By: Tom Claycomb III
As you’re busy getting ready for turkey season, digging out your buried decoys, looking for your box call and everything else, it’s likely you (and 90 percent of the turkey hunters I know) are forgetting one very important thing: sighting in your shotgun.
Most people refer to this practice as “patterning” a shotgun, but it’s more like sighting it in, because you not only need to know the pattern the gun shoots, but also where your load is hitting, and adjust accordingly. Most hunters do not give this preparatory process a passing thought. The small number who do typically just go out and shoot a big piece of cardboard and call it “good enough.”
But you wouldn’t be so nonchalant with your rifle, would you? It takes a little work to sight-in your rifle and determine which ammo shoots most accurately, but determining which shells shoot best in your shotgun and getting it sighted-in is slightly more complicated.
Here’s what I suggest you do before taking off for the woods:
Buy a modern turkey choke. Your regular full choke isn’t the best choice. You’ll want to use one that really tightens down the pattern. I just got a Hevi-Shot Hevi 13, and I’ve also used Trulock. There are plenty of good chokes on the market, so be sure to invest in a high-quality one.
Checking Your Pattern
To check your pattern, you’ll need something larger than your normal backstop to start, such as a pallet. Staple up a piece of cardboard, then tape a target to the middle. Walk back 40 yards and shoot.
If possible, cut the silhouette of a turkey out of the target and place it over the thickest part of the pattern. This way, you’ll be able to tell how many BBs you have in the “kill zone.” (Not actually the kill zone, but I count the total number of BBs on the upper body. Otherwise, I’m guessing how many hit the neck, head, or heart.)
Once you know the pattern, you can determine if you like your current choke and selection of shells, or if you need to make some changes.
Sighting-In Your Shotgun
Most people who turkey hunt refer to “patterning their gun,” but you do have to sight it in. To do so, pin a few targets on your cardboard backstop. (I use Birchwood Casey splattering targets because I love the visual effects of them.) Now shoot one. More than likely you’ll be off and have to adjust your aim if you’re just using your bead(s).
Which brings up sights. With modern turkey loads, hunters are no longer limited to 30-40 yards. We can be effective out to 60 yards or beyond. But you HAVE to sight-in your shotgun to see where it throws the thickest pattern. Sixty yards is far, so many dedicated turkey hunters use sights, scopes, or red dot sights, and they can easily justify the need to do so. If you can afford a sight, scope, or laser, you should invest in one of them.
That said, everyone is on a budget. Many people use their shotgun for dove, quail, grouse, duck, goose, crow, turkey, and varmint hunting, and don’t want to slap a turkey-specific scope on the one shotgun they use for all their hunting. If you don’t have a sight, scope, or laser at your disposal (I don’t use them), you can still hunt effectively. I can’t stress enough how important it is to determine where the bulk of the pattern lands on your target, so you can aim accordingly. You can buy the best choke and the best shells and be the best-dressed hunter in the field, but if the densest part of your pattern isn’t near the turkey’s head…bye-bye turkey!
Where to Aim
With dove, quail, duck, etc., if you throw up your shotgun, follow through properly, and pull the trigger at the right time, the bird falls. But with turkey hunting, you have to aim at a body part. I’ve never measured how tall a turkey is, but an average turkey is probably about 40 inches tall, and you’ve got a main pattern of only about 14 inches. You can see where I’m going with this – you have to aim.
Many people will tell you to aim for the turkey’s head. But if you do that, a big portion of your BBs will fly harmlessly over the bird’s head. Instead, aim a couple inches below the turkey’s head, so the bulk of the BBs hit the head, neck, and chest: dead bird.
Be safe and good luck this spring!
Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.