Three friends recently joined me for the archery turkey opener in eastern South Dakota, and while the April 7 weather conditions — air temp of 3 degrees! — certainly didn’t scream spring, the toms were surprisingly hot.
Because we hauled a pile of gear into the field — pop-up blinds, decoys, chairs, etc. — I partnered with my buddy Bill, who carries a Mathews bow I once owned. He and I are almost identical in height and arm length, and I can shoot his bow almost as well as my current model. We figured toting one bow would cut down on the load. The plan was he’d shoot first, then if a second tom decided to hang around and stomp on his dead bird, we could do the ol’ switcheroo in the blind and I’d be up to bat.
Bill and I positioned our Double Bull blind on the north edge of a 5-acre picked cornfield, about 150 yards from a box blind that sits on the south side of the field. My friend Chris was in this box blind, while the other member of our group, Scott, was in a third blind on the east side of the corn.
As expected, a large wintering flock of birds was roosted in the nearby river-bottom, and numerous toms and jakes blessed us with a half-hour of thunderous gobbles at daybreak. Finally, the birds pitched down and eventually snowshoed our direction across the still-wintery landscape.
The ground was frozen, making it impossible to drive decoy stakes, so we simply set our Dave Smith Decoys on top of the foot-deep snow. Bill and I placed a single DSD hen, while Chris and Scott each placed two hens and a jake.
An hour after fly-down, at least 30 birds arrived at our field, entering near Chris’s ambush. Bill and I watched as a handful of hens milled around by Chris’s DSDs, and soon a lone tom sauntered in to challenge his jake decoy. About the only thing more exciting than having a tom strut in toward your decoy is watching it happen to a buddy in a nearby blind, so Bill and I were all smiles knowing that in seconds an arrow would exit the box.
But there was no shot.
The tom stopped 7 yards from the blind at Chris’s jake decoy, then hit it with his wing, causing the fake to tumble over on the snow. Now somewhat alert, the tom decided to exit the scene, slowly walking straight away. Finally, Bill and I watched an explosion of feathers, as Chris’s mechanical broadhead impacted the tom. Sadly, however, Chris’s straight-away shot didn’t touch anything but wing feathers, and after the tom jumped 8 feet into the air, he quickly joined his now-alert buddies. The entire flock departed the field, choosing to feed in a different location.
History Repeats Itself
Fast-forward to morning No. 2, and Bill and I position our Double Bull in the river-bottom because high winds make it impossible to use the pop-up blind on the prairie. Remember, the ground is frozen, so using tent stakes isn’t an option.
I pressed a DSD hen into the snow at 10 yards, and a jake decoy facing her at seven, giving visiting toms a clear walkway between the decoys. Later in the spring when breeding is occurring, I’ll place the jake DSD right behind the hen, but right now the only thing on a tom’s bird brain is food and survival.
Again, Bill is prepared to shoot and I’m on deck.
Soon after fly-down time, we spot a few groups of toms working through the bottom. It’s not difficult to spot their large black bodies against the Arctic white backdrop. Two longbeards pass behind our blind, then circle around and stop at 40 yards. They can easily see our decoys. Suddenly, three more longbeards arrive on the scene, and the two groups slug it out in plain sight. Even though it’s two against three, the pair comes out on top. As the three longbeards run away, the pair finally decides to confront our jake decoy.
In half-strut, they walk directly toward us down a snow-covered two-track. Our plan is working to perfection. The toms are bumping wings as they waddle closer and closer, trying their best to stay on top of the crusted snow.
I expect Bill to draw his bow when the toms get to 15 yards, but he waits. The toms pass the 10-yard mark and Bill is still motionless. Finally, the toms are directly behind the jake DSD, facing our blind at 8 yards. Not sure why Bill hasn’t drawn yet, I give him a thumb up sign, pleading for him to get with the program. As Bill completes his draw and then aligns his Magnus Bullhead in the opening of the blind, careful to keep the large head/neck-cutting broadhead in the center of the window, he unintentionally let up on his draw. This causes his arrow to spring forward, bumping the front of the blind.
The toms hear this foreign sound and become agitated. They aren’t walking away — yet — but their heads and necks are now moving targets. Not good.
Bill is back to full draw, and I can see him trying to find a stationary aiming point, but it’s not happening. Seconds later the toms walk straight away, heads and necks still moving this way and that, and it’s game over.
In talking to Chris and Bill after each “close encounter of the gobbler kind,” they stated that they didn’t want to spook close-range birds that were looking toward the blind. I understand this concern, but in my opinion, it’s a risk you must take. And in my experience, it’s really not a risk at all.
We take every precaution to keep the blinds (pop-ups and box blinds) as dark as possible inside, and we dress like Johnny Cash. You have to trust that birds can’t see you through the open window.
In both cases during opening weekend, Chris and Bill should have drawn their bows when the toms were walking steadily toward the blind at a range of 15 yards. Doing so gives the shooter a bit of time to find their anchor point, track the bird with their sight, be sure there’s clearance for the broadhead out of the window, etc. If a tom stops short and you have to let up on your draw, then so be it.
By drawing with birds at 15 yards or even a bit farther, you’re ready for that all-important time when the tom initially confronts your jake decoy or pauses at your fake hen. In almost every case, the best shot opportunity is the 1 to 3 seconds when a tom initially stops at your decoy. He’s waiting for the decoy to make the first move, and when it fails to do so, that’s when the games begin. He might fight the jake decoy, he might attempt to stand on top of the hen — who knows. But one thing is certain: you’ll have a moving target, and your chance of making a good hit with an arrow just went south.