I recall a time when tagging turkeys with a bow seemed a sort of parlor trick you pulled off only under the most unusual of lucky circumstances. And I’m referring to using modern compound bows with all of the up-to-date trimmings.
But, I was addicted to spring turkey hunting and, more pointedly, to all things bowhunting, so early on, I kept plugging away despite a few dead birds to show for my considerable effort. I learned a few tricks along the way and began to find regular success.
When I surpassed maybe the 50-gobbler mark, I found killing turkeys with compound bows just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I began to take my traditional recurves along on spring hunts and continued to collect birds each season by adopting a still more detailed approach.
Going that extra mile
One of the first things I learned is that you won’t kill many spring gobblers with a bow while plying areas that get pounded by shotgun hunters. Getting away from it all requires more research and effort, but it also gets you onto more cooperative birds.
One of the ways I accomplish this is by backpacking deep into wilderness areas where reliable water and lush meadows combine to help turkeys flourish. In general, if fishing is better than average, excellent turkey hunting is also likely.
I recall a half dozen hotspots deep in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness where I could just show up and be assured of a productive spring hunt. These are places where I never saw another person, simply because I was willing to strap on a 55- to 60-pound backpack and trudge 10 to 12 miles away from desolate trailheads. My last Gila adventure is indicative of the spring wilderness experience.
Together with a friend, also a turkey hunter enthusiast, we backpacked 12 miles across high ridges and into a remote, hazy, deep canyon. In the bottom were beautiful meadows full of lush spring grasses and wildflowers, and a gin-clear creek teaming with native trout. I’ve never seen even a boot track there during any season.
I left the warming campfire as the sky began to silver, pausing at intermittent meadows to offer box-call yelps. I’d not traveled far before getting an answer from a booming gobbler. He came on so fast that I had to throw down in the relative open and trust my camouflage suit.
I have one, which includes a camouflage industrial netting shell with hundreds of hanks of light camouflage material, jute rope, and burlap sewn on in strips. It is an integral part of my run-and-gun spring success. It destroys the human outline; I’ve successfully drawn on birds that were eyeing me.
This longbeard came in hot and fast, and was crossing my front at 21 yards. I waited until he passed behind a scanty pine, tugged my bowstring and snugged into anchor, swung with him, and released as he emerged, only managing to loosen some rump feathers and hasten his progress. It was a miss that was easily shrugged off.
I was on another loud gobbler within the hour, this one also coming hot. I settled into a ring of head-high firs and continued calling. Wilderness birds, when timing is right, are pretty straightforward. When they make up their mind to come, they come, unlike the cat-and-mouse antics of pressured gobblers.
This gobbler, a gorgeous 3-½-year-old with a ropey beard, burst into the open, puffed up, and spitting and drumming only 25 yards away. He got me a little bit worked up, since at 25 yards, I can normally center a Ponderosa pinecone every shot with a recurve; but, when I drew, he deflated, causing some amount of urgency, and I shot at the whole bird rather than a select spot.
The glancing hit yielded only another puff of feathers. My reaction was a little less nonchalant this time and may have included some foul language. All that commotion got another gobbler fired up, and he seemed to be headed my way. I was truly in turkey-hunting nirvana.
I took the time to unfurl another secret weapon, a blind shield designed for remote settings like these. The shield is a 5×6- foot shaggie face with twin zippered shooting ports, allowing archers to draw and shoot with little worry of detection.
It also weighs only 5 ½ pounds and packs to wine-bottle dimensions for easy, all-day daypack toting, and it can be deployed in less than a minute as a free-standing or vegetation-supported hide.
This bird, a near twin to the last, edged into my shooting lane while standing on the very ground his predecessor had, strutting his best, head turning the colors of a barber’s pole. This time I breathed deeply before tugging on the bowstring, pulled a little deeper into my cheek, and invested a couple of extra seconds boring a hole through a single glistening feather—all without the bird knowing I existed.
The arrow bowled the gobbler over into a cloud of pine duff, needles, and dislodged feathers. I launched from my hiding place and sprinted to tackle him, but he was already done.
Choosing the path less traveled
Of course, excellent turkey hunting is often found in decidedly non-mountainous areas far from the wilderness. Places like the Dakotas and Nebraska, portions of Texas and Kansas, Oregon, and northern Idaho come to mind. These are places far from large population centers where turkeys thrive, and locals don’t take them as seriously as in other parts of the hunting world.
My Nebraska forays are a perfect example. Way up north in the legendary Sandhills during the bow-only March season, you’ll have the entire place to yourself, hunting both public national forests or knocking on doors for private-land access. On my last trip there, I tagged three gobblers (legally, I might add) during a five-day hunt—all with a recurve bow.
We simply drove along farmland and riparian habitats, spotting birds and knocking on the nearest door to inquire if we could take a stab at them. Few landowners refused permission, and those who did were almost apologetic, normally saving the hunting for visiting relatives.
We would locate birds and secure permission for particular fields, wait for the enormous flocks of birds (sometimes up to 50) to go to roost, slip in after dusk and erect a pop-up blind, then stab several decoys just below the windows. We’d return in the morning for a nearly too-easy hunt.
During our best morning, my friend and I called in about 20 hens courted by five long-beards, and both filled tags with a perfectly timed “You take the one on the right, and I’ll take the one on the left” maneuver.
It was one of those turkey-hunting memories you never forget: an entire season of turkey-hunting experience packed into one, two-hour morning hunt. Those were some boomer gobblers, too, both weighing just shy of 30 pounds and wearing paintbrushes 11 ½-inch beards.
Turkey decoys can hurt just as easily as assist your approach. While occupying blinds, don’t place decoys too far away. A gobbler that spies a decoy will often drop into strut and stall, waiting for the hen to come to him.
Place decoys so that if your gobbler does take a stand, he is well within range. Placing decoys just beneath blind windows is acceptable. A smart setup ensures a slam-dunk (turkeys have small vital areas) and higher odds with standing shots.
When running and gunning, use decoys to divert attention away from your position, and make drawing your bow undetected easier. Placing decoys just past your position can result in better quality passing shots or a stalled bird placed well within range and broadside with attention focused forward.
Pair hens with jake decoys to illicit jealousy and lure territorial gobblers closer.
In areas I hunt regularly, I construct permanent blinds of natural materials in many prime locations, so I can jump into them at a moment’s notice should I get a gobbler going. These are located on key strutting meadows, near regular roosting sites, along traveling ridges and feeding areas.
These are more like enclosed “caves” than simple brush rings. I start by wiring straight poles, gathered onsite, between three or four vertical tree trunks to create a frame to hold a roof and to lean disguising cover against. I’ve also stacked logs, Lincoln-Log-style, to create supporting corners to place poles across, digging a seat into the ground to lower my profile
Then I use dead branches, cut boughs, weeds, and grass to cover the frame and create dark, enclosed caves where the movements of setting up to shoot and drawing my bow are disguised. Make sure to leave plenty of overhead space for the top limb of your bow.
Like me, if you’ve tired of taking turkeys with a compound bow, consider the traditional approach. Not only do you get the thrill of an up-close-and-personal encounter, but you get to relive turkey hunting as our bowhunting ancestors experienced it.
This article was submitted by Darryl Potter.
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