Lessons learned from bowhunting wild turkey

by Tim Watts | April 21, 2021
crossbow on a cedar rail fence

Most hunters today choose to hunt turkeys with a shotgun. Although turkey hunting is anything but “easy,” some choose to up the challenge by hunting these amazing birds with archery gear.

Whether you use a crossbow or a compound, a decision to bowhunt turkeys is a gutsy one. Here are some insightful tips — from 20-plus years of trial and error in my turkey hunting career — that will help you be successful.

Crossbows or compound

With practise, a crossbow has a very effective shooting range. Tuck yourself into the base of a tree, and rest the crossbow on a shooting stick to minimize the amount of movement when the shot presents itself. Just as you would with a shotgun, make small/slow movements when you know the bird is not paying attention to you.

The ultimate test of a hunter, is trying to harvest a turkey with a compound bow without using a pop-up ground blind. There is a tremendous amount of movement required to come to full draw. If you draw while the bird is looking in your direction, the game is over. If you can see the turkey’s head, the turkey can see you, too.

Be patient. You will have greater success if you don’t rush your draw.
Don’t forget about brightly coloured vanes on your arrows. Choose less turkey eye-catching fletching colours, like black, brown, and olive. If we can see the bright-coloured fletches, so can they. This is critical if you hunt without the cover of a ground blind.

Shot placement

Following a turkey’s blood trail is considerably harder than a big-game animal’s, especially if the bird flies a few yards. That is why a lot of bowhunters will choose a clean head/neck shot. The size of a turkey’s head and its vitals are very similar. With a head shot, it’s either a clean miss or a harvest. A head-shot bird will not run away.

When a tom is in full strut, its head is stationary, and a bowhunter should be able to hit that softball-sized head at 10-15 yards. If you plan to shoot the turkey in the body, a large cutting diameter mechanical broadhead is your best choice.

Ground blind for confidence

A ground blind will greatly increase your chance of harvesting a bird with archery gear. Not only will it cover up the motion of drawing your bow, it will allow you to move around a little bit without getting busted. The only real disadvantage of using a bow in a pop-up blind is it means you can only shoot out certain windows. Sometimes a turkey will be within your effective shooting range, but your archery gear won’t allow you to shoot in that direction from inside the blind. On many occasions, I have had a bird “hang-up” and not commit to decoys. I could have easily harvested the bird with a shotgun that day, but went home unsuccessful. That just meant I could go turkey hunting another day.

My hands-down favourite turkey broadheads are Rage mechanicals. A turkey’s vitals are very small compared to their overall size, so the larger cutting diameter of a mechanical broadhead increases the likelihood of at least one blade going through the vitals.

New hunter

Turkey hunting is a great way to introduce a new hunter to the outdoors. The hunt itself can be very interactive, which will keep them engaged. Also, it takes place in the spring when temperatures are more favourable than a late-season deer hunt, making it easier for new hunters to stay longer, and get the “hunting bug.” Introducing new people to the outdoors is the only way to ensure future generations continue to be the stewards of the land. Turkey hunting accomplishes just that.

How to set up

If turkeys are roosting in your hunting area, spend a couple of mornings and watch (from a distance) where they fly down. Once you identify that location, you can plan your ambush. I’m a right-handed shot, so I set-up with the birds flying down on my right. I place the decoys on my left, so the bird must walk past me to get to my decoys. Once the tom is past you, wait until he is fixated on the decoys or, that its head is behind his strutting tail feathers, before you draw.

If they roost away from your hunting area, scouting will reveal trails they use to enter the field. Find the most well-used trail and set up near the end of it, about 15 yards away. Place your decoys about 5 yards across the other side of the trail’s end. Turkeys will enter the field between you and the decoys. A few hens will come first, so don’t move. When the tom appears, he will hopefully come into full strut, and head towards the decoys.

Tim Watts has competed in archery tournaments for over 30 years and has represented Canada at world championship events. He is also a bowhunter. Reach Tim at mail@oodmag.com

Originally published in the May 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

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  1. Brian Kerr wrote: Hey Tim: I enjoyed your article. When teaching courses, I stress that turkeys are TOUGH. One thing that I like (and talk about in my courses) for turkey hunting with a bow is a product called the 'Scorpio'. It is basically the spring and prongs from a Judo head that slide over the arrow shaft and tuck up behind the broadhead (in my case, a NAP Turkey Thumper). When the broadhead enters the bird, the prongs grab the skin, flesh or small bones and stops. The arrow continues through the bird until the Scorpio hangs up on the fletching. This makes it more difficult for a turkey to fly or run away as the the arrow impedes flight or hangs up on grass and brush as it runs away and kind of takes away the 'will' to get away, allowing me to get to the bird in time to recover it quickly. Scorpios are available for a number of arrow sizes from carbons to aluminum. On my sons bow at 40lb and short draw length, the arrow diameter was too small for what I had on hand so I used a small piece of packing tape to hold the Scorpio in place until it meets the bird. Please note that I stress to students that I am not recommending that they follow all of my methods, I am simply passing on the thought process that I use when selecting methods and products and encourage them to look at various recommendations and methods with a critical eye and make their own decisions while at the same time, keeping it simple. Some time before next spring I would love to touch base with you to talk about a plan for a mentored bear hunt and the concept of an article written about it. Good luck on the upcoming season. Only 3 more sleeps till turkey season!!! Brian Kerr - 519 521 6703 Instructor - Ontario Hunter Education Program and Canadian Firearms Programs (CFSC/CRFSC/OHEP) President/Project Manager Ecologistics Research Services Head Mushroom Picker Cherry Hill Shiitakes
  2. Michael Quaiattini wrote: Being new to bow hunting where on a turkey if i shoot the main body with the arrow would be the best placement?