I cleaned up the second bird with Kent Ultimate Turkey Diamond Shot out of my Winchester Super X4.
Critical tactic: Hunt travel corridors. In the barren country where most Rios call home, identifying key structure is usually pretty easy. Find roost sites, water sources, and natural food or artificial feeders. Then, find game trails or ranch roads that connect these structures and investigate them for fresh sign (tracks, poop, wing drag marks, feathers, etc.). Rios often move great distances each day, so clock in early at a promising spot and plan to stay late. Odds are in your favor that a gobbler will eventually strut past your setup. If you find a reliable roost and you’re running out of time, don’t be afraid to hunt the roost as a last-ditch effort; just be respectful and don’t selfishly burn a good roost if other hunters will be on the property after your departure.
Merriam’s | Northeastern Wyoming
The third leg of my single-season Grand Slam brought me to sacred ground in northeastern Wyoming. For nearly 20 years, my uncle had fantasized about snapping the quintessential trophy photo of a Merriam’s gobbler in the foreground of Devil’s Tower, and finally we were on our way to make it happen.
You’ll find an abundance of public land in the Devil’s Tower area, but for this long-awaited trip we chose to “splurge” and go for private accommodations on a 2,000-acre ranch just outside the charming little town of Hulett. Truth is, we didn’t have to splurge much at all — the full meal deal cost only a few hundred dollars. Contrary to popular belief, DIY private-land bargains and door knocking are still viable options for hunters on a budget who want to get on primo turkey dirt.
The landowner gave us a quick tour of his ranch and cut us loose. His only warning (pointing to a big dent in his truck) was to stay off the dirt roads if even a hint of moisture was present. In typical Western fashion, we were hit with rain followed by snow. Thankfully, we came equipped with Yamaha Wolverine for this hunt, so despite Mother Nature’s best attempts to slow us down, our access was uninhibited.
After two days of chasing Merriam’s gobblers under the shadow of Devil’s tower, an evening sit near a pre-scouted roost brought a flock into range of my trusty Mossberg 930. I picked out a strutter, centered the red dot of my Nikon P-Tactical Spur on his neck, and squeezed. The bird flinched but didn’t go down. I was in disbelief. I shot again, and again, with the same result. As the bird slipped behind a hill, I sprinted to close the distance and carefully crested the hill. To our mutual shock, there he stood at 10 yards. Boom. Pellets hit the dirt several feet above his head. I aimed low next time to finish the bird. Back at camp, I patterned my gun and was reminded yet again to never trust TSA. Prior to this hunt, I had flown with my turkey gun, and it was obvious someone had gone to the trouble of removing the cap from my sight to meddle with the elevation adjustment.
Critical tactic: Talk lots of trash to virgin birds. When you’re hunting a property that hasn’t endured much hunting pressure, you can’t be afraid of calling. Unpressured turkeys are typically vocal all year, every day — especially when they’re flocked up. Try a variety of mouth calls and friction calls with different vocalizations. Turkeys are social and curious birds by nature, so keep up the conversation and talk a tom into making a deadly mistake.
Eastern | Western New York
In terms of turkey hunting, it was my nemesis state. I had traveled to Upstate New York twice before, leaving both times with a bellyful of tag soup. On this third attempt, I’d get to taste turkey … but, of course, it wouldn’t go according to plan.
I joined my buddy, Tim Kent, in the Catskill Mountains with lofty goals of shooting a bird or two on public land during a combo turkey/trout cast-and-blast adventure. A handful of trout bent our rods, but we didn’t burn any gunpowder on Empire State strutters. In fact … we never so much as saw a turkey feather in the Catskills. We packed up our tent camp as thunderstorms loomed on the horizon and wheeled back to Tim’s house near Rochester. My last chance to connect with a tom in New York came down to a long morning in the comfort of a pop-up blind — welcomed shelter from a relentless downpour.
We were positioned on the edge of a large plowed field. Several birds were coming and going, including a solo gobbler that looked ripe for the picking. Confined to the blind, I felt like a hungry fox watching chickens through a wire fence, looking for any small gap to sneak through and grab a bite. The rapid deterioration of my patience became obvious to Tim; more than once I questioned if we could slip through the timber and close the distance on the birds. “A gobbler is bound to come by here at some point,” he said in his best attempt to keep me from doing something stupid.
A lone hen — probably already tending to a nest — pecked her way past our decoys and never stopped to chat. It didn’t take long for that solo gobbler to follow in her footsteps, but jealousy got the best of him when he saw our Avian-X jake decoy mingling with a couple of (fake) ladies. I let him show off one last time, before stealing the show with my Mossberg and closing the curtain on another memorable single-season Slam.
Critical tactic: Be mobile. Knowing when to hold ’em or fold ’em in the turkey hunting game is a skill that comes with experience, but it’s key to being a consistent killer. You’re liable to run into a hung-up gobbler that refuses to close the distance, or an entire property that isn’t delivering as expected; you need to be willing to move on until you find greener pastures. But remember: Approach every day and every setup with faith that it could happen at any second.
Gearing up to go after gobblers with fresh firepower is all part of the fun. Whether you’re planning to invest in a new turkey gun, or simply make the most of your existing rig by optimizing your loads or choke, here’s a glance at some of today’s top options.
Mossberg’s 930 Turkey has helped me get my hands on more longbeards than any other shotgun in my turkey hunting career. This trustworthy semiauto tom taker features a pistol grip and adjustable fiber-optic sights, but it’s also drilled and tapped to accommodate a red-dot or turkey scope. It shoots 3-inch cartridges—more than enough oomph when using premium modern turkey loads. Camo: Mossy Oak Obsession. $757 | Mossberg.com
Remington’s V3 Turkey Pro utilizes Remington’s ultra-reliable Versaport autoloading gas system to shuck shells of any size without a hiccup. It comes standard with a Headbanger choke tube and bore-sighted red-dot optic from TRUGLO. If you want to go old-school with your sights, you can rely on its fiber-optic front sight and steel mid-bead. Camo: Realtree Timber. $1,195 | Remington.com
CZ-USA’s 612 Magnum Turkey is a bargain-priced, workhorse gobbler gun that will work equally well for upland wingshooting waterfowl hunting. This pump-action magnum is capable of firing 3.5-inch cartridges … if that’s your cup of tea. Screw in the extra-full choke for turkeys, or use the modified constriction for your other birdy pursuits. Get on target quickly with the single fiber-optic front bead, or add optics to the drilled and tapped receiver. Camo: Realtree Xtra Green. $429 | CZ-USA.com
Federal’s Heavyweight TSS delivers outrageously lethal performance. Handloaders have been building turkey loads with Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) payloads for years, but now it’s readily available to any turkey junkie thanks to giant producers such as Federal. TSS is more than double the density of steel and 50% denser than lead. Because of its increased density, you can use a smaller TSS pellet to deliver the same amount of energy as much larger lead shot or steel shot. This means you can greatly increase the pellet count—and pattern density—of a payload by using a smaller shot size, but the pellets penetrate as much or more because of the increased density. Available in .410, 20 gauge, 12 gauge; multiple shot sizes. 5 rounds/$30–64 | FederalPremium.com
Kent Cartridge’s Ultimate Turkey Diamond Shot is priced affordably, yet packed with smart engineering to produce impressive results downrange. Kent’s proprietary Diamond Shot is made of “high-antimony” (extremely hard) lead, translating to more uniform pellets and better patterns than traditional copper-plated lead. Available in 20 gauge, 12 gauge; multiple shot sizes. 10 rounds/$10 | KentCartridge.com
Browning Ammunition’s TSS Tungsten Turkey is another hot option for those who want to get their hands on TSS and crush gobblers like never before. Available in .410, 20 gauge, 12 gauge; multiple shot sizes. 5 rounds/$28–48 | BrowningAmmo.com
What’s the “best” choke tube for your turkey gun? There’s no easy answer. Every model of choke tube has unique design tweaks and varying constrictions that will provide different results when paired with your chosen ammo and your shotgun. Pattern testing is the only way to know exactly what your system will achieve on target. Thankfully, most reputable choke tube manufacturers allow you to input your gun and ammo information through a choke selection tool on their websites. Here are three companies that you can trust to steer you in the right direction for a match made in turkey-hunting heaven.
Kick’s Industries Gobblin’ Thunder line of choke tubes will fit most popular turkey guns, including some whopper 10-gauge models. Kick’s chokes are cone-shaped inside the tubes and feature outward angled diagonal porting to reduce recoil and muzzle jump. $70 | Kicks-Ind.com
Carlson’s Choke Tubes offers an extensive collection for turkey hunters, including models specifically designed for Federal Heavyweight TSS and Winchester Long Beard XR turkey loads. Budget friendly. $45–54 | ChokeTube.com
Patternmaster choke tubes have long been respected among hardcore waterfowl hunters, and are gaining ground in the turkey world. The brand considers its Code Black chokes the gold standard for turkey guns. Want to put your name on your choke? Custom engraving optional. $100 | Patternmaster.com