From time to time you’ll get a bird that comes to the call like he’s lead on a string. But overall, turkey hunting is no simple assignment, especially for us archers. For a bowhunter, it doesn’t get much more challenging than putting a precise shot on a bird that is probably moving and has a kill zone the size of your fist. Sitting or kneeling and then drawing a bow are a different story than having your shotgun propped up on your knee. I like to hunt turkeys with both, a bow and shotgun, but when it comes to bowhunting there are a few tools that can make the challenge much easier than the same tried shotgun basics.
The type of set-up you’re planning will influence how difficult it will be to get away with the motion of drawing your bow. Are you using a blind and decoys, will you have a buddy call the bird past you, or maybe you’re relying on natural cover, good camouflage and your hunter’s savvy?
A blind can be a huge asset. This way you’re concealed when you make the drawing motion. Overall, if I consider both archery and shotgun harvested birds, I’ve harvested more gobblers without using a blind. But when it comes to "just archery," I feel a blind increases your odds for success significantly.
There are many companies manufacturing portable blinds that are light to carry and easy to set up. When hunting whitetails from a ground blind, you’d better have the blind "brushed-in" and well-camouflaged, or have it set out weeks in advance of the hunt so the whitetails become accustomed to it. On the other hand, for turkeys it seems you can set up in the middle of a bald field and they will walk right up to it. If you don’t wish to carry around a portable "pop-up"-style blind, you can also use natural materials to construct a blind or make an "L"-shaped structure with a piece of camo cloth or netting.
Calling will likely be different for a bowhunter as well. You may use the same call arsenal as any other hunter to start the tom on his way to you, but once he gets close you’d better have both your hands on your bow and be ready to draw. For just this reason it’s a good idea to master a diaphragm or some type of mouth call.
The other tool I wouldn’t enter the turkey woods without are decoys. Where sometimes I’ll go without a blind, I never go without decoys. Decoys can accomplish a few tasks for you. They attract the bird(s) closer, draw the attention off of the hunter and a decoy can even be used as a yardage marker if needed.
I almost always carry two hens and some type of a male turkey decoy – jake or gobbler. That male decoy I feel, is the key to bringing real gobblers in close. Nowadays there are numerous full-bodied, full-strut decoys that really work well. Some of the good ones you have to look at twice yourself to tell it’s a decoy.
There are several decoy techniques that will work. Before I started regularly using a blind, I used to try to lure the gobblers past me with the decoys, drawing my bow when they got behind a tree or when their fan obstructed their view. This can still be a great technique if you don’t want to lug around a blind and you want to stay mobile. It works especially well if you’re hunting with a friend – one tries to call the bird(s) past the other. This way the attention is directed towards the caller and where the decoys are. Obviously you need to know the direction the birds will be approaching and you’ll want to have some cover nearby so there will be some chance to draw your bow while their eyes are obstructed.
Another way was taught to me many years ago by an old bowhunter from Tennessee. A strutting decoy is the main focus of this set-up. Place your hen decoys how you normally would, but when you set up the male decoy put it out about ten steps. Make sure that decoy is facing you! Use a stick on either side of the decoy to make sure it doesn’t pivot and stays facing you. If you give them time, most often the gobbler will wind up in a face-to-face, full-strut confrontation with your male decoy. This will typically leave you faced with a "full-strut fan" protecting your movement from their keen eyesight giving you an opportunity to draw your bow.
With this decoy set-up it isn’t necessary to have a blind, but you must have great camouflage and you must stay perfectly still with your bow in your lap until you draw it. I really like Mossy Oak Obsession for the Northern woods in the spring. With the turkeys’ unbelievable eyesight, Obsession gives great depth, so as long as I don’t move I can go unnoticed. I like to sit with my butt on the ground; I can stay still for much longer this way than kneeling. The key is to wait for your targeted gobbler to go full-strut, face-to-face to your decoy. Now pick up your bow and draw. Even if there are multiple birds and they see you, it usually takes about five to seven seconds for your targeted gobbler to come out of full-strut and figure out what’s going on. By then, the arrow should be on its way.
With most blinds, set up is fairly easy; however, there are a few tips to make it even easier. If you know where the birds are coming from, don’t place your decoys in between you and where they are. Place your decoys off to the side of your blind at a 45° to 90° angle. If you place the decoys directly in between you and the birds, the birds will be looking straight at you when they approach. Obviously, there’s the chance, even though you’re in a blind, they may catch movement or something about the blind they don’t like. Also, their tendency is to stop short and wait for your fake birds to join them. If you place your decoys off to your side, you still draw them close enough for a shot even if they don’t come all the way into the decoys.
Regardless of the archery tactic used, where do you shoot the bird? Many tell you "right up the rear" is a good shot. In all honesty, if you’re not worried about ruining the beard or fan, it is a good shot choice. However, I prefer to wait until the tom starts to turn at an angle. Now there are two choices - body or head. If they’re close enough, a head shot is the way to go. If you think about it, their head is only slightly smaller than their vitals. If you happen to miss, there’s no wounded bird. And, if you hit, nothing puts them down faster than a broadhead to their head. Some of the specialized hunting heads for turkeys are sporting cutting diameters of up to four inches! I’ve seen these decapitate a turkey…literally.
To me, the whole "essence" of turkey hunting is calling the gobblers into a set-up. Obviously, if that’s all it was, I would never take a gun or bow into the woods with me. So harvesting a bird is a goal, but not necessary for a positive outing. If you’ve never tried bowhunting for turkey or maybe you’ve not had any luck yet, a blind and decoys are two tools that will help you seal the deal.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations for Mossy Oak BioLogic, Editor-in-Chief of Gamekeepers, Farming for Wildlife magazine and a habitat consultant.