Posted Wednesday, November 10, 2004
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Calling turkeys in fall can give a hunter lots of confidence in his calling because the birds are often very receptive. ”
— Turkey hunter Anthony Brown
When most of us think of turkey hunting, we conjure up memories of clear spring mornings when dogwoods are in full bloom and booming gobbles from lovesick longbeards fill the air.
There is nothing more exciting than watching a mature tom strut and gobble on a warm April day.
But there is another side of turkey hunting that many hunters let pass them by. Though a completely different game, fall turkey hunting is a wonderful sport that can pump some serious adrenaline into your time afield this autumn.
Turkey hunting was originally a fall sport and is steeped in tradition. Only eight states lack fall turkey seasons, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, so finding a place to hunt should not be a problem. However, some fall seasons already have passed.
Targeting gobblers in the last quarter can be a welcome change from hours spent sitting patiently in treestands or duck and goose blinds. As stated earlier, hunting fall birds is a different sport than in spring, and there are a few basics that every hunter should know before they take to the field.
To hunt fall turkeys, we must first find them, and food sources are key. Unlike spring, turkeys hardly ever gobble on the roost, so locating them is a bit more work. Homing in on preferred food sources is the best way to start.
Turkeys love hard mast — such as acorns and beech nuts — as well as soft mast like wild grapes. Fresh scratchings in an area of good food is a dead giveaway that turkeys are present.
Turkeys also will use agricultural fields where they can pick up waste grain or dine on tender winter wheat sprouts.
Tracks and droppings on logging trails, as well as concentrated feathers and droppings under roost sites, especially evergreens, also are signposts that will lead you to a flock.
In the west, tree-lined creek bottoms are a good bet for large fall flocks. Often spending time glassing from a high vantage point in open country will reveal a flock of Rios or Merriam's and a hunter can watch the birds' travel route from afar without disturbing them.
If an area has snow during turkey season, as is often the case in the Northeast or the West, fresh tracks can often lead a cautious hunter straight to a flock.
Once you have found an area that turkeys use, try to determine what time they are visiting the location. Fall turkeys are very predictable and often have a routine that takes them to the same places at nearly the same times each day.
A bowhunter often can pattern a fall flock in a short time merely by observing the birds in his area while on stand for deer.
One fall I watched a group of turkeys from my deer stand that came out in the corner of a long hayfield each day around 11:15 and worked its way west to the edge of a white oak flat that they entered about 30 minutes later. You could almost set your watch by them.
Fall game plans
The most traditional way to hunt fall turkeys is to locate a flock, scatter them then call them back to you. This method can make for some fast-paced and exciting action. The key to being successful with this game plan is the scatter.
After locating a flock of turkeys, an undetected hunter needs to be able to get fairly close to the birds, then rush them making as much noise as possible. The desired effect is confusion, so birds flush and run in all different directions.
If a hunter charges a flock from too far away, the whole group will take off in the same direction away from the hunter, and all he has done is move them collectively and put them on high alert.
One note of safety note: Never run at a flock of turkeys with a loaded firearm.
One of my favorite methods of scattering birds is to locate a roost and wait close by until I hear the turkeys fly up for the night. I then wait until it is completely dark and I walk under the flock screaming, yelling a making as much noise as I possibly can.
Turkeys usually fly out of the trees in all directions, because they can't see where their flockmates are going. Then the birds sit alone all night and they are definitely ready to get back together first thing the next morning.
This tactic also will work before daylight, but the turkeys aren't nearly as lonely as if they spent the night alone. Again, scattering, not just spooking, a flock is of paramount importance.
The other most common method to hunt fall turkeys is to pattern them and wait them out. Patience is a major requirement for this method, but it can be very effective.
Find an area that turkeys frequent, as described above. Then hide, get comfortable and wait. If you have done your homework, you often can put yourself in a good position to get a shot.
A combination of these two methods can work well for more than one hunter.
If two hunters play the waiting game on a patterned flock, one person can shoot a turkey at close range and the flock usually will scatter from the gun blast. Then, after a few minutes, the pair can often call one of the scattered birds back for the hunter who did not shoot.
When a flock is scattered, birds have to be called back in for the shot. So what kind of calls do we use in fall?
"Mimic whatever you hear the turkeys doing," said Knight & Hale pro-staff member Anthony Brown. "You will most likely break up a flock of hens and jakes, and kee-kees and kee-kee runs will be the majority of the turkey talk.
"The boss hen may throw out some long series of assembly yelps, and it never hurts to try to sound like the boss hen before she has a chance to call the flock back to her."
Young fall turkeys often respond quickly to calling, so if you get an answer after a scatter have your gun up and be ready.
"Often fall birds have never been apart from their flock, and they will begin calling only minutes after a scatter," Brown said.
"If I can get a bird or two talking back to me, I will kee-kee often putting a feeling desperation into my calling. I will also assembly yelp on my K&H Ol' Yelper box call to simulate the boss hen that has already called in a youngster or two."
"When other turkeys hear what they think is the group reuniting, they will come in running many times," Brown said. "Calling turkeys in fall can give a hunter lots of confidence in his calling because the birds are often very receptive."
When setting up on a spot that a flock has been using regularly, I generally use soft and contented calling, such as clucks and purrs.
If I hear turkeys talking in the distance, I will get a bit louder by throwing in basic yelps and kee-kees. If some of the birds answer me, I will call back with the same calls they used, only I will call a bit longer and louder.
Dan Jackson of Americanhunter.com invited me to go with him to hunt a large flock of turkeys on some property that he has in central Kentucky last December.
Jackson knew that the birds usually came out of a wooded hollow, crossed a small opening and a fencerow on their way to a picked cornfield on top of a small hill.
The flock had been hitting the cornfield between 10:30 and 11 almost every morning, so we didn't have to be there first thing. Instead we went on a short duck hunt at daylight, then headed out to try the turkeys.
When we reached the opening, Jackson showed me the hollow he expected the birds to come from, and the field where they should be heading.
As we talked, I heard a series of coarse jake yelps down in the hollow that sounded only about 200 yards away. I quickly stuck out three jake decoys, and we took cover in the overgrown fencerow.
I got out my tube call and put a diaphragm call in my mouth. Upon hearing the next series of yelps, I kee-keed on my mouth call, then poured out a slow string of jake yelps on my tube call.
My calls were immediately answered by three or four turkeys, and we kept up our conversation. It was evident that the birds were working our way, so I called quite often to the flock that became more vocal with each passing minute.
Jackson whispered that he could see some turkeys emerging from the woods about 100 yards away, and I tried to melt even deeper into my camouflage that blended perfectly into the dead weeds and brush of the fencerow.
Eventually, more than 75 turkeys made their way into the opening and began working toward us. I kept calling on my diaphragm, and readied my muzzleloading shotgun.
The bulk of the flock crossed the fence about 60 yards in front of our station and worked out into the open corn field, but three jakes homed in on my calling and the decoys and worked right up to us.
As the three young gobblers approached the imposters, I whispered to Jackson and told him to let me know when he had a shot.
He was on my right and the birds were in front and a bit to our left. He had a big tree or brush between him and the birds for what seemed like forever, and when one of the birds separated from his companions and craned his neck, Jackson whispered, "You can't pass up that shot. Go on and take him."
I told Jackson I would wait on him to get a clear shot unless the birds began to leave.
Finally, after five minutes, the trio of young gobblers decided our decoys weren't much fun, and they turned to walk away.
Jackson again urged me to shoot, so when I got a clear shot at the back bird, I unleashed 2½ ounces of No. 5 shot from my smokepole and dropped the bird at 19 yards.
Upon the smoky blast, the whole big flock erupted into the air in every direction. After collecting my prize, Jackson and I took off toward where some of the birds had headed and took up the post-scatter hunt for Jackson.
One last trick
In states that have their season in late fall or early winter, turkeys often are establishing pecking order.
Fights between jake or gobbler groups are common, and a hunter can use this fact to his advantage when attempting to harvest a bearded bird.
Mike Tussey of Osceola Outdoors lives and hunts in south Florida.
Tussey's home state only allows the harvest of bearded turkeys in the fall, and mocking a fight is one of his favorite tactics.
"If I can locate a group of gobblers in the fall and sneak within 200 yards, I get out my K&H Fighting Purr calls and mimic a fight," Tussey said.
"If I am well-hidden, I will thrash and kick the brush and make all the aggressive purrs I can on my calls.
Occasionally I will throw in a gobble or two. More often than not, the gobblers I am watching will come running right toward me. Sometimes they even get so fired up they gobble and strut when they get close.
The Florida guide told me that mocking a fight is his No. 1 tactic when it comes to harvesting a fall longbeard.
"They can't resist a fight. I guess it is just like with people," Tussey said. "If someone tells a group of people that two guys are slugging it out, everyone rushes over to watch."
So whether you want to track down and scatter a flock of Easterns in the Pennsylvania snow, pattern a group of Merriam's in a Nebraska creek bottom or fire up a bunch of long spurred Osceola toms in south Florida, give fall turkey hunting a try.
It definitely isn't the same game as calling up a lust-driven strutting gobbler in spring, but it can be just as much of a challenge and lots of fun.
It will be quite a few months until the dogwoods bloom again, so don't miss out on the opportunity to pursue America's greatest game bird this autumn.
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