Turkey Hunting for Masochists
Getting a gobbler with a bow can be the toughest hunt you've ever had--and also the most exciting.
I’m racing down a ridge against the advancing dawn, trying to reach a position directly uphill from the gobbling bird. When I get there I quickly arrange three silhouette decoys in a clearing, just in front of a copse of pines the size of Christmas trees. Before I can worry about setting up a proper blind, the tom begins to gobble repeatedly, and as the sound of hens rises below, I realize that I’ll have to make do with natural cover.
From the shelter of the pines, I offer a few soft yelps of my own, each answered immediately by a gobble, and then the bird appears. Any notion that I’m hunting small game doesn’t survive the gobbler’s first break into full strut. Fantailed and puffed out, head glowing red, white, and blue like a neon sign, the tom is as formidable as any animal I’ve ever faced.
And since he’s only 20 yards away, he’d already be dead if I were hunting with a shotgun. My longbow, however, demands another order of patience. For two agonizing minutes, the tom struts without offering a shot. But finally that luminous head disappears behind a mature pine’s trunk, and when it reemerges, I’m locked at full draw, concentrating on an imaginary spot at the base of the wing. Anyone who thinks the 10-yard range makes this a chip shot hasn’t bowhunted turkeys. But my heavy cedar arrow disappears into the mound of feathers right where it should, dropping the tom in plain sight. Over the course of a long career afield, I’ve called into bow range species ranging from whitetails to elk to moose, and none have been more exciting than this. ** Little Big Game**
No matter that they’re covered with feathers rather than hair and sport beards instead of antlers, the wild turkey is big game in every sense of the term. And no quarry causes more difficulty for knowledgeable firearm hunters interested in making the transition to the bow. No matter your choice of tackle-compound, recurve, or longbow-it’s a steep, tough learning curve even for seasoned veterans with dozens of shotgun gobblers to their credit.
The toughest part is not getting within bow range of a turkey. Many gobblers that fall to shotguns every spring are taken at ranges appropriate to bow and arrow. It’s the endgame that causes problems, and turkey hunters new to the bow are often amazed by the number of close encounters that come to nothing. Credit-or blame-the turkey’s vision. With remarkable pattern-recognizing ability and virtually no blind spots in their visual scan, they can sense close-range trouble even the wariest buck might miss. Nothing detects and reacts to motion as quickly as a turkey, which is trouble for bowhunters since it’s impossible to draw without moving.
A memorable morning, early in my experience with hunting turkeys by bow, illustrates the sport’s challenges. After I’d spent two hours trading yelps and gobbles with a reluctant tom, the wise old bird finally decided to approach, and my first glimpse of him strutting boldly uphill in the sunlight aroused a severe case of pitter-patters.
I’d set up behind a fallen pine that offered excellent cover. As the bird disappeared into a dip a dozen yards away, I rose to one knee and prepared to draw whenever he emerged. Seconds dragged into minutes, and I suddenly noticed a shadow fall across the ground beneath me. Unseen, he had taken a detour around the log to a position a mere 3 feet from where I waited. By the time I pivoted and drew, my fluffed-up target had become a streaking bronze blur. I swung my longbow, led him as I would have with a shotgun-and let down without releasing the arrow.
**Turkey Tools **
The development of lightweight, freestanding cloth ground blinds has had a tremendous impact on bowhunters’ ability to convert close encounters into dead birds. Despite turkeys’ incredible wariness, for some reason they treat blinds-even if set up in the open-as if they weren’t there. The bowhunter inside one of these has at least some freedom of movement at close range. Getting off a shot still requires patience and technique, but good blinds greatly enhance the possibility, and I would venture that the majority of bow-killed turkeys nowadays fall to hunters using them.
With that said, I have to point out that I still do most of my own turkey hunting without freestanding blinds. I primarily hunt the highly mobile Merriam subspecies in the Rocky Mountain West, and I like to cover more ground than carrying a heavy blind allows. Instead, I use a simple, homemade version that offers a compromise between concealment and portability (see sidebar).
A decoy can be another valuable tool. In terms of drawing birds into shotgun range, I’ve never felt that decoys added much to good calling. But they do help put toms right where you want them-important when it comes to getting an arrow off undetected.
Hunters in blinds can use a decoy to lure the bird directly in front of a shooting window. Put the fake close by. The bird won’t pay any attention to the blind, so treat yourself to that 5-yard shot. Without a blind, remember that the best times to draw are when the bird walks behind a thick tree or eclipses his vision with his tail while strutting. A decoy can help make either event take place within good bow range.
Frustration Has Its Rewards
Neither traditional skills nor adjuncts like blinds and decoys can guarantee success, which helps explain the pursuit’s enduring fascination. To fall to an arrow, a gobbler has to make a mistake, and I spend a lot of time each spring trying to find one ready to do so.
Two years ago, I’d located a group of birds strutting in a remote mountain meadow. Since the sign indicated they’d been using the area for some time, I set up a freestanding blind and returned well before dawn the following morning. Just before sunrise, an eruption of gobbles from the nearby roost confirmed the accuracy of my scouting. With three decoys positioned in front of me, I offered a few soft yelps and settled back to wait, confident in an apparently perfect setup.
The sun had risen behind me by the time three toms appeared. But instead of heading into the decoys, the birds immediately walked behind me and began to strut. Since I’d backed the blind against a tree and closed the windows on that side for better concealment, shooting in that direction was impossible. For 30 minutes, I waited for one of the toms to wind up where I had expected, to no avail. Meanwhile, the rising sun cast their backlit silhouettes against the side of the blind while the birds taunted me just a few yards away.
At times like that, it seems reasonable to ask: Why bother with the frustration of archery turkeys? I can only reflect on the countless days that my bow has allowed me to remain in the woods when a shotgun would have ended my season on opening morning, and the incredible satisfaction derived from winning the toughest hunting game I’ve ever played.