Turkeys the Hard Way

Muzzleloaders add a new twist to spring hunts

Outdoor Life Online Editor

I sat in the dark Florida woods with Rob Keck, waiting near a pair of turkey decoys. With any luck, we would be close to a roosted gobbler, though our setup location was only a best guess. Another member of our party told us where he'd roosted a tom the evening before, but his directions were a bit sketchy.

Our hopes were raised, however, when a gobbler sounded off just 50 yards away. I waited for Rob to make the next move. The executive director of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Rob has taken a turkey in all 49 states (Alaska has no turkeys), so he would call the shots. I'd taken many turkeys in the past. In fact, I was working on my second slam, but I'm always eager to learn tactics from experts the likes of Rob.

When shooting light arrived, Rob made a few soft tree yelps. The gobbler exploded out of his roost and soared down to our decoys. I fired the moment he touched ground.

My shotgun spewed a huge flame and a giant cloud of smoke. When it cleared, the Osceola turkey lay still. I was about to make the traditional sprint to retrieve my bird when Rob motioned to me not to move. Instantly, he set up a round of intense calling and was rewarded when a second gobbler answered behind us. Ten minutes later, that bird walked into the decoys, unfazed by my motionless tom. This time it was Rob's shotgun that roared, and our hunt on the Seminole Indian Reservation was over.

The hunt was unique, since we were toting muzzleloaders instead of conventional shotguns. They were Knight Model MK-86s, loaded with 110 grains of Pyrodex and two ounces of No. 6 shot. But why use muzzleloader shotguns at all for turkey hunting? They have a distinct disadvantage in that one shot is all you get (unless you're using a double-barreled model). Yet most muzzleloader hunters will say they like the challenge as well as the unique aspect of front-stuffers.

I'm basically a centerfire shooter, but each year I enjoy shooting muzzleloaders because they're inherently different. Perhaps it's the elaborate ritual that surrounds the loading, cleaning and shooting of these guns that is attractive. You must carry an assortment of components and be capable of correctly building the charge and shot so the firearm performs adequately. The single-shot muzzleloading shotgun, which is far more popular than double-barreled models, works well with turkeys because one shot is basically all you need. I wouldn't be terribly interested in a muzzleloader if I was hunting waterfowl or upland birds, because multiple targets are often available. But for turkeys these guns are ideal.

The In-Line Invasion
The muzzleloading firearms industry has grown enormously over the last couple of decades. Once called "blackpowder hunting," that term is out-of-date because Pyrodex has become the popular propellant among hunters and shooters. Pyrodex burns cleaner than blackpowder, and is safer to store and handle. High-tech improvements run rampant through the industry, with continual changes in ignition systems and accessories. Perhaps the biggest change is the development of the in-line firearm, which was created by Tony Knight in 1985, though Knight points out that the first in-line was a flintlock invented in 1738.

The in-line differs from the standard caplock in that the striker, nipple, flash channel, powder charge and projectile (shot) are all in a straight line. The standard caplock requires the spark to travel downward at an angle to reach the powder, offering less reliability and a longer ignition time than in-lines. I've been an in-line user for years, primarily because I want to know that the gun will fire when I've drawn a bead on a gobbler -- or at least has a better chance of firing. On more than one occasion I've had hang-fires with standard caplocks, or instances when the gun failed to fire, period. It's never a happy time when you've worked hardd to outwit a bird, only to have your gun go south.

To make matters worse, spring turkey hunting is often done during rainy periods, thus increasing the odds that your gun won't fire. There's not much you can do, though there are some protective covers on the market that sheath the ignition workings.

Most hunters use an assortment of gadgets that assist in the loading process. The powder and shot are premeasured and stored in divided cylinders, called "speed shells." The powder is dumped into the barrel, a shot wad cup is dropped in and the shot is inserted into the cup. To keep the shot from trickling out when the muzzle is aimed downward, an overshot wad is placed on top.

Serious traditionalists load their guns by measuring powder in the field and then dumping it (along with the shot charge) down the muzzle. This is followed by some sort of stopper, such as a patch that keeps the pellets from rolling out the barrel, which, other than being humorous, is not conducive to collecting your bird.

Too Many Toms
Reliability is of paramount importance when you know you'll have only one shot at a gobbler. That was the case a couple of years ago when I hunted in Texas with Sherry Fears, whose company represents Thompson/Center. Using a 12-gauge T/C System 1, I had the unique problem of having too many gobblers. Tim Mariner, who works on the Nail Ranch where we hunted, had most of the roosting areas nicely pinpointed. Trouble was, so many gobblers and hens were present that the toms wouldn't come to our calls. One evening, Tim and I waited until dark, watching the birds as they filtered into a thick stand of trees. At last light, we were able to isolate one gobbler that sat apart from the others. We crept in long before daylight and set up within 30 yards of that bird. Realizing I had only one opportunity, I patted the muzzleloader and hoped for the best.

Tim called softly at shooting light, and the tom responded. A few moments later, he touched down and warily moved a few yards toward us. The satisfying boom of the T/C was the sound I wanted to hear, and the Rio Grande bird was mine.

Hunting is always unpredictable, and muzzleloader hunting offers many challenges to the sport. That's why I carry a front-stuffer with me on at least one turkey hunt every spring. Even if there's a slight chance that it won't fire.

_For information on purchasing Jim Zumbo's books, call 800-673-4868, or visit his Web site at jimzumbo.com.

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