A glorious October day dawned around me as I crept along the spine of a white oak ridge. Ahead, several wild turkeys called from their roost trees—not with the bone-shaking gobbles of spring, but with the yakety-yak yelps and chitter-chatter chirps of autumn hens, jennies and jakes.
As I closed in on the birds, the banter intensified. The thought of a dozen turkeys over the next knoll made my palms sweat, my heart race and my breath come short. I felt as excited as when a springtime tom serenades the greening-up woods with his gobbles.
But it was autumn, the golden-toned leaves were starting to fall … and it was decision time.
A Different Bird
In most places, any wild turkey—gobbler or hen—is fair game in fall. While some fall hunters will shoot only gobblers, the fact is any turkey you can harvest in autumn is a good one. That includes young-of-the-year hens (jennies) and gobblers (jakes). Both of which, by the way, are the most delicious turkeys you'll ever eat.
During spring, we chase gobblers, and all our trickery focuses on their sex drive. Whether it's calling with tantalizing yelps or seductive purrs, or setting up on a travel route where hens will pass with their suitors in tow, our spring hunting strategies relate to breeding.
But during fall, reproduction isn't the wild turkey's life focus. Instead, turkeys are preoccupied with food, safety and social standing. Understanding these needs provides the first step to successful fall turkey hunting.
Fall turkeys are all about food. With winter ahead, building fat reserves amongst autumn's bounty becomes essential. Early in fall, meadows and alfalfa fields attract turkeys with greens and bugs. Harvested grainfields become turkey magnets; corn, wheat, barley, soybeans and sunflowers all attract birds. Later on, the tilled land provides grubs and worms.
Hard mast—chiefly acorns, but also hickory, chestnut and other nuts—plays a critical role where fields are scarce. During years of bumper acorn crops, hunting can be tough because food is everywhere and birds are spread far and wide. In years of lean or localized mast production, the hunting can be great because turkeys home in on and stay close to the limited food sources. Soft mast—berries, crabapples, apples, persimmons and other fruits—serves turkeys well, too.
Fall turkeys want to survive, and they find safety in numbers. A flock provides more eyes and ears to detect trouble such as human hunters looking for Thanksgiving dinner. The birds are suspicious and skittish, and any inadvertent move on your part is going to send the birds running.
Wear good and complete camouflage, and eliminate needless shifts, moves, flashes and glare that will spook turkeys. Their wary nature, flock mentality and will to survive combine to present a formidable challenge.
But there is one chink in the armor: Although autumn turkeys worry mostly about eating and surviving, they're also busy establishing and continually testing the pecking order within their group.
Fall turkeys constantly posture, bicker, compete and jockey for status and position. A flock needs to know which bird is in charge and which ones rank where on the social scale. Top birds get the best feeding spots and roosting limbs, but they also take on the most responsibility for keeping the group safe and leading the gang through winter.
It's fun to listen to and watch a drove of fall birds as they yack back and forth, beat each other with their wings and feet, chase around willy-nilly and generally have a schoolyard brawl in the morning after flydown, when all these shenanigans usually take place.
A Different Hunt
Once, when I was set up on some turkeys before first light, a couple odd-sounding owls started sounding off. The hooting occurred at regular intervals as the hoots approached. Soon I heard footsteps in the leaves, and some low talking on the ridge above. The hooting continued, then the hunters moved on.
Those guys would have been lucky to find a spring bird, and it was an utterly unsuitable approach for fall. They were trying to get a tom to shock gobble, which is common in spring. Obviously, those hunters hadn't adjusted their thinking to the birds of autumn, and that was a mistake.
One of the most rewarding ways to hunt fall turkeys is to work intact groups of birds (as opposed to calling to scattered birds, a technique which we will discuss shortly). Calling in a turkey now—any turkey—is just as exiting as in spring. As with most turkeys that are called to, the key factor for success is to setting up so that you're beckoning birds to where they want to be rather than where they have been.
After you learn where the turkeys' food sources are, you'll be able to set up between the roost area and feeding grounds in the morning. During the afternoon, reverse that thought and set up between feed and roost. Funnels where turkeys regularly travel are also prime setup spots. You can ambush birds near feeding areas, too.
Scouting is essential. You can accomplish this on your own on the ground, through binoculars from your vehicle, or through conversations with farmers, school bus drivers and others who work on or around the land. You need to know where turkeys are feeding and traveling.
Turkeys have an innate sense of curiosity and will often come to investigate your encouraging yelps, plaintive lost calls, relaxed purrs and soft clucks. Several decoys add a sense of realism, as well as visual cues for the birds to focus on.
A flock offers safety, but the desire to stick together presents one weakness: Individual turkeys feel vulnerable when separated, and are often eager to join back up with their clan. Enter the classic fall “scatter.” Scattering and calling back is highly effective, but I use the tactic sparingly. Too many scatters on the same group of birds can cause them to go paranoid, or exit your hunting grounds altogether. But when your hunt is nearing its close or the season is about to end, scatter to your heart's content.
The trick is sneaking close enough to the drove of turkeys to be able spring up and sprint into their midst, whooping and hollering, and scatter them in as many directions as possible. Once the turkey flock is broken up, sit at a strategic spot right at or very near the scatter point, wait a few minutes, then start calling with worried-sounding lost yelps, alarmed kee-kees and kee-kee runs and inquisitive clucks (see Web Extra above).
Don't wait too long to start calling because you'll lose the battle against the mother hen if she starts calling first. Take the first turkey to return to your calls. If you have a partner, keep working the birds after the shot; the turkeys will keep trying to re-group.
Another successful technique is to take advantage of wild turkeys' autumn competition for pecking order. I call it “putting up a fight” for fall turkeys, and it works like this.
Fall is filled with turkey fights. You can hear the birds purring with anger, beating each other with wings or spurs, chasing about, yelping and cackling angrily. Turkeys are also curious. Like a bunch of schoolyard kids, they want to see what's going on if they hear a fight, so as a hunter it works to your advantage to start your own fight.
Set up in any good spot for turkeys—a feeding or loafing area, or along a travel route. Stay inside timber, preferably behind a knoll or other terrain, so that incoming turkeys don't expect to see the “fighting turkeys” until they round the bend or top the hill, and are already within shotgun range.
Get a mouth call ready, put a slate or box call in your hands and have a hat or turkey wing handy for beating the ground. Let the area settle down for a few minutes, then go at it with mouth call and hand call at the same time. Make mad-sounding purrs. Cluck in a staccato rhythm, loud and mean. Cackle and cutt. Produce some noise: You want turkeys to hear and get curious. Beat the “wings” and kick the ground a little to imitate a knock-down, drag-out turkey fight.
Go at it for a minute, stop, get your gun up, then wait. Cluck and purr on a mouth call as you wait, but don't move; the turkeys might be on their way. If nothing comes immediately, wait 10 minutes and try the process again. Perhaps some birds moved within earshot in the interim.
Mimicking a turkey fight works. Hens, as well as adult gobblers and especially young-of-the-year jakes, fall prey to this tactic.
As I said in the beginning of this article, it was time for a decision. It was the last morning of my hunt, and I planned to scatter the birds, which had eluded me the previous 2 days as I called to the intact group.
Laying my shotgun down, I ran into their midst. Turkeys started putting and flying from the branches. Some birds topped the ridge, other stayed on my side of the ridge, and I knew the situation was good.
I set up 100 yards back down the ridge. Frost crept into my bones as I waited a few minutes before calling, but I think my shaking was from excitement as much as anything else.
Four or five little yelps produced a soft response from only 50 yards away. I was lucky I hadn't gone any farther! A couple clucks produced some clucks back, and then I saw a turkey fly out of a hickory tree and hit the ground.
The bird started marching up the draw, and in mere moments I made the shot at 30 yards. It was a beautiful adult hen, and I sat there and admired the subtle sheens in her bronze plumage as the sun topped the horizon. It was already a good day, and I was grateful to be able to hunt this “other” turkey, this wonder of fall, in the autumn woods.
Web Extra: Eight Great Fall Turkey Calls