Hunting turkeys with a bow is challenging with the need to draw on the bird for the shot, but there are other factors to consider as well for success.
While it is true the white-tailed deer is indisputably North America’s most popular big-game animal, the sun does not rise and set on this single species for many hard-core bowhunters. It’s often said that variety is the spice of life, and this is especially true of bowhunting. A good percentage of modern bowhunters want more from their outdoor pursuits than merely white-tailed deer. Don’t get me wrong, whitetails are super-duper nifty, but sometimes something different is in order, if only to witness new horizons and experience new challenges.
North American bowhunters are blessed with a variety of game species rivaled only by Africa. While we don’t have space here to discuss every species in turn, there are still plenty of unique adventures to contemplate. Taking only the most popular, those species readily available without low-odds lottery drawings or complicated and costly travel plans, the intrepid blue-collar bowhunter could spend a lifetime contentedly dedicating time and effort toward only five species, in addition to white-tailed deer.
North America’s four subspecies of wild turkey, not including Gould’s and oscillated turkey found only in Mexico, can easily consume a lifetime. North America is a virtual cornucopia of bowhunting opportunities—even for the average guy on a tight budget and restricted to DIY forays on public lands. Some of these adventures require only a reliable vehicle, camping gear, traveling cash and the gumption to explore new territory where exciting new experiences await.
Wild Turkeys: Go With a Bow
After white-tailed deer, North American turkey are our continent’s most prolific game species. Florida has its Osceola turkey, Eastern birds are found in those states straddling the Mississippi River and eastward, Texas and many Plains States offer Rio Grande gobblers and the Southwest Merriam’s turkey.
Extensive relocation programs by conservation groups like the National Wild Turkey Foundation and many state conservation agencies have also resulted in abundant turkey populations in places they were never found historically, like the Dakotas and Nebraska, and west of the Rockies in states such as Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, where transplanted Rios have thrived. Turkeys can now be found in every state except Alaska, providing bowhunters unique and challenging opportunities.
Spring Tactics with a Bow
The appeal of turkey hunting comes from their gregarious nature, and the fact they respond well to calls. No other hunting quarry offers such give-and-take communication. There is no better time to talk turkey than during spring seasons when the big birds are actively seeking mates. Turkeys are tightly wound and naturally wary, making them highly challenging with any weapon. But it is calling, and their complete lack of smell, that makes them vulnerable to our clumsy efforts.
The basic approach for centuries—because it works so well—is locating a roosted bird late in the evening via his raucous gobbling, returning under the cover of early morning darkness, setting up to await daybreak and calling to him right off the roost. This is a greatly simplified version obviously, as there are many subtle details that make or break success.
Turkey calling is often misunderstood, and often cause for intimidation for the uninitiated. Part of this intimidation comes from turkey experts who want you to believe that calling turkeys involves some mysterious code for which only they hold the key. This is complete nonsense. Calling turkeys, in most cases, is fairly straightforward, though it is important to understand what you are relating with various types of calls, and then applying the appropriate vocalizations at the appropriate junctures. With experience comes intuition in these matters, but basic calling skills and common sense will still net you spring gobblers.
You can call any turkey into range using three basic vocalizations. The first and most important is the yelp. The yelp, including a sharp start and drawn-out finish, translates into a basic “Here I am.” In at least 75 percent of spring turkey hunting situations you could stop right there and do just fine. Put another way, I have arrowed about 67 spring turkeys with bow, 50 percent of those lured into range with nothing more than basic yelps. The next most common turkey call is the cluck, a sharp, one-note call that says “Look.” Finally there is the purr. The purr is a long, drawn-out call that basically says “My space.” Other calls of note are the cackle that denotes excitement and the putt, which isn’t important to hunters as a luring call. The putt—a loud, sharp cluck—warns of danger, as in “Look!” This is a signal for all turkeys within earshot to flee. Issuing the wrong call at the wrong time is akin to the babbling of a crazy person, which causes people to instinctively back away.
Let’s go through a few basic scenarios:
- The basic yelp is your bread-and-butter spring call. Spring gobblers are looking for hens to breed. A hen says “Here I am” and the gobbler comes to have a look. Simple as that.
- The cluck might come into play when a gobbler has approached closely, but hangs up just out of range, perhaps screened by brush or topography. A cluck denotes more urgency, saying something to the effect of, “Look, I’m right here” – and an implied, “Come and get me.” A visible decoy can make this call even more effective, as a gobbler arrives and receives visual confirmation.
- The purr is a vocalization that says, essentially, “Back off, my space/food.” Purrs signal to a gobbler there is more than one hen on hand, which can introduce an element of greed and hasten his arrival.
- Cackles aren’t overly important to the spring turkey caller, though they can indicate hens flying off the roost early in the morning, or spark urgency in a gobbler that is already coming on hot and heavy, but has perhaps hung up on a creek or fence and requires some encouragement to hurry things along.
Understand this: the natural progression is for hens to travel to the gobbler. The gobbler finds a strategic location, be it a small opening or rise where he can be seen easily and pauses, puffing to look his most impressive and strutting his best. By insisting gobblers come to you means reversing this role, so patience—and the right gobbler—is required. All of those pauses to strut and posture take time. Luckily the drive to procreate is strong, meaning the right gobbler is more common than not—if you’ll just give him time. I have killed gobblers that required 2½ hours to make their appearance.
Calling gobblers off the roost is classic, but not the only way to get into the game. My standard approach in vast wilderness or areas I’ve not had time to scout is running and gunning by covering ground and pausing occasionally to offer a series of loud yelps or blasting out a crow-caw, owl-hoot, coyote-howl or peacock-scream locator call. Locator calls elicit shock gobbles, an involuntary gobble encouraged by a jarring noise. Extracting a gobble provides a starting point for setting up and beginning a calling sequence.
On large properties or public lands where I can stretch my legs I also do a lot of glassing to seek flocks or lone gobblers feeding in openings. This might include clear-cuts, burns or natural meadows in mountainous country, farm or CRP fields and open pastures in farmland. After locating birds I attempt to determine a general line of travel and hustle to arrive ahead of them before setting up to call. Remember, in most cases gobblers are most willing to come into calls when you set up along established trajectories, while getting them to turn around or veer from their travel plans is more difficult. If a gobbler is traveling a ridge or riverbed, you’ll generally have little luck convincing him to do an about face and come back to you, whereas, if you’re able to circle and arrive in front of him, he will generally drop by. A gobbler who refuses to come to your calls isn’t necessarily uninterested in breeding, or too savvy to fall for your offers, it might be that you haven’t made it easy for him to swing by your position.
After my morning plan has fallen through I often find a lush meadow littered with fresh turkey scat, a cluster of dust baths (scratched-out dust pits turkeys use to discourage parasitic insects) or a ridge of scratched-out pine needles—essentially someplace with copious sign that turkeys obviously frequent—and set up to wait. I might even take a nap, waking occasionally to offer a call. It’s simply amazing how many gobblers have awoken me from sound sleep with spitting, booming strutting.
Regarding call types, use whatever works for you. Diaphragm calls are great for bowhunting because they leave your hands free, but not everyone has the palate to use one, and they require more practice to master. I prefer box calls, as I mostly pursue Western turkeys where loud, attention-grabbing calls are often required to cut wind or distance. They generate realistic calls and are super-easy to master. Once I’ve lured a gobbler within a couple hundred yards I generally switch to a slate call for more subtle finishing calls.
In general terms, the closer a gobbler moves, the quieter calls should become. If you remember only one thing about calling turkeys it should be this: call only as much as necessary to keep a gobbler moving your way, and not one note more. Far more turkeys are repealed by too much calling than are lost to disinterest from not enough. Playing hard to get more often does the trick, while playing the demanding hen makes many gobblers suspicious. And always take a bird’s temperature. Try different calls, volume and tempos. If your gobbler shies away or grows silent, back off on volume or frequency or try something completely different. If your calls fire him up, stick with what’s working.
Fall Bow Tactics for Bowhunters
While spring seasons introduce the element of love, the turkey’s gregarious demeanor means they can also be brought to calls during fall seasons.
The classic fall approach has long been to sneak close to a flock and intentionally scatter them by bursting out of cover and running into them, whooping and hollering and waving your arms. The goal is to scatter the flock to every point of the compass. You want confusion and disarray. The fall hunter then gives the flock 15 or 20 minutes to settle down, picks a spot central to the dispersal, and sets up to call. The call of choice in these instances is a lost hen, or a long serious of yelps imitating a hen, jake or gobbler attempting to re-establish contact. This is exciting stuff and remarkably effective.
This ploy also works well with fall birds right off the roost—if you’re lucky enough to know of an established roosting site or hear an evening fly-up. On still evenings the attentive hunter listens for the telltale pop of flapping primaries as turkeys achieve trees for coming darkness. The trick is to determine a likely fly-down spot, usually an opening represented by a farm field, meadow or ridge point, and set up accordingly. Just like a scattered flock, the morning fly-down can include temporary confusion and talkative birds intent on regrouping quickly. Unlike spring seasons, hens are usually fair game during fall seasons.
Straight ambush is also a time-honored fall tactic. Careful scouting or the modern trail camera often reveals places that turkeys frequent regularly. This typically entails food, especially during fall months. Grain fields, food plots, cattle feed yards, fruit trees or even placed bait—where and when legal of course—can all attract fall turkeys to specific spots. In drier habitats staking out a watering site can result in fall turkey encounters.
I also enjoy the challenge of stalking fall turkeys. Being on the menu of every predator large and small makes turkeys super wary and somewhat neurotic. But fall presents a few advantages not offered during spring seasons. Maybe most importantly, large fall flocks usually include many young of the year, turkeys that can prove downright naive. Also, large fall groups introduce a lot of confusion, sometimes allowing you to get away with small mistakes that would not go unnoticed during spring seasons. Unlike spring birds that have just survived a long winter and are in full survival mode, fall turkeys seem to lose a bit of innate caution after a summer of easy living.
I like to use ditches or creek beds, steeply falling field edges or broken terrain that keeps me completely out of sight while making my approach, cover that also allows me to draw my bow behind solid ground before emerging by inches to take my shot. You’ll seldom get away with such approaches using vegetation and brush alone, as the turkey’s low profile means they’ll spot you every time. Though you’ll often need to make decisive moves, patience is still a virtue while stalking by hanging back and waiting for turkeys to venture into advantageous terrain before making your move. Stalking turkeys requires a persistent approach, as not every stalk results in a shot, but when it all comes together the satisfaction easily matches the calling experience.
Gearing Up for Turkeys
When I began pursuing turkeys specifically with bow and arrow in the early 1980s, bowhunting them was considered a parlor trick, something conducted to make some nonspecific point—like fly fishing for steelhead or marlin. Truth be told, back then I missed more birds than I hit, and those I did hit, even solidly, resulted in only 50 percent recovery. This had everything to do with the quality of shots I was receiving, and especially the terminal tackle of the day.
Drawing a bow on a responding gobbler while sitting on the ground and wearing flat-printed camo resulted in mostly moving shots. The other problem resulted from using standard-issue big-game broadheads—models designed to pass through sturdier big game. A 20-pound gobbler poses little resistance for a streamlined, razor-sharp broadhead – arrows zip through them like lightning. Those turkeys were often dead on their feet, they just didn’t know it yet, and ran into thick brush or spread their wings to sail off high ridges and out of my life.
When we discovered that big-game heads resulted in more lost birds than tagged birds, even those shot through the vitals, we tried any number of approaches to slow penetration and take out gobblers. Those experiments included filing deep notches into solid-welded heads and placing washers and small-game “stars” behind screw-in broadheads. We continued to lose birds. It became evident that cutting larger holes was the real solution, not blunt-force trauma.
When the first modern mechanical broadhead arrived—something called a Viper—everything suddenly changed. Vipers held three or four thin blades on a solid ferrule with a small steel O-ring threaded through holes in the base of the notched blades and allowed them to swing away from the ferrule on impact like spreading flower pedals. While those flimsy, blade-shedding, poor-penetrating Vipers were deadly on turkeys, they proved a disaster on big game, so enjoyed a very short retail presence.
Sometime around the mid-1990s Rocket Aeroheads entered the picture. Many of those Rocket heads are still around, now under the Trophy Ridge umbrella, and they are as deadly on turkeys as ever. Where once hitting a gobbler resulted in 50 percent recovery rates, I was soon experiencing 98 percent recovery rates, including gut- and breast-shot birds. The wide-reaching blades worked well to turn marginal shots into dead birds. And, of course, there are many more brand and model options available every year. After 67 bow gobblers under my belt, I’ve used a good number of them, including a stretch of maybe 35 gobblers without a single lost bird.
Before I continue I feel it’s important to touch on something mentioned earlier. You kill turkeys by punching holes in them big enough to discourage further interest in life, even if your shot is slightly off the mark of their baseball-size vitals. Ideally, a wide-cutting mechanical broadhead and the give of a relatively light turkey results in your arrow remaining in the bird to discourage both flight and progress through thick brush, though this isn’t imperative in most cases. Turkeys also offer unique vital zones in addition to standard heart and lungs; the obvious head and neck, backbone/spine and even thighs, which hold large arteries and bleed turkeys out quickly while also discouraging flight by removing their launch gear.
You can do this with heads owning cutting diameters of at least 1½ inches, and 1¾- to 2-inch heads are even better. The exception occurs when wielding low-poundage bows – less than 55 pounds. In this case too much cutting diameter, and blade angles that chop instead if slice, can prove too much of a good thing, and impede penetration severely, especially after encountering elastic wing feathers. When using low-energy traditional gear or gearing up my wife for turkeys (she pulls a 48-pound compound to only 25 inches), for instance, I’ll choose a more efficient design, like a rear deploy Rage, or decrease cutting diameter to something in the neighborhood of 1-3/8 inches.
The reason for this preamble is to warn you away from shocker-type turkey heads, broadhead designs with large hooks or notches incorporated into the blades, but otherwise owning fairly standard cutting diameters. I’ve witnessed too many heartbreaking episodes with such heads to trust them—broken wings resulting in no penetration into the body cavity, marginal shots not opening up a wound channel wide enough to bleed a bird out quickly. I have absolutely no use for them, an opinion developed through experiences with file-notched broadheads 30 years ago and reinforced while witnessing friends’ recent disasters.
Some of the heads I’ve used with 65- to 70-pound compounds and my long 30-inch draw length include Trophy Ridge Rocket Broadhead’s 1½-inch Sidewinder and 2-inch Hammerhead; New Archery Products’ 1¾-inch Spitfire Edge and 1¾-inch Spitfire Gobbler Getter (with blunted tip to impart shock); 2.3-inch rear-deploy Rage X-Treme; Wasp’s 1¾-inch Jak-Hammer and Grim Reaper’s 2-inch Whitetail Special. My wife has done well with 1-3/8-inch-wide Grim Reaper Razortips, while I have collected many fine gobblers with traditional bows while shooting 1½-inch-wide 125-grain fixed-blade G5 Striker Magnum or Thunder Valley Archery’s big glue-on Snuffers. Wac’Em’s new Expandable, with cutting tip and efficient deployment design—in 2.2-inch two-blade and 2-inch three-blade—would also make a good choice, no matter your equipment, as well as BloodSport’s Grave Digger Cut-On-Contact and Chisel Tip heads with 1-inch x 1¾-inch cutting diameters, or fixed-blade Wraith Widecut at 1½ inches wide.
More recently the “head lopper” broadhead has gained popularity with many archery turkey hunters. These include wide-sweeping blades set 90 degrees to the ferrule and are designed specifically for head and neck shots; translating into a dead-on-arrival bird or a clean miss. Examples include the original Arrowdynamic Solutions’ four-blade Guillotine in 2½-inch 100 grains or 4-inch 125 grains; Magnus’ 2¾-inch 100 grains, or 3¾-inch 125-grain three-blade Bullhead; Muzzy’s 3-inch, three-blade 125-grain M.O.R.E.; Bloodsport’s 125-grain, 2-3/8-inch-wide Turkey Lopper; and Flying Arrow Archery’s 125-grain Tom Bomb with 3.5-inch-wide scythe-like blades that actually work with fletching helical instead of against for better accuracy. To assure straight flight with the former examples you’ll generally need to apply aggressive fletchings to arrows – 5½-inch feathers work well.
Blinds & Concealment With a Bow
One relatively recent development in turkey hunting that has tipped the scales in the favor of the modern bowhunter and resulted in significantly higher archery success rates, is the modern pop-up blind.
A turkey’s No. 1 defense is its fantastic eyesight, and portable ground blinds completely eliminate that defense. What was once the most difficult portion of any successful turkey hunt – positioning for the shot and drawing your bow – has become one of the easiest. The dark interior of an enclosed blind allows the bowhunter to fidget, flip the pages of a book, check e-mail on a smartphone, turn completely around if needed for a comfortable shot and draw at any time unseen.
Two tips assure pop-up blind success: open only those windows or shooting ports needed to make a clean shot and keep all others closed to minimize backlighting, and wear dark clothing, preferably black, when possible—though woodland camouflage certainly gets the job done. Blinds with silent window systems, quiet clips or magnets instead of noisy zippers or Velcro, even allow you to close one set of windows and open another if a gobbler should approach from an unexpected direction. The amazing thing about pop-ups is even with their razor-sharp eyesight and honed survival skills – the fresh appearance of a pop-up blind doesn’t alarm a responding gobbler in the slightest. On more than one occasion I’ve even had birds I’ve shot fatally fly or run right into the side of the blind.
The only drawback to the average pop-up blind is that they are often heavy and always bulky when hunting in remote areas where long hikes or backpacking are required, or when engaged in roaming run-and-gun ploys that require carrying the blind all day. I’ve certainly toted lighter pop-ups on such hunts, but they definitely slow progress. A better solution comes from Rancho Safari. The Shaggie Shield is a 5’ x 6’ piece of camouflage netting covered with hundreds of hanks of light ghillie-like camo material, burlap and hemp rope, with one or two zippered shooting ports sewn into its center, a lightweight aluminum tent-pole hoop, tie-off lines, tent stakes and corner tie-off ropes that allow this face to be set freestanding on open ground or hung from brush or tree branches. The entire 1½- to 2-pound system rolls up and packs into a football-size package for easy stashing and toting. I have had exceptional luck setting it up beneath the branches of umbrella-like trees, using the trunk for a backrest, the face hung from overhanging branches to draw my bow behind.
Another viable option when on the move, or simply looking for an easier way, are 3-D leafy or ghillie-type suits, like The Beast from ScentBlocker/Robinson Outdoors or the Shaggie System from Rancho Safari, just as examples. When used in conjunction with natural cover these ragged outfits break up the human outline better than any flat-printed camouflage ever could, helping you blend into any habitat. They require more careful shot timing than shooting from inside a pop-up blind or behind a Shaggie Shield face, but allow you to get away with more movements.
Turkey decoys have proliferated in tandem with the growing popularity of bowhunting for the big birds. Decoys serve two important functions: providing visual confirmation when a gobbler arrives to investigate your calls, and perhaps more important to bowhunters – a visual distraction and focal point that allows you to more easily draw your bow undetected – especially when operating outside of a blind.
Turkey decoys are offered to imitate hens, jakes and mature gobblers, with some of the latter featuring a spring-loaded/deployable tail fan. A single hen decoy is a great start to provide proof of life for what a gobbler expects to see after arriving to investigate calls and an obvious focal point. Tom decoys, whether jake or gobbler, are used to spark jealousy and competition. Though decoys can prove important to bowhunting success, without a proper deployment strategy they can hurt your chances of success as easily as help.
One of the most common problems is a gobbler arriving within sight of a hen decoy, then dropping into a strut and locking up tight. Recall, in nature the hen is supposed to go to the gobbler. He makes visual confirmation and does what nature compels him to do: stop, puff up big and dazzling, and strut to impress. When the hen does not respond he often assumes she’s not impressed and moves on. For this reason alone, when terrain permits, I try to place hen decoys so a gobbler must move past my position to address the decoy, presenting a broadside shot with his attention riveted forward. While hunting from enclosed blinds I generally place the decoy within feet of the blind, so a gobbler strutting at a distance still offers a viable shot.
More recently I’ve begun to stake a hen and jake pair with the jake hovering near or over the fake hen. A mature tom will hopefully arrive on the scene, observe the upstart getting in on the action and hustles in to put the youngster in his place. The same applies while using mature gobbler decoys, which means dekes with a fan sporting even tail feathers and a chest holding a beard. Problems arise when a responding gobbler isn’t confident or mature enough to confront the faux tom, and shies away. Mature gobbler decoys require fully mature gobblers or a bachelor group of toms traveling together and feeling safe in numbers. Remember to always face jake or gobbler decoys toward your position, as responding gobblers will invariably circle to meet the fake eye to eye. This presents you with a strutting gobbler facing dead away, his fan obscuring his vision and attention riveted in the opposite direction—the perfect opportunity to draw and shoot a bow undetected.
Decoys can also impart that safety-in-numbers factor mentioned above, and four or five decoys often do the trick early in the season when gobblers are still “henned up” (a single or small knot of gobblers traveling with a large group of winter-gathered hens). I recall a cold spring morning on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, sitting in a pop-up blind with my native guide, surrounded by no fewer than 50 hens and 13 gobblers. My guide and I had pooled every decoy at our disposal, six in all, and I’m convinced we only coaxed that flock into range because of all those dekes. I eventually earned a shot at one of the three dominant gobblers, tagging my biggest, longest-spurred and bearded gobbler to date. This approach can also net fall success.
Bowhunting turkeys is far from the parlor trick it was once considered. There still remains a learning curve, to be sure, but with basic calling skills, mechanical broadheads, effective concealment and careful use of decoys – tagging a turkey with bow and arrow is easier today than it has ever been.