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How to Optimize Your Crossbow for Turkey Hunting

Optimizing your crossbow and accessories for turkey hunting can give you more success and less heartburn when you’re chasing birds in autumn or spring seasons. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

With your crossbow set up to the best distances for ethical shots, you may come home with a few more turkeys this season.

Watching a flock of 50 turkeys work their way down a woodlot got the blood pumping, as a buddy and I snuck into position and he set up next to a fence post on the far end of the woods, right where the turkeys were headed. If all went as planned, the birds would walk by at less than 20 yards.

By Brad Fenson
For Turkey & Turkey Hunting

The big cedar trees were perfect cover and we could hear the hens yelping and scratching as they made their way toward us. Being a good listener can tell you a lot about turkeys, and it didn’t take long till the outline of dark bodies passed behind the tangle of branches beside us. Yelps, clucks, putts and squeaks resonated from behind the fragrant, green branches. Heads appeared at the edge of the trees, and in typical turkey fashion, they stopped and carefully eyeballed the area in front of them. With the coast looking clear, they wandered out, feeding on an assortment of seeds and plants. The closest bird was just 10 steps away, and as it passed in front of my friend I heard the string release on his Wicked Ridge Invader crossbow.

The sound of the launched arrow was simultaneous with the frantic wing flapping of a bird that was shot at less than 12 yards. My buddy instinctively jumped up, ran to his bird, and grabbed a wing as it flailed around with reckless abandon. The happy hunter reached down and got a stronger hold, which brought the turkey back to life. It fought frantically to get away and seconds later the not-so-happy hunter was standing with a handful of wing feathers, watching his prized possession do an Olympic speed 100-yard dash down an inside row of the woodlot.

Having any game get away can leave a sick feeling in your stomach. My buddy shook his head in disbelief as he tried to figure out what had just happened. He picked up his arrow and it wasn’t hard to tell there had been very little penetration. The first couple of inches of the shaft had feathers on it but the rest was clean. The same crossbow had been used a week earlier to harvest a beautiful white-tailed buck — sending a broadhead and arrow clean through the animal in less time than it takes to blink your eye.

Crossbows are legal in some states for autumn turkey hunting, or turkeys in any season, so be sure to check with state regulations. With your crossbow set up to the best distances for ethical shots, you may come home with a bird or two for the holidays. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

We didn’t give up on the bird and followed up like any seasoned hunter would with any wounded game. We snuck down the edge of the woodlot and when we reached the far end spotted white wing feathers visible in the tangle of low-lying cedar limbs. We couldn’t tell if the bird was still alive, but weren’t taking any chances. My buddy slid an arrow down the crossbow rail and carefully stalked to where he could sneak an arrow through a small opening in the thick cover.

Crouching and finding a shot window, he launched the arrow, and you could hear the heavy whack of the broadhead breaking bones. To our amazement, the hen took off as though someone had lit her tail on fire. The bird ran out the end of the trees and made an effort to head down another row of cedars. The hunter wasn’t having any part of it and ran her down, getting a strong hold before she could get away again.

How can you shoot the same arrow and broadhead through a white-tailed deer, with an exit through a shoulder blade, and not penetrate a turkey at less than 12 yards? The answer lies in understanding the turkey’s anatomy.

Turkeys have a unique arrow-stopping body. Hundreds, if not thousands, of feathers cover a bird from head to toe. At the base of each feather is a quill that is similar to a drinking straw, but much more stout. They harden like a human fingernail and add strength and structure to a bird. Add layers of large, hollow bones and you have a special suit that can seem impenetrable to broadheads and pellets.

I’m sure most turkey hunters have a story of someone who rolled a turkey with a shotgun blast to the body, only to have it get up and run away. The feather quills and hollow bones work as a perfect suit of armour that would make a British longbow warrior jealous. If they can take a direct hit to the body from a shotgun, it isn’t hard to understand how they can take an arrow to the body and run away.

We inspected the retrieved bird carefully to see just what had happened. The initial shot was perfect, hitting the bird right at the top of the breast, which would mean an exit through the lungs and spine. However, the broadhead blades were plugged up with fluffy feathers. It had penetrated far enough to break the collar bone, but never made it to the vitals. The second shot broke the wing, which absorbed enough energy to prevent the broadhead from passing through. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen archery equipment fail on turkeys, and I’ve been paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t.

The bigger a broadhead’s cutting diameter, and the more blades it has, the tougher it is to get through the quills and bones of a bird. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when you can kill a bird with almost any type of equipment, but when you hang out with a crew of avid turkey hunters you soon see what works best and what causes severe heartburn.

Fixed-blade heads are preferred for one-shot kills, and the smaller the diameter of the blades the better. If a lady stepped on your foot through your hunting boots you could likely stand the pressure if she was wearing wide-soled sneakers. But if she was wearing high-heeled stilettos, you’d likely yelp like a turkey!

The NAP Thunderhead has been around for years, and the new Nitro model would be ideal for our fine feathered friends. I’ve also watched birds fall victim to a well-placed Muzzy three-blade broadhead.

Do mechanicals work for turkeys? The short answer is, they can. Too many blades seem to cause trouble. The NAP KillZone or Rage Trypan are two-blade models with a cutting tip that get through the energy-stealing layers of a big bird. More is not better when it comes to blades.

Do mechanical broadheads work on turkeys? Of course, but you should try fixed and mechanical heads of different grain sizes to find out what works best for your bow. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

 

Shot Placement is Critical

The wing shot has often been touted as the best option to quickly kill a turkey with archery equipment. Unfortunately, my hunting friends and I have seen many birds run away with broken wings. It isn’t that they aren’t shooting enough weight, or their arrow choices aren’t carrying enough kinetic energy, it’s just the make-up of a turkey and its defensive outer armor.

More archers are shooting at birds head-on or standing facing directly away. Feathers and quills on the breast and back are much smaller than in the wing area. The facing or straight-away shot also takes out the lungs and possibly the backbone with good penetration or a passthrough.

Using heavier broadheads sometimes can yield the best results when you’re turkey hunting with crossbows. As with any archery gear, try different setups to see which is optimal for your hunting scenarios. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

Beef it Up for Better Kills

One thing you can do to increase your odds of a quick kill is to use a heavier broadhead. A 125-grain head will pack much more punch, transfer more energy from your bow to your arrow and optimize penetration.

You can also beef up your arrows by shooting Easton’s Full Metal Jackets with brass inserts. Now, before you start complaining about arrow trajectory, consider the fact that most turkeys are shot at less than 30 yards. Close range targets help maintain flat trajectories and sighting-in a heavier broadhead and arrow for busting through turkeys is simply smart and strategic.

The quiet release of an arrow to take a turkey means sustained hunting on your property. The less noise and disturbance you make the more likely it is your birds will stick around. Consider a crossbow for your next turkey hunt, and stack the odds in your favor by customizing your equipment for a quick, clean kill.

 

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Find more great information about turkey hunting, strategies and tips in these past issues of Turkey & Turkey Hunting along with other downloads and media. These include expert tips from veteran hunters with decades of experience. You’ll also find specific online courses about hunting tactics, calling and more. Check it out now!

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