This seemed to be a morning where things were coming together the way every turkey hunter would hope.
It was opening morning and I heard a turkey gobbling off to my right. I was in a blind overlooking a field with jake and hen decoys staked out in front of me. I answered with quiet yelps, and continued the conversation for a couple of minutes. The greyness of early morning hung over the field when I saw movement about 100 yards away.
I hadn’t heard the fly-down, but saw movement as first, one, and then another tom stepped into the field. I knew I had to get the gun up while the birds were farther out. My mind was racing, cursing myself for not remembering my shooting stick.
As I lifted the 20 gauge, with the bird coming in from about 80 yards out, I was amazed at how little it actually weighed. I had shot the gun extensively at a pattern board, but this was the first time I had used it while hunting. The light weight helped calm me about forgetting the shooting stick.
As the birds approached, I held the gun steady. When the first one crossed in front of my blind, I lined up the red dot on its head and squeezed the trigger. The bird went down at about 25 yards, taking the load of Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend and filling one tag less than 10 minutes into the season.
Going into this hunt, I knew the 20 gauge was effective on turkeys, as my daughter Abby had killed a bird with it using Winchester’s original Xtended Range, which is no longer made. With the choke I had, the gun patterned well out to 35 yards with that load. Her bird went down hard, not even flapping a wing.
The legalization of #7 shot for hunting turkey in Ontario has opened new possibilities. Hevi’s Magnum Blend — a load with 5, 6, 7 Hevi Shot — was the first load I could get with #7 shot. That gave me confidence I could have hit a bird at 40 yards on opening morning if I needed to.
To find out just how viable heavy loads in a 20 gauge gun are, I test fired four different loads containing #7 shot, using a Carlson TSS choke at 40 yards. Here are the results:
I was sure a little more fine-tuning on the scope for each individual load could have upped the numbers, but with the price of these loads I wasn’t too trigger-happy.
I only counted hits in the vitals of my turkey target. A circle target would give a higher count in most cases, as there were usually clumps of pellets just outside the vitals. With the 20 gauge the patterns were smaller than those of a 12 gauge at the same distance (with the exception of the non-legal Federal #7, 8, 9 load).
Using a 20 gauge for turkey hunting is nothing new, but turning it into a 40-yard-plus gun is now much simpler. I knew of turkey hunters who bought several chokes, different brands of ammunition, and experimented until they had the right combination for their gun.
Turkey diehard Adrian Hare of New Lowell is one of those who put together a finely tuned 20-gauge gun for turkeys.
“I built 12 gauge turkey guns, and was guiding in Ontario. I had a lot of women hunting with 20 gauges, and I found they were having a hard time hitting turkeys out at 40 yards. So I decided to put together a 20 gauge turkey gun and see how tight I could get it to shoot.”
Hare started with a Benelli Nova and eight different chokes. He found two chokes that shot well. Initially, Hare was shooting lead, but then tested tungsten-based shot options.
20 gauge prevailed
“I started shooting #6 Hevi and it patterned well enough. I could get a pattern good enough to shoot out to 50 yards,” he said. When I saw that I decided I was done with the 12. The 20 was a lot lighter to carry, easier to manoeuvre.”
He admitted the pattern was quite tight if a bird came in to 15 yards, but said he hasn’t shot many birds at that range, which might be possible on private land where birds are less pressured.
“You take a stroll in Pennsylvania where I hunted public land and there were hunters all over the place,” he said. “You are doing good to get turkeys in to 40 yards.”
Hare said he has seen the same in Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida.
His latest experiment goes even smaller, trying a .410 in Florida — where it’s legal — and use #9 Federal TSS shot. He has patterned with 160 pellets in his circle at 40 yards. That’s better than the 140 he gets with #6 in the 20 gauge.
For me, the Hevi loads initially extended the range of the gun. Buying the Carlson TSS choke and Federal TSS shells brought it into its own. Does this mean I am going to join Hare, leave the 12 gauge at home and switch to a 20 gauge? No, not yet. But I definitely see opportunities where there are long hikes in when I will take the 20 instead of the 12. Also, in my case, my daughter has first dibs on the 20.
Jeff Helsdon lives in the turkey-rich woods of southwestern Ontario. He enjoys hunting upland game with his English cocker spaniel, hunting deer and waterfowl, and fishing with his wife and family. Reach Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the May 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.