Gobbler Gun Control (TFG Throwback – 1995)

It’s harder than it sounds to hit a big turkey at close range with a shotgun.

by Russell Tinsley

On this hunt everyone had an assignment. Toxey Haas was behind me with his video camera on a tripod. Gary Roberson was to my left, sitting with his back against a scrub oak, call in hand. I was center stage with shotgun loaded and ready.

Toxey is a member of the Haas family of West Point, Mississippi, owner of Mossy Oak camouflage. Roberson owns Burnham Brothers in Menard, famous for their calls and other hunting gear. I am the hunting editor who was given the responsibility of shooting a turkey gobbler once he was seduced into shotgun range. Toxey was making a turkey-hunting video and he needed a segment showing a Rio Grande gobbler being called in Texas. My audition had come the prior afternoon; I’d hunted with Roberson on a ranch between Eldorado and Sonora and he called up a longbeard that I shot.

At first, everything went pretty much according to plan. As we walked to the area where Toxey had been seeing gobblers, he paused at a sandy spot to show me turkey tracks and rubs where a strutting gobbler had dragged his wingtips.

When Roberson first began calling, there was no response. But we stayed with it, committed as we were to the spot. With the preparation needed, we couldn’t move with impunity. We only could hope a gobbler would cooperate.

One did. After about a quarter-hour, we got an answer, a muffled gobble off in the distance. We couldn’t tell if the bird was interested in our calling or not. To help him make up his mind, Toxey used his call to yelp right along with Roberson, to imitate a couple of lonesome hens. When the tom answered again, his voice was much stronger. He was coming our way.

Toxey settled in behind the camera. Roberson kept the seductive yelps going. I nervously tugged at my camo face mask.

In a few minutes, the gobbler swaggered into view. Two hens were with him. He would prance and stop, strutting around, as he closed the distance between us. I could hear the camera motor whirring. Roberson softened the yelps to bring the tom closer. The big bird had a decent-sized beard protruding from his breast feathers.

I couldn’t believe what happened next. When I figured the tom was in range, less than 40 yards, I waited for him to turn his head before I raised the shotgun to my shoulder. The barrel was shaking slightly. As the gobbler came out of his strut, his head up, I found his neck and head in the sights and squeezed the trigger.

Turkeys scattered. The tom jumped and ran a few feet before launching airborne, his heavy wings beating in rhythm as he disappeared over a cluster of scrub oaks. He didn’t appear to be injured. I just sat dumfounded. I didn’t even think about taking a second shot, confident the bird was dead when I squeezed the trigger. Missing wasn’t part of the scenario.

Later, I thought about an incident some years back. A hunter came into the camphouse waving around an empty shotgun hull. “This is a historic shell,” he said. “First time I ever missed a spring gobbler.” Another hunter leaned toward me and whispered: “If he’s never missed a gobbler, he hasn’t shot at many.”

I was thinking the same thing but I didn’t want to say it out loud.

But this miss was difficult for me to accept simply because I thought I had done everything right. I was using a Browning BPS Turkey Special 12-gauge pump shotgun I had, before going hunting, patterned at different ranges with different-sized shot. It was loaded with three-inch Winchester AA magnum shells with No. 4 copper-plated shot. The previous afternoon I shot it the first time while actually hunting and I had killed a gobbler. When we got settled to call, I looked at different landmarks to get a reading on range. A turkey is a big bird and it is easy to believe he is closer than he really is. When the tom approached within range, I waited until the his head and neck were exposed before I fired. I took careful aim before I shot.

At least I thought I had. The BPS turkey-hunting shotgun holds a tight pattern out to about 45 yards and comes equipped with open sights. You aim it just like you aim a rifle. Maybe in the excitement I had failed to align the sights properly and I overshot. Maybe I should have waited until the gobbler came closer. Maybe I was shaking more than I want to admit, the turkey-hunting equivalent of buck fever. Maybe it was all of the above. Whatever, mark it down as an embarrassing miss.

Hitting a big turkey with a shotgun is not as easy as it might sound, not if the gobbler is fatally hit in the right place. There isn’t much room for error.

Nowadays, you can buy a shotgun manufactured specifically for turkey hunting. The spring hunting has become that popular.

Spring turkey hunting is a shotgunner’s sport. Rifles are legal, and while a rifle can reach on out yonder beyond a shotgun’s range, a rifle can wound with a body shot or destroy the edible part of the bird. A gobbler’s vital organs, not much larger than a tennis ball, are tucked among big feathers, wings and a massive breast. If this area is penetrated by a high-powered rifle bullet, there won’t be much gobbler left to eat.

Even with a shotgun you want to avoid this part of the anatomy. A body shot seldom kills a turkey cleanly, even if the bird is at extremely close range. Shot is deflected by muscle and feathers. A body shot might break a wing but the bird still is capable of running off and hiding and probably will die later.

To kill a turkey, you need to set your sights higher. Aim for the neck and head. If you are near enough to a turkey and your pattern of shot is tight enough and your aim is on, you are going to have a turkey on the ground.

Since a shotgun is a limited-range firearm, your quarry has to be close. And this is where calling comes in. The sporty way to challenge a spring gobbler is to play on his passionate emotions to entice him within shotgun range, close quarters where any false move by a hunter will spook him. The drama isn’t firing at one at long range with a rifle. A gobbler deserves better.

Entice a gobbler this near, however, within rock-throwing distance, and it would seem impossible to miss him with a shotgun. Perhaps this is another problem. The hunter gets a bit cocky.

For example, consider the turkey I missed. Probably I overshot him. I would speculate that in the excitement I looked over the sights instead of aligning them properly. This certainly is a tendency with a standard shotgun with only a bead at the end of the barrel. When turkey hunting, you want to aim the gun, not point it. From a sitting position, practice mounting the shotgun where looking down the rib or barrel comes naturally.

To kill a turkey, you need to set your sights higher…

But the point of aim has to be in the right place. The vulnerable areas on a turkey are the neck and head. To give some idea what we’re talking about, take a regular carpenter’s claw hammer and bury part of the handle where the hammer will stand upright. Step off 40 yards and take a look. The hammer handle and the head minus the claw are about the same size as a turkey’s head and neck.

If you were to shoot at the hammer, you’d probably aim at the head. It is the same with a turkey. This is a part of the bird your eyes will be tracking. Yet you’ll be lessening your chances of a clean kill. As mentioned earlier, there is the tendency to look over the barrel, not down it, and you overshoot the target. Also, many shotguns are stocked to place the center of the pattern slightly higher than the point of aim. This is another contributing factor.

Rather than aiming at the head, the aim should be about halfway down the neck. You greatly enhance your chances of putting pellets in both the neck and head, taking full advantage of the upper part of the pattern.

To really understand how your gun performs you need to pattern it. Draw a target on a piece of cardboard or buy a turkey patterning kit at a store that handles shotguns. The kit will include several targets. Use shells of different brands and different-sized shot at various ranges out to about 45 yards. A 2 3/4-inch magnum load of No. 4 shot of different brand-name shotshells can vary quite a bit in density. You want to find the one load that performs best in your gun.

Gary Roberson of Menard took this nice gobbler on a hunt last spring. For hunting, our spring turkey hunting is hard to beat.

You need a tight pattern from a full-choke gun, typically a 12 gauge. Pattern density is crucial. With a tight pattern, you can put several pellets in a vital area, either the head or the spinal column in the neck. And remember, the closer the bird, the tighter the pattern. If the bird is no more than 25 to 30 yards away, you want to aim right under the head instead of lower on the neck. You’ll have a better understanding of exactly where to aim if you know how your gun patterns No. 4 or 5 shot, the sizes that deliver enough shot, a dozen or more, to the neck and head, yet retain penetration power on out there. No. 6 shot produces the most consistent patterns from many guns, but 35 yards is about maximum effective killing range for the smaller shot.

The hunter can increase his odds by working for close-in shots. The closer the bird, the less margin of error. You need to be in complete camouflage and remain patient. Don’t move until you are ready to shoot. Watch the bird’s head and wait for it to be turned or behind some object like a rock or stump before you mount the gun and be prepared to fire. If the cautious gobbler senses something is wrong, he’s leaving.

Waiting until the bird gets close takes discipline. Also, judging range can be tricky. A gobbler in full strut will appear to be nearer than he is. Some hunters utilize decoys while they call. A decoy serves a couple of purposes. It helps hold a gobbler’s attention away from the hunter. Also, it is a point of reference. By knowing the distance to his decoy, the hunter will know that when the gobbler is near the fake, he is in range.

Another gadget to serve the cause is a split-image rangefinder. I have a turkey-hunting model made by Ranging, Inc. It is compact with camouflage finish and is accurate out to 60 yards. Before making your first call, take readings on various landmarks within your sight of vision. This way you will know immediately when a gobbler approaches within effective killing range.

But the most important fundamental is to shoot not at the whole turkey but at his neck and head. The bird is most vulnerable when he isn’t in full strut. When the breast feathers are puffed out and the tom has his neck and head tucked into the feathers, there is nothing exposed to shoot at. Wait for the gobbler to come out of his strut or make some noise such as a “putt” to cause him to raise his neck and head into full view.

And once you shoot, be ready to deliver a quick second shot if need be. A wild turkey is a tough bird. I’ve seen one knocked in a complete somersault and come up running to make his getaway. Don’t pat yourself on the back until you have bird in hand.

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