Bow Hunting Merriam’s Turkeys

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Many turkey hunters have told me, “If a turkey could sniff you, you’d never kill one.” Despite having virtually no sense of smell, a spring hunt for North America’s largest, most elusive game bird is challenging. And with archery equipment, even more so.

As with any species you bow hunt, getting close requires intricate knowledge of your quarry. Merriam’s turkeys living at the northern tip of their range in southern BC and Alberta are no different. Knowing where, when and why they strut their stuff will give you the knowledge necessary to get in close enough to arrow one. Tactics, like calling from a hunting blind with decoys set up nearby, will increase your chances of success. If you already bow hunt, you’ll have most of the required gear so gathering a few additional items and finding a promising location will have you set up for success.

 

Location, location, location

Pre-season scouting for multiple hunting areas, each a few square kilometres in size, will greatly increase your chances come opening day. Again, turkeys are just like any other game species. They require food, cover and water. Roosting trees near food sources are prime habitat you want to seek out.

Since Merriam’s turkeys are living at the northern extent of their habitat range, their population thrives and dies with mild or harsh winters. They require protection from predators and food over the long winters, so find livestock fields with available exposed grain.

Once early spring arrives, a phone call to fish and wildlife will help narrow your search for key locations with little or no die off. Next, in early April, visit local ranchers and residents to ask about turkey sightings and permission to hunt. In addition, drive the roads at dusk and dawn and look for birds and roosting habitat near food sources. Wild turkeys roost nightly in large mature trees, such as old fir trees or hardwoods with big open branches.

After spotting birds or confirming the location of healthy flocks from local residents, walk in for a closer look. Seek feathers, scat, scratch marks in the ground (foraging for food) and dust bowls (used to clean feathers).

  • Scat will resemble green Cheetos and can have a J-shaped hook at one end.
  • Tracks and peck marks in the ground will indicate feeding areas.
  • Short feathers found on the ground in areas littered with tracks is likely a strutting ground where males have recently tussled.
  • The transition routes between feeding and roosting will always be the path of least resistance, so look for old roads or survey lines, fences, trails along creeks or valleys and high forest ridge tops.

Finding key areas like the ones listed above are crucial to setting up action-packed hunts.

 

Tactics

Turkeys have keen senses and fabled intelligence, but for once bow hunters can ignore the wind, as turkeys don’t have nearly the sense of smell that whitetail deer have. With 270-degree vision and excellent hearing, hunters must remain absolutely still and quiet at all times, even when preparing to shoot. If you plan on using a traditional or compound bow, compliment your set up with a large hunting blind to conceal your drawing motion.

Since crossbows are pre-drawn, loaded and released by a mechanical trigger requiring only finger movement, like that of a shotgun, leaning up against a tree or concealing yourself along a field edge used for feeding or struting will present shooting opportunities, assuming your head-to-toe camoflauge blends nicely.

For those wanting the additional challenge of arrowing their dinner with a traditional or compound bow, setting up a blind in the bush and calling turkeys into range is by far your best bet. Given that you’ve found an area that holds turkeys by either seeing or hearing them, you’ll now want to set up your blind in between the feeding and roosting areas and close to some strutting ground, if there is any.

Treestands aren’t used when turkey hunting because there is no need to escape the wind and you simply won’t be able to conceal your body or movement in late April or early May with the lack of leaves in the trees. You’ll need a large (tall and wide) blind, especially if you’re using a recurve or long bow. Set up the blind with one shooting lane out from it. Clean the ground from twigs, leaves and any debris that could make noise. Many of today’s commercially available blinds allow you to open windows on all sides, essentially flooding the blind with light – you do not want to do this. Instead, you’ll want to wear dark clothing, sit back in the blind, hidden from any light, remain still and simply look ahead into your shooting lane while listening attentively.

Decoys are a popular tactic to coax birds in close for a shot. Set up a hen or a hen and jake (immature male) decoy combination in your shooting lane, five to 20 metres out from your blind. Decoys should be used in conjunction with turkey sounds to attract toms from afar, but have the decoy seal his fate once he identifies it in close.

No fancy calling is required during late April or early May, as toms (breeding mature male) will be seeking hens to mount and breed during the rut, so learning a few basic hen calls will suffice to get you started. Hens cluck, yelp and purr. Clucks are used to get the attention of other birds. Purrs are calming, low, soft sounds used in close to keep in touch with the flock while feeding. A yelp is the basic hen turkey sound she makes to call a mate, so perfect a few varieties of this one, such as excited, needy and basic, and you’ll have a chance to call in a tom. A slate call is best for reach and broadcasting a needy hen. Once in close, switching to diaphragm reed calls will help keep you from moving, but gives you the greatest flexibility of sounds. It’s no different from calling other game species – do what they are doing and practice before you head afield. Many mornings, several turkeys will be calling throughout the woods; other times, the birds will be silent, known as shut mouth, and you won’t hear a thing. If you hear a tom gobble, answer back with a hen call and try to have him come towards you. With archery, that’s usually your best odds of success. Don’t overcall, especially if something is coming – sit tight and wait. A good rule of thumb is to do 10 times more listening than calling.

There are times when birds hang up. Either the distance is just too great, he’s not willing to travel through some obstructions or he’s demanding the hen to come his way. This is a tough situation for an archery hunter, but going towards the tom will progress the opportunity. You’ll have to get within his comfort zone and set up and call again. If you have a portable blind, quietly pack it up and set up closer.

Ambushing birds without calling is possible, but you’ll need precise locations of roosting and feeding grounds. This tactic is excellent for crossbow hunters that set up before first light. Get as close as possible to the roosting trees, silently, and wait for the birds to fly down and start working their way towards a morning feed. If you don’t catch any at first light, you’ll have another chance when the turkeys return to cover after feeding. This time, simply set up on the paths of least resistance from the feeding grounds, prefferably with tracks. Regardless, because you won’t have a blind, you’ll need to blend into your surroundings, remain perfectly still and become invisible.

 

Tips

Use dusk to put birds to bed. If you need to move your blind, do so that evening so you’re prepared in the morning when the first glitter of light appears. At the very least, have your blind set up well before first light, even days before if you have exclusive permission on private land or a unknown honey hole. Turkeys fly down from roosting position as soon as the light shines over the eastern horizon. Ideally, you’ll want to scout the evening before and put some turkeys to bed in their roost; hunt the next morning in the same vicinity, ensuring they’ll be able to hear your calls. Observing and monitoring the birds’ daily patterns and tweaking your set up location will eventually provide you with a shooting opportunity.

Incoming toms should not be able to spot decoys from distances out of your effective shooting range. Instead, your set up should be somewhat hidden, forcing the bird to seek out the sound and only see the decoy when he’s well within range. At this time, the decoy gives the tom final visual confirmation and should ensure entry into your shooting lane. If they can see them from a great distance, toms are leery of decoys that remain motionless for long periods of time, causing them to retreat, lose interest or hang up.

Whether you use a lone hen or hen and jake combination, you’ll want to set up the hen facing away from you. The incoming tom will approach her from the rear, in preparation to mount her. Conversely, if your decoy set up contains a jake, ensure it always faces towards the shooter, as toms will be challenging other males, head to head, during the spring breeding season. Either way, both these set ups will give you the opportunity to draw your bow while the tom’s facing away from you.

Hunt during the last week of April, when the peak of the rut occurs. Toms will travel, quickly and efficiently, upwards of a few kilometres to investigate lonely hens seeking attention.

 

Permits

In BC, Merriam’s turkeys fall into the category of upland game birds and can be hunted with crossbows, traditional or compound bows and shotguns by acquiring an over-the-counter permit for a nominal fee, for both residents and non-residents. An additional species permit is not required. Turkeys can be hunted in both spring and fall in BC and hunters can harvest a bird in each open season, to a maximum of two. As for Alberta, hunting Merriam’s turkeys is a little more restrictive than its western neighbouring province. Only resident hunters are permitted and each must apply in the June draw previous to the spring hunt. In 2013, 150 permits were allocated, with only three per cent of applicants being successfully drawn. Odds like that mean only one thing for Alberta residents: you may want to consider out of province hunts if you’re eager to get going. Check the regulations yearly in either province for any changes.

Sounds like the grunt of a bull moose and the hair-raising effect of a bull elk bugle are what bow hunters seek every fall. The spring strut of Merriam’s turkey gives bow hunters the opportunity to hunt another rut, where calling in these large, elusive, smart birds into bow range for a shot is both challenging and exciting. With their radar-like eyesight, bow hunting turkeys offers the ultimate challenge to every bow hunter. Calling from a scouted blind location with a decoy arranged close by will offer the greatest chance of success for bow hunters. Successful or not, it’s very addicting once you hear the gobble of a mature tom headed your way.

 

Sharp Stick Set Up

After bow hunting other small game birds, you’d think that wild turkeys wouldn’t pose a problem whatsoever to kill with an arrow. However, hitting a very small vital area, tucked against the rib cage high in its back, somewhere in that fluff of feathers, requires deadly accuracy. When broadside, aim at the middle of the upper third of the body, just behind in between where the neck ends and the leg starts. When a bird is strutting or facing away from you, shoot them right up the anus track. Although a small target, it has nothing but vitals going further in. Head-on shots should be avoided, mostly because you won’t be able to draw undetected and the bird will flee.

If you bow hunt whitetails or other western Canadian big game, you can use the exact same bow set up for Merriam’s wild turkeys. I personally prefer a fixed-blade broadhead with smooth, consistent, razor-sharp blades, which shoot through mesh well on my blind. This way I’m spending less time tuning my hunting set up from spring to fall.

Besides standard broadheads (fixed or expandables) commonly used on big game, there are two other basic broadhead designs specifically for wild turkeys. A very large bladed broadhead, commonly referred to as a guillotine, has two four to five-inch blades perpendicularly crossed as the tip. These are designed for head and neck shots only and are very effective, resulting in quick, humane kills when they hit their mark. The second type is a more subtle change to the standard fixed-blade broadhead: serrated-style blades, which reduce penetration and the chance of a pass-through. This allows the broadhead to spend more time in the bird, doing additional damage. The result: more recovered birds for well-placed arrows flung by bow hunters.

Whatever you decide, sacrifice a few broadheads for practice to ensure they “fly like field points,” as the package says. Given the small vital area and size of the head and neck, you’ll need very tight, accurate groups out to 20 metres.

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