When the turkey gobbled, I hadn't expected him to come so quickly. Truthfully, I hadn't expected him to come at all, but there he was.
With one hand on my aluminum call and the other gripping my striker, I was more than a bit out of position when the gobbler's brilliant blue-and-white head popped over the deadfall 15 steps away. He paused for a second to assess the situation, but then his feathers slicked back, and something in his little turkey noggin screamed "danger!"
Meanwhile, I had managed to drop my call and striker, ease my finger to the safety and shift the gun ultra-slowly toward him. Still, it wasn't enough. As he rubber-necked hard to the right, I realized I'd have to pick a spot between the branches of a fallen tree and fire when I had a chance.
At the shot, the gobbler jumped into the air, set his wings and began to sail down the ridge. I'd missed or at least hit him poorly. But wait! The bird landed 40-some steps from me and began running directly away. I rose to my feet, told myself to be cool, centered the fiber-optic sight on his bobbing head and fired.
Unbelievably, I dumped the longbeard dead with a pretty slick second shot. So I was feeling pretty good about myself when I walked up to the turkey ... only to realize I'd dropped him in the biggest, wettest cow pie ever seen in southern Minnesota.
And then he began to flop.
Suddenly, I didn't feel like the smartest turkey hunter in the woods.
When the Shot Goes Awry
Aesthetics aside, that hunt hammered home a valuable lesson: For whatever reason, the first shot at a turkey doesn't always seal the deal, and you should be ready to follow up.
Let me back up a minute. In a perfect world, your first shot at a turkey should always kill the bird. If you work a gobbler into range, make sure you have a clear shot and get him to lift his head nice and high, modern shotguns and turkey loads will do the job -- and then some -- at 40-plus steps.
But that's the problem. There is no perfect world, for turkeys or anything else. Whether you aim incorrectly, shred a sapling or -- as I did with the Minnesota cow-pie bird -- rush the shot, your initial volley won't always connect with certainty.
How often is not always? While discussing shooting with fellow turkey hunters this past year on the Turkey & Turkey Hunting on-line forums, I made a surprising discovery.
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The previous 12 springs, I had missed 10 turkeys, meaning I'd killed almost 88 percent of the turkeys at which I'd shot. However, of the turkeys I'd killed, I'd fired two shots at three, three rounds at two and --whoa! -- four at one. So 8.33 percent of the turkeys I'd tagged had required more than one shot. When I added the six multiple-shot birds to my 10 misses, I realized that almost 20 percent of the gobblers at which I'd fired had not crumpled at the first shot. Until then, I'd considered myself a pretty sure turkey killer, so the numbers surprised me.
When analyzing the misses and multiple-shot kills, I found extenuating circumstances for most. I'd shot a few trees and made a poor shot choice or two. And I'd followed up on some wounded birds I might have been able to dispatch by hand. But regardless, the lesson was clear: Extenuating circumstances are the norm in turkey hunting, so you can't assume that first round -- regardless of how many consecutive one-shot smashes you've had -- will finish the deal.
When the gun goes off, you must be ready to follow up with another shot or be able to track down and dispatch a marginally hit gobbler.
When you miss or barely hit a gobbler, your initial reaction will be a combination of disbelief, anger and embarrassment. When you combine that with the excitement every turkey hunter feels at the moment of truth, it's a recipe for very poor follow-up shots.
The best way to get off good second or third shots is to remain calm and be observant. After the recoil from the first shot subsides, locate the gobbler, and check his reaction. Usually, he'll be flopping or motionless, indicating a job well done. If the turkey's head is high and he appears confused, you've probably missed him clean. Make sure you have another round chambered, bear down on that stock, aim just above his wattles, and fire again. With increased concentration, you'll probably make good on your earlier gaffe.
If a longbeard sprints or flies away, you also probably missed. In those situations, unless you have a dead-to-rights slam-dunk -- like a turkey trotting past you at 20 steps -- resist the urge to take follow-up shots. You'll likely hit the bird in the body or legs, crippling it and making a bad situation worse. Rather, watch the fleeing turkey closely. If he's running at full speed, bobbing and weaving through the woods, odds are he's healthy but scared out of his wits. If he flies strong and flaps his wings to take off and land, he's also probably fine. However, if he merely sets his wings -- like the Minnesota turkey -- and then glides or tail-spins to a landing, he's hit. More on this later.
A turkey that's hit in the body will often try to flop away with his head up. If possible, get to the turkey quickly, and place your boot heel firmly on his neck. Don't let it up until the deed is done. It isn't pretty, but it's quick and merciful. (A note of caution: Do not sprint to the bird. Make sure your gun is on safe, and then walk in a controlled fashion so you don't trip or slide down a ravine.) If a body-shot turkey is escaping too swiftly for you to catch him, quickly analyze the situation, pick your best shot, aim for his head and fire.
One final note: Even if a turkey seems dead after the first shot, make sure. Sometimes, if they get clipped by a pellet or two in the neck or head, turkeys are just knocked silly or temporarily paralyzed. If a "dead" bird raises its head, or its eyes blink when you prod them, dispatch the bird immediately. A "dead turkey" that flies away is embarrassing, but worse, it's a terrible waste.
Tracking Down Cripples
Sometimes, whether your pattern is destroyed by brush or you take a shot you shouldn't, turkeys flop, run or fly away severely wounded. And if you've ever tried to track down a wounded gobbler, you know it ain't easy because there's little if any blood trail.
When a wounded bird gets away, your best response is to observe and plan. Along with that, vow to doggedly pursue that turkey until you've exhausted every option.
If a wounded turkey flops or runs out of sight, immediately pursue it, but then stop at a good vantage point and look for the bird. Birds that are hit hard will often run a few yards and then lay low, hoping danger passes them by. Or, if thick brush or other cover is available, they'll burrow in like a rabbit.
During a recent Missouri hunt, I shot at a gobbler only to watch it run and stumble into a brushy creek bottom. (Don't ask me what went awry; it looked good.) I quickly marked where the bird had entered the cover and walked there. Realizing the turkey could be hiding anywhere, I readied my gun to port arms and took two more steps forward. The longbeard burst from a brush pile and began scurry ing up the opposite bank. One 20-yard shot finished the adventure.
If you've hunted pheasants, you've likely seen body-shot birds "hunch up" at the shot, glide 100-plus yards and then crash down dead. Body-shot turkeys will do the same thing.
Again, observe the bird's reaction. If a gobbler flushes surely and with purpose, and then pumps his wings in flight and while landing, he's probably fine. But if he glides to a landing, suddenly veers to one side or tailspins out of the air, he's likely mortally wounded. Carefully watch where a bird lands or where you can no longer see him. Then, reference several landmarks to help you pinpoint that location. Walk quickly to that area, and look for anything out of place. You might find a dead gobbler sprawled in the woods.
If you don't find the bird or any sign, don't give up. From where you last saw the turkey, slowly walk in ever-expanding circles out to 100 or so yards, constantly looking for clues. If that fails, set up a grid-type search, in which you and a friend walk predetermined areas around the site. As always, be ready if a wounded bird decides to bolt from cover and escape. Several years ago, a friend and I prepared to hammer home a double on two hard-gobbling 2-year-olds. However, my buddy shot a second before I did, startling me and sending my first shot whizzing past the gobbler's head. The bird jumped into the air, and my second shot hit him in the body. The third shot missed, and I watched the longbeard sail over a ridge 100 yards distant. Mad and thoroughly humiliated, I chambered three more shells and marched off toward the ridge. After marking the tree where I'd last seen the gobbler, I slowly ascended the ridge, looking left and right. After about five minutes, I looked left and saw the badly injured bird squatting in a hollow. Thankfully, my fourth shot ended it.
Classic? Nope. But perseverance and some hard-earned experience had saved a lost bird. And as they say in baseball, it looked like a line drive in the box score.
I know what you're thinking: The best way to avoid all of this is to make a clean, sure first shot. You are absolutely correct, and I agree completely. Be familiar with your gun, find the best load-and-choke combination, and practice often. You'll become a sho-nuff turkey slayer.
But as much a I hate to say it, even sho-nuff turkey slayers run into those extenuating circumstances now and then. That's why even the best gobbler-getters need to be ready for follow-up shots and tracking jobs.
No one wants to admit to two-, three- and four-shot kills. But I figure it's better to laugh about those than endure a season of regret after losing a bird.