Patterns of a shotgun for hunting turkeys

Designing a shotgun can be as easy or as difficult as you like. There are so many options when it comes to shell size, shot size, shot composition, chokes, shotgun make/model, bore and barrel length that trying each and every combination would be almost impossible. We all want the densest patterns at the longest ranges, but finding that shell and choke combo that gives you the best possible pattern is way out of the reach of the average person. The following gives you a rundown of how I approach the shotgun pattern for turkey hunting, but the principles can be applied to any ballistic endeavor.

First, determine what your constants will be. I wish I could buy a new weapon for every season and scenario I could imagine, but that’s not reasonable. Determine which shotgun you’ll be using – a 12 gauge is pretty standard and a 20 will be fine. If you want to use a smaller gauge, there will be more considerations and potential costs involved to get the results you want. Once you’ve chosen your shotgun, determine what your targets are, and then start with the variables.

Determine your goals. Again, if you want the best pattern in the world, you will need a lot of money and a lot of time. If your goal is to have a consistent pattern over a reasonable range while minimizing the chance of injuring or losing an animal you are hunting, then you are in luck.

Think about the area you will be hunting in, how thick the ground is, and what kind of
distance, you will most likely be presented with a shot. If the ground is very thick and visibility is less than 30 yards from the ground, almost any traditional lead turkey load will work. If you want to extend your range a bit more, consider a higher density shot like Tungsten or TSS. The denser material allows the use of a smaller shot size, which translates to more shots per payload.

This season I wanted to find a shell and choke combo for my Franchi Affinity that would give me dense patterns up to 45 yards. I hunt a lot of big fields and the big toms tend to hang around the 40 yard marker. I picked up a Federal TSS No. 7 3-inch 12-gauge case. The density of TSS is nearly 50 percent heavier than lead, allowing the use of smaller shot that still carries the lower-range energy of the largest lead shot. A smaller shot means higher pattern density and a higher chance of a clean kill. I had a few boxes of shells from various manufacturers and size/pellet material left over from past seasons, so I was able to compare how the new stuff stacked up against shells I’d used in the past.

Now, with your chosen shotgun and cartridge, choose a choke. Some shotguns come with a factory-filled, extra-filled, or turkey choke; if you already have one, start there. If you want to buy a choke, figure out your budget first, and then try to cut it down from there. There are many options, luckily most of them work very well. Carlson, TruGlo, Kicks, Patternmaster are all good products, although results vary gun to gun, load to load. Many choke manufacturers make chokes for specific turkey loads, these are usually an excellent choice.

I bought a Carlson TSS choke. It was reasonably priced and I have had good experience with Carlson chokes in the past.

Now try your combo. Set up a large target (approximately 30 inches by 30 inches) in the range you want to pattern and see what happens. Aim at the center of the paper and fire a round. Use a marker pen and note the scope, shell, and choke used. Pull out the paper and draw a 10-inch circle around the densest part of the pattern, then count the number of shots inside that circle. Repeat the process with new paper and different shells if you are testing multiple.

Generally speaking, you want at least 100 pellets in that 10-inch circle. The more the better. If your best pattern gives you less than 100 on the 10-inch circle, it’s time to change one variable at a time. Change choke or shell, but do not change both at the same time. Changing more than one variable will not allow you to determine if the new shell or choke is an improvement. If you change the choke, run through the same projectiles at the same distances, if you change the projectiles, try them through the same choke. You’ll eventually find a combo that works with your weapon and suits your goals.

I tried three different loads through the Franchi Affinity with the Carlson choke. Lead charge No. 5 placed no more than 100 shot in a 10-inch ring at 45 yards. The densest pattern came from the shell with the highest pellet count, which is not surprising. After counting over 170 shot in the 10-inch ring at 45 yards, I was done making patterns. Finding a dense pattern that would work at 45 yards was the goal, I found it quickly and didn’t feel the need to push the range any further. In all, I fired six rounds from three different shell manufacturers through one choke. Both high-end tungsten/TSS shells had a higher pattern density than their lead counterpart.

The rule of diminishing returns applies here: it will take a lot of money and time to find that pattern that gives you the latest return percentages. I’ve had a lot of experience with this in manual loading, getting a load to generate sub MOA pools isn’t difficult or time consuming, but trying to shrink that pool further is resource intensive. At the end of the day, a turkey won’t know the difference between getting hit in the head with 10 or 12 shots.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

Go with reasonable expectations and you’ll find them pretty quickly. I can’t stress this enough. We’re all obsessed with how to be better hunters, and the gear we choose to wear is one of the few variables we have complete control over, but don’t let it be the only facet of your focus. Get the pattern you’re happy with, in the range you’re comfortable with, and spend your time exploring and learning about the animal you’re going after. Knowing where the birds are will benefit you more than finding a pattern that stretches 60 yards. No pattern, no matter how dense, is going to kill a turkey if there are no turkeys around.

Notes and tips

If you’re using a smaller gauge shotgun, you’ll have less pellets in each shell, so you may need to decrease the range until you find a pattern you’re happy with.

Bring in some cheap target loadouts to see how your weapon traces before you send the turkey loadouts down. If you are using a red dot or scope, using target loads will help you get down to paper and get close to zero without the high price tag and pain.

Take your time and don’t underestimate the kickback of turkey loads. Heavy turkey loads will take a toll on your shoulder and your ability to aim. Use a break and take breaks – developing a flinch will affect your shotgun just as much as it does when firing a rifle.

Homemade Turkey Beard Display – Hunt to Eat

This homemade trophy display will save you wall space and allow you to remember each individual hunt.

I have been lucky over the years to have had a handful of turkeys. One problem I ran into was how to properly display a trophy turkey.

Initially, I had my first Jake’s and later my first Longbeard’s tail fans, wattles and spurs mounted on wall plates. These are beautiful mountains that remind me daily of those hunts; however, they take up a large amount of wall space. Today, I keep the beard and spurs for display/memory; clean, borax and epoxy tail fan for use on lures; and keep the bird’s breast, legs, and saddle meat for spectacular meals.

I came up with this way of displaying the beard and spurs so that I can proudly display each bird’s trophy individually, allowing me to be able to remember each hunt while making the most of the wall space. The tools I use for these screens are usually available in any home and include a hacksaw, utility knife, fine grit sandpaper, epoxy/glue/or silicone, cotton swabs, borax, or some type of cleaning detergent on powder, painter’s tape, 6 inches of small-diameter string, and a cap filled with rubbing alcohol.


  1. It is not necessary to trim a turkey’s beard. Simply grasp the base of the beard where it meets the skin, apply gradual force and the beard will come off cleanly in one piece with no additional skin/meat. If your beard is bloody, take the time to gently wash it with warm water and comb through to remove any blood or broken beard hairs. Dry the beard and reserve. If the beard is in good condition with no dried blood on it, the washing step is not necessary.
  2. Then take a hacksaw and cut 3/4 inch below the spur, and then cut 3/4 inch above the spur to remove it from the leg.
  3. Take a swab and extract the bone marrow. I soak a swab in isopropyl alcohol to clean the inside of the bone, and then two dry swabs.
  4. Using a boning knife, remove scales, tendons, and meat from the bone around the spur. Take care to cut the spur. Once the bone is exposed, let the spurs dry overnight.
  5. After the spurs have dried, take fine grit sandpaper and remove anything left on the bone.
  6. I always carry the shotgun shell I used to shoot the turkey out of the woods. I remove the primer and plastic helmet in preparation for mounting the beard and spurs.
  7. Cut 6 inches of small diameter line (in my case it was lure string).
  8. Thread the line through the bone of the spurs, then put the tag ends through the top of the shotgun shell brass, and finally tie a knot that will prevent the line from slipping out of the primer hole and blocking the leak. of epoxy.
  9. I’ve used epoxy, silicone, and quick-setting glue for this next step, so whatever’s available will usually work just fine. Mix the epoxy and fill the brass shotgun shell 3/4 full. Slowly place the base of the beard into the epoxy. Once it’s in the correct position where I want it to dry, I tape the beard to the wall on my workbench to hold it in place while it dries.
  10. Once dry, I use a marker to fill in the brass of the shotgun shell with the details of the hunt such as location, date, bird weight, etc.

As a waterfowl hunter, I have a call board that contains my waterfowl lanyards, backup calls, recalled calls, waterfowl bands, and other memorabilia. I screwed small brass hooks into the bottom of the tabletop and hung the finished brass products for spurs, balds, and shotgun shells on the hook for display.

So the next time you have success in the turkey forest, give this technique a try. It also looks great hanging from a rear view mirror!

Pigeon hunting: the ‘complete’ experience

It’s September 2, the day after the Arizona pigeons open. Yesterday morning my alarm tried to wake me up at 4am After a few hits of the snooze button it finally succeeded. I made a strong cup of coffee and loaded up my truck with the gear I’d left the night before. In no time, he was on the road.

We spent the morning in the company of good friends and even better throwing wings. When I shot the last of my 15 bird limit, things were heating up and pigeons were flying everywhere. It was quite a sight to sit and watch my friends take part in all the action. Almost everyone on that hunt went home with a cap, but before they did, most stopped before driving home to quickly get their birds out.

Lessons Learned by a Beginning Waterfowl

Seven mallard ducks in flocks slithered over our heads and disappeared behind us. My two companions and I crouched in our blinds, eyes glued to the sky.

“They’ll be back,” my friend whispered.

The other blew a few more times into his mouth call. I, the beginner in the group, sat still, absorbing every last bit of information I could from my experienced hosts. They were right, the birds returned. This time, we were able to identify that there were four chickens and three ducks. Once again, they disappeared from sight behind us.

“Only take the green-headed ones,” my mentor told me.

Moments later, the mallards turned again, wings cupped and feet down. Just before they reached the surface of the water, I heard a scream.

“Take them!”

After a flurry of action punctuated by shotgun blasts, four mallards took flight, leaving three green-headed ducks floating in the swamp.

It is true that my education in waterfowl hunting has been brief: only two seasons. I am far from being in a position to teach others. That said, I have been fortunate to spend these seasons hunting amongst some exceptional and very serious waterfowl hunters. Spending time with hunters of this caliber has taught me more in two seasons than I could have learned in 10 alone. Therefore, it would be nothing short of selfish of me not to share at least a little of what I have learned with other beginning waterfowl fanciers. So, let’s take a look at some of the bigger picture items I’ve collected.


All types of hunters benefit from scouting. For most, the term conjures up mental images of a big game hunter. For me though, I will always associate the term with waterfowl hunters. For waterfowl lovers, exploration is a year-round endeavor that never ends.

There are migration routes, food sources, roosts and resting areas; there are storms and other weather events that dictate when and where birds move, and wind direction and cover will dictate the best place to hide. The depth and amount of real-time knowledge someone needs to be an effective waterfowl hunter is intimidating at best. Fortunately, though, the real fun is in the process.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.


Being an ethical hunter means understanding and complying with wildlife laws. You are not hunting just one species of duck.

On most hunts, you will find several species. Wildlife laws must be built around best management practices for individual species. This can make things a bit difficult if you are having a hard time identifying your birds. For example, here in Arizona, we are allowed a limit of seven ducks. Only one can be a ruddy duck, only two can be female mallards, etc. Combine this with juvenile, adult, seasonal, and sexually dimorphic plumages; things can get complicated. Despite all this, it is your responsibility as an ethical hunter to do your homework and learn how to correctly identify your birds.

A German Shorthaired Pointer sits next to a group of dead ducks.

birds are tough

Not every kill will be a clean kill. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help alleviate this.

First, let the birds work. Don’t shoot them when they are flying fast and high. Let them roam around and engage with the lures. While shooting birds that are at the limit of your shotgun’s range can be tempting, it rarely results in a clean kill and has a high potential for injury and loss.

Heavy, high-quality loads can also help here. While inexpensive steel charges can help you out in pigeon fields, ducks and geese need something that packs a bigger punch. Spending a little more on high brass bismuth or tungsten charges is money well spent and will result in fewer crippled and lost birds.

Finally, mark your birds. That is, when a shot bird falls to the ground or into the water, mentally mark the location and be ready for a follow-up shot if necessary. A struck bird can apparently fall from the sky completely lifeless, only to get up and fly, swim or dive to escape which only results in a lost bird that will perish later.

it’s a team effort

Most of the hunting I do is a solo effort. Solitude is one of the things I love most about hunting: the time spent alone in the mountains with just my thoughts and silence.

Waterfowl hunting can certainly be done alone, but it is still a relatively noisy event with many calls. Most of the time, it is a shared experience with others. This type of hunting, while different from what I’m used to, is something I’ve come to love. Sharing a thermos of hot coffee in a cold blind at dawn is what makes memories.

When hunting alongside others in a confined space like a duck shelter, safety should always be on everyone’s mind. Practicing good muzzle control, staying within your line of fire, and never releasing the safety on your firearm until you are ready to pull the trigger are disciplines that must be followed at all times.

Common courtesy is also essential. This list is long, but it can be summed up simply by being respectful of the people you share the shade with. For example, keeping your dog under control, not shooting birds that are in someone else’s lane, etc. Courtesy is not difficult, it requires minimal effort, and its rewards are enormous. Sharing a duck blindly exchanging stories and laughs between the bouts of excitement that come with incoming flocks of ducks is not only the best time, it can form lifelong friendships.

While serious waterfowl hunting can be drudgery that requires a lot of labour, time and equipment, this should not deter the would-be hunter. In its simplest form, all you need is a shotgun, a call, a handful of decoys, and a ducky-looking area to hunt. That said, waterfowl hunting, like many things in life, can become increasingly rewarding with the extra effort you put into it. And don’t forget that pulling the trigger is only a small part of the experience; the real fun is in the journey that takes you there.

How to lure wild turkeys

Using Montana Decoy Turkey Decoys to Find Success During Turkey Season

Wisconsin in early April is not known for its pleasant weather. Usually, that’s the dead half of the season that Midwesterners coined “Second Winter.” Instead of budding daffodils and the first of many tank-top days, there are ice storms, sub-zero forecasts and gloomy skies. I nervously clutched my hot coffee between my gloves; I was on my first turkey hunt and the Second Winter was unforgiving.

I was participating in an educational turkey hunting weekend organized by my college hunting club. Before being paired with a hunting mentor, we spent an afternoon in a barn learning turkey hunting strategies. Several other classmates and I listened to lectures on the natural history of turkeys, shotgun chokes, and how a combination of calls and strategically placed lures can be a lethal setup. I was putting all that new knowledge to good use as I huddled in the tall grass, hiding at the edge of a private cornfield with my mentor, Lucas.

Lucas did most of the work that Sunday morning. Beforehand, he asked permission to hunt on the spot, explored the property and modeled the birds. On the morning of, he brought the shotgun, camouflage, turkey decoys, shotgun shells and calls. He even walked back to the truck in the dark to retrieve those same shotgun shells after I forgot to put them in my pocket. Once he returned, we settled into the tall grass. He walked out to the cornfield about 30 yards in front of us and placed three decoys on him: two jakes and a chicken. Before long, we heard the turkeys gobbling as they flew from their coop. Game on.

Sunlight slipped along the edges of the horizon. I could see the tips of tree branches sharp against the dawn sky. Red-winged blackbirds sang nearby as the songs of cardinals whistled through the forest. Lucas started yelling at the slate calling him. Several turkeys gobbled up. He waited a while before yelling again. This time, the turkeys gobbled up even faster. He told me to get ready.

“Practice lining up the shotgun sights with the decoys,” Lucas said. I picked up the 12 gauge and rested it on my knee, shivering slightly from both cold and nerves. However, I felt that I could keep the account steady. Lucas yelled again.

This time, the gobbles were closer. The turkeys were actually moving towards us. My breathing quickened and my heart sped up. My tremor got worse. Gobble gobble gobble! Three toms were now in sight at the other end of the field, closing rapidly.

“Get ready, Gaby. Make sure you take a photo only when you feel comfortable and when one of them gets out a little by himself,” Lucas whispered. I readied the shotgun and tried to control my tremors. The toms were closing in on the decoys, throwing their big bodies across the field. I sat motionless on the grass, watching the cats attack one lure and peck at another. They circled around them several times, puffing and gobbling, probably wondering: How is it possible that these Jakes have this chicken with them? After a minute, a tom stepped aside.

“Shoot! Shoot! No, don’t shoot now! Wait! Okay, shoot!” my mentor whispered-shouted he. I waited for the tom to walk a few more steps away from the group, trembling terribly, my heart in my throat, and lined up my sights. I took a deep breath, stopped, and pulled the trigger.

wow! There were feathers everywhere. The other two Toms wandered nearby, confused. My Tom dropped to the ground as his nerves reacted to the fatal shot. Lucas ran to the turkey as fast as he could and put his foot on the bird’s head.

“In my experience, this has prevented them from destroying their tail feathers or being attacked by other birds,” Lucas said. After the bird stopped trembling, his wings touched the ground in one last buzzAnd we started to celebrate.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

I cautiously examined my first turkey. I’ve never seen one up close before. The hairnet was cool and leathery in my hand, its neck and head spiky with tiny feathers. I picked up some feathers from the body, their iridescence shimmering in the morning light. I spread his tail for a photo, spreading his wings in front of me to show every detail. He was beautiful.

Before that hunt, I didn’t understand how essential decoys are to hunting turkeys. After moving west, I also learned to use decoys to hunt bow elk and pronghorn. I’ve never been on a waterfowl hunt, but I’ve seen photos of those brown Canadian cornfields adorned with hundreds of white bags with black beaks, superbly mimicking a flock of feeding snow geese. For some types of hunting, lures make or break the experience.

In my opinion, the more realistic a lure, the better. From my background in wildlife biology, I know that different types of animals have different levels of vision. Birds have four cone eyes, which allow them to see ultraviolet light. Basically, they see and understand color in more ways than we can imagine. This is not limited to turkeys; ducks, quail, grouse and many other types of game birds see this way. Birds also have fantastic depth perception, especially predatory ones. This is why hunters don’t wear bright orange to hunt turkeys and use blinds to hunt. However, deer are completely different. Deer only have two cones, so they see fewer colors than we do, mostly blue and green. However, they have better night vision and can probably see ultraviolet light as well. Pro Tip: Don’t hunt deer in blue jeans.

I take these types of factors into account when buying lures. I want the lure to look realistic: show fine details, have the correct colors, be the correct size. On the other hand, I understand that no lure is perfect and that wildlife consider many other factors when deciding whether or not a lure is “real” enough to fool them. Fortunately, I found what I was looking for when I discovered Montana Decoys.

His turkey decoys are extremely realistic. They have amazing detail and the Wiley Tom he lure even has slots to insert a real tail fan and wing feathers. For me, this is ideal. Using real feathers makes your lure better because birds can see the ultraviolet details reflected off them in sunlight. The sizing is accurate so a big tom won’t be thrown off by a big or small lure. They are lightweight and collapsible, allowing hunters to pack them up and walk to a location and for easy storage at home (I know someone who has shelves in their garage solely for storing non-collapsible turkey decoys). As for turkey decoys, this is exactly what I want.

Montana Decoy offers several types of turkey decoys. They offer individual chicken lures as well as small jakes or toms. You can get a hen and jake combo, and even a small flock consisting of a hen, jake, and tom, for great deals on effective builds as well. And turkey decoys aren’t the only items available. Elk, whitetail, waterfowl, pronghorn, elk and predator hunters can also find lures for their hunts at

The lures are what sealed the deal on my first hunt. Seeing three mature toms run at full speed against fake birds will be a memory I will always cherish. And now, as I learn to hunt Merriams in the mountains of Colorado, I can apply the decoy deployment skills I learned in Wisconsin to try to have a successful turkey season out west as well. Fortunately, I already know what lures I’m going to use.

Check Your Harvest: A Game Bird’s Harvest Tells the Story

Don’t be afraid to open that bag on your first game of game birds. It can prove invaluable for the rest of your hunt.

On a late-season quail hunt in January, located in the middle of the Flint Hills of Kansas, we found flock after flock. Our goal was to walk along a tree line that turned into a series of thickets of plums for about a third of a mile.

A dry creek bed ran down the middle. The plan was for two hunters to walk within the limits of the trees with the dogs, and the other two hunters to work on the edges. Eventually the dogs would take the lead once we reached the bushes.

The day was perfect. The temperature that morning was cool with a light wind blowing gently in our face, and the property was a mix of native grasses and plum bushes that provided ideal cover. Groups of trees were interspersed creating small protection belts. The crack of snapping twigs and the sound of grass being parted were welcoming. The jingle of my dog ​​Staley’s brass bell had suddenly gone silent. I immediately started scanning, but couldn’t see her: Staley’s rust-colored coat had turned her into a chameleon against the shadows of the brown and tan background.

Then a faint clang of metal on metal: Staley had inched forward, causing his bell to seize.

I was able to locate it among a tangle of branches and bushes. I inched closer as the flapping of wings hit the cold air. Like a starburst, plump little feathery bodies flew in all directions. Yelling, “Quail!” I moved my shotgun to my shoulder and followed a quail that headed away from me. She was already hearing gunshots. When the smoke cleared, it was necessary to take a closer look at the reward of the morning.

The craw of a particularly strong bird was clearly getting fed up. Opening the crop revealed small reddish-brown, oval-shaped seeds. It seemed to be Milo. Most of the section appeared to be rolling grassland. I surveyed the area and did not see any standing crops. We continued to bump into flocks as we hunted, eventually finding a small patch of overgrown milo bushes, small enough to remain hidden. This little “grocery store”, as we ended up calling the public space, was where some of the quail fed. We also found two other long-forgotten strips of milo across a field that had also produced a flock of bobs.

The point of the story is, don’t overlook the area you’re hunting and make it a good practice to check the harvest of harvested birds. We probably would have come across the milo anyway, but because the quail had been feeding on it, we knew for the most part that sorghum could be found somewhere on earth.

It is a good habit for bird hunters to inspect the first birds that are placed in their hunting vests. I am amazed at the number of wing shooters I meet in the field who do not regularly open crops. Doing this can help determine what the birds are eating. This, in turn, can help direct hunters to a specific food source and area.

American sour berries provide food for quail and pheasants. It is a vine that often coils around trees and covers low-growing shrubs that provide winter cover.

What is a crop?

The crop, sometimes called a “crop,” functions as a food holding area during feeding hours. Think of it like a food pantry. The crop can get so large at times, that whatever the game bird was feeding on sometimes sticks out. In addition, it functions as part of the digestive system. Pigeons, grouse, quail, and pheasants start foraging for grit (sand or fine gravel) when the crop is full, which helps grind up food.

Also, locating the crop on a game bird is easy. Especially if they’ve been stuffing themselves. Grab the bird by the bottom of the throat and look for a lump. If the culture is full, carefully with a knife cut apart a thin membrane to reveal the contents. If it is empty, then there will be no food.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

By examining and comparing the contents of the crops, it will provide a bit of knowledge that can lead the hunter to find more birds. Even comparing different crops can provide clues about the birds’ habits. During one of those hunts, we had been walking between rows of corn pushing the roosters out of the water. After a couple of drives through the field, a vest full of birds appeared. Upon closer inspection of the crops, it clearly showed that the pheasants fed on corn. But to our surprise, one had also been raiding a bean field.

Corn kernels present in a bird’s crop.

Pulling out our public land access atlas, we circled a couple of parcels within a mile or two. Driving to these areas, we found a bean field with waist-high grass and scrub around the edges. It definitely had a “bird” look to it. A couple of hours later, we left the field with a couple more roosters. Guess what was in their crops? You guessed it, beans! He wants to know what else was found… sunflower seeds. Reading the content or ingredients of each crop is like deciphering a treasure map. The harvest was giving clues. Take each of those clues to determine areas to lounge, feed, and rest. Grains from farm fields, as well as grass, leaves, roots, wild fruits, nuts, and insects will lay the groundwork you want to focus on.

Although I have never had the opportunity to hunt traditional grouse, I know that they eat a variety of foods. By checking the crops of these birds, you can direct it to certain food sources. For example, if you devour a Rufous Grouse and, upon reviewing the contents, it is full of orange berries, then your focus should be, or at least keep an eye out for, those types of berries as you traverse through woods and brambles in search of the King of Birds. hunting. . I have also noticed and even read that some game birds feed on “subjects”. By “themes,” I mean that when a variety of foods exist and is available, some birds will tend to stick to one type at a time. Move from one food source to another. Sort of like going through a food line at a buffet and eating each delicacy at one meal and then moving on to the next.

Crop monitoring should also be done to help identify certain insects they are feeding on.

Leafy forage present in a crop.

A variety of species of grouse tend to feed on the leaves of many different plants and the needles of conifers. During the winter months, some grouse eat mainly spruce, pine, and spruce needles. Therefore, being aware of your surroundings while walking through the woods and forests will help you spot potential food sources.

Keep in mind that checking what upland birds eat is not a guarantee that you will find them. What it does mean is that it gives you knowledge and understanding of the birds we hunt. Hunters who are knowledgeable, understand, or should know the birds we hunt eat a variety of foods. Diets can be composed of seeds, grains, fruits, leaves, shoots, flowers, tubers, and roots. Being aware of how these food sources intertwine with our quarry makes us better hunters.

This knowledge gives us an advantage and another means in our upland toolbox to improve our chances of catching a bird or two. The feeling of a little weight in our game vests as we walk through meadows, fields and forests is always welcome.

This is especially true since, in the end, what matters most are the dogs we love and hunt with, the weapons we use, the memories we make and treasure, and ultimately the respect we give the bird of game we eat These are the things that fuel our passion as bird hunters.

How to hunt Sora rails

Sora Rails, while a small quarry, make an excellent game bird to chase during the lull between waterfowl seasons.

A bird catcher knows that once fall comes, we make marriages with our shotguns.

Beginning September 1, enthusiastic hunters, families and dogs from across the United States take to the fields to participate in the annual Labor Day mourning dove hunt. Shortly after this, waterfowl hunters rush into the swamps to watch teals arrive from the north. Once cooler weather pushes birds farther south and seasons close, birders face a lull in activity until duck, pheasant and quail seasons open.

But there is another birding season that stretches through these early fall months that tends to go unnoticed. The sora, a lesser-known game species, is a small brown and gray bird of the rail family (Rallidae). These stealthy birds are about the size of a sparrow and spend their lives in freshwater swamps and make their homes in emerging vegetation. Sora feed primarily on seeds during the fall migration and can be found in areas filled with reeds, grasses, wild rice, millet, and smart grass.

The sora has earned several nicknames, including sora rail, soree, meadow chicken, and Carolina crake. To hunters in particular, soras have been given the nickname “ortolan”, which comes from a small bird, called the pennant ortolan (Emberiza Gardenalisten)) that was considered a delicacy in France. European settlers hunted sora after arriving in the new world and found that they were more delicious than the prized ortolan of the old country.

Today, ortolan hunting is illegal, but luckily, sora hunting is still legal in 31 states. Sora hunting has lost its popularity in the 19th century and to this day remains an underused form of bird hunting. There are also three other species of rails that are hunted in the United States: clapper, Virginia, and king rail.

The author with her bird dog and a fallen Sora in a wetland.

Sora hunting rails on public land

When determining where to find these small game birds, explore public lands that have semi-aquatic habitats, such as wetlands, marshes, and flooded fields, with abundant seed-producing vegetation. The easiest way to determine the presence of soras is to listen for their vocalizations throughout the swamp.

Soras can be heard calling throughout the day, but active calls often occur in the twilight hours. Loud noises can startle these birds into calling, much like a tom turkey will gobble up in the spring. A hunter can be sure that there are soras in an area by listening for these strange chirps, hisses, and neighs. Also, these birds can congregate in the hundreds on migratory stopovers, so be ready to shoot fast.

Sora hunting involves scaring away birds by walking through shallow water with dense vegetation. When hunted, a Sora’s instinct is to run rather than fly, which creates a challenge when it comes to scaring away birds. Locate patches of dense vegetation where Sora may be feeding or hiding, then work to move birds away from dense vegetation to patches of open water, sparse vegetation, or higher ground, such as a dam. The birds will likely follow your escape route to find more cover, but will be forced to run, giving them a chance to shoot. Often the soras will close in and fly low, quickly landing back under cover.

Fallen Sora Rails Marking

Most of the time, the birds will drop into the thick vegetation and, even with a dog, they can be difficult to find. Marking birds as they fall is an effective way to retrieve fallen birds. Pick a target in the line of a falling bird. Keep your eyes on that target and walk directly towards it, without taking your eyes off it. Maintaining this strategy should increase the probability of finding birds.

A dead sora in the hand of a hunter.

Equipment and ammunition for hunting sora rails.

Sora hunting takes place in swamps or flooded fields, so wellies or tall boots are a must.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

These can be your running galoshes, as camouflage is not necessary when hunting soras. Lightweight, breathable chest waders are best because sora hunting involves a lot of walking through mud, vegetation, and some deeper water. In addition, a small game or mountain hunting vest will make it easier to capture birds.

When it comes to cartridges, lighter is better. I use a 20-gauge Weatherby shotgun with an improved barrel choke loaded with No. 7 steel shot. A 20-gauge is light and easy to carry while walking through the swamp. Any shotgun works well for hunting Sora, but remember that this bird is the size of a sparrow.

Sora rails as table fee

The English settlers hit the nail on the head when they dubbed this bird for the Old World delicacy. Sora’s meat is lean, dark, and rich in flavor. Some hunters peel back the skin to remove the breast meat. I like to pluck whole birds.

If you are hunting birds at a stopover migration site, these birds will gorge on seeds and pack on tons of fat which are delicious. You will miss out on making this fat if you breastfeed the bird. A whole roast bird sprinkled with salt, pepper, and lemon juice is all you need to enjoy the full flavor of sora. I would not stop pairing this food with wine. A full-bodied dark wine, such as malbec, syrah, or cabernet sauvignon, are good choices to complement the rich flavors of sora meat.

Sora hunting may seem physically challenging and time consuming for such a small quarry, but these birds have generous bag limits, make incredible table fare, and can fill the lull as we eagerly await our favorite opener. So, grab a couple of friends, your hunting dog, and head out into the swamp. Don’t forget to check local regulations and brush up on species identification before heading out into the field.