Crossbow Gobbler Quest

The author’s quest for her first turkey becomes especially interesting when she heads to western Nebraska with a crossbow in hand

crossbow turkey hunting
F&S copy chief Donna L. Ng with her hard-earned longbeard that she shot during the early Nebraska archery season.Will Brantley

Gobbles are thundering from all around us as dawn breaks in the hills of northwestern Nebraska. I've never heard anything like it before, a raucous, echoing chorus announcing I'm here! And here I am, sitting in a hay-bale blind at the edge of a field, with a crossbow in my lap. Beside me, F&S hunting editor Will Brantley occasionally yelps on a mouth call, and the gobblers answer. At last it's fly-down time, and we spot the first flock approaching from the hillside across the road. They head directly toward the three decoys staked 10 yards in front of the blind. It can't possibly be this easy, I think. We glass the birds as they draw closer. And then there they are: four longbeards marching straight into our setup, gobbling furiously. One spreads his fan into strut but stays on the move. Will yelps to try to stop them, and the bird bringing up the rear cranes his neck and slows down. My safety is off and I'm ready to shoot, if he will only stand still.

It's the second week of Nebraska's spring archery season, and I've traveled here with hopes of killing my first ever turkey. Growing up in New York City, I never imagined myself as a hunter, but working at F&S, I've hunted turkeys three times with a shotgun in the Eastern hardwoods without ever getting a shot. As frustrating as these birds can be, I've enjoyed every minute in the field, so when Will invited me to hunt spring turkeys in Nebraska with him, I was thrilled. Will's wife, Michelle, has also come along to Gordon, Neb., where our outfitter, Justin Simmons of Spring Meadows Hunting & Fishing, grew up. She and I have two tags each.

turkey blind
Turkeys didn't pay much attention to the hay-bale blind, which allowed for quite a bit of movement inside.Donna L. Ng

With another taunting gobble, the four longbeards march out of our setup as quickly as they entered it. So much for easy, I think. The rest of the morning continues in that vein. We see as many as 50 birds in the field at a time, but not once does a mature tom pause in front of my shooting window. Instead, we’re mobbed by jakes. At one point, Will counts 17 of them milling about the decoys. One has a beard noticeably longer than the rest; I name him Stubby, and he seems to be the dominant jake. They are entertaining to watch as they check out the hen decoys, gobble, fluff their feathers, and occasionally break into a strut. About 100 yards up the fenceline, and in a line of cottonwoods across the field, we can see gobblers strutting with their harems. Toms are typically aggressive during breeding season, but big gangs of jakes are harassing them, Will explains, so much that the gobblers are avoiding the jake decoy in our setup.

“What do you think?” Will whispers. “Do you want to shoot a jake?”

I think it over. This is my fourth attempt at turkey hunting, and I want a turkey bad. But on day one out of three, I’m not ready to squeeze my crossbow’s trigger on a jake just yet—and it seems like I won’t have to. Another flock of turkeys, including several toms, works their way in behind the blind. We slowly reposition, where I can shoot out a different window, and finally, I’m staring through the scope at two nice gobblers. One of them breaks into strut, and then they both step into my shooting lane. Will says that I can aim dead on. I put the 20-yard reticle on the bird’s side, hold my breath, and squeeze the trigger. The bolt goes just underneath the bird, and he runs a short distance away before stopping to pick in the field. I didn’t even scare him that bad. My heart sinks, and I can’t believe that I missed what seemed like a sure thing. But without a rangefinder, we underestimated the distance—Will guessed it at 25 yards, but the gobbler was more like 35 yards away.

Still, the afternoon lies ahead, and Will says we’ll try another spot, where we’ve heard that Michelle, hunting solo, has taken a Merriam’s longbeard. We break for lunch and to admire Michelle’s bird back at camp.

turkey blind
Outfitter Justin Simmons brushes in the fence-gap blind.Donna L. Ng

The Gap Sit

By 3 p.m., we’re in a different blind that’s backed up to a winding creek, with a fence gap just to the left. This time we decide to go without decoys. Michelle told me birds had been pouring through the fence gap all morning. We hope to catch them heading back to the roost. And a steady stream of turkeys parades before the blind, taking their sweet time until they near the gap—at which point they become utterly focused and practically run through the opening, precisely where my window is facing. Although the turkeys seem oblivious to the blind, they’re not giving me any chances. Finally a gobbler stops within range, but a hen steps in front of him just as I settle the crosshairs. There’s one more gobbler straggling behind that gets my hopes up, then he boogies on through to catch up to the flock. He stalls for just a moment at the fence gap, and I shoot—but again, the bolt sails just underneath the gobbler. This is tougher than I expected—and now, I want a gobbler more than ever.

The sun sets, the turkeys fly up to roost, and day one is done. That night, after we have grilled steaks, baked potatoes, and canned corn for dinner, I close my eyes to sleep and see visions of dozens of gobblers strutting far, far away.

A Tag Filled and Liver for Lunch

Early the next morning, Will and I make our way toward the hay-bale blind again. We decide to move the blind about 75 yards up the fenceline so it’s closer to yesterday’s strutting zone and angle it toward that end of the field. It’s drizzly and colder today, and the turkeys are much quieter. Some deer break the monotony by scent-checking the field, staring in our direction, and picking their way past us. With so little action, I decide that if I have another chance at a jake, this time I won’t pass it up.

Turkeys filter in and out of the pasture out of range but at last, several jakes come to check out our three hen decoys. One bird—I’d like to think it’s Stubby from the day before—is most definitely interested in the breeding hen deke. He pops his head up and down, as if assessing whether the other jakes are going to notice, before hopping up on her back. The decoy rolls over. He flaps his wings and hops off, but the fake hen’s game of hard-to-get doesn’t faze him. He hops back onto the deke and finds his balance, while I place the reticle on his side. I let the bolt fly.

The jake hobbles a short distance before sinking to the ground. Immediately, the other jakes gang up on him, pecking and clawing. I watch the life leaving my bird and feel a rush of sadness—but also the primal satisfaction of the hunt, of taking my own food, and gratitude for being here in a field among the mud and trees and rain instead of behind a desk.

nebraska jake
Ng shows off her first-ever turkey, a rainy-day jake.Will Brantley

At camp, Will shows me how my shot went a little low but caught the thigh and the lower vitals. He teaches me how to split the bird’s skin and remove the breasts and legs. I see the glistening red liver in the cavity and reach in with the knife. It’s plump and beautiful, and I’m surprised when Will says he’s never eaten a turkey liver. “You cook it, I’ll try it,” he says. And that’s just what we do. I take the liver inside, rinse it, then flour and fry it lightly in Parkay with salt and pepper. Though Michelle is not a liver person, Will and I thoroughly enjoy our appetizer. “From now on, I’ll be cooking those,” he says. “It’s like a chicken liver on steroids.” I carefully package the rest of the meat, and save the jake’s fan and stubby beard. I also pluck handfuls of feathers for keepsakes and to tuck into the band of my husband’s fedora back home.

Pressure's On

After lunch, Will and I return to the fence gap, and Michelle takes the hay-bale blind. Will sets a hen decoy to our right, hoping that it will draw a gobbler’s attention long enough. The turkeys are feeding at the far end of the field, 400 yards away, black specks in our binoculars. Will calls like a lonely hen, and after an hour or so, a single jake decides to check her out, walking in but then warily skirting around the decoy. Then four or five jakes follow suit. The turkeys are feeling the pressure, and so am I—the pressure to get a gobbler.

Rio-Merriam’s gobbler
From left: Michelle Brantley, Justin Simmons, and Will Brantley examine the shot placement on Michelle's hybrid Rio-Merriam's gobbler.Donna L. Ng

There is good news, however. Michelle struck a gobbler with her box call minutes after getting into the hay-bale blind. She shot the tom—a Rio-Merriam’s hybrid—at just 3 yards away out the back window of the blind. Her hunt is over, so she joins us at the fence gap. Will sits outside the blind with the camera; Michelle is inside with me. There are gobblers across the creek behind us, and Will starts calling at them. One of them comes right in, and Will asks if I can get a clear shot. In the small blind I struggle to reposition. I find an angle, but when I try to release the safety, it won’t budge. “Something’s wrong with the bow,” Michelle whispers to Will. He can’t help from where he’s sitting—plus the gobbler is still just 15 yards away from him. I stare at the bow and finally realize it isn’t cocked. I loaded a bolt on an uncocked bow. With a groan, I search my pockets for the crank. Michelle checks the ground frantically. Then it hits me: The crank is attached to the bow. D’oh! It’s so absurd that I crack up, and Michelle and I are laughing with tears in our eyes.

The gobbler hasn’t waited for us to sort things out, though. It’s time to call it a day and take photos of Michelle and her gobbler before dark. She’s glowing with happiness at having filled her two tags by herself. After that, we decide to move the blind 40 yards away from the gap and brush it in well for the next morning’s hunt.

Down to the Barbwire

Day three brings my last chance at a gobbler. We thought the skies would be clear, but it’s drizzly again and the coldest day yet. The turkeys are quiet, with just a few gobbles on the roost from our left and behind us. They fly down late, and when they approach the field, they come from over the hill in front of us rather than through the gap, staying 45 to 50 yards away. They are clearly suspicious of the blind. We watch them strut and feed down at the end of the field, but the weather soon has them tucking their heads under their wings and hopping up into low tree branches. We wait patiently, but eventually Will asks me if I want to keep going or call it a morning. Lunch sounds like a good idea, as I’m chilled to the bone. We still have the afternoon ahead, and Will says we can run and gun a few of Justin’s spots farther south, hopefully out of the rain.

After lunch, we climb in Justin’s truck to check out several places where there have been tons of turkeys in previous years, but no gobblers respond to Will’s calls. The clock is ticking, and I’m resigning myself to the fact that I won’t get a gobbler.

That’s when it happens: We spot a small flock in a valley between two steep hillsides. Justin says that the best course of action is to park his pickup in a field on the other side of the hill, by a jumble of old farm equipment and baling wire. He says the turkeys are accustomed to trucks and tractors, so they won’t pay it any mind. There’s a small opening behind some barbwire. Justin stacks some old 4x4s to make a seat for me there and adds a wooden pallet to help conceal me. Meanwhile, Will stakes a jake decoy 15 yards in front, using a bolt shaft as a makeshift stake. The whole setup is jerry-rigged but somehow feels full of promise. Justin tells me that I cannot move a muscle as the turkeys come in, or they’ll see me. Will and Justin spread out to either side so they can sound like more than one turkey, and they start calling.

The gobblers answer immediately. I can’t see them at first because I don’t dare lift my head off the crossbow’s stock. I hear spitting and drumming, and then three strutting turkeys appear in my scope. The first two I can tell are Merriam’s, with bright white tips on their tail feathers. I’m not ready yet as they circle the decoy. The third bird comes into view, and I notice it has a tawnier appearance. Letting the birds strut for a while very briefly enters my mind, but I can’t wait once I see the crosshairs settle. I take the shot.

The bird goes to the ground right away, but his head is still up. The other two gobblers begin to poke him, and I hear Will telling me to cock the bow and load my last bolt. I’m so focused on getting this done that I don’t realize my turkey has made its way back to the edge of the woods until I look up again and the field is empty, except for the decoy. Justin wants to give the bird time. We go back, sit in the truck, and watch the treeline through binoculars.

crossbow gobbler
Ng's gobbler was a hefty 2-year-old.Will Brantley

After 10 minutes, Justin gets concerned that the other gobblers are pushing mine farther away, so we decide to carefully ease up to the edge. When we do, my tom summons the energy to fly a short distance across the field before crashing into a thicket next to a creek; these birds are tough. The rest of the flock takes off in another direction. I am crestfallen at the prospect of losing him. Will tells me that I made a good shot on the vitals, though, and the turkey won’t go far. But we still have to find him in a dense tangle. Justin circles to the left, and Will and I go right, down the creek bed. I strain my eyes on every dark shadow and twisted branch. After a good 20 minutes, I’m starting to think we’re never going to see my bird again, when I see a flash of movement.

“There he is!” I cry.

He disappears again, but now we know that he’s close. We skirt along the steep creek bank and split up again to take different angles. At last, I spot his gleaming tail feathers down beneath the brush. He is still, but Will says he can see the turkey’s head move. We have to figure out a shot angle. It takes some tricky maneuvering, but at last there’s an opening.

When it’s all over and I heft the bird and feel its solid weight, I breathe a deep sigh of relief. I’ve taken a gobbler, a beautiful 2-year-old Rio-Merriam’s hybrid. Shooting it from amid a pile of junk isn’t how I’d pictured things, but the improvised setup made for a very exciting hunt. And I got a jake, too. I’ll be going home with two fans, the beards, the clawed feet, lots of feathers, and a heavy bag of meat. I think about wild turkey and butter bean stew, Buffalo turkey tenders, turkey fillets with capers and lemon, turkey risotto. My turkey quest has finally been fulfilled, and it feels good.

Crossbow Gobbler Gear

By Will Brantley

I love hunting turkeys with both my vertical bow and my 12-gauge—and a crossbow is about the perfect union of the two. In some states with early archery turkey seasons, Nebraska included, a crossbow is legal gear. Here’s the lowdown on what we used on this hunt:

Ravin R15: After some practice, Donna settled on this bow—one of the best in our 2017 flagship crossbow shootout (full results forthcoming in the August issue)—due to its impressive power, speed, and ease of use and handling. Though the crank-cocking mechanism is a bit slow and loud (and actually did cost Donna a bird at one point), it's very easy to use. Averaging sub-1-inch groups at 20 yards, the Ravin is one of the most accurate bows I've ever tested. ravincrossbows.com

Stryker Katana 360: The Stryker is a more traditionally styled compound crossbow. It has a short, 13-inch powerstroke and 150-pound draw weight that makes it somewhat anemic compared with other compound crossbows on the market. But that doesn't matter one bit when you're shooting gobblers inside 40 yards. Michelle—who's killed a few gobblers with a vertical bow and nearly 40 of them with a shotgun—especially liked the Katana 360 because it was simple, quiet, and accurate. She's 5-foot-2 and has trouble cocking many crossbows with a standard rope—but this one didn't give her any difficulty at all. strykerxbow.com

Bloodsport Grave Digger Broadheads: I've killed gobblers with a variety of fixed- and mechanical-blade broadheads. I've had mechanicals get tangled in feathers and fail, and fixed blades zip through birds without causing adequate damage. These broadheads—which marry a pair of 2-inch-wide mechanical blades with a 1-inch fixed blade—are my running favorite for turkeys. bloodsportarchery.com