One of the issues I struggled with the most when I first started turkey hunting alone, was judging distance. I still second guess myself from time to time. A few seasons ago, I passed on a shot because I thought the tom was too far away. I must have spooked him and after he got the heck outta there, I paced the distance to the tree he was next to, and discovered he was well within shot range. No bird that day. Lesson for me. Lucky for him.
I’ve also taken a shot too close and missed a bird. My more experienced turkey hunting friends tell me that is not unusual.
Several years ago, I was with my buddy Jan, hunting for the Florida Osceola. We stalked a pair of longbeards with several hens for over three hours one day. Back and forth along a fence line they went several times. We followed them up one way to try to get in on them (sometimes crawling on all fours for lack of cover) and no sooner did we think we had them in range, we found they had already headed back the other way. I swear those birds were playing tag with us that day. Finally, mid-morning, we figured the hens would be ready to head back to their nest and we had found several tracks down a little two-lane the day before. Our strategy was that those hens were traveling that dirt path several times a day and once they headed back toward the woods, the toms were sure to follow. So we wandered slowly in that direction, and sure enough, it was “hit the dirt” because the hens were headed right toward us. No time to figure out which tree to sit up against, no time to build a stick blind, no time to find a comfortable spot and put out my “butt” pad. I had to get down, get my shotgun mounted and be ready to shoot. The hens were in no big hurry and my arms were starting to burn from the ache of holding my shotgun up in ready position. The toms came up right behind them, just as we predicted. Problem was, someone started “putting” danger and I knew it was now pow or never. I took the shot . . . and all hell broke loose! One tom literally flew away instantly and the rest of the turkeys scattered every which way.
What the heck just happened? Jan got up and paced my shot off at only ten yards. She picked up a wing feather and noted the nice tight pattern of #6 shot holes I left in the tree just behind the tom I just missed.
That shot was too “up close and personal” and totally missed because my #6 shot didn’t have enough distance to spread out and hit the bird in the head or neck area. Another lesson learned. After I told my story to several of my sympathetic fellow turkey hunters, I was advised of two options in that situation. Either put the shot lower on the bird – in the breast area, or just let him go by, give him a little distance and attempt to sneak in and come up behind him later.
When you are new to hunting, distance can be really hard to judge and takes some practice. A quick solution would be a rangefinder. There is a good selection of compact rangefinders on the market these days at prices generally starting at around $180. They certainly take the guesswork out of distance to target. But I’ve never been quite smart enough to figure out how to use my ”dumb” phone or my digital camera. I don’t want to take the time to learn how to use all those gadgets, so I use a simpler method. Once I’ve done some scouting and located some good spots where I’m pretty sure the turkeys are traveling through, I find my tree where I can sit comfortably, with good cover and keep myself hidden as much as possible. Next, I pace my yardage at a few different distances from my sitting tree. I’ve patterned my shotgun before season opens, so I pick out a few landmarks – a crooked tree trunk, a brush pile or a rock – or in some cases where every Oak tree looks the same, I set up a landmark by pulling a few dead branches across one another or making a small pile of leaves or stones at both the closest distance I can shoot – 20 yards, and the further distance – no more than 35 -40 yards. Then I get ready and hope the turkeys will come through somewhere in between my landmarks.
To keep my distance judging skills in tune, I practice every day while walking my dog. I look ahead to an object, guess the distance and then count the paces until I get to the object.
When you’ve been hunting for a while, it’s easy to forget about the things you know now, that you didn’t know then.
Last year, while volunteering as a mentor for a turkey youth hunt, I set up my young apprentice, Jenna, in a perfect spot. We had been hunting the same area the day before, and I felt sure this particular morning that we needed to set up on the other side of a large pond, slightly up a hill. I felt the birds may be coming in from the opposite side of where we had been the day before and knew they would head for that water first thing after fly down. I sat next to her, to her left side. As soon as daylight appeared, we started with just a few soft yelps and purrs. It didn’t take much talking. Two hens slowly came up behind her, to her right and then in front headed straight to that pond, just as we predicted. Sure enough, along came the gobbler. I stretched my eyes to the right as far as I could and I saw the bright red. He was coming in right behind those hens, no more than 20 yards to Jenna’s right and he was a nice size bird. I whispered to her that he was coming and to wait until he was in front with his rear fan in full view. The two hens were busy drinking and eating while he continued to show off and strut his stuff. She had to start raising her shotgun to her shoulder real slow . . . painfully slow. She did a beautiful job. Those birds never suspected a thing. I had hunted with Jenna the year before and she took a huge tom. She instinctively knew when to shoot last year, and I didn’t have to tell her “now” - she just knew. So I figured she knew what to do this time too.
But this time . . . she didn’t shoot. We sat there for several minutes, watching those three turkeys. I never said a word and just let her enjoy the moment. It was a perfect shot – from my view. Finally, we just watched the turkeys walk away in the opposite direction. We were both silent. . . along with her shotgun. I’ve never been one to tell another hunter when to take the shot. I had someone do that to me before and I found it nerve-wracking. The shooter may not be seeing the target exactly the way the guide does, even if you are sitting right next to each other. But that particular morning, I wished I would have whispered to Jenna, “go ahead and shoot.”
She put her gun down across her lap and we both took a deep breath. When I asked her what happened, she said “I thought he was too far away.”
My mistake as a mentor. I should have practiced the same method I used when I first began hunting, and I still use occasionally. Now that the show was over, I proceeded to show her how to pace yardage - what was too close, and too far away and how to mark it. We both learned something that day. And we both enjoyed watching the turkeys and agreed it was a good hunt, even if she didn’t tag a tom.
I have a feeling we’ll get another shot at it this season, and we’ll both be ready this time, to go the distance.
Happy Outdoors – Sue