March 02, 2023
The tom dropped as if poleaxed. By the time I hustled to where he had fallen, he'd futilely beat outstretched wings a few times and a dark spot of blood had stained the side of his red, white and blue head lying flat on the stubble-strewn ground. The bird hadn't moved more than a foot from where he'd dropped.
Cradling the broken-open single-shot over my arm, I unclenched my left fist and pulled the shotshell from where I'd squeezed it between middle fingers as a handy backup round. I tossed the thin .410 shotshell to Todd Gifford.
"Looks like I won't need this," I said. To be honest, there was a lot more going on and the scene wasn't nearly that sedate. There had been whooping, yelling, laughing, hugging and high-fiving. Big smiles were hidden behind camo masks. We'd just scored a double about 17 minutes after shooting light on the first morning of our Minnesota hunt.
It had started with a quiet walk in the dark to a flat-topped ridge near Hastings, the ground like an elevated island amid a sea of farmland. After walking up the two-track lined with trees, we broke out onto 180 acres of flat, farmable land. The highway a couple miles away was out of sight, out of mind and mostly quiet. Barely noticeable was the hum of occasional vehicles carrying early-morning drivers unaware of the drama playing out on the wooded ridge above them. We stood in darkness where the trail opened into the jigsaw-puzzle-shaped field ringed by Japanese elm, brush and grass.
"Let's slip around the corner so we're not silhouetted on the road," whispered Gifford, long-time turkey hunter, pest-control dude, crow and problem-bird eradicator (also known as Crowman) and all-purpose host/guide for Murray Road, the public relations agency for Savage Arms.
We tucked against some elms, quietly clearing places for our padded seats and flattening annoying bits of brush to open shooting lanes. I leaned against a tree. Jake Dahlke of Murray Road settled at my left shoulder on the same tree, a camera in hand. Megan Harten of Savage Arms was against a similar tree to our left; Gifford was somewhere behind us, rustling the carry bags off his Avian-X decoys. It was quiet, too quiet, as the saying goes.
We had been up here the night before as the sun went down. Gifford had tried an owl hoot with a cornstalk-choked call, producing what he later laughingly admitted was "a horrible attempt." Neither the squawking hoot nor more realistic crow caws produced the gobbling response we strained to hear, so we tiptoed down the road in the dark, Gifford still convinced this was the spot for the next morning. He'd heard turkeys up here while scouting, and the landowner reported seeing five strutters when he worked this field prior to planting.
The sky was graying when we heard the first gobble in front of us from about the 1 o'clock position. Then there were gobbles behind us, and soon more came from the left. Gifford let out soft clucks; the birds in front must have roosted in the trees about a thousand yards across the field. We needed to give them a reason to cross the field to where they could see the hen and jake decoys set fairly close, about 20 yards in front of us, in deference to the .410 shotgun I carried.
More gobbling. Right, left and behind. Turkeys were on the move. I sat up, shifting my left knee up to support the shotgun. One, then two, then three heads appeared over the low, rounded ridge across the recently planted, rain-pocked bean field. The heads bobbed as they walked, the boss gobbler sounding off behind two satellite toms. They cleared the rise and seemed to spot the decoys at the same time. Gifford was silent, letting the laydown hen and quarter-strut jake decoys do their thing. They were coming, the two subordinate toms leading, or more accurately, the boss tom holding back.
Through the Crimson Trace RAD Max sight, I watched them step and bob toward the decoys. Too close together to risk a shot, they moved right to left, angling toward our setup.
"Whenever you're ready," Dahlke whispered as he watched through the camera. I slowly moved the single-shot up and over the dang brush that had sprung back up. I hadn't heard her, but Harten, aiming her 12-gauge Savage Renegauge, had whispered, "I'm ready" and was anxiously awaiting my move.
The lead tom moved ahead a couple steps, the red dot in my optic jumping with my heartbeat across the base of his neck. I fired, the bird dropped. Harten fired then fired again, and Gifford whooped. We all jumped up and all heck broke loose.
It was a genuine whoop-and-holler session, not a rehearsed or second-take celebration as portrayed on some outdoor shows. As we stumbled to our feet and tumbled out of the brush, the lone turkey survivor, the boss gobbler, skedaddled over the knob toward the far trees.
The Tungsten Touch
Like anyone who as a kid hunted and plinked cans with a .410-bore shotgun, I was skeptical of what it could do on a full-grown tom turkey. But these were not my grandpa's .410 shotshells. To be specific, they were Fiocchi Golden Turkey TSS, 3-inchers with 304 No. 9 pellets screaming out in a deadly swarm, each packing the denser-than-lead punch of tungsten. That's 304 tiny but collectively lethal missiles, each adding to the fatal terminal impact in a pattern that held together well out to at least 40 yards. I'm sure longer kills have been recorded, but after patterning we decided the 40-yard mark was pretty much our limit.
I stepped off the distance from the dead tom to where I'd been sitting: 38 larger-than-normal steps, which for me translates to yards. Where popular lead-based turkey shells are loaded with No. 4, 5 or 6 shot, TSS shells can be packed with smaller (No. 7 1/2, 8 and 9) and more pellets. With the added density, smaller TSS pellets can carry the same deadly mail as larger lead shot.
TSS (which, if you haven't heard by now, stands for Tungsten Super Shot) has the leg up on lead shot, especially at longer distances. Being denser allows it to retain more energy than lead downrange, and being harder helps it maintain form and therefore a better pattern than lead. Put these advantages together, and the result is tighter patterns with more knockdown punch at longer ranges.
The hitch in TSS shotshells is cost. I found prices ranging from $8.60 to $11.50 per round. On the other hand, we put time, effort and other expense (I traveled from Nebraska to Minnesota for this hunt) into turkey hunting, so why skimp when it comes to the all-important shot?
The TSS advantages really come to the fore in smaller gauges, the so-called sub-gauges, particularly .410, 28 and 20, which are gaining more devotees. Now, if you're shooting a 12-gauge out to 40 yards, most decent copper-plated lead loads or other variations of quality turkey loads should do. Still, though, 12-gauge TSS loads add all the benefits we just discussed.
The antithesis of the sub-gauge movement is the bigger-is-better school of thought. I've heard of hunters—including "practitioners of the doubtful trade of gun writing," to borrow a Jack O'Connor line—who pine for if not downright demand 12-gauge 3 1/2-inch shotshells.
These same people say they want to be able to kill a bird out to 75 or 80 yards. That reminds me of another O'Connor line about sheep hunting, but I'll substitute "turkeys" where Jack used "rams." Long shots at turkeys come either from hard luck or from not knowing how to hunt them.
Lighter Guns, Lighter Recoil
My .410 experience makes the bigger-is-better side look silly, assuming we are good enough at turkey hunting to get turkeys into ranges of about half that unnecessarily distant and borderline unethical 75 to 80 yards.
I used a Stevens 301 Turkey shotgun with a simple break-open action, 26-inch matte-black barrel, synthetic stock in Mossy Oak Obsession camo, recoil pad and extra-full choke tube. The unobtrusive Crimson Trace RAD (Rapid Aiming Dot) Max red-dot reflex sight mounted to the barrel added a significant measure of confidence at trigger-squeezing time.
The 301 Turkey weighs a shade over 5 pounds, or 2 to 3 pounds lighter than an unloaded 12-gauge semi-auto. It's light enough to hold out with a couple fingers and tote up and down hills without giving it much thought. Did I feel bad choosing the 301 single-shot, leaving Harten with the heavier 12-gauge Renegauge? I got over it.
Harten said Savage is selling the heck out of sub-gauge shotguns, including .410s to turkey hunters. "It's also a good starter gun, without the kick," she said. "It makes it easy to take your kid out and not be so scary for them. And it's much easier on you, too, both to shoot and to carry if you're on the move through the woods."
Dahlke said sub-gauges appeal to the minimalist trend, especially in younger generations that are "trying something out of the box, trying to do new things with turkey hunting." Gifford stressed the benefits of the .410's low recoil, which can help eliminate flinching caused by the anticipation of getting shoulder-punched by heavy 12-gauge loads.
Gifford has hunted with friends toting TSS-loaded .410s for a couple years now and has not seen any birds shot with these guns and loads get away.
The main consideration, he said, is to set decoys a bit closer and count on them, and your hunting skill, to bring birds into a comfortable range. To find that comfort zone, patterning is the place to start. It will show the .410 in turkey hunting is not a gimmick.
Make a tom come searching.
Close counts when hunting turkeys with sub-gauge shotguns, especially a .410. Keep your decoys closer than you would if hunting with a 12-gauge. About 20 yards is a decent distance.
Most .410 TSS loads are deadly to 40 yards; a 20-yard decoy setup gives you a cushion.
TSS has been a game-changer, 30-year turkey hunter Todd Gifford says, but it's still critical to understand the effective range of sub-gauge shotshells. "There's a big difference [with TSS]," he notes, "but you want to keep the whole situation close."
For Gifford, that starts with scouting. In Minnesota, he generally begins to focus his efforts in May. That may seem late, but he says that before hens are nesting, turkeys are unpredictable. Once most hens are on the nest, toms will be in strutting lanes, more visible and more predictable. Gifford scouts for an hour every morning, beginning maybe a half-hour after sunrise, then again for two hours in the evening. He keys more on strutting lanes than on putting birds to bed in a particular tree.
"You got to know where they are, where they're going to be and some kind of timeline," Gifford explains. "I'll watch them heading toward roost and then we know, OK, they are going over in that woods. I rarely go messing with them, putting them to bed out here, because the woods are so small and spread out that we know they're in there."
Roosting is more important in early season, Gifford says. "It's less critical when we have them marked in strutting lanes," he notes. "We just try to get close to those strutting lanes and kill a bird."
During late season, toms are more likely to be running in bachelor packs. Most hens are on the nest and the toms, even jakes, begin to group together.
"After a week or two of searching for hens, and not finding any receptive ones, I think their testosterone goes down and they get in those groups," Gifford says.
Hunting them is a different game. Decoys can even ward them off. During my May hunt with Gifford, he knew we were situated between two roosts. Once gobblers started sounding off, he used soft clucks, maybe six or eight times, just enough to attract attention.
"That's late-season hunting," he says. "You want them to come searching for you. You don't want to keep calling and give yourself away."
Let the decoys do their work, he stresses. Gifford believes a hen and jake decoy combination is more effective late in the season than gobbler decoys. He's seen toms spot a gobbler decoy and act "almost like they saw a ghost."
Whatever decoy setup you use, stay quiet. Give a tom a reason to come searching and get close.
Grouse for Turkeys
A trade that boosted Minnesota's gobbler numbers.
In the early days, the few turkeys found in southeastern Minnesota along the Iowa border were hunted and eaten by settlers, and otherwise eliminated by habitat loss. After that, wild birds didn't exist in Minnesota for nearly a century before reintroduction began in the early 1970s. It started with 29 adult birds trapped in Missouri and released in Houston County. Minnesota traded 85 ruffed grouse for the Eastern turkeys. Previous releases of pen-raised turkeys failed, as did releases of Merriam's turkeys, which are smaller than Eastern turkeys and considered less hardy.
The Eastern turkeys from the original and subsequent releases of more than 5,000 birds—some through funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation—at about 280 locations over the next four decades proliferated, and in 1978 the first modern hunting season was held. These days, wild turkeys are found throughout the southeastern part of the state and range as far north as Brainerd and the Detroit lakes.