Turkey Ethics: On the Fly

posted on April 11, 2016

The truck glided to a quiet stop at the end of a long two-track and my hunting buddy and I were instructed to make our way down the trail until we saw tall trees, which is where some of the local turkeys were roosting. It was a dark morning with no moon to help illuminate exactly where to go or set up. Our blind ambition almost ruined our hunt, as I stopped dead in my tracks and pointed to the tree tops bending under the weight of about 30 birds. We’d almost walked right on top of them and scrambled to find cover, set up a decoy, and hope the sharp-eyed gobblers hadn’t seen us.

We waited in the dark for about 10 minutes and never heard a peep out of any of the birds. It didn’t look good. I rolled my striker over my slate call and sent a sharp-sounding yelp to the birds less than 200 yards away. I have a raspy, old hen diaphragm I like to use when I need to throw something foreign at a wily old long-beard and yelping a few notes like Gravel Gertie I struck a nerve with one of the redheads in the group. He loved the deep raspy call like a 1980s music fan would stop to listen to Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache.”

The eastern sky was showing signs of a bright day ahead when I heard the unmistakable sounds of feathers drumming. A lone gobbler was strutting and making his was down the two-track directly at us, while the remainder of the flock stayed on the roost to watch the events. It was like my call hypnotized the bird and he just had to come and court the throaty hen that teased him from his sleeping tree.

I dared not move and watched out of the corner of my eye for the bird to come into view. He wasted little time strutting and running towards our decoy and within seconds he was just 22 yards from where I sat. My hunting partner was already whispering for me to shoot, as I wanted to watch the show for just a little longer. The report of my shotgun brought the game to an end and the 29 or so birds left on the roost immediately bounced to the ground and ran in the opposite direction.

It had been a perfect hunt, which some may describe as textbook. Roost the birds, sneak back in the next morning, set up decoys and call a gobbler into your lap. It just doesn’t get any better. I was hunting with an old friend and we set up a tent camp on the edge of some steep valleys and hills. We had some local help, which is how we ended up getting dropped off with instruction for our first morning.

There are lots of hunters who think a spring expedition has to involve calling the bird to you in order to really count as a bonafide turkey hunt. I was treated to the perfect turkey hunt on our first morning but that was where it ended. No matter what we did over the next four days we just couldn’t bring another bird into shotgun range.

We set up on a pine roost and watched dozens of birds pitch down and head off in every direction but ours. We called to birds in the valley, snuck in tight and tried birds in the hills yet not a single mature bird showed the slightest interest. I even pulled out the old raspy hen call again to no avail.

Part of our issue was the weather. When the wind blows in Nebraska there is no way the birds can hear a call, at any distance. Extremely cold nights should’ve helped, but it seemed to make the birds non-responsive. We didn’t give up and worked diligently on getting another bird to come to our calls.

On the last afternoon of our hunt the wind was blowing stronger than ever and with the sun starting to sink on the horizon we thought our chances were pretty much over. Heading back towards camp we spotted a pair of gobblers strutting with about six hens in a steep draw where the birds could escape some of the wind. This would be our last-ditch effort, so we planned to sneak across the pasture to the top edge of the draw where we could call right above the strutters. Unfortunately, we were about 30 yards from where we wanted to start calling when one of the hens walked out of the thin tree cover and stared us down. We were done. She let out one alarm call and turkeys started to bust out of the cover like Roadrunner being chased by Wile E. Coyote. The first couple ran across the pasture right in front of us, but as more joined them several burst into flight.

One of the big gobblers flew right in front of me and I instinctively lifted my shotgun and swung it in front of the red glowing head. I hesitated for some reason and as I dropped my gun both my buddy and local guide yelled to shoot him. I was a little startled at first, but recovered just in time to see the second redhead take wing and come thundering past me at about 25 yards. I instinctively threw my gun to my shoulder, swung in front of the bird and squeezed the trigger. My shot pattern hit the bird square in the head and the hulking body did a summersault in the air as it careened to the ground. My hunting partners both exploded with cheer, screaming, hooting and hollering like it was the first turkey they’d ever seen shot.

I must admit that shooting a turkey in flight is a huge adrenaline rush. Normally I wouldn’t recommend anyone even try it, but my years of wing shooting just kicked in and proved to be the perfect option. It was the end of the fourth quarter, so to speak, and on the last play of the game the gobbler few too close for comfort and I couldn’t resist.

Getting back to camp my partners were anxious to tell the story, but it wasn’t well received by everyone. Some thought it was unethical and let me know that in some jurisdictions it’s illegal to shoot turkeys in flight.

The whole ordeal made me question whether or not shooting a turkey in flight is ethical. How can it be that some think shooting a duck or goose on the water is unethical and you should only take them on the wing, while you should only shoot turkeys on the ground and never on the wing? After much thought, I decided that if an individual hunter has the wing-shooting ability to cleanly harvest a bird, and it is a legal means of hunting where you are licensed, then the ethics are a personal one.

If you aren’t a good wingshot you likely should never try shooting a turkey in flight. If you’ve shot lots of big geese or even a swan you already know that big-bodied birds are hard to kill cleanly. Ethics are a personal thing often confused with regulations.

Part of my ethics on such a hunt would be to cancel my tag for any wounded or lost bird, but luckily I didn’t have to do that. It’s no different than counting a wounded dove in your limit instead of continuing to shoot more.

The bottom line is that turkey hunting is extremely fun and challenging and whether you call in a turkey, sneak up on one, or shoot one flying past you, it is still turkey hunting, as defined by the individual.


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