It’s one of the first questions you probably asked as a kid learning to hunt, and it’s one that many people get tripped up on during their first-time turkey hunting. What exactly is the difference between a jake and a tom? First, you probably figured out how to tell a hen from a tom by learning the physical differences between males and females. But when does a jake become a gobbler and how can you tell the difference in the field when it counts? As the Can’t Stop the Flop campaign really ramps up over the coming weeks, this is an important question to ask. But ask ten people and you’ll probably get ten different answers. Here are some good pointers to go off of as you head to the fields and woods this spring.
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Before we launch into what makes each of them different, let’s lay the turkey hunting foundation. Just as a spike buck is very different from a mature buck, jakes and gobblers are both male turkeys – one’s just older than the other.
What is a jake? A jake is an immature male bird. How old is a jake turkey? Generally, people define a jake turkey as a one-year-old bird. They can also sometimes be confused with hens in the field.What is a gobbler? A gobbler or tom turkey is a mature male bird. There will be shifts in physical appearance and behavior as they get older, but a gobbler is essentially a gobbler on its 2 year birthday.
Is it wrong or illegal to kill a jake instead of a long beard? Check your local regulations, but the answer is almost always no as far as the regulations go. Many turkey hunting regulations specify you kill a male or “bearded turkey” during the spring hunting season. Sometimes a bearded turkey is a sad-looking long beard, an average jake, or even a hen. So it really comes down to what you are comfortable shooting. Many people take any legal turkey they get the chance to, while some choose to only shoot mature long beards. It goes back to the spike vs. mature buck – there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either approach as long as you are happy with your decision.
As a general rule, jakes will have short beards (about 2 to 3 inches in length), while the tom turkey beard can be up to 10 inches or more (they don’t call them longbeards for nothing). Sometimes toms even get multiple beards, which can be another good sign of maturity. On the other hand, sometimes toms lose their beards or wear them down over time, or jakes will sport long or double beards. A certain number of hens will also sport a beard at some point, which is why many regulations allow a “bearded turkey” during the turkey hunting season. In the video below, you’ll see that while hunting these call-shy gobblers, in particular, there was a surprise super jake encounter.
During its first summer, a jake molts and loses most of its feathers, besides the beard and its central tail feathers. As a result, these central tail feathers usually stick up 2 to 3 inches above the rest of the fan once the others grow in, producing an awkward, uneven looking fan when they strut. In its second summer, it will usually molt all of the feathers so that they regrow into a uniform tail fan. Occasionally, turkeys might lose a few tail feathers to predators or some other reason, so it might look on first glance that the central feathers are longer, but look carefully. A mature long beard’s tail fan will be uniformly round all over.
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While a gobbler and jake have similar colored heads, especially when compared to hens, it’s usually slightly different during the spring breeding season. Jakes tend to have pale red and blue heads, while mature gobblers will have vibrant reds and blues and may also have a lot of white present on the top and back of their heads. The white color can really be a telltale sign while turkey hunting that it is a mature bird.