The Ultimate Turkey Tamer
With the right shotgun setup, boss gobblers simply don’t stand a chance.
By Darron McDougal
The beauty of spring turkey hunting is that virtually any shotgun will get the job done. But if you’re looking to reach out and touch a gobbler that has hung up well outside of your decoy spread, it might take a little more horsepower, and a shotgun specifically designed to anchor tom turkeys at 40 yards and beyond.
Small-bore shotguns can kill gobblers stone dead, as long as you keep shots within their effective range. But even a 12 gauge shotgun has limits. Pound for pound, a wild turkey is one of the toughest critters to anchor unless you wallop its head really hard, and one or more pellets penetrate the brain or break the spine, immobilizing the bird. When sighting-in a turkey gun — using a turkey head and neck target — I like to see at least six pellets in the brain and/or spinal column and many more in the head and neck region. That’s how I determine a gun’s lethal range.
Choosing the Right Shotgun
I shot my first six gobblers with a bow before I ever toted a shotgun into the turkey woods. I didn’t even own a shotgun the first time I gave it a whirl. I borrowed one from my grandpa. His best-patterning shotgun is a time-honored Sears, Roebuck and Company 12 gauge. It patterns well enough to dump a gobbler at 40 yards. But it was clear that if I wanted to extend that range, I would have to turn to another gun — so I purchased a Benelli pump-action Nova.
After playing with multiple loads and choke tubes, I determined the gun is capable of killing turkeys out to 65 yards under ideal conditions and using a rest. My mother proved it when she dumped a gobbler at that distance. I’ve since used my Nova to drop turkeys at 60 yards, 58 yards, 52 yards and 47 yards, plus dozens more within 40 yards, all with lights-out results. But I didn’t just assume I could make those shots; I did my homework beforehand at the range. And I always wait for a closer shot if a gobbler is approaching.
Benelli makes excellent shotguns, but Mossberg, Remington, Savage and others are also worth considering — especially those special-purpose models designed specifically for turkey hunting. These shotguns own all of the features that make serious turkey hunters weak in the knees: weather resistant synthetic stocks; head to toe camo; a short barrel for optimum maneuverability; custom chokes for turkey tight patterns; adjustable fiber-opic sights for quick target acquisition and optional tactical-style pistol grips.
The action you choose depends on your preference. If you hunt states where you can kill two birds during one outing, or if you prefer lighter recoil, consider an autoloading shotgun. If those aren’t concerns, a pump-action, or even a bolt action such as the Savage’s new Model 212, can save you hundreds of dollars, often with the same patterning performance of a more expensive autoloader.
Choosing the Right Choke
Turkey chokes are not created equal and there are some variables to consider when purchasing one — or using the choke that came with your shotgun. Some shotshell loads pattern better with a given choke tube than others. And some choke-tube manufacturers even recommend specific loads with their chokes, so do your homework before laying down your cash.
If you truly want to realize your gun’s potential, don’t be cheap. Buy at least two name-brand turkey choke tubes, along with a few boxes of premium turkey loads. Go to the range to determine which combinations provide the best results for your gun. I have two choke tubes that perform admirably in my Benelli — a Gobble Stopper by TruGlo and an Undertaker by Hunters Specialties.
Choosing the Best Loads
This past spring, I helped out a friend/outfitter guide turkey hunters in Florida. One of his clients showed up with a 12 gauge turkey gun outfitted with an extra-full turkey choke tube. The gun looked great, but his choice of loads — 2¾-inch steel — was questionable. While they might be OK for short-range shooting, they were definitely insufficient for longer ranges. And steel shot typically does not perform well through tight chokes, such as those used for turkey hunting.He crumpled one tom by the decoys (short range), and shot another (longer range) that acted hit, but wasn’t recovered. I believe a better patterning load with greater density and heavier shot would’ve dumped the second bird.
I’ve used various shotshell brands over the years — Federal, Remington, Winchester and Hevi-Shot. Of those, the Federal and Hevi-Shot loads performed best with my shotgun/choke combination. My go-to load is Hevi-Shot’s 3½-inch Magnum Blend, which contains 2¼ ounces of a combination of No. 5, 6 and 7 shot. The recoil wallops my shoulder hard, but the pattern density is well worth it.
If you want a deadly pattern with takedown power, don’t use field loads designed for trap shooting or small-game hunting. Buy turkey loads, and if you can afford them, buy top-of-the-line loads from any of the manufacturers referenced earlier. Most will deliver the results you’re looking for.
Choosing the Right Optics
Though I’m sure many hunters benefit from optics on their turkey guns, I prefer the simplicity of my gun’s stock open sights — a tiny steel bead and a fiber-optic dot on the ventilated rib. I do my share of belly crawling, and dew-coated grass or muddy farm fields can smudge glass optics. But some hunters struggle with looking level down the sighted rib — especially when shooting from an awkward position — which can easily result in shooting over a gobbler’s head. A scope solves that problem.
For hunters who simply walk in and set up — especially on field edges — crosshair scopes or red-dot sights work well, especially for those hunters with poor eyesight, particularly in low-light conditions. Of course, scopes also help when taking longer shots. I highly recommend scope caps to prevent moisture from fogging the optics. Even then, see-through scope rings are a good idea, should your scope lens become fogged.
If you go with a battery operated red-dot sight, be sure your batteries are fresh and that you carry spares. Most have extended battery life so you can keep the sight on during the hunt and don’t have to worry about switching it on should a tom turkey take you by surprise. A variable-brightness red-dot scope offers a definitive aiming point and additional eye relief for recoil clearance with magnum loads.
The only real downside to a crosshair scope is limited reticle visibility during low-light shooting situations. Other than that, they’re a safe bet for keeping you on target.
Now that we’ve reviewed considerations relative to extending your effective range with a quality rig, I suggest buying the most expensive turkey gun your budget allows from a reputable manufacturer. Purchase a choke tube or two and a few boxes of premium turkey loads from name brand companies. Then, head to the backyard or the local shooting range and compare the different loads on separate turkey-head targets. Be sure to use a solid rest so that you don’t flinch, which will give you an apples-to-apples comparison of each load.
For close-range shooting, most shotguns will suffice. But when you want to reach out and touch a distant gobbler, especially if you hunt pressured land like I do, you’ll want to create a rig capable of doing so. But above all else, never forsake ethics. Always stay within your gun’s — and your shooting — limitations.