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How Hard is it to Bowhunt Turkeys?
Exploring the difficulties of archery hunting wild turkeys
Every spring in the fading weeks of March, I make it a point to re-read the book of all turkey hunting books, Tom Kelly’s “Tenth Legion.” If you are reading my amateur musings on turkeys and turkey hunting and have never read “Tenth Legion,” please stop. Waste no more of your time in the realm of turkey literature perusing my words. Go read the gospel that is Col. Tom’s best work and then I would feel no dishonor if you let something I write into your turkey literature selection.
One of my favorite quips from that text concerns Kelly’s musings about bow hunting wild turkeys back in the old days in the Deep South. In trying to portray the difficulty of taking a tom turkey with archery equipment, he writes:
“Any man who has called up turkeys and killed them with a bow is entitled to wear a sign all the rest of life, a sign which has printed on it in large letters, ‘I am a better man than you are.’ I will cheerfully step off the sidewalk and take my hat off to let him pass in complete agreement.“
No doubt, harvesting gobblers with a bow on a routine basis is difficult. Though I fancy myself a skilled archer of the whitetail woods, the thought of hunting turkeys exclusively with bow and arrow rarely crosses my mind. I enjoy the challenge for about two hunts before getting tired of the perceived handicap. I then go back to toting a shotgun where sufficient difficulty can still be had daily to keep a man from bragging too loudly about his mastery of the spring woods.
However, if one is so inclined, bagging a longbeard with a bow can be done. The subject does have some clear-cut challenges to overcome. Let’s troubleshoot some of these factors.
Challenges to bowhunting turkeys
One of the most obvious challenges is pulling off the act of coming to full draw in the presence of the keen and prying eyes of wary wild turkeys. For years, our turkey-hunting brains have been conditioned to avoid movement at all costs. Now, with bow in hand, we are responsible for coming through our draw cycle undetected before aiming at our target. Most archers will accomplish this feat in a pop-up ground blind. Add a convincing turkey decoy spread at 15 to 20 yards and it can be done.
Those archers who prefer to go without a blind can still kill birds. When I attempt this, I like to use a decoy spread at short range and try to use a down tree, brush pile, patch of tall weeds or briars to use as a lateral movement blocker. Envision setting a pick at the top of the key in basketball. I use this pick obstacle to work birds past me and into a decoy spread while allowing me to draw back unseen. The idea here is to get a visual of the bird first and then draw the bow as he works around the pick.
Comfort can also be challenging. I usually get exceedingly uncomfortable sitting on my rump or kneeling when trying to shoot, so much so that I blow the hunt more times than I succeed. To alleviate this, I started using a black plastic milk crate as a seat. The milk crate seems to be just the right height, and when fitted with a carry strap and a butt pad, makes for a great low-profile bowhunting seat that your local grocery store will sometimes give away for free. To cut down on deflections, I will try and trim out a handful of these “milk crate hides” with a pair of snips and a hand saw ahead of time. To help with concealment, you can add some brush with reusable zip ties to build the ultimate natural cover hide.
Understanding the anatomy while bowhunting turkeys
One of the key aspects of killing a tom turkey with a bow and arrow is understanding the anatomy of the intended target. Most archers subscribe to two target areas of choice: head and neck shots or body shots. Head and neck shots are difficult to pull off, but executed properly the mortality rate is nearly 100 percent. Either that or a 100 percent clean miss.
Engaging this target area of choice is easier said than done. A turkey moves his head and neck around as if on a swivel. Put an agitated tom into a decoy spread with a full fan decoy and hitting that target is quite difficult even at close range. This is a risk-to-reward shot; risky to attempt because of the difficulty and potential for missing—rewarding enough to create catastrophic damage to the skull, brain, or cervical spine to cause unequivocal mortality.
When it comes to targeting the body of a longbeard, the anatomy encountered is not so easily visualized. I’ve often heard the mantra, “Hit ‘em high and watch ‘em die, hit ‘em low and watch ‘em go.” There is some truth to this. When targeting the body of a tom, an archer should be really targeting the thorax of the bird. This requires more specific aiming than just slinging an arrow at black feathers.
In choosing this area for a target, the archer needs to understand that the mechanism of mortality is different than the central nervous system shutdown in head or neck shots. Quite differently, the thorax of the bird contains the heart, lungs, and the great vessels. The mechanism of mortality here is through creating a state in the bird known as hypoxia, or the absence of oxygen. Collapse the lungs, or cut the heart or great vessels with a properly placed broadhead and the bird will expire, though the effect is not as immediate as in head and neck shots. This is also somewhat of a risk versus reward target of opportunity. The risk here is the potential for wounding a bird too low or having a mortally wounded bird fly off into cover and not found during the recovery. The reward here is a larger, less mobile target to draw the bow on with a bit larger margin for error.
Locating the thoracic anatomy of a strutting bird will depend on the gobbler’s body posture, feather position, and wing position. The wing butt makes an ideal archery target for a broadside bird that is walking. Head-on birds should be targeted in between the neck base and the top of the beard, framing the area with each wing butt’s cranial tip so the area makes a diamond-like appearance. If a gobbler is quartered in his position, I usually aim at the off-side wing butt. This target will appear to be too high on walking birds, but as the thoracic anatomy lies just below the spine, this remains lethal. Toms facing away from the archer in full strut need to be targeted at the point about 2 inches above the central origin of the tail fan quills, while toms standing upright and facing away need to be targeted to thread the arrow in between both wings in the center of the thoracic spine.
Any of these thoracic targets will prove lethal with the right broadhead. I prefer to use a large-cut, three-blade expandable to improve my odds when choosing to shoot the body, as these heads seem to provide a good mix of energy transfer and large total cutting surface area to help minimize crippling the bird and maximize lethal efficiency.
Finally, always consider feather position on a bird. A full-strut gobbler with his topline feathers standing will appear about 3 inches taller at the topline than a non-strutter. It is important to take this into consideration to avoid overshooting the thorax and passing through nothing but a gobbler’s cape feathers.
All these challenges may seem daunting to the spring turkey hunter. For the man or woman so inclined, setting a goal of harvesting a mature longbeard with a bow and arrow often starts as a maybe-one -day passing thought. It can be difficult as hell; maddening at times. But when it comes together, when the bowhunter successfully masters shooting turkeys with their equipment, it is a very worthy endeavor. And there is no feeling in the world quite like it.
Clint McCoy is a resident of Palestine, IL where he lives with his wife Colleen and stepson Troy on his family farm. Dr. McCoy is a 2005 graduate of the the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine with bachelors degrees in Animal Science and Veterinary Science and a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. His passions are hunting and filming both whitetail deer and wild turkeys with special interest in archery. Clint can be found on Facebook and on Instagram at @mccoy_clint.