Turkey Hunting: Ruling Out a Clean Miss

I won't get into how or why we miss cripple turkeys. Turkey hunters know how it happens, from pattern breakup or taking unwise shots. You should only take ethical shots and make certain a bird is killable before you squeeze the trigger.

But if the unthinkable happens and the bird doesn't drop, you should never walk away thinking it's a clean miss.

Assume A Bird Is Hit

In 35 years of turkey hunting, I've missed very few birds. Most other hunters I know claim similar results. But although it might be true that one miss or crippled turkey is one too many, it happens.

I've found it easier to live with a clean miss than losing a bird that has been hit. First, it's difficult to accept losing a wounded turkey. That's human nature, and rightfully so, because we're responsible. Second, a missed turkey might return another day. You and the turkey might be a bit more educated, but the possibility exists.

It's always better to think you hit a turkey than to believe you missed. After all, it takes only a small amount of shot that missed the vitals to cripple a bird you might recover.

Shot Reactions

A bird that's hit, but doesn't go down for keeps might respond in three ways: body flutters, by going airborne or by running away. Unfortunately, a missed bird might also react in those ways.

Consider a couple of Missouri birds I witnessed in the late 1990s. One flew straight up and then sailed into the side of a ridge 100 yards away. Ten minutes later, we recovered the gobbler where it had landed.

Later, a friend shot at a dandy longbeard that reacted similarly. The turkey flew away and glided into a valley below. We never found the bird nor any sign to indicate it had been hit.

Body flutters are also common, even if you miss a longbeard. A turkey might flutter and drop slightly to escape immediately. A gobbler that runs away rapidly is no different. I've seen birds that were shot at and never touched run away without attempting to go airborne. However, positive sign at the shot location might provide proof that you hit a bird.

Telltale Sign

If a bird is hit, it isn't uncommon to find blood or feathers. Although it's unlikely that you'll find a blood trail, you might locate a small amount of blood at the shot location, particularly if shot hits the neck. It might be only a drop or two, but that's all you need to know a bird is hit.

The same applies to feathers. If a bird is knocked to the ground, it might leave feathers. However, you might also find feathers when a turkey isn't hit.

Feathers don't provide positive proof of a wound because they can easily fall from a turkey, but they inspire me to search for more telltale sign. Experience has taught me that if I locate feathers at the shot site, I'm usually dealing with a bird that was hit.


Feathers could indicate you hit the bird, but not always. A missed turkey might leave feathers as it hurriedly leaves the shot location.

The Follow Up

You might find sign that indicates a bird was hit, but tracking a turkey doesn't compare to following the trail of a big-game animal. I have followed blood trails from wounded turkeys a couple of times, but those usually only last a short distance. Feathers often prevent blood from reaching the ground. One exception is an arrow wound. They open a larger hole in the body, which allows a better blood trail.

I would suggest you always begin looking for a wounded turkey immediately. If shock is a factor and it often is you might locate the turkey promptly. Those that don't go down for keeps right away will seek a hideout. Also, the quicker you search, the more likely you are to search the area thoroughly.

Because turkeys are almost always in survival mode and fearful of predators, they instinctively avoid logjams and dense thickets throughout their daily routine. However, when wounded, they have the opposite reaction. In fact, birds that are hit often get into the thickest cover available. It's human nature to walk the open woods when looking for a wounded bird. Nevertheless, if you fail to locate the turkey, always search the thickest surrounding cover. Even then, look dense areas over thoroughly, because many birds will hold tight, assuming they won't be spotted.

Without blood and feathers to follow, finding a wounded bird comes down to covering ground and spotting the turkey. If you cannot locate the bird, consider returning later with a friend. Four eyes provide more assistance than two.

Perhaps the best way to reduce the possibility of losing a bird is to always think you're shooting a single shot. Each time a bird is about to walk into range, I remember how hard I worked to get him there, and that there will be only one squeeze of the trigger to put him down. I always believe that a second chance is not an option.

The worst might still happen, but at least I'll know that I did everything right.

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