Fall Turkey Hunting Tactics
"There is something about running right into the middle of a flock of wild turkeys, screaming like a madman that just doesn't seem natural," I thought to myself as I watched the group of twenty-something hens and jakes fly off the ridge in all directions. For a guy whose turkey hunting experiences had been limited to the spring months, the whole idea of "busting up a flock" didn't make a lot of sense. However, I had been assured that when chasing birds in the fall, it was a perfectly acceptable practice.
After watching the birds drop out of sight, I eased my way down from where they had been, stuck out my lone hen decoy, and sat against the most comfortable cedar I could find. Several minutes of silence had passed and I began to question why any turkey would return after the commotion I had created. That thought quickly faded with the first sounds of yelping to my right. Those yelps were immediately answered by some kee-kees down the ridge and to my left. Maybe this crazy scheme would work after all!
I pulled the double reed Primos diaphragm call from my shirt pocket and joined the mix with a few kee-kees of my own. One after another the birds called back and forth in an obvious attempt to regroup. It wasn't long before I began to hear the light crunching of leaves as the flock began to make their way in my direction. A flash of movement to my right caught my attention. It was the bobbing head of a hen coming over the ridge. As she slipped behind a big red oak, I eased my 12-gauge Mossberg around and got it pointed in the right direction. When the hen stepped out from behind the oak at thirty-two yards, I squeezed the trigger and watched my first fall turkey hit the ground.
Some light calling after busting up the flock resulted in the
author harvesting his very first fall turkey.
That one hunt was all it took to sell me on the merits of fall turkey hunting. While it may not contain the heart-pounding gobbling and run-and-gun action of the spring season, it has an excitement all its own and fills an important void for a diehard turkey hunter. Not to mention the fact that it is a great opportunity to put a tasty bird on the Thanksgiving table.
I'm not the only one who has found fall turkey hunting to their liking, either. Turkey hunters across the country are discovering that the fall season can greatly extend the time they spend in the woods chasing after their favorite game bird. In fact, 44 states and two Canadian provinces now have some form of fall/winter turkey season.
Don't get the wrong idea, though. Even with more states offering fall turkey hunting opportunities and more hunters taking advantage of those opportunities, it's not likely that you will encounter a crowd at your favorite autumn turkey spot. That's because these seasons typically coincide with so many other hunting opportunities, including seasons for deer, waterfowl and upland game. That's good news for those who choose to chase after these birds in the fall - lots of opportunity without a lot of pressure.
If your turkey hunting experience has been limited to the spring months, then you will quickly find that new strategies are needed by the time fall rolls around. At this time of the year the birds have long since finished their breeding activity and the resulting poults are now reaching maturity. These family groups form larger flocks and turn their focus to surviving the winter months. The birds are fairly predictable at this time of year and tend to follow the same daily pattern of roosting and feeding, if left undisturbed. That is why one of the most critical techniques for success in fall turkey hunting is scouting.
Now, there is no doubt that scouting is important in the springtime, but because of the lack of gobbling activity in the fall, it becomes a necessity at this time of year. Since birds are focused on food sources during the fall, hunters wishing to capitalize on the turkey season should focus their scouting efforts to locating roosting sites and feeding areas. Roosting sites can be found several different ways. If you live in open country, then it may just be a matter of glassing and watching the birds from a distance to see what trees they fly into in the evening. If you're hunting turkeys in a more forested area, as I am, then you may need to spend some time in your hunting area early in the morning and late in the evening watching for turkey activity and listening for the turkeys to fly down from (morning) or up to (evening) the roost. This will give you a general idea of where the birds are spending the night. You can then follow up with some "legwork" to pinpoint specific roost trees. This should be fairly obvious by the presence of turkey droppings and feathers beneath the trees.
Once you've located one or more roosting sites, your work is halfway done! All you have to do now is figure out where they are feeding and how they are getting from point A to point B. Like roosting sites, feeding areas can be located by glassing and watching the turkeys from a distance, or by looking for turkey sign in nearby food sources. These sources may include cut grain fields in agricultural areas, oak groves in wooded areas, or food plots where available.
Glassing feeding areas from a distance can provide important information
on when and where the turkeys will be when the fall season opens.
Finding and patterning the birds is by far the most difficult part of successful fall turkey hunting, and one of the most commonly skipped steps in the process. So put the odds in your favor this season and figure out what the local birds are doing. Once you have that done, it's just a matter of deciding how you want to go about filling your fall turkey tag(s). If you're the type of hunter who doesn't mind sitting and waiting them out, then one of the most popular hunting methods is the ambush.
Just as the name implies, the ambush simply involves setting up in a feeding area, or between a feeding area and a roost location, and waiting for a bird to present a shot opportunity. Its not necessarily the most exciting way to hunt them, but it is definitely effective, and probably accounts for the majority of turkeys harvested in the fall - particularly with a bow. Use this method in conjunction with one of the many portable blinds on the market today, and your odds increase dramatically. The blind will let you get away with movement that would normally send a turkey into the next county and it gives you the freedom to read a book or play your favorite cell phone game while you wait for the birds to show up!
A good portable blind set up along a feeding area can be
just the ticket for harvesting a big fall gobbler.
BUSTING UP THE FLOCK
If you're more accustomed to a run-and-gun style of turkey hunting, then you may prefer the method discussed at the beginning of this article - busting up the flock. This involves locating a flock of turkeys and then running into the flock, scattering them in all directions. If your turkey hunting experience is limited to the spring, as mine had been, busting up the flock probably goes against everything you have ever learned about turkey hunting. It's hard to imagine a wary turkey returning to an area where it had just been scared out of its wits! I can say first hand, however, that the tactic does work, and it can be just as exciting as calling in that big gobbler in the spring.
The use of a single or pair of hen decoys may help to draw in a wary fall bird.
For this technique to be effective, a few things have to happen during the process of busting up the flock. First of all, the birds actually need to scatter and fly off in several directions. If they all get up and fly off together, then all you have done is pushed them out of the area. The chance of calling them back at that point is zero!
If everything goes as planned, however, and you do get a good scatter, then you'll want to quickly find a good spot to set up near the center of where the birds scattered. In most cases, the birds will start calling to one another within several minutes. The type and amount of calling you do at this point will depend heavily on what the other birds are doing. Typically, imitating the kee-kee-run of a young turkey will be the most effective at pulling in a fall flock, but occasionally it may require switching tactics and imitating the call of the adult hen if the dominate hen starts pulling the flock away from your location.
Another thing to consider when busting up a flock of turkeys is the time of day. While the technique will work about any time, if you bust the flock too late in the evening, then there is a good chance that they will not regroup before heading to the roost. This means that it's "game over" for the night, but if you slip in the next morning and get set up somewhere in the middle of where the flock was busted, then you have a good chance of calling in a bird off the roost as they look to regroup.
Whether you choose to sit and wait for an ambush, or stay mobile in hopes of busting up a flock, fall turkey hunting can provide exciting hunting action and fill an off-season void for the diehard spring turkey hunter. If you haven't given fall turkey hunting a try, then knock the dust off that shotgun this fall, or break out your bow, put some time in scouting your favorite hunting spot and see if you can put a wild turkey on the Thanksgiving table this year.
Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com.