Bowhunting For Turkeys

How to accomplish bowhunting's most difficult task: taking a gobbler with a bow.

Tim Knight | March 1, 2008

The author’s son, Hunter, used what he learned from his dad to kill his first gobbler with a bow last season. The tom had a 10-inch beard.

Believe it or not, there is little difference between the behavior of whitetail bucks and gobbler turkeys. Think about it, both species spend time in bachelor groups except during their breeding seasons when they become very territorial — gobblers in the spring and bucks in the fall. This is when they are vulnerable.

I learned a lot about hunting turkeys by rattling for bucks. Big gobblers, like big bucks, will not tolerate competition in their established territories during their breeding season. If you want to upset a male of any species, then become a competitor for the female of that species. This tactic has helped me bring many mature gobblers into range of a bow.

I well remember a hunt that took place in Johnson County. I was hunting and filming for “Southern Woods & Water” TV show. It was an afternoon hunt in a large field where a notorious gobbler named Frazier was hanging out every day with at least a dozen hens. This bird had a bad reputation; he was call shy, would not gobble and on top of that had been shot at, and hit, with a shotgun before.

I arrived early in the afternoon to make sure I beat the turkeys to the field with ample time to prepare my camera and equipment. I set up on the high point where I had a good view of the entire field. At about 5 p.m. hens starting pouring into the field, and last but not least the big tom followed.

The gobbler strutted and cut circles around those hens. I could see his body convulse with each move he made. I did not make a sound, not a cluck, a purr or anything. What I did do was pull Ralph’s string so that his tail would rise to look like he was strutting in this gobbler’s field.

I am sure you would like to know who Ralph is. Ralph is my favorite hunting companion during turkey season. He is a real mounted gobbler decoy with a tail attached by a hinge and controlled by a Zebco 202 fishing reel that I keep in my turkey vest.

As soon as I raised Ralph’s tail the big gobbler froze in his tracks and looked in my direction, at half strut with his head stretched to its limit. I quickly let Ralph’s tail down and immediately raised it again and left it up. That was all it took. This bird broke his semi-strut position and ran toward Ralph from 200 yards away leaving his harem of hens behind.

It was all I could do to keep the camera on him and hook my release to my bow string at the same time. I drew while he was 50 yards out and still coming on a dead run. At 20 yards he started doing that sideways walk that gobblers do when confronting a competitor. I settled my pin on his wing butt as he approached Ralph broadside to me, but before I could get a still shot he went airborne and spurred and wing-slapped Ralph. My decoy was still rocking back and forth when he landed between me and Ralph which put him at 12 yards, still broadside. I quickly took aim and shot.

The author’s favorite hunting companions is Ralph, a real gobbler mount decoy. Ralph’s hinged tail simulates a strutting gobbler’s.

This was just one of many hunts that Ralph and I have been on. If you want to greatly increase your odds of taking a gobbler with archery equipment, buy, build or create a decoy that looks like a gobbler. He needs a movable tail and a head painted with a solid white cap. The white cap is important because it tells other gobblers in the area that the decoy is ready to breed. Even if you only have an old hen or jake decoy you can rig a real tail on the decoy, and paint the cap on the head white.

Use an old fishing reel to attach the line to the tail. Attach a swivel about halfway up one of the center tail feathers with the hook end, and attach another swivel to the line coming out of the reel on the barrel swivel side. Make a tail stop of some kind on your decoy so the tail will not drop below level on the decoy. Place a loop-headed pin made from a wire clothes hanger into the top of the decoy’s head. This will serve as a guide for your line going to the tail on the decoy.

Your decoy can also serve as your range finder when hunting. Just count the number of steps when you put your decoy out. As a safety precaution, cover the head when moving through the woods with your decoy. Remember that a decoy is a visual tool; place it where it will be seen in a field, clear-cut, pasture or old logging road.

While you want your decoy to be seen, you definitely don’t want a gobbler to see you. Many people use a ground blind, but remember, with a blind you are not mobile; you just sit and hunt. You won’t be able to move on traveling gobblers. For this reason, I prefer to go blindless, which makes good camouflage a necessity. To further break up my outline, I wear a leafy suit and put ornamental ivy on my hat and bow as well as on the arm that I draw my bow with.

So, you’ve got your decoy ready and your camo on, what next? How many hunters do you know who stand beside their trucks in the pre-dawn morning to listen, and get back in their trucks and leave if they don’t hear any gobbles? I love to hear turkeys gobbling as much as the next guy, but don’t get caught up in it. Some turkeys just don’t gobble much, and believe it or not, turkeys that don’t gobble taste the same as those that gobble their heads off. What you should get caught up in is scouting and becoming a better woodsman.

Unlike deer that bed during the day, turkeys are on the ground from after daylight to sunset. When they are on the ground they are huntable. Turkeys — again, like deer — are creatures of habit, so if you find big gobbler tracks chances are that sometime during any particular day he will show up again in that area. Tracks don’t lie! You do not have to be a professional turkey caller to take gobblers with a bow, either. Most of the time, less is more. Clucking, scratching in the leaves and being patient will kill almost any turkey.

The author’s friend, Matt Adcock, killed a big bird his first season bowhunting. Tim said a never-quit attitude like Matt’s is essential to kill turkeys with a bow.

This is where your scouting comes into play. There are two people who have influenced my turkey hunting the most, Jerry Garnto, of Dexter and Sam Klement of Dothan, Ala.. If you hunt turkeys with these guys you better pack a good lunch, because one of two things will happen, you will kill a turkey or it will get dark before you get back to the truck. Just remember it is called turkey hunting and not turkey calling.

It is also much better to be an average marksman and an excellent woodsman than it is to be the other way around. Do not outshoot your ability or your equipment. If you cannot sit down and draw straight back to your face, then turn your bow poundage down to where you can. This is a must for drawing on movement-seeking turkeys. Fifty pounds of draw weight is plenty to bowhunt gobblers.

I suggest you sight your bow in at 22 yards, and limit your shot to 25 yards or less. A gobbler’s kill zone is only about the size of a grapefruit, so you must make a good shot. Always try to shoot the turkey broadside; this gives you the best chance to hit the vitals, while disabling the bird at the same time. Aim for the wing butt or the elbow of the wing. If you are a right-handed shooter try to set up where the turkey will approach from your left shoulder, and from your right shoulder if your are left handed, like me.

Speaking of lefties, a hunting buddy of mine, Matt Adcock had a piece of property that was eat up with turkeys. He had more than a dozen encounters with gobblers on this piece of property but could not close the deal with a bow. Matt picked my brain for every kind of information on turkey hunting. He has a never-quit attitude and was able to close the deal on a fine gobbler his first season bowhunting. You must have a never-quit attitude to bowhunt turkeys. It is a fact that harvesting a mature gobbler with a bow is the hardest feat to accomplish in the world of hunting.

Accomplishing that feat will be much harder if you don’t have the right equipment on the business end of your arrow. Any good, sharp broadhead shot through a turkey’s vitals will dispatch him quickly and cleanly. It is a marginal shot that will give you trouble. This is the reason you need to attach some type of stopper right behind your broadhead. There are several commercial types on the market that work well. I personally use a 1/0 treble hook with the odd hook cut off and the other two hooks bent out a little wider than the broadhead. Make sure the hooks are offset from the blades. Secure them to the shaft right behind the broadhead with dental floss, and coat the floss with super glue. This setup only adds about 8 to 10 grains of weight to the arrow and does not affect arrow flight. This setup will hold the arrow in the bird, providing you hit him solidly.

An arrow placed into the turkey broadside will impede his ability to fly because it throws off his wing timing. It takes a tremendous amount of thrust to get a bird airborne. Did you know that a turkey has to jump to fly? Otherwise he cannot get enough air under his wings to take flight. Also, if he cannot flap each wing equally he will flip over. This is why I preach a broadside shot. A wing or hip shot will disable a bird, even if it doesn’t kill it instantly. Shots at the tail base of a strutter, at the beard of a bird facing you or at the middle of the back of a bird walking away are all low-recovery shots. If you do not paralyze the bird he can and will fly. If a bird only lives for 30 seconds in flight it will be very difficult to recover (been there, done that).

Another great little tip that I will share is, don’t stay home on windy or slightly rainy days because turkeys like to travel to open areas during these conditions. The reason is one of their main means of defense is down; they cannot hear in the woods and must rely more on eyesight to protect them from danger. Hunt fields, food plots, clear cuts, pastures, open logging decks, logging roads or anywhere there is open ground. One other advantage of hunting in bad weather is thunder. I don’t advise that you hunt during a lightning storm, but any gobbler in the spring will gobble at thunder unless its beak is wired shut. Another benefit of hunting on windy days is that you can get away with a lot more movement without getting busted.

One of the biggest mistakes a bowhunter can make is to try to draw on a turkey after it is in bow range. Unless you have perfect cover like a ground blind, or the turkey’s fan has his head hidden, you will not get away with that much movement. Draw on the gobbler way ahead of time, and let him walk into your line of sight. This is where low poundage for turkeys comes into play. Just for fun, draw your bow while sitting down and time yourself to see just how long you can hold it back, you just might be surprised at how long you can hold it. This is a great exercise to build your back and shoulders.

As you know, there are no guarantees in bowhunting, especially turkeys. But I promise you will get no greater satisfaction than taking a gobbler turkey with your bow and arrow. Wouldn’t it be neat if we could somehow turn back the hands of time and see for ourselves just how the Indians hunted turkeys?

Remember ol’ Frazier with his hen harem? My 100-grain blade Muzzy with treble hook in tow buried itself up to the blazer vanes with a solid thud. “down goes Frazier,” I muttered to myself as the king of that field met his demise. He weighed 21 pounds, had an 11-inch beard and 1 1/4-inch spurs. He was missing three tail feathers, and copper-plated No. 6 shot was still imbedded in the quills of his tail feathers. Each and every hunt is special, some successful, some not so successful. Just remember this: “Any old Indian can kill a deer with his bow, but it takes a chief to kill a turkey!”

Editors note: The author has taken 45 gobblers with a bow in Georgia and Alabama. He also wrote the book on bowhunting turkeys, literally. Tim’s book “Bowhunting Turkeys A-Z” goes into depth on his successful strategies. To get a copy, email Tim at [email protected].

Tim took this hefty river-bottom bird with a bow. It is one of 45 toms he has killed with archery equipment since he bagged his first bow-killed gobbler in 1988.

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