Turkeys, And How We Miss Them
September 28, 2010
Even the most experienced turkey hunter will miss a bird now and then. Our expert explains how to minimize your misses . . . at least most of the time!
Watching your fellow hunters in action on all those TV outdoors shows, you could get the idea that wild turkeys are easier to smoke with a shotgun than with slow-burning hickory chips. Unfortunately, we don't always hit the bull's-eye. Everyone, from average hunters to genuine experts like you and me, misses the mark once in awhile, usually due to a common, avoidable error.
Take my whiff last spring, for instance.
My wife, Mary, was a witness. She was just breaking into turkey hunting, and she sat beside me in a blind at the edge of a big corn field. She had left her shotgun at home so that she could concentrate on listening and learning. I promised she'd hear plenty of gobbling from the roost, and the trees echoed with turkey talk long before sunup. I was thrilled when two softly-yelping hens walked into the field about 100 yards to the right of our decoy spread, and nearly jumped out of my boots when their flirtatious chatter drew a thunderous response from the shrubbery just to our left. Soon after, a huge tom stepped into the field.
"Don't move a muscle," I whispered. "He's got to get closer for a shot."
The puffed-up tom twirled around in a circle twice, then walked slowly our way -- 70, 60, 50 yards out. Then he saw the live hens. They looked about nervously, no doubt wondering why my plastic flock -- a jake and two hens -- failed to acknowledge their greetings. As they turned toward the middle of the field, my targeted tom began to follow.
With a push-button call, I squeezed out my most seductive purr. The tom turned to face the sound, and then just stood there.
"I think he's in range," I breathed. I put the bead on his bean and fired. At the sound, all three of our early-morning visitors flapped their wings and sailed 200 yards to the other side of the field.
What had I done wrong? Plenty. But telling that old story is a bit painful, so why don't we first consider the many reasons other turkey hunters manage to strike out at trigger time.
In fact, let's do it David Letterman style, with a countdown list. Here are my nominees for the top 10 reasons for missing can't-miss turkeys, in ascending order of their frequency of occurrence.
A drum roll, please?
LEFT OR RIGHT?
Experienced shooters needn't worry about cross-eye dominance, but rookies who miss two or three toms in succession might be keeping a left eye on the target while shooting from their right shoulder, or vice versa.
The older a shotgunner is when diagnosed with cross-eye dominance, the more difficult it may be to solve his problem. Some victims trick their non-dominant eye into taking over by covering the dominant-side lens of their shooting glasses with a piece of masking tape.
Alternately, a shooting coach might counsel a victim to try switching from open sights to a quick-point style of gun scope. The truly confounded hunter may be compelled to buy a new shotgun and switch to the other side of the plate.
Many a gobbler has survived a close encounter with a hunter because the shotgun aimed at it was slightly out of whack or even failed to go "boom." Two years ago, I shot over the last in a line of five longbeards because my rear fiber-optic site had fallen off without my knowledge. I didn't notice its absence until I took aim. Now I check my sights and their alignment as religiously as I verify that my safety is in the "on" position.
Although it has never happened to me, I know other hunters who have heard a sickening "click" instead of Old Thunder's usual roar when the moment of truth was at hand. While you can't do much to prevent the "one in a million" dud round from winding up in your shotgun's chamber, you certainly can test-fire a few loads from any stock of ammo that is several years old, rusty, or showing other signs of age.
Like golfers who can't keep their heads down until their club has made solid contact with the ball, some turkey hunters habitually take a quick look-see at their bird just as they pull the trigger. This invariably moves the muzzle off target and sends your shot charge high over the bird's head.
Break this tendency at home by sitting on the floor and pointing your empty gun at a turkey target. Mentally fire and hold your focus on the target for a solid two-second interval.
Peeking tends to produce non-fatal hits, which are even worse than clean misses. There's nothing quite as frustrating or futile as chasing a chest-hit tom through a sea of berry bushes, as I was forced to do a couple of years ago.
LACK OF PRACTICE
The term "muscle memory" is a bit over-used these days, but it plays a key role in shotgunning accuracy. Aim and shoot at the range until you're hitting your target and getting a nice, dense pattern consistently, and then stop for the day. Return and do it again, until the movements and concentration necessary for success become second nature.
Everyone, from average hunters to genuine experts like you and me, misses the mark once in awhile, usually due to a common, avoidable error.
Failure to practice before turkey season may cause you to fumble for your safety button and struggle to find your point of aim on a real, live bird, especially if you're using a new or borrowed shotgun.
The hunter most apt to be guilty of this syndrome is the one who waits until the day before the season to purchase a new shotgun or re-stock his ammo box. Do your shopping early and allow plenty of sight-in time.
Turkey hunters have a tendency to miss high, rather than low, for a variety of reasons. We frequently shoot downhill, we don't always plant our cheeks on our gunstocks, and (as previously noted) we just can't help ourselves from peeking over the barrel now and then.
Assuming your shotgun was throwing a nice, center-of-target pattern at the shooting range, don't focus on Old Mr. Tom's wide eyes. Instead, drop your front bead a couple of inches and put it where that bright blue neck meets feathers. At your effective shotgun range, that simple adjustment should increase the number of pellets in the brain-and-spine kill zone.
Did you ever shoot your rifle at a deer that was partially screened by leafy branches? If you did, you can probably recall the animal bounding off without a scratch. It doesn't take much to deflect a bullet Ã³ let alone an expanding swarm of 4s or 6s.
Often as not, the offending vegetation is closer to you than to the turkey. When you take a seat in your hunting area, don't start calling until you've scanned your surroundings. Take another good look when a gobbler responds to your call, and try to anticipate the route he'll take if he heads your way. And then, check constantly for clear shooting lanes.
Keep your cheek tight against your gunstock, but that's not all there is to good shooting form. If you tip your head slightly left or right, or your barrel wobbles because you don't have the fore-end braced firmly on your knee, you stand a better than average chance of missing.
Physical comfort goes hand in hand with proper shotgunning posture. I vividly recall the morning when two gobblers came in quietly behind me as I sat on wet, uneven ground behind a large maple tree.
Upon hearing their feet shuffling in the leaves, I tried to twist around the trunk I'd been using for cover, and found out how difficult it is to hit a turkey when you're kneeling on a couple of gnarly, protruding roots.
After those birds flew off unscathed, I bought myself a low, folding seat and a snap-on kneepad. I also vowed never to attempt one of those around-the-tree shots again, but we all know that promise is bound to be broken sooner or later!
Two years ago, after several days of uneventful hunting, I decided to go to a narrow, partly shaded pasture that had been good to me in the past. I put out a couple of decoys and eased my back against the trunk of a huge willow overlooking the field.
About half an hour after sunrise, I heard a gobble. A few minutes later, an impressive longbeard stepped into the pasture and stared hard at my fake flock. There was something he didn't like, however, because instead of walking toward the decoys he headed slowly in the opposite direction. However, buoyed by the memory of several other birds I'd killed in that same pasture, I quickly pointed my muzzle and fired.
The turkey fell flat on his back, but as I stood up and started toward him, he wriggled to its feet and ducked into a thicket with blinding speed. Despite a systematic, hour-long search, I never saw him again. Later, I stepped off the distance between my tree and the spot where the tom was standing when I fired. It was 44 paces, just four or five yards longer than my gun's maximum effective range.
Now, peer pressure is one of the worst reasons to do anything, but I suspect a majority of hunters have taken at least one ill-advised shot solely because they wanted to keep up with their old buddy, Bob. Jealousy can trick your senses into taking foolish or even dangerous chances in the woods.
The fact that your pal has two limb-hangers in the freezer and you don't doesn't mean much. In truth, luck plays a significant role in turkey hunting, but persistence counts, too.
Remember the saying, "Good things come to those who wait." Hunt hard and keep still. You'll get your opportunities.
And that brings us full circle to what I believe is the most common reason for missing turkeys, namely:
All sorts of excuses come to mind when I think of that strutting gobbler that pirouetted prettily for my bride and me last season. I missed high, in part, because the bird was slightly downhill and I might even have peeked, just a tiny bit, as I touched off the trigger. He was at the top end of my effective shooting range, and you could make a case that peer pressure was at work, too, since I was really eager to get my wife hooked on hunting.
I might well have nailed that bird if I had held fire just a few seconds longer. As the lusting gobbler stood before us, torn between hens made of flesh and vinyl, the odds were at least even that he would eventually come closer to my muzzle.
And if he'd decided to walk away instead? Scarlett O'Hara didn't know a gobbler from a goat, but she put turkey-hunting miscues in perspective when she declared, "Tomorrow is another day."
In any event, don't hang your head too long when your aim is a little off. There is certainty in our sport; it is that each of us will miss now and then, no matter how many useful tips we glean from our favorite outdoor magazines.