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Turkey hunting: Bows or guns?

Mark Raycroft

Tactics, tips and tricks for bowhunters and gunners

So you want to get into turkey hunting, but can’t decide whether to carry a gun or a bow. Or maybe you already hunt wild turkeys, but want to leave the shotgun at home this season and try bowhunting instead. Whatever the case, our special guide has you covered with everything you need to know to get started.

The beauty of the bow

Long ago I gave up the gun for the bow to hunt white-tailed deer. So, when I decided to start hunting wild turkeys, the thought of picking up a shotgun never even crossed my mind. Actually, I was slow to jump on the turkey bandwagon in my home province of Ontario, mostly because I was usually in the northern woods hunting black bears during the spring turkey season. But when that hunt was abruptly cancelled in 1999, I turned to turkeys to fill the gap between the annual deer seasons.

I must admit, at first I was skeptical about getting excited about bowhunting a bird, but those thoughts quickly disappeared after my first turkey. Not only is it a rush, but bowhunting also makes for a lot more opportunities to bag a tom-at least in turkey-rich southern Ontario.

Now I’m as addicted to bowhunting turkeys as I am to bowhunting whitetails. For those interested in sharing that addiction, the following primer on gear and tactics should be enough to get you hooked. And you shotgunning holdouts should also take note: some of the strategies I’ve outlined here are sure to put more turkeys in your lap, as well.

Gear

Bows and broadheads: I use the same set-up for turkeys that I use for hunting whitetails: a 35-inch-long (axle to axle) compound bow with a draw weight of 68 pounds at a 29-inch draw length. You don’t need a special bow to hunt turkeys, although a shorter axle-to-axle length and less poundage is more manageable in the tight confines of a blind. What you do need to ensure a kill is the biggest mechanical broadhead you can find. I shot my last two birds, for example, with a broadhead I’ve dubbed “the flying axe.” The Stilleto is a 125-grain mechanical with blades that open to a whopping 2 3/4 inches. Just be sure to use two rubber bands to keep the blades closed during flight if you are shooting a high-poundage bow.

Blinds

Another key piece of equipment is the portable blind, such as those made by Game Tracker, Double Bull Blinds or Ameristep. Blinds are as valuable to turkey bowhunters as portable treestands are to whitetail bowhunters. You can hunt without one, but your odds of success won’t be as high. The movement required to draw a bow, for example, is almost guaranteed to spook a gobbler. A blind solves that problem. Same goes for using hand-operated calls without getting busted. As well, a blind allows you to stay dry while hunting in the rain.

The blind itself should have a black interior, which eliminates shadows when the blind is in direct sunlight. If your blind isn’t black inside, be sure to place it in the shade on sunny days. Also keep any windows closed-except for the front shooting port-to keep it as dark as possible inside the blind.

Generally, turkeys pay no attention to portable blinds; I’ve only seen one bird get spooked, and that was because of a loose side flapping in the breeze. So when it’s windy, be sure to stake the blind to the ground as tightly as possible.

Permanent ground blinds also work, but they don’t offer the freedom to change sites if the action dries up. They can be deadly, though, if they’re set up in a good location, such as along an active travel route or near a roosting tree. When constructing a permanent blind, keep in mind that it must be able to conceal your movements when you draw your bow.

Camo

Whether or not you use a blind, total camouflage is a must. I don’t just mean your pants, jacket and hat—your face and hands, as well as your equipment, must also be well concealed. I’ve even started using green and black fletching on my camo shafts after a photographer told me he could see my white fletching glowing inside my blind. Take nothing for granted: everything must match the colours of the turkey woods.

Calls

It’s also important to closely match the sounds of the turkey woods. With the calls that are available today, anyone can create realistic turkey talk with very little practice. For example, all of the friction-based calls, such as the box call and the slate call, can be operated with ease. A few practice sessions, with the aid of an instructional tape, are all it takes to get started.

The one call that does require plenty of practice is the diaphragm call. The masters of turkey hunting depend on it, and if you plan on hunting without a blind, you should as well. When first learning to use one, don’t worry about anything other than producing a good yelp. Once you’ve mastered the yelp, it’s easy to move on to the other calls the diaphragm is capable of producing.

Decoys

The use of decoys is almost mandatory for bowhunters. Their strategic use will consistently pull birds into range and, just as importantly, into position for a clean shot. I use two hens and a jake for a lot of my set-ups. Preferably, you want to set out the hens about 20 yards away, facing your blind. I push small sticks into the ground on each side of their tails so they stay facing me, leaving just enough room for them to move slightly in the wind. Movement is good, but you don’t want your decoys spinning around like tops.

The reason for placing the hen decoys so they’re facing the blind is to lure the gobbler between you and the decoys. A tom will almost always face the decoys when strutting, and when he’s in full strut looking at the decoys, there’s no chance he’ll see you.

As for the jake decoy, I set it about 10 feet or so off to one side of the hens, facing them and also held in position with sticks. A jake decoy is handy for shy toms, which will often strut for the hen decoys but stay out of bow range. The presence of a jake will often cause them to charge right up to the hens, or to the jake decoy. More than once I’ve had my jake decoy trashed by a dominant tom.

Tactics

Along the trail: One of the best places to set up your blind is along a travel corridor that turkeys are likely to follow. The first tom I ever shot, for example, was taken at a gap in a brush-covered fenceline that ran through a couple of fields and connected two large tracts of bush. Both tracts were home to birds that would gobble at first light, but I suspect the toms were occupied with hens, because I couldn’t entice any of them to my set-up when I started calling at first light.

Now, this is where patience comes in. I decided to wait it out, knowing that the turkeys must have heard my initial calls at sun-up. Every 15 minutes or so I called softly, but it wasn’t until 10:45 a.m. that I got my first response-a thunderous gobble that almost knocked me off my stool.

I immediately grabbed my bow, and before I could get the release on the string, a gobbler was strutting into the decoys. The tom slowly swung around in the direction of the phony hens while spitting and drumming, his rear end facing me at 15 yards. He was so focused on the decoys that he was completely oblivious to his surroundings. The rest is history.

Taking my first turkey with a bow was definitely a milestone. By being patient and confident in my set-up, and by taking advantage of a corridor that the birds follow in their everyday travels, I was able to harvest one of bowhunting’s toughest quarries.

Off the roost: By far my favourite, and often the most exciting, way to hunt a gobbler is to find out where he’s roosting in the evening, then hunt him the following morning. This is a traditional method of turkey hunting, and one that many shotgunners use.

For reasons that only turkeys know, they love to sound off when they fly up to roost-and that means they’re likely to respond to a call and reveal their location. Typically, a loud call that carries a long distance, such as a box call, will do the trick just as the sun is setting. I’ve also had great success with a crow call.

The first season I hunted, I used this technique a lot and had quite a few close encounters, but no birds in the bag. If I had been using a shotgun, there were many times I could have killed gobblers that I’d called off the roost to my decoys at sunrise. But getting birds within bow range without spooking them was really tough; sometimes I even scared them off before dawn while noisily setting up my portable blind.

By the following spring, however, I had fine-tuned my pre-dawn approach and was finally able to connect on a big jake. A couple of weeks before the season opener, I spent two days in the woods creating natural-cover blinds close to several trees that gobblers used as roosts. How close? So close that the birds would be able to see my decoys from the trees once it was light out.

The evening before the opener, I roosted a bird in one of the trees. The next morning, I made my way down toward the tree while it was still dark and quietly stashed my cased bow and pack in the blind. Then, with all the stealth I could muster, I quickly placed two hen decoys 20 yards away, facing my blind, in the large open meadow next to the roosting tree. After sneaking into the blind, I waited for daylight.

With the faint coming of dawn, I could hear some hens softly yelping in the nearby trees. I had hoped the tom would be by himself, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Soon it was legal shooting time, and within minutes a bird gobbled, sending shivers down my spine. Knowing he could see the decoys, I kept quiet.

After five or six gobbles, though, I couldn’t stand it any longer and called back softly on my diaphragm call. Within seconds, I heard him pitch out of the tree and land within 20 feet of my blind. He was totally fixated on the decoys when my large mechanical broadhead anchored him on the spot.

And that, folks, is what bowhunting for turkeys is all about.

Why bows rule

Like other parts of rural Canada, the countryside in southern Ontario is not so rural any more. A lot of farmers have subdivided small acreages from their properties and, as a result, there are now homes sitting in the middle of prime turkey habitat. While many homeowners in such areas may be uncomfortable with gun hunting on their properties, they’ve proven much more receptive to bowhunters.

I’ve been allowed onto several properties where gun hunters aren’t permitted, and it’s been worth it. Not only is there no competition, it also means the birds aren’t pressured, which is key when it comes to a successful bowhunt.

Access aside, bowhunting offers several practical benefits over shotgunning. For one, a blind is a necessity, and that means you can hunt more easily in foul weather. Plus, you get to sit on a stool instead of the ground, and you can use hand-operated calls and not worry about spooking the birds—even when they are close by.

Another advantage is opportunity. In Ontario, for example, you can bowhunt on Sundays. For the hunter who works all week and only has Saturday to head afield, that alone is enough of an incentive to take up bowhunting (just be sure to check the regulations regarding the same-day reporting of harvested birds; and on Sundays in Ontario, make sure there’s an open reporting station in your area).

Still not convinced? How about being allowed to hunt in areas where shotguns are not permitted? Or what about archery only seasons, as in B.C.? Take up bowhunting and you’ll soon find that membership has its privileges.

From chokes to sights to loads, a rundown on what you need to get gunning for gobblers

For Canadian hunters, the opportunity to head afield in pursuit of the wild turkey, shotgun in hand, is relatively new. And talk about a welcomed addition: these wily birds are sure to test the mettle of any hunter. Because they’re such a different critter from our other game birds, however, wild turkeys demand a whole new approach when it comes to gunning, as the following introductory guide reveals.

Guns

The most common firearm for knocking down the wild turkey is a 12-gauge shotgun. Sure, some hunters tote the heavier 10-gauge, while others select a lighter 16- or 20-gauge. Some even venture afield carrying a muzzleloader. All of these guns will do the job, but the 12-gauge is the most popular. And in my opinion, it’s the best choice largely because of its versatility and simplicity. My 12-gauge, for example, accompanies me on deer, waterfowl, upland bird and turkey hunting trips.

If you don’t already own a shotgun, there are some incredible choices on the market, including dedicated turkey guns. Winchester, Remington, Browning and Beretta, among others, all produce quality shotguns; selecting the right one for you is simply a matter of visiting your local gun shop to check them out first-hand.

One factor to consider when choosing a turkey gun is barrel length. Shorter barrels, from 22 to 26 inches, are preferred for turkey hunting because they’re more compact and easier to handle in the turkey woods. And since most turkeys are taken at close range, short barrels don’t affect shot pattern.

If you plan to hunt waterfowl or deer with the same gun, however, a longer barrel is a more versatile option. For those who don’t mind investing a little more money, some manufacturers make shotguns that can accommodate barrels of different lengths. That allows you to purchase a shorter barrel for turkey hunting, a longer barrel for waterfowl and a rifled slug barrel for deer.

One last consideration when it comes to a turkey gun is whether it should be camouflaged. Sure, a camo gun will blend into the woods better than the typical gun, but in my opinion it’s really a matter of personal preference. It’s my belief that the colour of your gun isn’t going to make or break your turkey hunt. So, if you like the look of a camo gun, then go for it, but for those who don’t already have one, don’t fret-you can still bag a good bird with grandpa’s old single-shot.

Chokes

Unlike deer, which have a large kill zone, turkeys offer a much smaller target. The tighter the choke, therefore, the better. To effectively take down one of these tough birds with a shotgun, it’s essential to hit it in the head and neck area. That calls for a tight pattern, making a full choke a necessity. Some shotguns can also sport extra-full chokes, which deliver an even tighter pattern at a range of up to 40 yards. Indeed, there’s a wide selection of such dedicated turkey chokes now on the market.

Sights

Most shotguns have a bead sight on the barrel for quick aiming. But for turkey hunting, it’s not uncommon to see a shotgun dressed up with a peep sight or scope similar to what you would expect to see on a rifle. And for good reason: at 30 yards, a turkey’s head appears to be roughly the size of a tennis ball. That’s a relatively small target, and you need to put enough pellets in the zone to bring down the bird. Anything less and you’ll need to take another shot. Worse still, you may have to wrestle a wounded turkey, which can be a surprisingly strong adversary, complete with wicked spurs.

Loads

When it comes to selecting the right load for turkey hunting, there’s a handful of choices. The most common are shells with size 4, 5 or 6 pellets, all of which will work fine. It’s also important to take shell length into account. Most older guns only take 2 3/4-inch shells, but newer shotguns are chambered to accommodate shells from 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 inches. Whenever possible, it’s to the turkey hunter’s advantage to use longer shells because they hold more pellets, thereby increasing the odds for a one-shot kill. For example, a 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge shell holds 219 size 4 pellets, while a three-inch 12-gauge shell contains 270 size 4 pellets. Of course, for those who want to know just how hard a shotgun can kick, there’s the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge shell that holds even more pellets. However, there aren’t as many guns available that chamber a shell of that size. Whatever the case, make sure you don’t exceed the maximum shell length for your shotgun (you can usually find the length inscribed somewhere on the barrel). Put in the wrong shell and you risk damage to both you and your gun.

And no turkey on the table.

Turkey facts

Species in Canada: Eastern and Merriam’s

Distribution: The most significant populations are in southern and eastern Ontario, Manitoba and B.C., with small pockets in the Maritimes, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Estimated total population: 59,300-62,800

Average length: 3 to 3 feet 10 inches

Average wingspan: 4 to 5 feet

Average weight: 16.3 pounds

Sexes: Males have red wattles, bigger heads and white-barred fight feathers, as well as blackish breast tufts, or beards, while females are duller in colour and have smaller heads and bodies

Song: Gobbling may be heard up to 1.5 kilometres away. Several different clucking calls are made by both sexes (for example, cluck, cut and putt).

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