Field & Stream Online Editors
Field & Stream Online Editors

Two gobblers stood just beyond gun range, alternately displaying for the decoys and regarding the two lumps sitting at the edge of the field with extreme suspicion. One of the lumps (Ray Eye) covered them with a shotgun, while the other (me, tagged out and along for the ride) plugged its ears in anticipation of the shot.

Finally, the turkeys folded their fans and turned to exit, stage left. Ray stood up. I may have gasped out loud. He took a few steps to get around some brush that blocked his view, then killed one of the gobblers. “Ray,” I said as we admired his bird, “you can’t stand up, take three steps, and kill a turkey.” To which he replied: “I just did, didn’t I?”

So many of us are intimidated by the wild turkey’s sharp eyes and wary disposition that we’re afraid to blink when birds come near. We’ve been programmed to believe the only way to kill a turkey is to sit motionless, wait to raise our guns until the bird goes behind a tree, and shoot for the head. Yet sometimes you have to break the rules if you want to tag a turkey.

Stand and Deliver
We’ve all been hunkered down at the base of a tree only to be tormented by the merest glimpse of a fan on the other side of a small rise in easy gun range. We scratch leaves, peep quietly, or shut up, hoping to wait him out. Sometimes it works. More often, the turkey walks away.

So stand up and shoot the turkey.

You don’t have to jump to your feet, blazing away. Stand up with your gun at your shoulder and shoot the bird in the neck. The gobbler will likely come out of strut when you stand and will look at you for an instant, giving you all the time you need to make a quick but well-placed shot. When Ray stood up and walked toward those two turkeys in Illinois, they took his footfalls for the sound of an approaching hen and puffed up again. I can’t promise they’ll all do that, but you should have a second or two to aim and shoot while the turkey is figuring out what you are.

Raising the Gun
If a bird catches you with your gun in your lap, turkey-hunting dogma says wait for the bird to step behind a tree, so he can’t see you move. That’s certainly the best course, but what if there is no tree for the turkey to walk behind? You’ve got two choices: Let the bird go on his way, then try to call him back; or raise your gun and end the hunt right there.

The first time a turkey caught me unprepared, I numbly opted for total paralysis, and the gobbler got away. The next season, I took a young friend on his first turkey hunt. Long story short, he woke up with his gun in his lap and a gobbler staring at him from 20 yards away. Cody shouldered his gun at molasses speed and killed the turkey where it stood.

Don’t try a quick draw on a turkey; any abrupt movement may startle him into ducking, running, or flying. Move slowly. The turkey may stand there and let you shoot him, although he’ll most likely putt and begin to leave at an agitated walk, still offering a decent shot.

Body Shots
Turkey hunters have been indoctrinated to take head and neck shots only, and they do remain the surest way to kill a bird at normal ranges. However, modern turkey chokes and loads shoot a pattern the size of a golf ball at five or 10 steps. It’s easy to miss a turkey’s pea brain and pencil neck when you’re shooting the equivalent of a solid slug of shot. Please don’t ask me how I know this.

If the turkey approaches within 10 steps, go ahead and throw the rule book away. Skip the head shot and aim for the juncture of the neck and the body. You won’t lose too much meat and you’ll kill the bird instantly.

That said, you may not want to put a gaping, bloody hole through a turkey. Your idea of a perfect hunt may include a good-looking corpse. That’s fine, even laudable. But if you let that turkey walk, it should be because you decided to let him go, not because you were afraid to break the “rules.”