<
>

Hunting365: Bows and Beards

4/18/2008

I think I may need counseling.

Now while I'm sure there may be a chorus of hearty amens from various corners of the planet where I'm known, this admitted need of help is of the self-inflicted kind.

As if hunting spring turkeys with a shotgun weren't hard enough already — sometimes I swear these birds are partly demonic in the way they torment my hunter's soul — now I've gone and added the challenge of a bow and arrow to the equation.

Now please understand that I'm an addicted bowhunter, someone who is seemingly never able to get enough of chasing big game critters with a stick-and-string.

But in the dozen and a half years that I've chased spring gobblers, I've always drawn the archery line on these feathered denizens — spring turkeys with a shotgun, not with a bow.

After all, I couldn't understand how in the world I could get drawn and execute a successful shot with my Mathews bow when I often failed to accomplish the mission of a spring turkey smack-down with my Remington 870.

Last spring, in a moment of weakness following my unexpected heart surgery, my friend Doug Rodgers, a Texan who lives for spring turkey hunting as much as I do, made what appeared to be at the time an innocent enough suggestion.

"Burkhead, let's go turkey hunting this weekend," his voice said on the other end of the line. "And since you didn't get to bowhunt last fall, why not bring your bow this time?"

Why not indeed? After all, I do love to bowhunt. And I had been sidelined the entire fall of '06 as my sternum healed following my surgery.

So when the pickup pointed west towards Rodger's lease, my bow rode shotgun, not the other way around.

The plan was simple — place a Double Bull blind in an area where gobblers would trade back and forth during the day, and try to call one in to the decoys.

So that's what we did.

After emceeing a fundraising dinner for the National Wild Turkey Federation the night before as Rodgers auctioneered, we arrived in the pre-dawn darkness the next morning on my friend's turkey-rich lease.

Moving silently through the mesquite brush of the Rolling Plains, the two of us made our way to a likely area where we would set up the blind and decoys before sitting back, calling, and hoping for the best.

Despite several gobblers bellowing their lustful intentions that morning as the sun smudged the horizon and continued to rise into a sky the hue of Texas bluebonnets, nothing serious happened in terms of my putting the release on the bow string.

After driving into town later that day for a Tex-Mex version of lunch — chicken tacos, hold the cheese for me — we returned to our setup that afternoon and found more of the same. Birds gobbling, but not necessarily wanting to strut their stuff in front of the Double Bull.

Until the last hour of sunlight, that is. That's when we struck a pair of fired up gobblers that let everyone in our portion of the Lone Star State that they were looking for love.

Moving in from our right to left, these big Rio Grandes appeared to be preparing to skirt by our spread just out of bow range.

And that's when a lone jake, God bless him, decided to crash the party. He cut in towards the decoy spread from the left, a move that the two boss toms couldn't stand.

As they moved into shooting range, I knelt on the ground and prepared to come to full draw as Rodgers gave the play-by-play.

"OK, they're at 40 yards in full strut... now they're at 35 yards... ok, now it's 30 yards... Burkhead, they're at 25 yards, get ready to shoot!" he said.

As I came to full draw and raised up to shoot through a shooting window, the two toms pirouetted and were suddenly facing the blind as the late afternoon sun shone brightly.

That caused Rodgers to hiss at me "No, get back down, they're going to see you!"

Dutifully, I did that and out of reflex let my bow down.

Of course, right on cue, my let-down was met with stern instruction from my hunting pal to get up, draw again, and shoot — quickly, I might add.

At this point, I was more than a little flustered.

But somehow, I made it back to full draw, slowly rose into the shooting window, steadied the first sight pin, and sent the Muzzy three-blade on its way.

While my shot was a little higher than I would have liked, it all worked out in the end as the tom hopped up into the air, flew a few yards, and crashed down into a mesquite tree.

A short while later, as the sun set on the western horizon, Rodgers and I stood over the fallen longbeard.

While I've taken a few gobblers that had more impressive stats, this 17-pound Rio Grande with a 9 1/4-inch beard, and a good pair of spurs (the longest sharp hook measured 1 1/4 inches with the other one being in the same neighborhood despite a broken tip) was without a doubt the most memorable longbeard in my spring turkey hunting career.

In fact, it is the first turkey that I've ever had mounted by a taxidermist, now occupying a place of honor among my other trophies.

If this story hasn't scared you away from the challenge of bowhunting turkeys, where do you begin in your own quest to kill a longbeard with your bow and arrow setup?

First, you've got to realize and accept that hunting turkeys with a bow is a bit more challenging than it is with a shotgun. As my recent unsuccessful spring bowhunt for Eastern turkeys in Kansas proves, you've simply got to accept the fact that there will be times when a turkey is agonizingly close to your shooting position and yet a good shot opportunity never presents itself.

Second, you don't need a special rig to chase turkeys with a bow — what you use during the spring can be the same set-up that you use on whitetails and big game in the fall. I use my Mathews Switchback set at 60 pounds with Easton Axis arrows and a three-blade Muzzy. And while I haven't tried them on turkeys yet, I'm pretty sure that an expandable broadhead like a Rage two- or three-blade model would prove equally deadly on a longbeard.

Third, be sure that you've honed your rusty shooting skills this spring before giving this challenge a try — the kill zone on a turkey is much smaller than that of a whitetail, mule deer, or elk. In short, you need to be able to put your arrows consistently into a golf ball-sized circle at 25-30 yards.

Fourth, use a blind. Sure, turkeys can be killed with a bow used by a hunter outside of a blind (Phillip Vanderpool of Hunter Specialties comes to mind and is very successful at this). But in my humble opinion, before you move onto that added challenge, first, go ahead and tag a few birds from a blind. That's because coming to full draw undetected is by far the most challenging aspect of bowhunting longbeards with their razor-sharp vision.

Fifth, while plenty of turkeys are killed in blinds that are simply sitting by themselves out in the open, I'm becoming of the opinion that using brush and existing cover to help break up a blind's outline is a definite plus.

Sixth, when using a blind, be sure to wear a black top, a black face-mask, and black gloves. This will help you blend into the darkness of your blind and can help make the process of coming to full draw completely undetected just a bit easier.

Finally, when you're just starting out, I'd recommend having a hunting buddy in the blind with you to help finish the bird so that you can concentrate on getting drawn and executing a quick, lethal shot. While Rodgers and I both struck the birds up in this story and worked them towards the blind with our various calls, I gladly gave the job of putting the longbeards in front of the blind to Rodgers.

With all of this being said about bowhunting spring turkeys, have I sworn off the shotgun and traded it in for the bow only when it comes to hunting longbeards?

Not at all — as much as I love the bow and arrow, I still love to shoot shotguns and I still love to put the smack-down on a longbeard... or two... or three... or as many as I have tags for!

But by adding the stick-and-string to my turkey hunting arsenal, I've found yet another way to enjoy this magnificent madness every spring.

There's also no doubt that I've found yet another way to become so increasingly frustrated with these love 'em/hate 'em birds that I need counseling.

And with that, does anyone have the number of a good therapist specializing in post-spring turkey hunting syndrome?

I can use it.