The Anguish of Turkey Defeat
Bob McNally 05.02.14
I missed a stud tom turkey the other morning. At 10 yards. Yep, just 10 steps away, with a tight-shooting shotgun that regularly folds toms at 40 yards. Ugh! Grrrrr! The Horror! How can such a thing happen? A standing tom, less than a stone’s throw away?
Well, a sage turkey hunter once said, “If you’ve never missed a turkey, son, you haven’t shot at many.” Stark truth, for sure. I’ve missed turkeys before, several in fact, but always they were out-of-state birds, far from home with borrowed shotguns, and at 40 yards or more. This was the first goose egg (er, turkey egg) with my own pet Ithaca 12 gauge. It’s a gun I’ve owned for nearly 40 years, and has taken countless turkeys in a dozen states. It’s the same custom-tweaked-gobbler-hunting firearm that regularly wins money turkey shoots, and is borrowed by buddies who want to win such competitions, too. The Ithaca collected two turkey shoot wins earlier this year, in fact.
After my recent miss I test patterned the gun, and at 10 yards the pellets hit perfectly, taking out a spot the size of a ping-pong ball, much like a shotgun rifle slug would. That’s ideal shot patterning for a turkey gun that can be used at 40 yards to roll a big bird. But such a tight-shooting, ultra-full choke shotgun can have its disadvantages, as with the case of my recent up-close gobbler miscue, because pellets do not spread wide at short range. So it shoots more like a rifle than a scattergun at seemingly easy targets near the muzzle, and the gun must be aimed precisely. Here’s what happened on that never-to-be-forgotten morning.
I’d been in the woods since a half hour before first light at 7 a.m. A couple distant gobbles and a few hens were all I’d heard and seen by the time the sun was high at 9 a.m. I walked to my vehicle and drove to a few spots checking for turkey sign. One place was a dead-end forest lane to a small food plot loaded with fresh turkey tracks, gobbler droppings, and wing-drag marks. It looked good, so I began building a blind to hunt the spot another day. My vehicle was parked wide open in the food plot as I worked on the blind.
Just as I finished, a tom turkey ripped off a rattling gobble from a stand of young pines only 100 yards away. Then he hit a pair of timber-shaking double gobbles. The bird was hot, looking for a lovesick hen. But with my SUV smack in the center of the food plot, and the bird just 75 yards from it, it didn’t bode well for success.
I thought of moving my vehicle and hunting from the blind, but the bird was too close to prevent spooking it. Even getting across the food plot to the pines where the tom was now screaming gobbles seemed impossible. But in turkey hunting, wise are those who never pass an opportunity for success. So I quickly grabbed my turkey vest with calls and gear, loaded the Ithaca, while pulling on a face mask and gloves for 100 percent camouflage head to toe.
Swiftly heading across the food plot toward the bird, I quietly eased into the young pines, carefully avoiding making noise underfoot or snagging clothing on cat-claw vines, bushes, and thick cover. The tom was close, but I didn’t know exactly where until he boomed a pair of gobbles just 50 yards away in the pines. I was still too near my vehicle to prevent the bird from seeing it if I stopped and called the bird in close, so I crept forward 10 yards on soft pine straw.
Standing quietly, I listened for the tom again, half thinking I’d already spooked him with my advance. Then he ripped another pair of gobbles just 40 yards away, signaling he was still unaware of my presence. But the area around me was far too thick with understory to call him close. If I called and he came in, I’d never see the gobbler before he spotted me, then he’d vamoose without a sound. So I eased forward as slowly and quietly as possible.
Ten yards farther in, the cover opened a bit, just as he ripped another gobble 30 yards away behind a tangle of brush. Immediately I sat against a tree, hoping for some concealment from a pine no bigger around than my leg calf. I pulled my knees up, rested the shotgun on them, and with a turkey call made two soft hen yelps. Instantly the tom double gobbled, so close I think my pants cuffs fluttered. Then, silence. Not a sound for 5 minutes, then 8 minutes. The tom was coming in silent, but without seeing it or hearing its location, I didn’t know where to aim the Ithaca.
I made another soft yelp, and the tom cut off my hen call within 30 yards, but 90 degrees to the right of where he had been, and NOT where my gun was aiming. A small but thick bush grew to my right, so I had to inch forward a yard to another little pine to lean against, turning the shotgun where the tom had last gobbled and avoiding the bush. I had just gotten the Ithaca set, and the tom stepped into full view, another 20 degrees farther right, head glowing white-red-and-blue with breeding hues in full display.
The first thing I noticed was one of his dime-size eyes was dead on me – he’d picked me off immediately, knowing I didn’t match the pines or bushes, despite full camo attire. His beard was thick, and long, 10 inches for sure, maybe 12. The jig was up, and when he started making alarm-call putts I knew he was ready to run like the wind, game over. But while he putted he walked nervously forward, toward a tight 2-foot wide bush that would shield him from my view for just a moment. Maybe long enough to turn my Ithaca a couple inches and putting the open Tru-Glo sights on him. If he would just hold course, and not run, this could work.
Remarkably, the nervous-and-putting tom slipped behind the bush, I turned the Ithaca, he stepped into another opening at 10 yards, and mentally I knew he was mine. The shotgun sights came up on his head, I touched the trigger and the gun roared. But no bird folded.
He was gone in a flash, no chance for a second shot. Three triangular-shaped breast feathers lay in the pine straw, 10 yards from where I sat. “Wide right, isn’t only a football term,” I thought. There was no other sign from the bird. Just me standing in disbelief from the worst turkey hunting miss of my life.
I then realized I’d simply not snugged my cheek down tight to the gun stock, nor aligned the open sights to the base of the tom’s neck. I shot with both eyes open – shotgun form for flying birds, NOT for standing targets where rifle-type shooting is required. The bird was gone, fortunately unscathed, but leaving a brain-searing memory I’ve already relived a hundred times, that surely will be with me forever.