Bowhunting Turkeys: Have a Plan for Body Shots

Tired of whiffed shots or tracking turkeys after a marginal body hit? Try these tips.

Bowhunting Turkeys: Have a Plan for Body Shots

I’ve been bowhunting turkeys for 17 years. In fact, I bowhunted exclusively for the first six seasons, arrowing multiple birds before ever carrying a shotgun afield. I usually dust one, two or three toms every spring with my 12-gauge. However, I prefer the higher involvement of archery hunting. Don’t get me wrong; dumping a 40-yard gobbler with a shotgun is thrilling. But, for me, nothing in the turkey woods rivals the intensity of watching a strutter in my peep sight as he raids my decoys. That very intensity, though, can cause impairments that affect one’s ability to perform.

Archery hunting for turkeys is like archery hunting for any game. Place your shot correctly, and you’ll be dining fine. Shoot poorly, and you’ll miss or face a perplexing tracking obligation. What separates turkeys from larger game is their tiny kill zones. Add to that the fact turkeys rarely stop moving, and that small kill zone becomes an even more challenging target.

I’ll be perfectly candid in admitting I’ve missed a lot of turkeys with my bow over the last 17 years. I’ve also shaved feathers off a few birds, and I hit several well that I was unable to recover despite my inexorable seek-and-find efforts. Of course, those instances have pocked memories on my slate that still sicken me to this day. But they won’t define my future performance. 

The goal with bowhunting wild turkeys is to make quick, clean, no-tracking-required kills. When anything less happens, it’s the lowest feeling a bowhunter can have. I would know. Several springs ago, I resolved to tighten my arrows-launched-to-birds-killed ratio and virtually eliminate tracking. Here are the steps I’ve taken to do it.

Slow Down

Let me begin with the most important point. I believe the No. 1 reason bowhunters miss or make poor hits on turkeys is rushed shots. I say this because I can regularly hit a paper plate from 100 yards, yet I’ve had my growing pains in the past with killing turkeys inside 20 yards due to rushing.

A gobbling, strutting tom approaching your blind or hide is exciting business, and it’s easy to meltdown in the moment and shoot too quickly with little or no thought given to the process. If you allow the reverberating gobbles to numb your mental and physical control, then you’ll likely make poor hits or miss completely.

Staying calm as gobbles explode within 20 yards requires intense mental concentration. For me, I started treating my overexcitement by downplaying the moment. I started telling myself that it’s just a dumb bird — obviously, I have far greater respect and value for wild turkeys than that, but I needed a way to trick myself into perceiving the gobbling and drumming in a way that dodged anxiety overload.

That, along with talking myself through the encounter and controlling my breathing, has changed the way I handle myself in the moment. I’m now able to think logically and systematically because I intentionally slow down my mental thought processes and act in a controlled manner. The more you’re around turkeys, the easier this becomes.

Wait

This next tip is related to what we’ve already discussed. Many an author has written, “Take the first good shot opportunity you get,” when referring to encounters with game you intend to harvest. In most cases, I disagree when it comes to a turkey’s small kill zone and ever-moving antics.

You must study their demeanor as they enter shooting range. If you’re hunting over a convincing decoy spread and the tom is distracted by your decoys and portraying an aggressive or relaxed disposition, you can usually take your time and wait for the highest percentage shot opportunity. Only when the bird displays a flighty disposition do I recommend taking the first good shot opportunity to present itself, but remember, don’t rush.

Focus on Shot Execution

Turkeys in decoys are an entirely different target than a whitetail buck chasing a doe past your treestand. If you’ve set up correctly, the birds shouldn’t have a clue you exist as they’re occupied with your decoys. If you’ve succeeded at the first two tips I’ve covered so far, you shouldn’t have a problem with making the shot just as easily as you do in your backyard. Wait until the bird you intend to kill pauses, then execute your shot using back tension and a surprise release. You’ll find that your arrows will strike closer to or exactly where you aimed.

Know the Angle

Strutting turkeys are appear huge, but if you removed their feathers, you’d be looking at a mind-bogglingly scrawny target. Those feathers make angle judging incredibly difficult, especially if you fly on autopilot during the encounter. You must intentionally study the bird’s angle as he spins and shifts.

Many birds are shot poorly because the archer assumed the bird was broadside rather than scrutinize the angle. If you shoot for a broadside bird when he’s quartering away, you’ll probably make a nothing-but-breast hit, which won’t take down the bird. 

Pick a Feather

To my earlier point about turkeys being deceivingly huge, I also want to stress the importance of choosing an exact feather to hit. It’s easy to assume that aiming for the center of the feathery mass will yield a kill, but this can lead to tracking disaster.

In general, the center of the bird, regardless of angle, is a good rule start with, but then you must further breakdown the aiming process by hovering a bit higher than center. That is, if you cut the bird into horizontal thirds, you’ll want to aim for the bottom of the top third. Now, take it a step further and choose an exact feather to hit and be mindful of where your arrow will exit the bird.

Go Big

I’ve killed all my turkeys with large mechanical broadheads, except for one that fell victim to a neck-base hit from an oversized fixed-blade broadhead designed for head/neck strikes. I use large mechanical broadheads for three reasons. First, they usually fly better than fixed-blade heads with minimal, if any, tuning. Second, the large cutting diameters can be your saving grace on a marginal hit. Don’t confuse my point. I’m not suggesting that irresponsible shots can be dismissed because of the larger diameter. I’m simply declaring that we’re human, and even professionals make mistakes. When that happens and we narrowly miss our intended point of impact, a large cutting diameter usually still gets the goods. Third, the energy unload that transfers to the bird as the blades begin to open on impact can cause the bird to implode instantly.

Mechanicals with large cutting diameters are ideal for body shots on turkeys.
Mechanicals with large cutting diameters are ideal for body shots on turkeys.

Finish the Job

Let me leave you with a tale of a tough gobbler. Two of them rolled up to my hen decoy as I hunkered against a hillside backdrop. I was already at full draw when they paused next to my decoy, and I struck the rear tom perfectly using a large 1.75-inch expandable broadhead. My jaw dropped as the bird went airborne. Wingbeats continued for approximately 100 yards until the bird literally died in flight and fell 40 some feet, hitting the earth with a WHOP!

After recovering the bird, I harvested his meat and then conducted a quick autopsy to confirm that I lung shot him. After opening the cavity, his lungs indeed were destroyed, and the broadhead had created devastating entry and exit wounds.

I share this story to warn that turkeys are incredibly tough critters to anchor with a bow. If a lung-whacked bird can fly for 100 yards and die in mid-flight, imagine the tracking nightmare a marginal hit could present.

This spring, follow these tips to tighten up your recovery rate with no tracking needed.

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