Seconds before, sitting in my hide at the base of a mesquite, I had leveled the shotgun barrel at the neck of the long-bearded tom as it circled a hen decoy staked in a Brooks County sendero, pulled the trigger, and sent more than 300 copper-coated lead pellets streaking downrange at 1,200 feet per second.

Now, I sat dumbfounded. The gobbler hadn’t dropped in its tracks. How could I have missed? The bird was barely 10 yards away, and I had 300-plus chances to strike a fatal blow to its neck or head. Not one of them cut a feather. This can’t be right.

Unlike me, the gobbler didn’t cogitate. At the shot, the bird had involuntarily flinched and hopped a foot or so into the air. Its scaled, three-toed feet were churning red dirt as soon as they touched down, and within a half-dozen adrenaline-juiced heartbeats, the untouched bird had bolted across the sendero and disappeared into the brush.

The only turkey hunters who have never missed a gobbler haven’t shot at many. It happens. And it happens a lot more often than would seem likely, given that turkey hunters are shooting at a stationary or near stationary target at short or moderate range and, increasingly, using choke/shotshell combinations that perform much more efficiently than those used just a generation ago.

But it’s exactly those points – an adrenaline-wired hunter hurriedly taking a seemingly easy shot and using a choke/shotshell combination throwing a pattern the size of a softball at 10 yards – that are behind most missed shots.

Making adjustments

Turkey hunters can significantly reduce the chances of missing a gobbler that took an hour or more to cajole into range if they understand what leads to those misses and, more crucially, take the time to learn exactly how their shotgun/choke/load performs.

In the above recounted case of the missed gobbler, the cause was easily figured. I was shooting a shotgun equipped with only a front bead, the standard sight that comes on scatterguns. This is fine for wingshooting, where precision aiming is not particularly crucial because of the wider, even pellet patterns produced by the choke/shotshell used for it. But it can be a problem in turkey hunting, for which hunters are using a shotgun more like a rifle and precise aim is essential.

Aiming a shotgun fit with a front bead means the hunter’s eye serves as the rear sight. To have the gun shoot to point-of-aim, eye and bead have to be in perfect alignment along the barrel. Lean your head one way or the other, and the sighting plane is off. And that’s what happened. The bird came in to my extreme right, and I had to cant my head a bit to make the shot. The result was the gun didn’t shoot where I was aiming.

I was shooting a choke/shotshell combination that threw an extremely tight pattern, a function of using a turkey choke specifically designed to constrict the barrel to reduce the rate the pellets spread and a shotshell packed with pellets engineered to maintain their ballistic integrity better than other loads.

The result was a pattern that was very dense and efficient, holding together enough that it put an average of more than 150 pellets into a 10-inch circle at 40 yards, more than enough to deliver a fatal swarm of pellets to a turkey’s head and neck at that distance or closer. But at 10 yards, that pattern was barely larger than a fist. Just a minor mistake in aim – say, from a hunter canting his head a bit and misaligning his eye with the barrel’s front bead – would send that swarm of pellets off target enough that it missed the bird. That’s exactly what happened on the Brooks County sendero, and it happens to other turkey hunters each season. Just this spring season in Texas, I’ve talked with a half-dozen turkey hunters who have flat-out missed gobblers that were well within range. One missed two gobblers in one day, both inside 20 yards.

Fine-tuning

There are steps turkey hunters can take to reduce the chances of watching a gobbler streak away after a shot.

The most beneficial is to spend a day – and to do it right, it takes much of a day – fine-tuning a shotgun to shoot where the hunter is aiming and figuring the best choke/shotshell combination for that shotgun.

To properly pattern test a shotgun, forget those paper targets with a turkey’s head printed on them. Go with rolls of plain, 35-inch-wide brown paper – 140-foot rolls of this “contractor paper” are available at home-improvement stores.

Cut roughly yard-wide squares of paper for patterning.

The first priority is to see if the gun is shooting where aimed.

Set a sheet of target paper at about 10 yards, place a mark in the middle of the target and, shooting from a solid rest, carefully aim at the mark and fire three or four rounds. You can use 2.75-inch target loads for this, saving your shoulder (and wallet) from the pounding that 3-inch turkey loads dish out.

After firing three or four rounds, you can easily see if the gun is putting the heart of its pattern at the point-of-aim. If the gun’s not shooting to point-of-aim – a lot of shotguns don’t- it’s time to put a real sighting device on it. This is a good idea even if the gun shoots to point-of-aim. Sights, especially so-called red-dot sights that use an illuminated red, yellow or green dot, circle or cross hairs, are adjustable, allowing them to be fine-tuned to align point-of-aim. And with these illuminated devices, unlike with rifle scopes, once the sight is dialed in, a hunter’s eye doesn’t have to be exactly aligned with the sight to make an accurate shot; as long as the dot is on the target, no matter from what angle it’s viewed, the aim is good.

Once the gun is shooting where it’s aimed, it’s time to find the best choke and shotshell combination. Unless a hunter has a lot of money and time, he isn’t going to buy a dozen different screw-inch turkey chokes and sift through them to find the best one. Pick a couple of high-quality screw-in turkey chokes with slightly differing internal diameters; for most turkey hunters who shoot 12 gauge guns, chokes with .665-inch and .660-inch are good choices. Get boxes of at least three or four different turkey loads in the same shot size. You get what you pay for with turkey. Top turkey loads include Hevi-Shot, Winchester’s Xtended Range, and new Long Beard XR and Federal’s Heavyweight turkey loads.

Best combination

With patterning targets set at a measured 40 yards (the maximum ethical distance at which a shotgunner should try taking a turkey), fire at least three rounds of each load through each choke, replacing targets after each shot. (It takes at least three rounds to get a valid sample of each combo.)

Find the center of the pattern on each target, draw a 10-inch circle around it, count the pellet strikes, and figure the average of the three. Do this for each shotshell/choke combination. The combination that produces the highest average number of pellets in that 10-inch circle is the best.

Knowing a shotgun shoots where it’s aimed and how the gun’s choke/shotshell combination performs greatly enhances a turkey hunter’s odds of success. It improves a hunter’s confidence, too. And in turkey hunting, confidence is almost as important as patience.

But even with the best-tuned shotgun/choke/shotshell and all the confidence in the world, hunters are going to occasionally miss turkeys. Stuff happens. It wouldn’t be hunting if it didn’t.