With the phenomenal spread of wild turkey populations into areas where they had not been seen for generations, turkey hunting enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in popularity beginning in the late 1980s and 1990s. Turkey numbers were on the rise thanks to conservation efforts and the birds’ resiliency to adapt to new environments, and manufacturers responded to the growing opportunities and inevitable interest by developing more and better products geared specifically for the sport.
The timing of spring seasons, when there was little else going on for most hunters, was without a doubt another factor in turkey hunting’s growing popularity, so much so that today it stands as arguably the second most hunted species behind whitetails. Of course, with all the excitement over pursuing vocal spring gobblers, and otherwise busy sporting schedules in the autumn months with a myriad of hunting seasons open, many hunters forget that it was in the fall that turkey hunting’s greatest legacy lies. Old time hunting greats such as Archibald Rutledge and Henry Edwards Davis devoted their turkey hunting efforts to go after fall birds. Today, fall turkey hunting enjoys the most popularity throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, though seasons are open in almost 40 states across the country, making this a great hunting opportunity not to be overlooked.
A wild turkey is a gregarious bird that prefers hanging out in flocks once the breeding season of spring is over. Indeed, by early fall, like bachelor groups of bucks, longbeards and even some early season jakes are roaming about the woods together, while flocks of hens along with the younger jennies and jakes of the previous spring have banded together in large groups. Eastern subspecies flocks of as few as eight to 10 birds, or as many as 30 or 40, can often be spotted in fields or scratching through open oak flats in search of acorns and insects, while Rio Grande wild turkeys and Merriam’s of the southern Midwest and West might band together in flocks as large as 200 or 300 birds.
While locating a flock of hundreds of birds can be fairly easy in the West, particularly when they’re massed around farm houses or pastures where food is plentiful and easily accessed, most hunters will have to take to the woods to locate the birds they plan to hunt. A little pre-season scouting is a good thing to determine where turkeys have been hanging out. Look for large areas of scratched up leaves where turkeys have been feeding, fresh tracks in fields and along muddy paths, freshly dropped feathers indicating where turkeys have lost them flying up to roost or down in the morning, and of course, fresh popcorn shaped or j-shaped droppings. In swampy areas, turkeys generally like to roost over the water, pitching down to the drier edges after sunrise, while in hilly country, turkeys will tend to pitch from trees onto slopes, thus reducing the distance they need to fly.
Food sources to key on are the aforementioned oak flats where acorns are actively falling; grassy openings or damp water edges where insects and seeds are plentiful; crop fields of corn, soybean and milo and anywhere soft mast such as dogwoods, muscadines or other fruits may still be clinging to vines and limbs. Rainy days are great times to identify areas where birds are hanging out as the rain drives the birds into open fields where they are more easily spotted and located. But remember, turkey flocks can wander for miles in the fall when food is scarce, so seeing birds on a small tract one day, doesn’t mean they will be there when you hunt the tract several weeks later.
Once the season opens, check with locals unless you are one, and hit spots where birds have been seen in the last several days whenever possible.
Locate and Break
If, like most hunters, you are without a turkey dog, get to the woods before sunup to listen for birds. Instead of the rumbling gobbles of a longbeard, however, you will be listening for the sound of wings flapping and striking limbs as turkeys clumsily drop from the roost. Young flocks will tend to loudly yelp, cutt and kee-kee as they hit the ground and work to regroup before moving on to feed. If you hear birds, move quickly to that area.
Barring locating birds upon flydown, walk the woods quietly, continuing to listen for the sounds of questioning clucks and yelps as well as the din of scratching in the leaves. A dozen or more birds moving and scratching in leaves can sound like a group of schoolchildren tromping through the forest. It doesn’t hurt to stop every 100 yards or so and throw out some plaintive yelps and kee-kees, as this can often elicit a response from a real turkey, betraying its position.
Once turkeys are located, the goal is to bust the flock up and create a good “scatter.” Ideally, you want turkeys to fly off away from each other in every direction. Young flocks will call back more easily and quickly as they are often eager to rejoin the group, while gobblers can take a whole day to pull back in, though in my experience, you can usually pull them back within a few hours if it’s going to happen at all. Because young birds are more vocal and eager to reorganize the flock, they can be more fun to call to and admittedly easier to bring in. These flocks will be the ones most often encountered by hunters at this time of year, and in every place fall turkey hunting is allowed, all birds are legal, unlike the spring when only gobblers can be taken.
To get a good break, most hunters will simply run at the turkeys, catching them by surprise and scaring them in all directions. Other hunters like to sneak close and shoot their gun in the air. Never run with a loaded shotgun as this can be extremely dangerous, especially when in the woods with other hunters. Be sure the turkeys fly in every direction. If they all go the same way, mark the direction they went and attempt another break.
The Call Back
The key to calling turkeys to you in the fall is to set up at the exact point from where the birds scattered. This is the point to which they will all want to work as they attempt to regroup. With young or hen flocks, I have seen birds begin calling to each other and regrouping as quickly as 10 minutes after scattering, though 20 to 30 minutes is generally more typical. If the group of birds were longbeards, it might take as long as an hour before you need to worry about calling.
For young birds, begin with yelps, a few cutts and some kee-kees, building up in intensity as if you are urgently trying to rejoin the flock yourself. As soon as a bird responds, match its calls note for note. This typically works young birds into a hurried frenzy, bringing them in much faster. For gobblers, stick to deep, slow yelps and the occasional gobbler cluck.
Keep still as birds come in and have your gun up and ready. It’s not uncommon for multiple birds to approach at the same time, so be careful when you pick your shot so that you only hit the bird at which you are aiming.