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A Clean Shot

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Turkey hunting offers a lifetime of enjoyment afield. But pay heed: Bringing home a bird takes some doing. Hunting success requires skill with calls, superior woodsmanship and knowing how to respond to different hunting situations. One of the most difficult challenges of the hunt involves shooting a turkey in a vital area. This might seem relatively simple, particularly if a turkey is in good range. But every year legions of turkey hunters miss gobblers. Few moments afield are more deflating.

Range The maximum distance from which to effectively shoot a turkey is a sensitive subject to some hunters. At check stations and local diners you might hear hunters brag, "My 10-gauge will tip 'em over every time at 60 yards!"

That's bad advice. Shots taken at long ranges are often why hunters fail to shoot a turkey. A tightly choked 10-gauge loaded with magnum shells and size 4 shot can kill a turkey at 60 yards, but it's a low-percentage gamble, which is miserably unethical. Hunters who take such shots often forget to mention how many turkeys escape, dragging a wing or a leg.

A hunter should never attempt to shoot at a turkey beyond 35 yards, regardless of gauge, choke and shot size. This should be the gospel of turkey hunting. Why? Pellets must penetrate either a turkey's brain or spinal cord for a shot to prove instantly lethal, and these regions of a turkey's body represent a small target. To hit them requires a dense pattern of shot.

At the shooting range, the patterns thrown by most full-choked 3 1/2-inch chambered 12- or 10-gauge shotguns might make 35 yards seem conservative as the greatest distance at which to shoot a turkey. But here's what many newcomers to turkey hunting overlook-shooting at a turkey in the woods is not like shooting at paper while at the range.

In the woods, the moment that culminates the hunt often comes after you have been sitting motionless for 45 minutes or more while a gobbler took his time coming to your calls. Muscles stiffen and ache; moreover, a tom's drumming and gobbling make for high excitement. Adrenaline and a cramped body make accurate shooting a struggle.

Then there are twigs and branches between you and the turkey. Little twigs tear big holes in shot patterns. And unlike paper targets, turkeys move. They bob their heads while they walk, they pull their necks in when they strut, they flop their wings and they preen. All these factors make shooting a turkey a close-range proposition.

Limiting shots to 35 yards or closer requires an ability to judge distances. This skill is learned easily. While you are watering your lawn, guess how far you are from the corner of the house. Estimate the distance and walk it off.

You can practice estimating distances practically anywhere--at a mall, golf course or at work. You will quickly learn to do this when you hunt. When actually hunting, estimate distance to objects around you before a turkey works its way into view. Turkeys are big birds. In the excitement of the moment it is easy to think a turkey is closer than it is.

Equipment Outfit yourself with a shotgun that you shoot well. If you find a 12- or 10-gauge shotgun chambered for 3 1/2-inch shells that you can handle comfortably--fine. But the recoil of most of these big guns is brutal and can cause flinching problems; moreover, you simply don't need that much firepower.

In turkey hunting it's just you, the turkeys and a plan-bring one in to close range and kill it cleanly with one shot to the head and neck. A tightly choked, 2 3/4-inch or 3-inch chambered 12 gauge will provide all the power you need.

At the range, practice to see which shot size your gun patterns best. Some shotguns shoot tighter patterns with one shot size than with another. What you want is a dense pattern with shot that carries enough energy to penetrate the bones of a turkey's skull and neck out to 35 yards. Size 6 shot is my favorite.

Telescopic sights are widely available for shotguns, but they may encourage hunters to take longer shots. Most shotguns designed specifically for turkey hunting sport a front bead and another bead further back along the length of the ventilated rib. The rear bead serves as a back sight and helps ensure your cheek is down on the stock.

Many of today's specialized turkey guns come in factory camouflage with short barrels. A short barrel is easier to handle in brush, but it also reduces the sighting plane, making careful aiming more difficult. It's something to consider when buying a turkey gun. And a word on camouflage. Camouflaged shotguns look "professional," but all the camouflage in the world is not going to help you bring a turkey close if you can't sit still.

Turkeys have excellent vision. They use it to maximum benefit, and what spooks them is movement. Move at all when a turkey is in view and chances are hunting that bird for the day will be over. To be sure, camouflage helps break up a hunter's outline, and it's important to choose equipment and clothes that blend in with your background. But the real secret to fooling a turkey into close range is not to make any unnecessary movements.

Picking Position and the Shot When picking a position to work a turkey in close, choose a set-up that takes away a turkey's best defense-his eyes. You can do this by putting a slight rise or fall in the terrain, 25 or 30 yards away, between you and the turkey. Then whenever the turkey can be seen, he's in good range to kill. To help break up your outline and for safety, pick a tree to sit against that is wider than your shoulders.

As a turkey responds to your calls, have your shotgun on your knee pointing in the direction of the approaching bird. If the turkey is coming in fast and being noisy, mount the shotgun tight against your cheek and aim toward the spot where you think the bird will appear. Have your finger on the safety and keep a cool head-a hunter might pop over the ridge instead of a turkey.

If a turkey appears quietly, off from the direction you are pointing, wait until the bird's head is behind a tree or other obstruction before you move your shotgun. While aiming make putting calls with a diaphragm caller. This will make a turkey stop and stretch to look, giving maximum exposure to the bird's head and neck. Never take a shot with a screen of brush between you and the bird. Brush destroys shot patterns. Wait until your bird stands in the clear.

Where and How to Aim If your turkey gun has conventional shotgun sights--a front bead and no rear sight--you will have to make a special effort to keep your head down with your cheek tight against the stock. Under the excitement of aiming at a big gobbler, it's easy to look over the barrel with your cheek off the stock. Functioning as the rear sight, your eyes will be above the plane of your shotgun's barrel and will cause you to shoot high.

Your aiming point should be at the base of the neck where neck meets feathers. Don't aim directly at the head. If you do and the turkey, by chance, moves its head the moment you pull the trigger, you will probably miss. Moreover if you put the bead right on a turkey's head and you fail to get your cheek tight against the stock, your shot pattern will buzz right over the bird. Aim at the base of the turkey's neck. This helps prevent these problems.

And shoot your shotgun as if it were a rifle-this means aim carefully and squeeze the trigger. For practice, sit with your back against a tree in the same position you would be shooting from during turkey season, and spend time target shooting with a .22 caliber rifle. It's a great way to polish your marksmanship under hunting conditions.

Proper Attitude Here's the last ingredient for becoming a fine turkey shot: Don't put killing a turkey at the top of your hunting list. Have something else in first-place position-of being the best hunter you can be, enjoying the throaty ring of a gobbling tom at dawn or sensing the history and connections with nature that are a part of the hunt.

With these as your priorities you will be less tempted to take shots you shouldn't, and you will be more able to enjoy turkey hunting.

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