We like our turkey hunts to end with one decisive kill shot. That is, a swarm of shotgun pellets striking the bird’s neck and skull while it stands or slowly walks, head held high, both feet grounded.
At least that’s what prospective turkey hunters have long learned in how-to-hunt primers and workshops. Kill shots delivered to stationary targets with No. 4 and smaller pellets have been standard turkey hunting medicine since the 1970s. That’s when wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Federation were in the midst of restocking and expanding the wild turkey’s range across the Lower 48, while specifying how best to shoot them.
Ideally, turkey kills are as clean and final as an ax beheading birds on a chopping block. They even resemble traditional “turkey shoot” contests, as depicted in the 1941 WWI film “Sergeant York.” The movie’s turkey shooting scene shows Alvin York (Gary Cooper) spit-shining the front bead on his percussion-cap rifle, gobbling to make a tom stick its head above the berm, and then firing. A split-second later, a boy observing downrange yells excitedly, “You got meat!”
Today, of course, we use shotguns instead of muzzleloading long-rifles, but the similarity remains. Likewise, turkey hunters have long discouraged shots at flying birds. Although it’s legal to wingshoot turkeys in most states, few hunters boast about it unless certain their audience respects their shooting skills and understands their reverence for the big birds.
“Too Grand to Wound”
“Unless you’re good enough to shoot a flying turkey in the head, it’s just not the thing to do,” said Will Primos, founder of Primos Hunting. “Turkeys are too grand of a bird to wound. Shooting them airborne is a risky proposition. You have to kill them cleanly, and that means breaking their neck and hitting their head. They’re tough. Their wings are like shields, and if you break their legs, they’re doomed. They can’t run and they can’t fly. To fly, they have to catapult themselves into the air. They can’t do that with broken legs.”
Primos said he’s not a good enough wingshot to consistently kill flying turkeys. He doesn’t see that changing. “I’ve shot at one flying turkey in my life, and missed him three times,” Primos said. “That was probably 1979 or 1980. I never tried it again, and I’ve never heard others publicize doing it. We have better turkey loads than ever today, but how many people practice wingshooting with them?”
For perspective on hitting a turkey’s head and neck in flight, imagine trying to blast a football hurled by an NFL quarterback in a goal-line play. NFL footballs measure 11 inches long, roughly the same length as a turkey head atop an outstretched neck. Elite quarterbacks at the annual NFL scouting combine can zip footballs at 55 to 60 mph, roughly a wild turkey’s top-end flying speed. Could you consistently shoot such blurs? Remember, too, that you’re firing a shotgun with a tightly choked barrel.
In contrast, few waterfowlers discourage wingshooting Canada geese, which aren’t much smaller or humbler than wild turkeys. So why treat turkeys differently? Professor Jim Tantillo teaches environmental history, environmental ethics, and the philosophy and morality of hunting at Cornell University in New York. He agrees that turkey hunting’s wingshooting taboo probably took root as states reopened spring turkey seasons 30 to 40 years ago.
Beyond Bag Limits
Tantillo said wildlife agencies and NWTF leaders realized hunting morals go beyond laws specifying bag limits, shooting hours and other safety issues. He referenced a passage from A Sand County Almanac, in which Aldo Leopold wrote: “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers.”
The result was a classic case of instilling a purist’s interpretation of “the right way, the safe way,” to hunt something, Tantillo said. “They were easing their way into turkey hunting. They looked at states that never closed their turkey seasons, and figured out how they leveled the playing field. They wanted to maintain control for conservation’s benefit while starting hunters off on the right foot.”
Tantillo thinks these “revivalists” also sought to strike a balance between hunters demonstrating their shooting skills and turkeys demonstrating their natural wariness. “They decided the hunters’ most desirable skills and challenges were in using calls and decoys to coax turkeys into close range for easy identification, and then having the trigger discipline for quick, clean kills,” Tantillo said.
Further, hunting practices reflect the times we live in, and the 1970s were a time of restoration and conservation, far different than 60 years before.
“In 1910, hunters liked using turkeys in tower shoots,” Tantillo said. “We can’t imagine that today. The only tower shoots today use pheasants or pigeons. The more you need to protect a natural resource for conservation, the more you tend toward purist elements. You protect turkeys on the roost and you shoot turkeys on the ground, no matter what the law allows.”
That said, Tantillo thinks hunters became less rigid about wingshooting taboos as turkey flocks flourished. And although turkey populations peaked in many states about a decade ago, no one considers them imperiled. Al Stewart, the Michigan DNR’s upland game bird chief, notices shifting attitudes about wingshooting, but said the balancing act remains.
The Pendulum Swings
“As turkeys grew from scarcity to abundance, we saw a more liberalized approach, depending on specific hunting situations,” Stewart said. “I prefer to shoot turkeys on the ground, but I’ve shot some from the air. It can be rewarding if you jump one at close range and shoot it while it’s getting airborne, and not moving fast. In that case, I can hit that fist-sized target. But 99 percent of the time I’m the guy who enjoys calling them into 20 yards before shooting. I’m not interested in shooting any turkey at 60 yards, no matter the situation. The general approach for most hunters remains conservative, maybe because our attitudes were more protectionist not long ago.”
Stewart and Tantillo also said most states with restored flocks cited safety concerns while instilling wingshooting taboos, even though nearly 90 percent of turkey hunting accidents involved shooters who didn’t positively identify their target. A 1991 NWTF report showed “line of fire” shootings involving airborne turkeys were rare.
Steve Backs, the Indiana DNR’s wild turkey project leader, said hunters who shoot at any flying bird should wait until it’s higher than their shoulders. “That’s a good rule of thumb for all flushed birds,” Backs said. “In those situations, it’s hard to know what’s beyond the bird while you’re swinging your gun. Nothing in the regulations forbids wingshooting, but it’s a good practice to wait till they’re above you.”
Backs said he has shot turkeys from the air, but only when confident in his shot. In one case he was approaching a gobbler and preparing to shoot when it catapulted into the air. “I dropped him,” Backs said. “I knew I had a highly probable shot, and I took it.”
Backs also agreed with Stewart and Primos that head-shot turkeys die now, but body- or wing-shot turkeys too often die later.
“George Wright and Larry Vangilder did some ground-breaking research in Kentucky by putting radio transmitters on gobblers,” Backs said. “After the season, they’d check on birds that quit moving or seldom moved. They’d pick them up or dispatch them, bring them in and X-ray them. They’d find one or two No. 4 pellets in the body cavity. That big bird died of a festering wound two weeks after getting shot.
“I suspect that happens more often than people realize,” Backs continued. “If you say you’ve never crippled a bird, you’re probably a liar. You have to make selective shots, control things, and try to make the right decision at the right time.”
Turkeys are Great Teachers
Stewart said turkey hunting and its “one-shot kill” credo also provide great learning experiences for first-time hunters.
“Turkey hunting is the No. 1 activity for hunting introductions,” Stewart said. “The emphasis is one shot, one bird. Plus, turkeys are beautiful enough to harvest, but ugly enough so new hunters don’t feel bad about shooting them. Killing a deer is hard for some people. And if they don’t kill it outright, they’re not satisfied with what they’ve accomplished.
“Turkeys provide the whole package,” Stewart continued. “You take them out before dawn, usually in the spring, and they see the world come to life before their eyes. And when a turkey gobbles, it’s a whole big bag of hope for new hunters. You get to show them how it’s done, and you do it with respect. The entire process is a great conservation story.”
Feature image via John Hafner.