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flock of turkey in the distance
Photo by J. Wayne Fears

A gobbler in an open pasture is a difficult target to accurately estimate the distance.

Know thy range

Early in my hunting career, I was hunting Rios in the sand dune country of west Texas. I had a gobbler sounding off somewhere just over a large sand mound in front of me. I quickly set up at the base of one of the only trees in the immediate area and had no sooner answered the bird with a series of yelps than he appeared in full strut on top of the barren mound.

It was like hunting in the Sahara Desert; no objects anywhere near the bird to get a feel for distance. That was before the days of modern rangefinders, and it was up to my distance judging ability to determine when to shoot. Fortunately, I had been practicing distance judging for several years, and I got the bird.

Any type of open landscape can make judging range difficult. An open pasture in North Carolina, the grassy plains of South Dakota or the open meadow of Montana are just a few of the many areas that can make distance judging a tough task.

Rangefinder Tips:

Check the battery life and settings of your rangefinder before leaving camp. More than once, I have found a low or expired battery in my rangefinder at camp just before I left to hunt.

Hunters who use shotgun scopes that magnify find the magnification can throw off their distance estimating and depend on a rangefinder to know accurate distances. — J.W.F.

Many hunters cannot judge the distance to a gobbler in any setting, and this misjudgment alone accounts for a high percentage of misses. If you cannot tell whether a gobbler is 20 yards or 55 yards away, you will not bring home many trophies.

The easy answer is to purchase one of the excellent rangefinders available today. However, not every shooting situation permits you the time or opportunity to use one, and they are somewhat expensive. Practice distance judging to make sure you're on target.

Distance judging: a hunting skill drill

One of the best methods of training yourself to judge distance is to practice shooting at life size gobbler targets at an unknown distance. Do this from a sitting position. Find a shooting range where you have a safe impact area and have a friend set up gobbler targets at varying distances. Number each target. The range should be from 15 yards to 50 yards for a shotgun. Have your friend stand behind you and call a number. You have 10 seconds to find the right gobbler, estimate the distance, and get a shot off trying to place the center mass of the pattern in the head and neck. It will not take you long to get the hang of distance judging under these conditions, especially if your friend is a hunter and is trying to outshoot you. Also include a target or two that is outside your turkey gun range. Pass on those shots.

To keep your distance judging ability in tune, judge distances every day. While walking down the street, pick out a telephone pole, parking meter or parked car, then guess the distance and count the paces you must take to reach it.

Photo by J. Wayne Fears

Don't guess the distance. Keep a rangefinder in your turkey hunting vest.

Carry and use a rangefinder

Today we are blessed with a good selection of compact rangefinders such as those made by Bushnell, Leupold, Leica, Newcon Optik, Nikon, Redfield, Vortex Optics and Zeiss that range in price starting from about $180. These rangefinders take the guesswork out of getting an accurate distance to a target. They are quick and easy to use and take up little space in your turkey vest.

If you are strictly a wild turkey hunter, there's no need to buy a 1,000-yard-plus big game rangefinders. A short-range rangefinder designed for bow hunters will do.

Once you purchase a unit, learn to use it properly. Get to know the buttons and settings. Turning on a rangefinder in a hasty hunting situation where the bird is coming in fast is the wrong time to discover your rangefinder is set for meters, not yards. A tom will not give you time to study the use of your rangefinder or to make adjustments.

I have heard stories of turkey hunters trying to use a rangefinder to get the distance to an incoming bird within sight. While this might work when hunting from a blind, it is a lot of motion for a hunter sitting at the base of a big oak. If you can see the bird then chances are good he can see you, especially if there is motion. When I set up, I use my rangefinder to spot the distances to several rocks, trees, etc., to know where my effective field of fire is, then put my rangefinder away. When the gobbler gets inside these predetermined objects, he is within the lethal range of my shotgun.

A case for rangefinders

The U.S. military long ago recognized the human weakness for estimating distances accurately. An U.S. Army study concluded that soldiers trained in range estimation showed a marked superiority over untrained soldiers. However, these tests, as well as British military tests, indicated that no amount of training will substantially improve a person's ability to visually estimate range with the unaided eye beyond 15 to 17 percent error probability, and there is evidence that even this level of accuracy cannot be maintained without continual practice. — J.W.F.

And when a bird comes in fast to a new setup and there is no time to get out the rangefinder, lean on those distance judging skills you practiced. — J. Wayne Fears

Newcon Optik
Vortex Optics