March 31, 2022
By Rollie Johnson
The hen slowly made her way toward the banks of the Red River. In tow were six toms that were spinning in strut like mindless robots. The toms’ courtship dances reminded me of the old 70s vibrating football game where the players just moved around in random circles. The birds were only 80 yards from my setup at the time.
I had called from atop the rising embankment in the woods above the riverbottom and got immediate responses from multiple gobblers. I smiled as a result, and adrenaline pumped back into my veins as I headed down the embankment.
I’ve often heard people say that hunting turkeys is like hunting elk: You call to locate them, and then move in as close as you can and get set up. And like elk hunting, just because you locate turkeys, doesn’t mean that they will cooperate and follow the script. This had been the case in my previous dozen-plus setups.
The problem wasn’t finding toms; it was getting them to act the way they were supposed to. Regardless, I was just grateful to be playing the turkey game here in Minnesota, just a mile south of my house. Elk would have to wait until September.
I hurriedly set up my pop-up blind and stuck my plastic protagonist jake decoy about four yards from the front of my blind. My faux jake’s wannabe “girlfriend” was placed a few yards to my right, where she played it cool, acting all coy and coquettish. A light breeze made my synthetic thespians dance and rotate, further adding a sense of life and vitality to the scene.
This was my third set of the morning, and the gorgeous morning sun pouring into the riverbottom made for a beautiful mid-May hunt. The small flock of turkeys was still out of range, and all I could see at that moment were the fanned-out tails of the toms rotating and shimmering in the sunlight. I couldn’t see the hen anymore, as a couple of small, rolling knolls blocked my view of the birds — and most likely that of the toms’ view of my decoys.
I called for all I was worth with great gusto and enthusiasm. I can use a diaphragm call, but truth be told, I’m not that great at it, so I stick with my easier-to-use slate and box calls. I have no clue if I over-call, under-call, or do anything correctly. But sometimes what I do works, and sometimes it doesn’t!
After an hour or so of bantering back and forth with the birds, I figured this was going to be just one more frustrating and uneventful turkey hunt. I could see them and hear them, but so far, they wouldn’t budge. And then, by some unseen force, the hen began slowly sauntering in my direction — pecking at the ground as she came — and the six amigos followed her like automated drones on a leash. The hen’s slow and steady path ultimately brought the toms to roughly 30 yards, where they could now clearly see my ruse. That changed everything, and I grabbed my homemade longbow and got ready for action.
The Magnificent Six, previously unable to think on their own, now quickly came toward my position full of bravado and machismo. When the lead tom sauntered in front of my blind at four yards, I drew my longbow, focused on his head and neck, and then released my arrow tipped with a three-bladed Tom Bomb. Unfortunately, the tip of my bow’s top limb hit the roof of the blind, and my arrow skidded harmlessly away. I quickly nocked a second arrow, and in the bird’s confusion got off a second shot with the same exact results… Dadburnit!
The six toms scattered in all directions, confused by the scenario and strange noises. One tom scooted to my left at 12 yards and paused broadside. I had a screened window on that side, so I grabbed another arrow with a “normal” Bear Razorhead, focused on his vitals, contorted my body and bow to keep from hitting the blind’s roof, and released. The magical “thunk” of broadhead meeting feathers and flesh was music to my ears. The arrow-struck bird quickly ran two 20-foot circles and dropped dead. A fluttering of tail feathers in the wind signaled “game over.” Jubilation and celebration soon followed, made all the sweeter by a previous two-year drought on turkey success. I was back!
As a committed traditional bowhunter for 35-plus years, I’ve only been pursuing turkeys for the past 12 years, during which time I’ve experienced my share of celebrated successes and dismal failures. Urged on by my good friend Paul Speral, I jumped in with both feet and have loved the journey and look forward to it each spring.
The vitals of a turkey are small, as so much of the bird is just fluff and feathers. It’s too easy to wound or not bring down a turkey with a misplaced body shot. A gobbler’s head/neck is roughly the same size as his vitals, and a shot to this part of his body usually results in a dead turkey, or a whistle-clean miss. This is why, through the urging of my friend Paul, I’ve recently switched from aiming at a tom’s body to focusing my aim on his head and neck. As an aside, I’ve never considered myself a consistently great shot, which is why I’ve also employed the use of seriously big fixed-blade heads specifically designed to lop the head off a turkey at close range.
The equipment I use includes a Primos pop-up blind, tripod folding chair, an old backpack, my jake and two hen decoys, binos, and calls. I wear all black clothing and use a black facemask and lightweight black gloves — the perfect camo for blending into the dark confines of a blind.
On this hunt, I used one of my shorter 62-inch longbows. I’ve also taken a couple of nice toms with my recurves. When bowhunting turkeys from a blind with traditional tackle, you’ll want to make sure to use the biggest/tallest blind you can. I normally set up my blind for a couple weeks of practice, but as you can see from this hunt, in the heat of the moment, it’s very easy to forget where your bow’s limbs are in relation to the blind. It’s a lesson you’d think I would have learned over the years, but apparently I’m a slow learner…
Speaking of blinds, turkeys — unlike deer — could care less about them. When I set my blind up, I leave the front windows open, without screens. The two nearest side windows I like open but with full screens. This gives me additional visibility for birds coming in, plus more hidden protection and an occasional shoot-through opportunity. In my quiver, I carry two arrows tipped with head-loppers, and four loaded with regular broadheads, so that if I must shoot through a screen on the side, I’m good.
I’ve had good success locating a flock right before sunset, and when this happens, I’ll set up early the next day in the predawn darkness, out of sight but within calling distance of their roost trees. This is by no means foolproof, mind you, because turkeys are turkeys and oftentimes have a mind of their own and just go where and when they want to — they are a very fickle and finicky critter, for sure. This is where scouting comes into play: If I’m able to figure out their daily patterns, I’ll set up an ambush before sunrise between where I saw them go to bed the night before, and where my scouting has told me they will usually go shortly after they fly down from their roost to feed.
All that said, I still consider myself more of a run-and-gun turkey hunter. I’ll drive to several locations that I know have held birds in the past and call to them. If I get a response, I’ll pack in and set up — no matter the time of day. On more than one occasion, I’ve driven my seven-mile turkey loop several times a day just to look for turkeys. If I’m fortunate enough to spot some, I’ll then use the terrain to sneak in as close as I can before setting up. “Adapt and overcome” is a good motto for spring gobblers.
A couple years back, I had an early morning hunt near a roosting tree. As light slowly poured out over the landscape, detail and color returned to forest and field alike. The terrain came alive with the sounds of spring. The gobblers and hens ramped up their morning wakeup chatter with increased intensity, and soon the flapping of large wings could be heard as the entire flock descended to Mother Earth. I bantered back with my best imitations, and most often got an immediate response. Always an encouraging sign, but I’ve been at this long enough to know that just because these birds were “returning fire,” didn’t necessarily guarantee I’d get close encounters of the turkey kind.
The morning continued to wear on, and after a dull hour or so of no visuals or audios, my hopes began to fade like so many other previous high-hoped beginnings. Just when I’d pretty much given up all hope, fate intervened in the form of a bright-red head poking over the rise of a small hill. My heart rate instantly accelerated into overdrive, and I hit the call with intensity. Soon, two more red heads emerged like periscopes scanning left and right. Let the Gobbler Games begin!
The gentle breeze was timed perfectly as it made my three decoys dance and spin on cue, creating the illusion of life and movement. The three testosterone-amped toms began to fluff and strut in their ingrained attempt to both show off for my hen decoys and intimidate my jake.
But then a strange and bizarre thing happened: The three toms began running in circles, up and down and all around the small hilltop. One would run a hundred yards one way, disappear behind the hill, only to show up again where he began 10 minutes later. A few times, one would feign a direct assault in my direction, only to veer off in another random direction when he was 40 to 50 yards away. These gobbler antics were both hysterical and extremely frustrating, and I smiled and laughed under my breath at the unpredictable and unexpected circus before me. With each rush, dodge, dive, and duck of the toms, I’d hold my bow in the ready position and then sit back down in disappointment… These ADHD turkeys were driving me nuts!
After 45 minutes of dancing, dodging, and disappearing on and off, suddenly the three crimson heads appeared again 50 yards to my left, and they soon gained the crest where they then stood like generals evaluating the battlefield below them. Only one dared close the distance, as he slowly came on a beeline with deliberate purpose toward my jake decoy. A hostile skirmish was about to take place.
As he closed the distance, the emerald iridescent-green plumage of his puffed-up chest shone in the bright sunshine. What a magnificent creation, I thought to myself as I tightened my grip on my homemade recurve and readied myself for the moment of truth.
The tom strutted low and wide, zigzagging slightly left and right as he entered the gladiator’s arena. He was calling loudly as he crossed by my open shooting window at four yards. I focused, silently drew back, canted my bow to the right to avoid my limb tip hitting the blind, and released an arrow that quickly dispatched him by way of decapitation.
My plastic and foam actors continued their performance like true professionals; still dancing and spinning despite the drama that had just transpired before their very eyes. I was the only one to applaud their performance. I struck the stage, collapsed my blind, folded the actors back into my daypack, shouldered all said baggage, and then exited Stage Left with my bow in one hand and turkey legs in the other.
I smiled deeply, admired the gorgeous morning, and gave thanks for that little extra bit of satisfaction that’s always felt when getting it done with traditional gear.
The author is a traditional bowhunter from Moorhead, Minnesota.