It doesn’t matter how expensive or simple your turkey rig is, if you don’t know how to pattern your turkey gun, you’re just shooting in the dark. Average shotguns chokes produce a wide pattern but turkey chokes are extremely tight and are the least forgiving when slightly off target.
Turkey hunting is different than hunting waterfowl or other flying birds. Turkeys are ground birds and the majority of hunting is done while they are feeding or strutting. A turkey’s head bobs around as they feed, strut, and watch for danger. The key time to shoot is when they’re scanning their surroundings, with their head held high and their neck stretched out. Some hunters strive for head and neck shots leaving the body almost untouched. Others aim for the waddles at the base of the turkey’s neck. To obtain that type of accuracy in a shotgun, sights are a must.
A tight pattern will put a dozen pellets in the head and spine.
There are many sight options available. For more information, see my previous article, Choosing The Right Sights For Your Turkey Shotgun.
Once you’ve mounted your sighting system, whether it’s a scope, open sights, or a red dot, take your shotgun to the range. As with all shooting sports, please observe all range safety rules and safe shooting practices while wearing impact-rated shooting glasses and proper hearing protection.
Set a target up at twenty yards and zero-in the sights using lighter and less expensive target loads. With some specialty turkey loads costing $6.00 per shot and pushing two ounces of shot, your wallet and shoulder will thank you.
Turkey targets can be purchased at many sporting goods stores or you can download a free target at http://lewand.tripod.com/turkeytargets.html
Once the densest part of the shot pattern is covering your target, move the target back to forty yards. Switch to your turkey hunting loads and put up a fresh turkey target and test fire.
Once you have fired one shot, inspect the target and count the holes in the kill zone. Eight to twelve holes or more in the brain and spine areas is what you are shooting for, literally. A new target backing, such as a large piece of cardboard will make it easier to see if you’re truly hitting the kill zone with the densest part of the pattern. The turkey loads may have a different impact point so you may need to do a little fine tuning on your sights.
Caution! If you are using a scope or red-dot make sure it is staying in place. Heavy magnum loads can really move a loose-fitting scope and make sighting in all but impossible. The use of fine witness marks on the scope mount will prove that the scope is staying locked down.
If you don’t achieve the desired shot density on your target after tuning it in, you have a few options:
Limit your hunting range to shorter distances. Check the pattern density at thirty yards or even twenty yards. The object is to get a dense enough pattern to assure a clean and humane kill. The closer you are to the target the tighter the pattern will be.
Change to a tighter choke. A “full” choke is too open for most turkey hunters. A turkey choke is “extra-full” or even tighter. Most 12-gauge turkey choke have an inside diameter from .705” to as small as .640”. There are many super-tight turkey chokes on the market, HS Strut Undertaker, Hastings, Carlson, Primos Jelly Head, just to name a few. They’re all built to do the same thing, make a denser pattern at longer distances.
Try a different brand or load of shotgun shell. Turkey loads are generally loaded with more shot than other hunting loads. While many hunting loads can be 1 1/8 to 1 ¼ ounces of shot the usual minimum for 12 gauge turkey hunting loads is 1 ½ ounces of shot. Magnum 12 gauge shells can pack a shoulder bruising 2 ounces of shot! But, more shot means more pellets in the target.
A few brands, like HEVI-shot or Federal Premium’s Heavyweight, are going to heavier-than-lead shot. Since the shot is heavier than lead, a smaller size of pellet can be used and still be as effective. Smaller shot means more pellets in the pattern. Some shot shell manufacturers are even blending different sizes of shot to get a denser pattern at longer ranges. As noted before these specialty loads can cost $4.00 to $6.00 per shot but they can also turn a lackluster shotgun into a turkey hunting machine.
For more information on sighting in your turkey gun check out this free video by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).
Once you’ve learned how to pattern your turkey gun, you can concentrate on the real challenge, calling in that big tom.