When to Shoot? - Why Your First Shot is Usually Your Best

Most shooting decisions when hunting turkeys come after many long weeks of preparation, days of scouting, hours of setup and calling, and long-minutes of heart-pounding; all culminated by the pulling of a trigger.  After all the anticipation, the most critical moments of the hunt can come down to rushed judgments, muscle memory, and “gut-feelings.”  Dynamics such as decoys, calling, and shooting pellets as if they were bullets make this an entirely different game than much of the hunting experiences in your current game bag.  Speaking of, experience has been a good teacher for this student, mostly in the form of countless hard lessons in frustration caused by these same last-millisecond choices, forever etched in infamy.  These unhappy endings come in many forms, from plain misses to no-shots taken, or worse, birds that pick you off and head the other direction with haste, alerting everything in the woods to your presence.

TV hunting shows teach us that all birds run to your calling, climb on top of the decoys, and crane their necks out at full length for you to simply point the gun and shoot them dead with ease.  I have found this not to be the case on most hunts.  On a more typical hunt, the bird responds then as part of a process over time, eventually makes his way to you and your setup.  Along the way are long moments of pause across multiple distances, many of them out of range, and each one of them make you want to jump out of your skin.  With each passing moment, you obsess over the only question that now matters, “when to take the shot?”

Turkey Body Language

It so happens that turkeys do have some tells when it comes to the strutting game, though many hunters go all-in and succumb to the haze that is turkey-fever long before they have the chance to recognize them.  The first of which is strutting itself.  A bird in strut is generally satisfied with the situation and not going any long distances quickly.  This is your safety zone.  It’s a chance for you to move, if only a little, to get situated, line-up on the bird, and generally buy some more time until ready to shoot.  Birds with heads held high are another matter.  They are often equally eager, but twice as wary as a strutting tom.  These birds won’t hesitate to turn on one foot and march away from you, but before they do, they’ll almost always perform the “double-wing-tuck.”  When you see a bird tuck one wing behind itself, then another in rapid succession, the only truth you need to know is that this bird is ready to move and you have mere seconds to shoot, especially if it’s already towards the edge of your range.  Birds with heads down walking almost always have a pre-determined destination in mind.  These are birds that you’ll also need to draw a bead on quickly, as once in range, unless they drastically change their mood/behavior, you’ll have precious few moments with which to take them down.

Open Field Setups

Birds coming across large openings present many advantages to you the hunter, but also quite a few challenges.  While you can see them and read their every move, you also can’t do much moving yourself unless tucked inside of a blind.  For young and inexperienced hunters especially, this view presents the optimum in planning and taking the shot.  However, especially with decoy setups, sooner or later you’ll get birds that hang-up in the wide open, temptingly flirting with the edge of your range plus 10 yards.  Here is where a rangefinder, where legal, is an invaluable piece of equipment.  I’ve seen talented bowhunters and other experts at judging distance convince themselves that an 80 yard shot on a longbeard is very possible because it “looks closer to 40.”  The biggest temptation in this scenario is shooting too soon, and a day at the patterning board will lock in a maximum range that you should force yourself to stick to no matter what.    

Obstructed Views

Most turkey scenarios that I encounter have at least some woods, brush, or other obstructions in play.  Birds notoriously come from the wrong direction, cross vast thickets they’re not supposed to, and generally use elevation to their advantage while periscoping up to get a quick view, then ducking below a rise, never to be seen again.  These instances, especially the latter, play out in the turkey woods constantly, and you need to be ready to address them to fill your tag.  Birds also do a good deal of using brush to screenthemselves, all the while enjoying a great view in the distance without you being able to see them very well.  While I’m not advocating hasty shotgunning and brush shooting, these are common happenings that require decisive action, specifically in the form of taking the first best shot you have within range.  Ever patterned your shotgun through brush?  It’s amazing what a swarm of pellets will go through and still hit the board with terminal velocity.  That said, brush thicker than your fingers will stop pellets better than you can imagine.  The trick is riding that fine line between taking the best opportunity you have within range, and waiting it out for a better one.  I’m here to tell you that most often, a better one doesn’t present itself.  Get too picky with the birds, and they’ll rarely reward that patience.  Instead, focus on the first good look that tom gives you, and as long as he’s in range, you identify your target, and know what’s behind it, you’ll be amazed at how many more birds you’ll kill from this point forward.