You’ve probably read about—and experienced—the classic turkey hunt: an enamored or enraged gobbler coming to the call and meeting his doom somewhere in that fabled 40-yard (or closer) killing zone.
My first turkey hunt…no, scratch that. I came home empty- handed. My second…no, third…. You know what, never mind about my early turkey hunts. My early turkey hunts were pretty simple affairs. I had the shotgun I used for pheasants, ducks, and geese; a bargain-basement camouflage coat with a handful of high-brass lead shells in the pocket; and a brand-new box call purchased at a mom-and-pop store.
Since then, turkey hunting has changed.
For one thing, there are a lot more turkeys, thanks to the reintroduction efforts of state game officials, local volunteers, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. For another, there seems to be a lot more gear, starting with a camouflage vest stuffed with slate, diaphragm, box, and tube calls, plus back-up calls; gobble tubes; crow calls; owl hooters; a decoy or two; shotshells; and an attached cushy seat. Not to mention specialty shotguns and ammunition designed specifically for turkey hunting.
“Doesn’t the ammunition and shotguns and turkey choke tubes today just throw every blessed thing you ever learned in your lifetime about patterning shotguns out the window?” asked Ray Eye, the legendary turkey hunter, seminar speaker, and television and radio personality. “Forget everything you know about patterning a shotgun. I have a Mossberg 20 gauge, and I’m shooting Apex No. 9 loads. You ought to see this pattern at 40 yards. Forget that, you should see these turkeys flip over when I shoot them at 40 yards with a 20 gauge.”
The Rise of Tungsten
The move has been toward smaller, denser shot—for example, Federal Ammunition’s Heavyweight TSS (Tungsten Super Shot). The increased density of the tungsten alloy provides increased downrange velocity and penetration with a smaller pellet, said J.J. Reich, FederalAmmunition communications manager. Last year, Federal Ammunition introduced TSS loads in No. 7 and No. 9 shot; this year, they’re going smaller with No. 8 and No. 10 shot pellets blended in the same shell. A 3½-inch load, said Reich, will contain more than 1,000 pellets.
“You’re not only getting longer distances, you’re also getting better patterns, more pellets downrange, and more pellets mean more chances of hitting the brain or spinal column,” said Reich.
“It’s like a swarm of bees,” said Eye, referring to Apex Ammunition’s Tungsten Super Shot loads. TSS is generic for the tungsten, nickel, and iron alloy, which is 57 percent denser than lead, said Apex Ammunition co-owner Jason Lonsberry. TSS No. 9 shot hits with the same kinetic energy as No. 5 lead, and the smaller size provides less speed drop off because there is less wind drag on a smaller pellet.
With the increased velocity comes increased range. Reports are coming in about turkey kills well beyond the traditional 40-yard mark. “I kind of cringe,” said Eye, who has more than 50 years of turkey hunting experience. “I know they can do it, but I hate to hear about guys shooting 60, 70, and 75 yards.”
Reich has heard those stories, too, and while he hints of the longer-range capability of the loads, he said they “don’t encourage the long-range game. We always say 50 yards and beyond is the kill range. Meaning it will shoot farther than 50 yards, but we’re not going to state what that yardage is.”
Lonsberry also prefers the traditional distances, in which TSS produces devastating results, but recommends hunters pattern these new loads at 50 and 60 yards. TSS is expensive—as much as $12 per round, according to Lonsberry—but with everything invested in a turkey hunt, “wouldn’t you spend an extra $35 or so to double your chances?”
Extending Your Range
Innovations in choke tubes have doubled down on ammunition improvements, according to Scott Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Choke Tubes. “A big thing for turkey hunting was the advent of extended choke tubes and tighter constrictions to go along with the new heavier-than-lead loads that flat go through things at longer distances,” he said.
Carlson agrees hunters should be reasonable about the range of shots they take, but he also likes the extra assurance the hot new loads give him. “You want to call birds in and kill them at 30 yards,” he said. “But it’s like I tell guys, we put this stuff on paper, and this TSS and this Winchester Longbeard stuff is lead on steroids. It’s totally different than it was before, and you can kill a bird at 60 yards.” And when “purists” complain about long-range shots? “Look at it this way,” he said. “How many times have you shot a turkey at 40 yards and walked out there and found out it was closer to 50 yards? Wouldn’t you rather be shooting TSS or Longbeard or Hevi-Shot and get a clean kill on a bird?”
Winchester’s Longbeard XR and Remington’s Nitro Turkey, with extra-hard lead shot, and Premier Magnum Turkey and Premier High Velocity Magnum Turkey, both with copper-plated shot, come in No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 shot sizes.
The next move is toward .410 turkey loads in states that allow it, Carlson said.
"It’s the latest and greatest trend in turkey hunting,” said Reich. “Federal introduced the .410 Heavyweight TSS No. 9 load last year, and it works awesome at 40-plus yards.”
But back to choke tubes. Extended choke tubes have increased the distance and time the shot column passes through the choke section of the tube, allowing it to “acclimate” better before exiting the barrel, resulting in denser patterns, said Carlson.
Carlson’s experience patterning every new shotgun that comes on the market convinced him the most important thing hunters can do is pattern their shotgun because it may not be hitting where they think. “I’d say out of all these new guns we’ve patterned, 80 percent don’t shoot point of aim,” he said. “They shoot close, but they don’t shoot point of aim at 40 yards.” Some may be inches off, but that’s magnified by the distance to your target and can be “the difference between hitting a bird and missing a bird.”
As for what range hunters should consider, Carlson said, “They need to prove it to themselves by patterning their shotgun at various ranges.”
Updated Turkey Tactics
Pop-up blinds and decoys are examples of turkey-hunting improvements. “Blinds are another tool, especially if it’s raining or you’re hunting with kids or running a video camera,” said Eye. “Blinds work very well. Sometimes it’s best to use a blind on certain setups and sometimes it’s best to sit against a tree.”
Eye said he knew a guy back in the 1970s who made a makeshift turkey decoy by gluing turkey feathers to a goose decoy. “They laughed at him, they scoffed at him, they made fun of him,” said Eye. “They told him he was cheating. It was like ‘what kind of low-life would do that to kill a turkey?’ He killed a couple turkeys with it and then quit doing it. This was before any turkey decoys had come out.”
Cory Peterson’s turkey career has spanned and incorporated many of the changes. Peterson, co-owner of Hidden Valley Outfitters in Arnold, Nebraska, shot his first turkey at age 11, 31 years ago.
“I don’t think there’s been a big change in calls,” said Peterson. “I’ve seen a lot of new calls come and go. Somebody’s always looking for an angle, somebody’s always looking for something new, but I would say the most effective new thing I’ve come across is fanning.”
The use of turkey fans also has proponents and opponents. Eye, an inveterate turkey caller, thinks fanning is not necessary. Nor is it safe to disguise yourself as a turkey during turkey season.
“It goes against everything I was taught and what I did,” said Eye. “I was a hunter-education instructor. I did public-service announcements across Missouri and the nation about safe turkey hunting. Don’t wear red, white, and blue because turkeys are colors. And now they’re crawling around behind a fan?”
Besides, he said, fanning doesn’t work all the time, in every season or in every instance. Fanning can also scare off less aggressive turkeys. “That’s why I teach the calling aspect,” he said. “Calling is everything because it works 365 days a year. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are or season cycle, you can adjust your calling to kill turkeys.”
Peterson is aware of the safety hazard, but he also hunts on private ground, so no other hunters who could mistake him for a turkey should be on the property. But he’s cautiously realistic. “That’s not to say somebody won’t be driving by on the road,” he said.
Fanning is another tool, another technique, that adds to calling, said Peterson. “If a gobbler’s really henned up and he’s a dominant bird, fanning is a new technique that I’ve used for about the last five years that’s really been effective.” Gobblers lock in on the fan and come in thinking they are going to stomp a challenging rival. He’s killed charging gobblers at five yards, and they were still coming hell-bent to attack. And he’s had hunters miss at five yards, shout a curse word, and then seeing the gobbler hadn’t abandoned the challenge, make the follow-up shot.
The National Wild Turkey Federation, the leader in all things turkey, has not taken an official stance on fanning and won’t until its Turkey Safety Task Force meets “to address several recent topics of controversy, such as fanning/reaping and effective ranges of new types of ammunition,” according to Matt Lindler, NWTF’s vice president of communications.
“First and foremost, not all techniques are appropriate or safe for all situations and locations,” said Lindler. “Hunters should evaluate their environment and adjust their techniques to suit that environment. Like when driving, hunters should always be aware of their surrounding and hunt defensively.
“Even on private land, assume the calling you hear and the movement you see is another hunter until you can prove otherwise. Don’t let the desire to kill a turkey override your conscience.”