MINNEAPOLIS — Turkey hunters wanting to fool a big tom have a better chance if they tramp into the woods with a shotgun than with a stick and a string.
The reason: Scattergun deadeyes who chamber heavy loads of chilled 4s can waylay gobblers at up to 40 yards, maybe a little farther, whereas turkey-hunting archers generally are limited to 25 paces or fewer.
The subject arises because the other day I was at a neighborhood bow shop slinging arrows down range, sometimes hitting the target. My preference is to hunt turkeys with a bow, and I was sharpening my eye in advance of doing just that in coming days.
Last year, Minnesota turkey hunters who went afield armed with bows had about a 15 percent chance of success. Those odds were about half those of hunters who toted shotguns.
But 15 percent isn’t bad, in my estimation, and anyway a morning passed in a pop-up blind no matter the firepower is a reward unto itself. So this year, as in past years, when turkey hunting, I’ll nock an arrow and roll the dice.
Mark Puariea was at the bow shop as well, not preparing to chase turkeys, but instead basking in the glory of a hunt already concluded. Puariea lives in Stillwater, Minn., or near there, and last week on the second day of the season rose before sunrise to do something he had never done before: hunt turkeys.
“My landlord owns some property, and he said that if I wanted, I could hunt his land,” Puariea said. “So I bought myself a slate call, practiced a little, and went turkey hunting.”
Puariea is an expert archer. Yet there’s a difference between being a whiz-bang bowman and an experienced turkey chaser. On their worst mornings, these birds can fool even Mensa prodigies. So novice turkey hunters armed only with bows have little chance of success.
“Did you see any turkeys?” I asked.
“I was in my blind about a quarter to 6,” Puariea said. “I started scratching on the slate call, just as I practiced, and pretty soon I heard gobbling in the distance. Actually, there was quite a bit of gobbling, and about 80 yards away, I could see some turkeys but I couldn’t identify them. It was fun, but nothing came close enough for a shot, so later that morning I left.”
Those who are experienced in the ways of the wily wild turkey relish opportunities such as these to trumpet their field wisdom to lesser hunters, the braggarts’ self-aggrandizement veiled only minimally as benevolence.
Did Puariea actually think, for example, he could amble into the woods with a two-bit call and a couple of broad heads, and in short order a florid gobbler, its caruncles flame red, would fan out a mere chip shot away?
“Having had no luck in the morning,” Puariea continued, “I figured I would go out for the afternoon hunt. Which I did, getting into my blind about 4 o’clock.”
Rookie mistake, I opined to myself. Afternoon hunts generally aren’t productive. Better to let turkeys in the area settle down, and for the hunter to show up instead near sunset to see where the birds roost for the night. That’s where the hunter wants to be the next morning, near the roost.
As if to validate my thoughts, Puariea said, “Unlike earlier that morning, there was no gobbling. The woods were completely silent. I called anyway, figuring a turkey might hear it. But nothing came.”
Last year, the Department of Natural Resources issued 49,919 spring turkey hunting permits, producing a harvest of 11,854 toms. Archers accounted for 1,665 of these unlucky fowl, an improbable figure, considering that in 1978, when wild turkey hunting was reborn in Minnesota, only 400 hunters went afield, probably all with shotguns, killing 94 gobblers.
Though not the smartest bird (the raven is) or even the second smartest (the crow), turkeys nonetheless bear keen survival instincts. Their eyesight and hearing are rarely surpassed, and they spend long days evading the razor-sharp incisors of foxes and coyotes, rendering the big birds justifiably paranoid.
Which is why I was sure Puariea’s story would end as most turkey-hunting stories do: bird-free.
“But then all the sudden,” he added, “two toms showed up from behind me and walked right in front of my blind, only 8 yards away! I had an arrow nocked, but when I started to draw back, the arrow fell off the string, so I had to nock it again. This made noise, and the turkeys started to move away ... fast.
“So I drew back and waited for the lead turkey to appear from behind a tree. When it did, I stuck it — a direct hit!”
“You got him on the run?”
“I did,” Puariea said. “A really big one.”
Suddenly short of turkey-hunting wisdom, I turned again to send more arrows down range, sometimes hitting the target.
Puariea is an expert archer. Yet there’s a difference between being a whiz-bang bowman and an experienced turkey chaser. On their worst mornings, these birds can fool even Mensa prodigies.