The shot is etched into my memory—I aimed at the spot where the strutting tom's beard attached to his chest as he drew closer with each step ...9 yards, 8 yards, 7 yards … and then sent my arrow on its way. The red and yellow fletchings disappeared into the tom's chest feathers, but he leaped high into the air and then ran off a short distance before stopping to look back at my jake decoy.
"Get another arrow," Jay, my hunting partner, whispered. "You missed!"
As we tried to think of what went wrong, the tom and a handful of hens fed for more than an hour only 40 yards to the side of our portable blind, never offering me another shot. Finally, I couldn't take it any longer and went out in the rain to find and inspect my arrow. I spooked the turkeys, including the still very-much-alive tom, but I'd been beaten fair and square. Rather than pout in the blind, I decided to surrender with dignity.
I had no trouble finding the arrow in the pasture, and after picking it up I noticed a few small chest feathers sticking to the shaft. No blood. As I walked to the spot where the tom had been standing when I shot, I bent over and found his entire beard, clipped off as cleanly as if I'd used a scissors!
To make matters worse—or better, depending on how you look at it—Jay got the whole thing on tape. That night on the hotel VCR we relived the moment, in super slow motion, and saw the tom's beard fall to the ground as he jumped out of his skin after the shot. What we could also see was while the tom's chest feathers and beard were
facing me as the arrow was in flight, a millisecond earlier he'd twisted his entire body and tail fan a bit to the side, which meant his breast and heart/lungs were no longer directly in line behind the beard.
If those South Dakota turkeys could talk, I'm sure the woods that April morning would've been filled with chants of "Air ball, air ball." But that's OK; it's not the first turkey I've missed and certainly won't be the last.
Choose Your Weapon
In preparation for this hunt, Jay and I had decided to pack bows along with our shotguns. Neither of us had ever pursued turkeys with archery gear, but because we each had two turkey tags for our hunting area, the thought of trying to bag a "bow bird" was too appealing to pass up.
Our plan was simple: begin our hunt with shotguns and then switch to bows once we each had taken a bird. Of course, we'd both hunted enough times to know such plans rarely come together, but this time we simply got lucky. A couple hours after sunrise on morning No. 1, I stalked within close range of six jakes. My desire to have fresh turkey breast in the oven and a bow in my hand made my decision of whether to shoot an easy one.
Jay had heard my gun shot and quickly hiked a quarter-mile to shake my hand and share a lunch break. Because I'd hunted this area several times before, I knew lone gobblers often passed by this river-bottom opening during midday while looking for hens. With that thought in mind, I placed a hen and jake decoy approximately 15 yards away while Jay and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder eating our sandwiches. As we discussed our afternoon hunting plans, I caught movement on the hillside above us.
"Jay, grab your gun!" I whispered. "There's a big tom at 2 o'clock and he's heading our way."
The Merriam's tom slowly strutted toward our decoy set while Jay tracked him in the gun's sights. At 25 yards the tom stopped and turned sideways, offering a perfect shot. "Not yet," I said with a smile. "He has no clue we're here, and he'll come closer. I can hear your heart pounding. This is the best part...just breathe and enjoy it!"
Soon the tom was near the jake decoy, and I decided Jay's heart couldn't take much more. "Putt, putt!" I said with the help of my mouth call, and the gobbler broke from his strut as he raised his head looking for the source of the alarm. The sound of Jay's gun blast came at the same time I was whispering, "Take him!"
As luck would have it, Jay completed his "half slam" by arrowing a big
Eastern-colored gobbler later that same day as a large flock of birds passed by our portable blind. Day No. 1 had been more successful than either of us could have imagined—three shots and three birds, and Jay's first bow bird!
When It Rains, It Snows
The second day of the hunt was my first chance to carry a bow, and as I explained earlier, I left the woods with a beard, but no bird.
On day No. 3 the spring rains turned to snowflakes, and the landscape was covered with 3 inches of fresh powder. Well before daylight, Jay and I hiked more than a mile into a remote creek-bottom and set up our blind. I'd no sooner placed my hen and jake decoys when a group of toms began gobbling from a nearby roosting site across the creek. The birds sounded close—within 200 yards—so I waited until nearly fly-down time to advertise our presence with a series of soft yelps.
In no time, chance No. 2 was heading my way. The tom looked beautiful and ugly at the same time—icicles hung from his feathers, and his spiked tail fan looked like the hair on a punk rocker. As he snowshoed along the creek edge, he finally spotted the decoys across the water and decided to get a better look. Holding his wings up a bit so they wouldn't get wet, he stepped through the shallow creek, up the bank and past my hen decoy. He gave it only a glance as he closed on the jake decoy. I drew my bow as he walked from right to left only 7 yards in front of the blind. As he passed by my shooting window, he slowed a bit, no doubt trying to size up his competition.
My arrow struck the broadside bird high on the wing, just below the spine. The tom jumped at the impact and came crashing down on my hen decoy, breaking the plastic stake that held it in the ground. The NAP Gobbler Getter mechanical broadhead worked perfectly—the arrow penetrated through the bird's vitals, but didn't exit. Black feathers mixed with pure white snow as the bird tried to get airborne, but his effort was futile. In less than 10 seconds, the tom was motionless and my silent plea of "don't get away!" was replaced with a loud cheer.
While I'll never forget my miss from the previous day, I'd redeemed myself. Jay and I had five beards, four birds and enough memories to last until next turkey season.