Turkey hunting: Bows or guns?
Tactics, tips and tricks for bowhunters and gunners
So you want to get into turkey hunting, but can’t decide whether to carry a gun or a bow. Or maybe you already hunt wild turkeys, but want to leave the shotgun at home this season and try bowhunting instead. Whatever the case, our special guide has you covered with everything you need to know to get started.
The beauty of the bow
Long ago I gave up the gun for the bow to hunt white-tailed deer. So, when I decided to start hunting wild turkeys, the thought of picking up a shotgun never even crossed my mind. Actually, I was slow to jump on the turkey bandwagon in my home province of Ontario, mostly because I was usually in the northern woods hunting black bears during the spring turkey season. But when that hunt was abruptly cancelled in 1999, I turned to turkeys to fill the gap between the annual deer seasons.
I must admit, at first I was skeptical about getting excited about bowhunting a bird, but those thoughts quickly disappeared after my first turkey. Not only is it a rush, but bowhunting also makes for a lot more opportunities to bag a tom-at least in turkey-rich southern Ontario.
Now I’m as addicted to bowhunting turkeys as I am to bowhunting whitetails. For those interested in sharing that addiction, the following primer on gear and tactics should be enough to get you hooked. And you shotgunning holdouts should also take note: some of the strategies I’ve outlined here are sure to put more turkeys in your lap, as well.
Bows and broadheads: I use the same set-up for turkeys that I use for hunting whitetails: a 35-inch-long (axle to axle) compound bow with a draw weight of 68 pounds at a 29-inch draw length. You don’t need a special bow to hunt turkeys, although a shorter axle-to-axle length and less poundage is more manageable in the tight confines of a blind. What you do need to ensure a kill is the biggest mechanical broadhead you can find. I shot my last two birds, for example, with a broadhead I’ve dubbed “the flying axe.” The Stilleto is a 125-grain mechanical with blades that open to a whopping 2 3/4 inches. Just be sure to use two rubber bands to keep the blades closed during flight if you are shooting a high-poundage bow.
Another key piece of equipment is the portable blind, such as those made by Game Tracker, Double Bull Blinds or Ameristep. Blinds are as valuable to turkey bowhunters as portable treestands are to whitetail bowhunters. You can hunt without one, but your odds of success won’t be as high. The movement required to draw a bow, for example, is almost guaranteed to spook a gobbler. A blind solves that problem. Same goes for using hand-operated calls without getting busted. As well, a blind allows you to stay dry while hunting in the rain.
The blind itself should have a black interior, which eliminates shadows when the blind is in direct sunlight. If your blind isn’t black inside, be sure to place it in the shade on sunny days. Also keep any windows closed-except for the front shooting port-to keep it as dark as possible inside the blind.
Generally, turkeys pay no attention to portable blinds; I’ve only seen one bird get spooked, and that was because of a loose side flapping in the breeze. So when it’s windy, be sure to stake the blind to the ground as tightly as possible.
Permanent ground blinds also work, but they don’t offer the freedom to change sites if the action dries up. They can be deadly, though, if they’re set up in a good location, such as along an active travel route or near a roosting tree. When constructing a permanent blind, keep in mind that it must be able to conceal your movements when you draw your bow.
Whether or not you use a blind, total camouflage is a must. I don’t just mean your pants, jacket and hat—your face and hands, as well as your equipment, must also be well concealed. I’ve even started using green and black fletching on my camo shafts after a photographer told me he could see my white fletching glowing inside my blind. Take nothing for granted: everything must match the colours of the turkey woods.
It’s also important to closely match the sounds of the turkey woods. With the calls that are available today, anyone can create realistic turkey talk with very little practice. For example, all of the friction-based calls, such as the box call and the slate call, can be operated with ease. A few practice sessions, with the aid of an instructional tape, are all it takes to get started.
The one call that does require plenty of practice is the diaphragm call. The masters of turkey hunting depend on it, and if you plan on hunting without a blind, you should as well. When first learning to use one, don’t worry about anything other than producing a good yelp. Once you’ve mastered the yelp, it’s easy to move on to the other calls the diaphragm is capable of producing.
The use of decoys is almost mandatory for bowhunters. Their strategic use will consistently pull birds into range and, just as importantly, into position for a clean shot. I use two hens and a jake for a lot of my set-ups. Preferably, you want to set out the hens about 20 yards away, facing your blind. I push small sticks into the ground on each side of their tails so they stay facing me, leaving just enough room for them to move slightly in the wind. Movement is good, but you don’t want your decoys spinning around like tops.
The reason for placing the hen decoys so they’re facing the blind is to lure the gobbler between you and the decoys. A tom will almost always face the decoys when strutting, and when he’s in full strut looking at the decoys, there’s no chance he’ll see you.
As for the jake decoy, I set it about 10 feet or so off to one side of the hens, facing them and also held in position with sticks. A jake decoy is handy for shy toms, which will often strut for the hen decoys but stay out of bow range. The presence of a jake will often cause them to charge right up to the hens, or to the jake decoy. More than once I’ve had my jake decoy trashed by a dominant tom.
This article was originally published on April 2, 2004