With my cheek firmly placed on the stock, I waited patiently for the tom to turn. When the longbeard pirouetted and faced the decoy, I held the crosshairs steady and gently squeezed the trigger.
The bolt was quickly on its way, hitting the vitals of the strutting tom. Soon, I was strapping a tag to the leg of the striking, Merriam’s turkey. It was my first time turkey hunting with a crossbow, and I was hooked.
I live in Oregon, where turkey hunting with a crossbow is prohibited. (Hopefully, that will change one day.) So, I traveled to Wyoming to experience the thrills of chasing spring thunder chickens with my crossbow. I’d taken dozens of turkeys with my compound bow and more than that with a shotgun in my more than 35 years of turkey hunting. I was ready for something new.
Turkey hunting with a crossbow is a fun challenge. It’s a great transition for those looking for a change from pursuing them with a shotgun, but it’s more forgiving than hunting them with a vertical bow. Here are five tips that I quickly learned that will help you tag a turkey with a crossbow.
You don’t have to be a world-class caller to coax a turkey to within crossbow range, but you do want to call effectively and with confidence. If you can master yelps, clucks and purrs, you’re set. Calling a tom within crossbow range is ideal, versus trying to pull off a spot-and-stalk hunt where movement is unavoidable. Turkeys see in color and have vision equivalent to 8x binoculars, so they don’t miss much.
Practice the basic calls and be able to make them with a box and/or slate call. Being able to make yelps and purrs with a diaphragm call will greatly help as it frees both hands and greatly minimizes movement.
Box calls and slates produce volume, which is great for capturing the attention of birds in the distance and drawing them in close. But as turkeys get near, hunters must be stone still. This means no hand movement for call operation.
If you can see a turkey, it can see you, and any movement will get you busted. Having a diaphragm call in your mouth will allow hands-free operation, allowing you to pull turkeys within shooting range or stop them for the perfect shot angle if they are moving around.
Decoys will also help attract toms and keep their attention diverted so you can take a shot at a calm bird. Placing a hen decoy 10 to 15 yards in front of you is a good distance when setting up to hunt with a crossbow. If hunting from a ground blind, placing the decoy five yards from your shooting window is not too close.
While turkeys have powerful vision, it is monocular because their eyes are set far apart on the sides of their heads. This means they have poor depth perception. That
explains why they may closely approach hunters and ground blinds as long as all is still and there are no sudden movements or sounds. So, if you are hunting from a popup ground blind, make sure all windows are closed except for the one you’ll be shooting out. Also, check to be sure there are no loose parts to potentially flap in the wind because such movement will spook turkeys.
If you desire a broadside shot on a tom, situate the hen decoy facing broadside to your shooting position because a tom will usually move in front of it to make sure he’s being seen. If you want a straight-on shot, place the decoy facing away. Upon seeing a hen decoy, toms will often strut around it, trying to get in front of it so she can see him. This is where stopping the turkey for the shot precisely where you want it is easy to do with a diaphragm call.
Run and Gun
The beauty of turkey hunting with a crossbow comes in the form of mobility. With a vertical bow it is extremely difficult to hunt from the ground without a blind because any movement will spook a turkey. If you try reaching full draw with a vertical bow, with a tom in sight, the gig is up fast.
But with a crossbow that is bolted in place and cocked, movement is minimal, just as it is when you’re hunting them with a shotgun. Shooting off a sturdy monopod or bipod is a big help. This ensures no movement as the bird approaches. At the very least, sit so you can rest the crossbow on your knee, but be mindful not to get any fingers or clothes above the rail, where the string will hit it. Before the tom pops into view, have the crossbow steadied on the rest and aimed at the decoy. You may be in this position anywhere from a couple of minutes to more than an hour, so get comfortable with a cushioned seat.
When a tom comes into sight, don’t move, even if it is hundreds of yards away. The only movements you’ll want to make when a tom is in sight are moving the safety to the off position and pulling the trigger. Be sure to wear camouflaged gloves and a face mask and practice shooting in all your gear before the hunt. When it comes time to take a shot, you should know how all the moving parts operate and not be distracted worrying about the operation of your crossbow.
Because crossbows shoot so fast, fixed broadheads are often preferred over expandables for turkey hunting. A bolt can pass so swiftly through a tom and with so much kinetic energy that the expandable may not open. It’s better to have a big wound channel than a tiny one.
Be sure to practice shooting your broadhead so you know exactly where it hits. Since turkeys are nervous by nature, they flinch at the slightest movement and instantaneous noises. This is why you want turkeys close when shooting them with a crossbow.
Turkeys have small vitals in proportion to the outline of their feathered bodies. A favorite crossbow shot of mine is when a tom is standing erect, feathers tucked in tight to the body, head extended, facing straight away. This exposes the entire spine. The lungs are situated in the middle of the body between the wings. Place a broadhead here and you’ll get your bird every time, because not only are you hitting vitals, but you’re also severing the spine, meaning your bird will drop on the spot.
Another solid crossbow shot is when a tom is in full strut and facing away. Place a bolt where all the tail feathers converge; this will drive the broadhead through the vitals.
When a tom is in full strut and facing you, put the broadhead where the base of the neck meets the feathers. This shot can break the neck and continue passing through the bird, hitting the vitals.
If a tom is standing upright and facing you with feathers tucked in, place the bolt where the beard comes out of the body. This will ensure an upper-heart and lower-lung shot, and if centered, it will sever the spine. Make sure the bird is steady and calm for this shot.
A good shot when a bird is standing upright, broadside, feathers tucked in, is to follow the legs straight up the body, placing the broadhead in the center of the bird’s body. This will ensure a heart shot.
Another good shot is when a tom is in full strut and standing broadside. This is a deceiving angle since the bird’s feathers are puffed up, its head is retracted, and the tail is fully fanned. Here, draw an imaginary line connecting the base of the neck to the base of the tail. Next, come straight up from the legs. Where the legs bisect the horizontal line drawn between the neck and the tail, and right in the middle of the body, that’s your sweet spot. Hit this “T” intersection and you’ll find an open triangle leading to the heart. If the bolt flies a bit high, it will hit the lungs and the spine.
By knowing turkey behavior and anatomy, the odds of tagging one with a crossbow are greatly increased. Equip your setup with a stable shooting aid, know precisely where the bolts hit, keep movement to a minimum, and you’re on the way to experiencing just how thrilling crossbow hunting for turkeys can be.
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For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best-selling book, Western Turkey Hunting: Strategies for All Levels, visit www.scotthaugen.com. You can follow Scott’s adventures on Instagram and Facebook.