Top 3 Reasons Shotgun Hunters Whiff on Wild Turkeys

You’re in the field with a shotgun, and wild turkeys are big on-the-ground targets, so there’s no way you can miss, right? Wrong.

Top 3 Reasons Shotgun Hunters Whiff on Wild Turkeys

Hunt wild turkeys long enough with a shotgun and eventually you’ll miss. It almost doesn’t seem possible. Think about it: With a shotgun, you’re sending a swarm of pellets (not a single projectile) downrange toward a big target, which 99% of the time is on the ground, stopped or walking slowly. How can you miss?

Truth be told, I’ve whiffed on wild turkeys a handful of times. I like to think I’ve learned from my mistakes, and maybe you can, too. In order of likelihood to occur in the spring woods, here are the top three reasons shotgun hunters whiff on wild turkeys.


1. Flinching

When it comes to shooting firearms, there’s almost nothing worse than pulling the trigger on a shotgun loaded with turkey ammo. My lightweight Remington 870 pump filled with 3- or 3.5-inch turkey loads kicks like hell. I HATE shooting it. And for that reason, if I have too much time to think about the shot, like when a mature tom slowly sneaks across a green field as he approaches a decoy, there’s an increased chance I’ll flinch when firing.

I’ve missed due to flinching because I don’t continue aiming as I pull the trigger; instead, I yank the trigger and probably close my eyes. (The truth hurts!) Obviously, it’s easy to miss if you’re eyes are closed, or if you’re not keeping your check down on the gun while aiming because of recoil fear.

Is there a solution? The only one I’ve found is to avoid the angry 3- and 3.5-inch turkey loads. Instead, I’ll feed my pump shotgun with 2.75-inch pheasant loads, typically No. 4s. I’ve learned that if I wait for a tom or jake to walk within 25 yards, then put a swarm of No. 4 pellets into his neck, he won’t take another step. A standard pheasant load doesn’t punish me severely when pulling the trigger, and as a result I do a much better job aiming until pellets are on the way.


2. Distance Less Than 20 Yards

Many turkey hunters use super-full turkey chokes to place as many pellets as possible into the head/neck region of a bird at 40 yards and beyond. A tight-patterning shotgun is ideal when a bird is near your maximum effective range, but it’s a curse up close.

I prefer a standard full choke in my Remington 870 because I shoot just as many turkeys at 15 yards as I do at 35 yards, and I won’t pull the trigger at 45 yards. A super-full choke will likely produce a tennis ball-sized pattern at 15 yards, which is a problem because it’s too easy to miss a close-range bird, especially when aiming for the head/neck. I prefer a softball-sized pattern at 15 yards because it gives me a bit more margin for error.

One way around this patterning compromise is choosing an over-and-under shotgun and then placing a modified choke in one barrel and a super-full choke in the other. That way, you have a deadly combination for birds near and far.

Note about long-distance “misses”: Hunters who shoot at birds beyond their known effective range (found through pattern testing with turkey targets) almost certainly put a few pellets into a bird’s body, but not enough of them in the vital head/neck area to drop a bird in its tracks. So the tom or jake runs or flies away, and the hunter chalks it up to a miss. Wrong (probably). The bird could have a pellet or two (or several) in its chest that could eventually kill it. Do yourself and wild turkeys a favor: Shoot only at birds within your proven range. And if one is walking your way, there’s no reason to shoot at 45 yards, or 35 yards. Let it get to 30. Or better yet, 25. Turkey hunting is most fun when it’s a close-range affair, and in my opinion, we do the experience/tradition a disservice when constantly trying to figure out how to extend our maximum range more each season. I have zero interest killing a turkey at 60 yards. In fact, if I can’t lure a bird within 35 yards, then in my book the turkey wins that round, and the pursuit continues.

The late-season turkey woods is full of foliage, which can result in quick opportunities at birds inside 20 yards. Hunters using a super-full choke must be dead-on with their aim or they’ll miss.
The late-season turkey woods is full of foliage, which can result in quick opportunities at birds inside 20 yards. Hunters using a super-full choke must be dead-on with their aim or they’ll miss.

3. Moving Birds

Watch a wild turkey as it walks and you’ll notice that most of the time its head bobs forward and backward with each step. If you aim for a bird’s eyeball, you could easily miss. Not only is the bird moving with its legs, but its head is also moving. It’s literally a moving/moving target. 

In contrast, when a bird is walking naturally (not alert), the base of its neck remains almost motionless. To increase your chance of hitting a walking bird, carefully aim low on its neck. Of course, this becomes even more critical as the range shrinks because your pattern is smaller.

You can eliminate the problem of hitting walking birds by making them stop. This can be done with a turkey vocalization (cluck, yelp, etc.) with your voice or diaphragm call, or you can simply say/yell “hey!” The bird will stop in its tracks almost every time and stand tall with its head extended, looking for the source of the sound. Bang! Game over.


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