Turkeys at 2,100 Feet Per Second
There've been so many times I've yelped on my calls, seductively as possible, and watched in agony as a strutting tom gobbled 70 yards from my setup in a wide-open field. I won't lie, I've thought about having a rifle in my hand and ending that gobbling right then and there. But, as in most places, that's illegal where I hunt, and besides, I've always viewed turkey hunting as a sport that needs to be consummated with a roaring shotgun blast at 30 yards.
I don't, however, oppose a legal type of hunting just because I don't happen to practice it. In this day and age, hunters need to stick together, no matter their methods. And in some places, turkey hunting methods include picking the majestic birds off from a distance with a well-placed rifle bullet.
When our ancestors began settling this country, they likely used rifles as often as shotguns to shoot wild turkeys. After all, it was the early American settlers who proved the deadly accuracy of smaller, patched bullets and long, rifled barrels in the American Revolution, and many knew the effectiveness of these weapons from their hunting experiences before going into battle.
I've got no doubt hunting was a fun chore to them, but it was a chore nonetheless, and putting meat on the table was the foremost consideration. Therefore, if a rifle gave them any advantage, chances were good they used it. And I suppose you'd likely do the same if your stomach was growling.
These days, rifle hunting turkeys is perhaps more popular in Texas than anywhere else. And, by speaking with the Texas turkey-hunting crowd, many of whom have been around rifle hunters all their lives, it seems rifle hunting is still a method used most heavily by hunters who simply want a turkey for the table, just as it was a few hundred years ago.
I don't know what to say about rifle hunting for turkeys other than it's an opportunistic type thing, said Skipper Duncan, owner of Adobe Lodge in San Angelo, Texas, which caters to turkey hunters. Your skill would be not so much in calling, but in marksmanship. Turkey hunting with a rifle may be for someone who wants a turkey, but isn't a turkey hunter.
Gary Roberson, of Menard, Texas, owner of Burnham Brothers Game Calls, has taken a turkey or two with a rifle himself, but has seen hundreds of them shot with single bullets. Many aspects of the practice quickly draw his ire.
I respect anyone's legal hunting choice, Roberson said. But I personally feel that if we can't call that bird up close enough to kill him with a shotgun, he deserves to walk. It does nauseate me to see guys shoot them with a .270 or .300 WSM (because of the massive meat damage) while they're out deer hunting. It's a waste.
However, Roberson did acknowledge that it is a common practice for guys looking to tag a turkey in Texas, and as such, the veteran rifleman offered his thoughts on guns and loads for sparing meat. I've seen a lot of them shot with a rifle, he said, and at least half of them were destroyed to the point that there was nothing salvageable on them. So if I were to pick an ideal rifle, it would be a .22 magnum, .222 or .223 with a soft-point bullet.
The bullet selection is important to note here. High-speed .22s, particularly the centerfires, tend to sport lightweight, highly frangible bullets that render instant kills on predators, groundhogs and the like. A soft point, while still offering expansion, is designed for more penetration and is a little less explosive than a ballistic tip or hollowpoint. Roberson does, however, advise against using full metal jacket bullets that do not expand at all. I've seen several turkeys shot with a full metal jacket that were never recovered, he said.
Texas and Beyond
Texas isn't the only place where one can legally shoot a turkey with a rifle. Other western states, such as South Dakota (the line is drawn at loads carrying at least 700 foot pounds of energy using some sort of expanding bullet), have rifle seasons in many areas, and even a few eastern states, such as Virginia and West Virginia, allow rifle hunting.
Most everyone who comes out here to hunt hunts with a shotgun, said Marshall Springer, owner of Buffalo Butte Ranch near Gregory, South Dakota, which has options for guided Merriam's turkey hunts. But I had a guy out here last year who wanted to hunt with a rifle, and things went well. We never had a problem. Springer doesn't feel like South Dakota locals have much a problem with shooting turkeys with a rifle, but he likened it to the fly angler with a stringer full of trout at his side. Your purists may not approve of it, he said. Even so, Springer viewed rifle hunting for South Dakota toms much like deer hunting in that he would approach it consistently by learning the feeding habits and patterns of the birds and then setting up on them for an ambush. The difference in this and deer hunting is an even more demanding marksmanship requirement.
Internet hunting forums are all the rage these days for sportsmen and women expressing their views and feelings on many issues, and I found no shortage of threads pertaining to rifle hunting. Overall, it seems the average informed turkey hunter from coast to coast avoids the practice, but tries not to oppose it. Forcing one style of legal hunting onto others who may view things a little differently is a slippery slope in every hunting community, whether it's bows vs. crossbows, traditional muzzleloaders vs. scoped in-lines, feeders vs. big woods or rifles vs. shotguns for turkeys. Many seem to be realizing that.
Interestingly, when specifics arise in the turkey world, many hunters seem to find more of a place for rifles in the turkey woods come fall, and this makes a little more sense to me as well. Most fall seasons allow either-sex turkey hunting, and majestic strutting gobblers aren't as susceptible to rifle bullets from afar in the fall as they are in the spring. Roberson added that he feels rifle hunting should be fall only, primarily for safety reasons. In the spring, you have some hunters walking around and calling, but you may have others driving around (which is also legal in Texas) shooting rifles in the same woods, he said. That is a recipe for disaster.
When it comes down to it, rifle hunting is the easy way out for turkey hunting, and a controversial topic to many. But that doesn't mean there's anything immoral about it where it's legal. Many of its practitioners view it in a practical manner—wild turkeys are extremely good to eat, and a rifle is probably the fastest way to put one on the table, provided the hunter is responsible enough to use a gun that will put the bird down quickly while picking a bullet that will destroy a minimal amount of meat. It's hard to argue with logic.
The Rifleman's Grand Slam
Think you might want to tackle spring turkeys with a rifle? These are summaries of rifle-hunting regulations for various states. Regulations vary widely, and a rifle that is legal in one state may not be legal in another. Always carefully check the regulations before heading afield with a rifle in tow.
All legal rifles may be used (in addition to muzzleloading guns, shotguns, handguns, crossbows and bows) in the spring. Centerfire semi-automatic rifles having magazine capacities of more than five rounds, fully automatic firearms, and silencer-equipped firearms are prohibited. Florida's seasons vary according to its three zones (dates for spring 2008):
South Zone: March 1 - April 6
Central Zone: March 15 - April 20
Northwest Zone: March 15 - April 20 (except Holmes County, where the season is March 15 - 17)
Texas (Rio Grande)
Rio Grande turkeys may be taken with any legal firearm. Fully automatic firearms, firearms with silencers and air guns are prohibited. In addition, shotguns are the only legal firearms for taking Eastern wild turkeys in Texas. Because it is such a large state, Texas lists its season dates by county. It's best to find out which county or counties you'll be hunting and research the regulations from there.