By Todd Bromley
As I've noted many times in my writings, spring gobbler season is one of my favorite times of the year. It basically begins the start of the new hunting year, and it's the first time we get to try many of the new products on the market in real world hunting situations.
Every state except Alaska has a spring gobbler season. Depending upon what state you live in, seasons begin as early as March or as late as May. Most states are generous with the number of days they allow to pursue these feathery adversaries, making them the perfect quarry for horizontal archery equipment.
Hunting gobblers with a crossbow is about as fun as it gets. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes spring gobblers tick and how to take advantage of their weaknesses.
Spring is the wild turkey's breeding season. Increased daylight signals a shift toward mating time for hens. Mature gobblers are biding their time by working out pecking orders and establishing breeding territories all the while waiting for the first hens to become receptive.
It's this vulnerability that we as hunters are trying to take advantage of by mimicking the breeding calls of a hen turkey. Male turkeys gobble to tell the hens where to find them. They strut to increase their body size so the hens can spot them easier and to look more impressive to the ladies and more intimidating to other male rivals.
Biologists tell us that in nature’s perfect scheme, the hen is programmed to go to the gobbler. That well may be the case, but anyone who has spent more than one season pursuing these finicky feathered beasts knows that once the gobbler and hen are together, it's the hen that's leading the way. She will lead the gobbler wherever she decides to go the majority of the time.
Because of the hens’ dominant navigation tendencies, several years ago I began changing my hunting tactics. No longer do I use the “run and gun” approach trying to locate a vocal gobbler. Instead, I rely on preseason scouting and in season observation.
Wild turkeys can be very predictable and pattern-able. Turkeys as a whole do not travel very far or fast in the spring time. There's plenty of abundant food sources. Hens won't stray far from established dusting and nesting sites, and gobblers are reluctant to leave their established breeding area. On more than one occasion, I've seen a gobbler with several hens stay within a two-hundred yard radius the entire day.
Generally all of the birds will be in the same roosting areas night after night and visit the same feeding areas day after day. Obviously, food sources change and on any given day things can happen to break their pattern, but more often than not, there's a lot of familiarity and redundancy in a wild turkey's routine.
Plowed fields can be a real game changer in the areas that I hunt. Almost instantly turkeys will start utilizing plowed fields when they become available. They make great strutting areas for mature gobblers and offer the security of openness while worms, insects, seeds and dusting areas can be easily accessed.
Your scouting objective should be to locate as many gobblers as possible before opening day. The best way to accomplish this is to listen for both gobblers and hens near known roosting areas in the early morning hours or by visually glassing them in open fields throughout the day.
I'm not opposed to hunting deep woods or mountain top gobblers, but my preference is to hunt the more visible field gobblers. During any given season, I can locate between fifteen and twenty different gobblers by glassing open fields. Often times mature gobblers will spend hours with their hens strutting, gobbling, and breeding right out in the fields.
Many times they will use the same entrance and exit points when utilizing the fields. After two or three quick glassing sessions, you can have the birds relatively patterned and you've not educated them in the least.
Because I primarily hunt open fields when turkey hunting, I hunt exclusively from pop-up ground blinds. Not only am I completely concealed, but I am protected from the elements. This total concealment is more forgiving to unwarranted movement without the danger of being spotted by the turkey’s keen eyesight.
Pop-up ground blinds are very easy to set up and take down. They can be mastered by almost anyone in a matter of minutes, making them a very versatile piece of hunting equipment that allows hunters to change positions rather quickly and easily. They also can be set up and left for days on end if they're tethered properly.
There are several commercial blinds available on the market, but I've found the hub style blinds to be the most effective for crossbow hunting. An opening across the entire front of the blind allows for easier maneuverability for horizontal crossbows, and the larger openings are more forgiving concerning target acquisition. Practice shouldering the crossbow as to shoot in any direction that a turkey may present itself. This will also determine the best possible position for your seat.
Using a knee pod or shooting stick will improve your accuracy greatly. Whether you choose to use a shooting aid or shoot off hand, it's very important to make certain the arrow will clear the blind window at the shot. Simply shoulder the crossbow and give it a visual inspection. If the arrow’s path looks like it will be anywhere close to the bottom of the window, adjust accordingly.
All commercial blinds are black on the inside. Therefore, you can leave your camo at home when hunting from them. It's best to cover your head, hands and face in black. Then you will be completely invisible while inside the blind.
Calling a wary gobbler into bow range can seem like an intimidating task to the novice hunter, but one does not have to be a master caller to pull it off on a regular basis. In fact, calling is probably the least important factor when you've done your scouting properly.
When looking for flock mates or other lone hens or gobblers, turkeys can make several calls in an effort to get another turkey to call back. While there are numerous calls in a turkey's vocabulary, the two most popular calls made are the yelp and cluck. A cluck is the single note made by both gobblers and hens. Clucks are often spaced out with two or three seconds between them. Occasionally a turkey will make a single cluck.
The hen yelp is usually three to ten notes long, and it's the preferred call most used by spring gobbler hunters. With a little practice, both calls can be mastered quite easily. After that, you can start expanding your turkey vocabulary as you feel it's needed. Often times as hunters we get too mouthy with our calling. This can be detrimental when trying to get a gobbler to head in your direction. When it comes to hunting gobblers, in most cases less is more.
Decoys are another valuable asset when you're hunting field gobblers. I always incorporate three decoys into my setups. If you've scouted your area properly, a wary old gobbler will often times cover those last few fatal yards if he spots decoys in an area where he typically expects to see other turkeys.
The decoys will divert his focal point from the shooter. Decoys also give the crossbow shooter an instant yardage reference point. It's important that you know the exact distance to your decoys so you can estimate the yardage accordingly before you take the shot at an approaching gobbler.
There are several styles and models of decoys available. I prefer to use a feeding hen, alert hen, and full strut gobbler decoy in my setups. Generally, if a gobbler is approaching a hen decoy, he will do so from the rear. If he's approaching a full strut gobbler decoy, he will typically do so from the side or front. Try to stake out your decoys accordingly in reference to the anticipated approach of the incoming gobbler.
Once a gobbler is in range, you have to seal the deal by putting a lethal shot on it. Turkeys have a relatively small vital zone, leaving little room for error and rarely will a turkey stay stationary for any extended period of time. Therefore, shot placement is crucial.
I believe the only shot you should ever take at a gobbler is when it's broadside or nearly broadside. Shot placement should be into the wingbutt. The wingbutt shot provides the largest exposure to the vital area and also affords you the opportunity to incapacitate the turkey by breaking its wing.
A wingbutt shot gobbler will generally expire within sight if not immediately upon impact. There's simply too much room for error when targeting other areas. If your shot placement is off by as little as one inch, the turkey can escape recovery.
There are many specialty broadheads on the market designed specifically for hunting the wild turkey. Most will work well out of horizontal archery equipment with the exception of broadheads designed for decapitation. To date, these types of broadheads do not fly well from the power a crossbow unleashes, and often times there's foot stirrup clearance issues with the broadheads’ blades.
As long as the broadheads you are using are designed specifically for crossbows, they will work effectively on gobblers. If you are using an expandable or fixed blade head for deer, the same broadhead will work for wild turkeys.
I do prefer to shoot an arrow that is 100 grains lighter from my turkey setup. The reason for this logic is a turkey's kill zone is about the size of a softball. And unlike a whitetail, rarely can you get a turkey to pose in a stationary position. A lighter arrow will shoot faster and flatter than a heavier arrow. Penetration is also an important factor to consider. Unlike the whitetail, we do not want the arrow to fully penetrate and pass through the turkey if possible. A lighter arrow will penetrate less than a heavier one.
Patience is the key to killing spring gobblers with horizontal archery equipment. Scout before the season to find an area the birds are using. Set up a ground blind to cover the area. Stake out multiple decoys at pre-ranged distances. Call sparingly and have faith in your set up and equipment. Once you've mastered these few details, you're on your way to experiencing the joys of hunting horizontal gobblers.