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Rifle Magazine
March - April 2004
Volume 2, Number 2
ISSN: 0
Number 8
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Cover Photo by Bob Robb
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It had been a most frustrating week. The turkeys were gobbling their wattles off, and for some reason a half-dozen had found my less-than-professional calling to their liking. And yet, while I had gotten three mature birds to within 40 yards or less, I was still packing around an unpunched tag.

“Welcome to the world of bow hunting turkeys, Stud,” I remember thinking.

Finally I got lucky, though not in the way I had envisioned before the season opened. On a windy afternoon, I made my way to a large green field where I had seen lots of tracks and heard some gobbling that morning. I set a decoy up along the field’s edge. Twenty-five yards back into the woods and across a small creek was a thick clump of brush set against the base of some big oak trees. I fashioned a makeshift ground blind and hunkered down.

The plan was as basic as can be: hope a gobbler would be out in search of a lonesome hen that would have made her way into the field for an afternoon snack. Gobbler sees decoy, focuses his attention on same and marches in, oblivious to my blind; I then shoot gobbler. Just like that. Because I am admittedly a mediocre turkey caller, I had planned to do zero calling.

The chances of this happening were zilch, I figured, but what the heck. Nothing else had worked all week long, so in a combination of frustration and weariness, I made myself comfortable and began waiting.

Every now and then miracles do happen. I heard the gobbler a long ways off, and pretty soon could hear him rapidly approaching. Before I knew it there he was, coming into the field in the exact corner I hoped he would. He spotted the decoy, and came almost at a trot. He stopped near the decoy and began to strut, and when his fan was up and back to me, I came to full draw, placed my 20-yard pin at the base of the tail and released. The broadhead smacked him on the spine, then blew threw his vitals. Before I knew it I was stroking the feathers of one of the most hard-won, bow-hunting trophies I had ever taken.

The Trouble with Bow Hunting

Bow hunting turkeys is tougher than old shoe leather – unless you follow a proven strategy that will help you overcome the inherent hunt-breakers.

The most obvious problem is defeating a gobbler’s unbelievable eyesight. Unless you are completely hidden, a gobbler will see you draw your bow. When they do, they are gone so fast it will make your head spin. If you have to move to call, get burrs out of your butt, keep ants from crawling up your leg, or – and I swear this happened to me once – they see you blink your eyes at the wrong time – it is adios, amigo.

Shot placement is another problem. The vital area on a wild turkey is miniscule, making precise arrow placement crucial. You will not blood-trail a bow-shot turkey. If you hit them wrong, they will flop or fly off and you will not find them . . . ever.

Archery Equipment

Because it takes very little raw arrow speed or kinetic energy to cleanly take a turkey, smart bow hunters modify their equipment to meet this unique challenge. Much more important than shooting a lightning-fast arrow is being able to easily draw your bow back in a single, smooth, jerk-free motion, then hold the bow at full draw for somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds before releasing what will then be a very accurate arrow.

“When a gobbler comes in, often he’ll go behind a tree or bush before he is right where you want to shoot him,” said Derek Phillips, field staff manager for Mathews Archery and one of the country’s top bow hunters and tournament 3-D shooters. “You have to get drawn when the bird can’t see you, so you may have to draw a little bit before you are ready and hold the bow at full draw until the bird gets into position. Unlike tree-stand deer hunting, when you can sometimes draw and let-down without spooking the deer, if you get to doing that sort of thing with a big gobbler, you can be sure he will see you move. And when that happens, it is all over.”

For that reason, when hunting turkeys, I turn the draw weight on my compound bow way down. This permits me to draw it smoothly and easily, and hold it at full draw for an extended period of time without compromising shooting accuracy. For example, I set my own big game hunting bows at 70 pounds. For turkeys, I drop the draw weight to around 55 to 60 pounds, depending on what draw weight the bow tunes at. When I do, I have to re-tune the bow – which sometimes means changing arrow shaft spine size – and sight it in all over again to make sure it is shooting laser beams. I can draw this set-up without cheating and hold it for a full 60 seconds from my knees before I get wobbly. It’s great for turkeys.

Aluminum and carbon arrow shafts work well for turkeys. I make sure I have drab-colored or camouflage arrow shafts fletched with a nondescript fletching color. The red and white fletches I prefer for big game hunting are too bright for turkey hunting, and I do not want to be carrying around any color in the field that some yahoo might see a flash of and snap-shoot with his 12 gauge, thinking it’s a gobbler’s head.

Both replaceable-blade and mechanical broadheads work well. More and more bow hunters are using mechanical heads these days, with the Rocky Mountain Extreme and Warhead; New Archery Products Spitfire and Shockwave; Wasp Jackhammer SST; Mar-Den Vortex; Pucket Bloodtrailer; Rocket Steelhead, Sidewinder and Hammerhead; Game Tracker First Cut EXP and Silvertip and the like all being good choices. Broadhead weight is not important, except in terms of how it affects the accuracy of your bow.

Some bow hunters like to put a “stopper” behind their broadheads to inhibit penetration. The idea is that if the arrow shaft stays in the bird, it will transfer 100 percent of its shocking power to the turkey, and with the shaft still in the body cavity it will be much more difficult for the turkey to flop or fly off before you can race out and pick him up. The Bateman Small Game Stopper, Zwickey Scorpio and Muzzy Grasshopper are three excellent products for this.

My bow sight pins are set at 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards – though I personally won’t shoot at a turkey past 30 steps – and I prefer thin fiber optic pins I can see easily in dim light against the dark feathers of a turkey’s body.

Making the Shot

There are only two places to shoot a turkey with bow and arrow. “One good shot is placing the arrow at the base of the wing on a broadside turkey,” said gobbler-getter extraordinaire Walter Parrott. Parrott holds five world turkey calling championships, five National Wild Turkey Federation Grand National titles and 12 U.S. Open titles. Walter has been hunting gobblers since he was 10 years old, is a member of the Redhead Pro Hunting Team, Mossy Oak and GORE-TEX pro staffs, the Knight & Hale Ultimate Hunting Team and co-host of Knight & Hale’s “Ultimate Hunting” cable TV show and video series.

“This will both break the wing bone and send the arrow through the lungs, and breaking the wing will keep the bird from flying off. The other is waiting until the bird is facing away from you, then shooting them in the spine. Often a strutting gobbler will turn his back to the bow hunter, raising his fan in the process. One big reason for the popularity of this shot is the fact that the elevated fan will help keep the bird from seeing you. The shooter then aims just above the base of the tail, where the arrow will smack the backbone as well as passing on into the vitals. This is an excellent shot for bow hunting, as it gives you about 15 inches of vertical spine and about 2 inches on either side of the spine at the chest or vital area to hit. And a broken back, of course, will keep the turkey from escaping.”

It should go without saying that you need to be able to shoot from your knees or the sitting position. Taking a standing shot at a turkey with a bow is almost impossible to do without getting picked off. Many turkey hunters pack a small seat or stool with them so they can sit off the ground just enough that their lower bow limb will not contact the ground when they draw and shoot.

The Blind Advantage

Because getting drawn without being seen is the toughest part of the bow hunting equation, many years ago some serious archers began experimenting with using lightweight, portable blinds. At first these were nothing more than some camouflage netting rapidly strung between available brush and limbs, with the hunter sitting behind them as the gobbler came to the call. When I first heard of this concept, I thought there was no way on God’s earth a turkey hunter could stick and move while calling turkeys, then get a blind erected and settled in before the gobbler was right on top of you. Then I tried it, and found out just how wrong I was.

This technique took a quantum leap forward with the creation of the lightweight, portable blinds so popular today with hunters pursuing game from ducks to deer. And there’s no question that the deadliest combination for bow hunting turkeys is using a commercial blind together with a turkey decoy.

“You can use a lightweight commercial blind and hunt turkeys the same way you hunt them using the same stick-and-move tactics you use when hunting with a shotgun,” Parrott said. “This allows you to be more mobile, go where the action is and work a gobbling tom. It is important that you know how to set up your blind quickly and quietly. The key is to get where you need to be with enough time to set up and get ready. This can be deadly, especially if you can add a decoy or two to the equation.”

There are several top-notch portable blinds available today. For stick-and-move hunting, a large sheet of camouflage netting strung between a couple of bushes works fine. For a more “semi-permanent” type of setting, blinds such as the Invisiblind II, a blackout blind with mesh front that lets you shoot right through the mesh material, is a good choice. I took my last spring gobbler from a Double Bull I.C.E. GH 500 blind; it was excellent. The Underbrush Bowhunter Blind and Magnum Bowhunter Blind; Ameristep Penthouse, Doghouse and Outhouse; and Game Tracker Pop-Up Hunting Blind and Quick Shack Hunting Blind are all excellent choices.

In addition to field edges, placing a commercial blind on known travel routes between roosting areas and a field works well, Parrott said. “This is especially true out West, where birds often roost in timbered draws and use long timbered, brushy fingers to travel from the roost to the fields,” he said. “There are some natural areas that are like a funnel where turkeys come to strut and display, and here you can use either natural cover as a blind or a commercial blind, get set up and spend some time there. These should be areas you have pre-scouted and found some hot turkey sign. I like to look at field bottlenecks and creek channels along a field edge where birds like to enter and leave the field. I also can’t emphasize how using decoys will up your odds when bow hunting.”


Decoys Are Critical

Using turkey decoys is so deadly that some states have outlawed them. Where they are legal, they are by far the best chance a bow hunter has of getting a shot. Combined with a blind, it really tips the odds in your favor.

A decoy will focus the gobbler’s attention on something and away from you, as well as encourage them to come into bow range and strut. That’s the ideal scenario – a strutting gobbler 15 to 25 yards away, turning his back to you with his fan raised. A decoy will help make this happen.

“Early in season, when turkeys have had less pressure and are more flocked up, I like to use multiple decoys – two hens and a jake, or two jakes and a hen,” said Kentucky’s Chuck Jones, co-host of the “Knight & Hale Ultimate Hunting” cable TV show and video series and one heckuva turkey hunter. “When you set the jake up, do it so it looks like he is having something to do with one of the hens. I always want him in the sun because that is the one the gobbler is going to come to, every time.”

The big key in using a decoy is making sure the birds can easily see it, Jones said. That may sound simple – and it is – but too many times in the heat of battle, hunters forget this most basic tenet.

“That’s why I like using decoys in and around a clean area, a natural opening in the woods, or in a field,” Jones said. “In the open turkeys can see my fakes much easier than if they are set up in the brush, high weeds or a field that has tall crops. It has to be a natural area that a turkey feels comfortable coming into. Remember that gobblers that are not “henned up” will be out cruising, looking for hens. They have tremendous eyesight, and by setting your decoy where it is easily spotted for a long distance, you increase the odds that a cruising gobbler will spot your imitation and come over to investigate.”

Naturally, the best place to set up is where the turkeys want to be to begin with. That will depend on many factors: the time of the season, whether or not the birds have had a lot of hunting pressure and so on. But generally speaking, if you can set up on a travel route between a roost area and a strutting zone, in a strutting or nesting area, or in and around a green field that is pockmarked with fresh turkey sign, your chances will increase exponentially over just haphazardly setting up in an area where you heard some turkeys calling and hope they’ll come by.

“Fields are great places for decoying turkeys, especially when bow hunting,” Jones said. “It’s no secret that turkeys like to hang around green fields, but hunting a large field is no easy task. The turkeys will come to the field, but where will they enter it? How will they move once they hit the field? You can help tip the odds in your favor by scouting the field and setting up where the sign is fresh and hot, but still, you never know. The turkeys can come from anywhere into a field, and you may never see or hear them. But, if they see your decoy, the chances are good they will come to it.”

While I prefer to use decoys in and around fields, they work great in the woods, too, under the right conditions. Here, I find they work a lot better if you set them up on old road beds, in small woods openings, etc., or in big, open hardwoods where they should be set up on high spots in the sun – not the shade – so they are easily visible. Also, I like to set a decoy closer to me in the woods than in the fields. Here I will normally set a decoy 10 to 15 yards from where I will set up, so any bird that hangs up when he comes in will still be close enough to shoot. Also, you always want to set up on the same level, or higher, than the approaching turkey.

There are several excellent turkey decoys, including the Carry-Lite Alert Hen, Alert Jake and Feeding Hen; BuckWing LifeLite Decoy and Expander; Feather Flex True Position Breeders, Tru Jake and Tru Hen; Delta Stationary Feeding Hen, Hot Hen, Mating Hot Hen & Breeding Tom and Jake; Flambeau Hen and Intruder Jake; and Lynch Alert Hen, Feeding Hen and Super Jake.

Bow hunting the wild turkey is about as exciting – and tough – a challenge as you’ll find anywhere. It can also be one of the most frustrating. I guess that’s why I love it so much. I mean, if it were easy, anyone could do it!

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