I’ve been chasing turkeys since I began hunting at age 12, and while I get a big thrill out of working a boss gobbler in the spring, the fall season is perhaps my favorite.
For one thing, you can hunt all day–unlike in the spring, when, at least in the East, you have to quit around lunchtime.
The opportunity to hunt from sunup to sundown allows for a more relaxing and enjoyable hunt. Or, depending on how badly you have turkey fever, it gives you more time to scour the woods like a madman in an attempt to kill a bird.
Fall hunting also permits a wider range of hunting options, from running and gunning for flocks to still-hunting along a ridge for a chance at both flocks and lone birds–maybe even an old gobbler.
During the fall, turkeys are gathered into flocks–typically made up of several hens and their broods from the current year’s hatch.
These mixed-family flocks can number from a dozen birds to several dozen, and flocks of 100 turkeys aren’t unheard of in good habitat.
Hunters may also encounter small bachelor flocks of gobblers, usually consisting of birds from the same year class.
It’s also possible to locate what may be perhaps the most challenging game animal of all: lone, boss gobblers that shun company altogether.
Food is the turkey’s primary motivator in the fall. To find birds, it’s imperative to locate the right food sources.
Because poults depend heavily on insects throughout the summer and into fall–and adult birds dine on them, too, for their high protein–grassy fields are one of the most reliable places to locate flocks up until the first hard frosts kill off grasshoppers, crickets and the like.
Driving back roads and glassing fields with binoculars will give you a good head start on finding birds.
Of course, other people will have seen these turkeys, too, so a better bet may be to hike into remote forest openings, right-of-way strips created by power transmission lines and gas pipelines, and old, grown-over logging roads that no longer see vehicle traffic. Wild turkeys will use all these in their search for insects.
Mature birds and the growing young of the year also feed heavily on hard mast (acorns, beechnuts) and soft mast (wild grapes, blackberries, cherries).
Turkeys scratch constantly in leaf litter to uncover food, creating bowl-shaped depressions on the forest floor.
At the back of each of these is a pile of leaves that appears almost rolled into place. It’s possible to determine a turkey’s direction of travel from scratchings by looking at where the leaves are piled; turkeys push the leaves behind them as they scratch.
It’s fairly easy to discern fresh scratchings by a lack of leaves on the exposed ground and the moist appearance of the soil. During windy periods or heavy leaf drop, scratchings disappear quickly as leaves cover them.
That’s both a blessing and a curse because visible scratchings will likely be quite fresh, but it will be difficult to determine areas that turkeys that have been using during previous days or weeks.
Turkeys prefer to roost in large trees with thick limbs, and they like to stay out of the wind at night. So look for roost sites in protected hollows rather than on the tops of ridges.
Preferred roost sites will reveal themselves by the concentrations of droppings on the leaves below. In inclement weather or extreme cold, head for stands of conifers such as hemlocks and pines, which provide protection from the elements.
Obviously, the best turkey hotspots will feature a mix of these ingredients in relative proximity. In other words, if you can find mast-producing trees in an area that features a reliable water source, some grassy openings, and large trees for roosts, you can bet the turkeys will be there.
Once your scouting has produced turkey sightings or sign, the next order of business is to bump into a flock. The goal is to get close enough to scatter the flock to the four winds. Then you situate yourself at the break-up point and call to the reassembling birds.
One of the best times to locate turkeys is right at daybreak. When a flock of turkeys–especially one that hasn’t seen much pressure–wakes up in the morning, it makes a hell of a racket.
The jennies whistle and whine, the jakes yelp and try to gobble, the older hens yelp loudly. It’s a sound you won’t soon forget, and it’s one you can hear for a fairly long distance.
If you can reach such a flock before it gets too light, you can flush the turkeys from the trees. In the poor light of pre-dawn, you can get birds flying off separately to all points of the compass.
That creates a good break and a solid chance to call one back and shoot it. Of course, you can also wait until the turkeys fly down and gather on the ground–then rush in and break them up.
Evening is also an excellent time to locate fall birds. Turkeys don’t like to roost by themselves, and birds that have been separated from their group are often desperate to find company right before fly-up time.
Now, if you split up a flock right before dark, don’t expect them to come charging right back. It can happen, but it’s more likely that they’ll try to reassemble in the morning. However, evenings are a great time to call turkeys that were split up earlier in the day.
I learned this firsthand one opening week in Virginia when I’d hunted all day in vain for a flock that I knew was on the mountain. It was nearing dark, and I was still a couple of miles from the truck.
I began a forced march, calling loudly and incessantly as I worked back along the ridge.
About halfway out, I got a loud, shrieking answer. I dashed to the nearest large tree while still calling and got into position. The bird originally sounded as if it was at least 150 yards away in a hollow below me; minutes later, though, the jake–calling nonstop–popped into view.
He was running full bore, yelping and kee-keeing desperately, straight toward me. When he got to within 25 yards, I fired–and missed.
The point is, that bird had been separated from its brethren and, with night approaching, he wanted to get together with another turkey–and fast.
There are two approaches to the rest of the day. One–running and gunning–is a good method to use in unfamiliar territory that you haven’t had a chance to scout; where mast crops are heavy and widespread; and in areas that get lots of hunting pressure.
In this strategy, you cover a lot of ground until you find fresh scratchings, then follow them in hopes of catching up with a flock and effecting a scatter.
Make sure you stop frequently to listen.
While you won’t always hear the sound of turkeys calling, scratching turkeys make a ton of noise when the forest is dry.
Heavy mast years are a boon to turkeys and other wildlife, but they can be tough for turkey hunters. With food readily available over large tracts of land, there’s nothing to concentrate the birds or to hold them to a pattern.
In such a case, your best bet is to log a lot of miles. Pay attention to where you’re finding turkey sign and try to determine what type of food is drawing them at that point in time.
For instance, wild grapes–a soft mast that doesn’t persist for long–will often draw turkeys. If you note that birds have been working the grapevines, and you know the location of other grapevines, hit them in succession.
Likewise, if the woods are full of a variety of mast sources but you continually discover scratchings in beech groves, concentrate on beeches to find birds.
Don’t neglect agricultural areas and old fields, either. You may find that even though turkey sign is scattered throughout the forest, the presence of insects–or waste grain in recently harvested fields–may attract turkeys on a more regular basis.
In places where turkeys are hunted regularly in the fall, the run-and-gun is a good way to find lone turkeys looking to reassemble. Hunters flood the woods on opening morning, and sooner or later someone is going to run into a flock and break it up. Other hunters subsequently encounter smaller subgroups and scatter them.
Each time this happens, the hunter or hunters who split a flock will sit down to call them–but not all the birds are going to be able to reassemble. Some will invariably be bumped by other hunters, pushing them farther from the reassembly point. These singles, doubles and trios will wander the woods and are often ripe for the hunter who’s covering ground and calling a lot.
The run-and-gun is a great strategy, but I also like to still-hunt through an area that I know holds turkeys–moving 50 to 100 yards at a time and then setting up to call for five to 10 minutes. When still-hunting for turkeys, I don’t sneak but rather walk in a series of quick steps, two or three or four at a time with a short pause between series. I’ve found that this pattern, or lack thereof, tends to spook wildlife less than creeping quietly or walking steadily. The pauses also allow me to listen for the sound of calling or scratching turkeys.
Depending on wind strength or the amount of turkey sign I’m seeing, I’ll move in this manner for 50 or 100 yards and find a good tree to set up against. After sitting quietly for a bit, listening, I make a single, loud cluck on a box call. If the cluck doesn’t bring results, I begin yelping–increasing the volume a little with each series. The response, if any, isn’t always a call; sometimes, the only indication that the turkeys heard you will be the sound of them marching your way. If nothing happens after 10 to 15 minutes, get up and move another 50 to 100 yards.
Still-hunting for turkeys requires an intimate knowledge of the hunting area and a good idea of where the turkeys are–otherwise you can spend a lot of unproductive time calling in places where there are no turkeys. When the tactic works, though, it gives you a shot at big flocks, small groups and singles, and occasionally–when fortune smiles–a boss gobbler.
Fall gobblers are tough, largely because they aren’t terribly social and don’t have sex on their minds. You’ll sometimes find them in small bachelor groups–pairs or trios–and these represent your best shot. If you can locate such a group and split it up, it’s possible to call the toms back. Be aware, though, that old gobblers will take their sweet time reassembling. They may wait a day or more before returning to the break-up point.
Solo gobblers are even tougher. The closest I ever came to killing a lone tom was during a still-hunt in late fall. I’d stopped to call, and moments after my first cluck, a gobbler with a thick, 10-inch beard walked down off the ridge and stood 50 yards away. He scratched, fed and looked around for a few minutes, then drifted off–and I couldn’t entice him back.
It was one of most exciting moments I’ve ever had in turkey hunting–an unexpected bonus so close and yet so far. And it’s the kind of action that draws me back to the fall woods year after year.
Turkey hunting tests your wits as they’re rarely tested in modern life. It takes an understanding of the turkey itself – the only upland game you flirt with, not flush.
Wild turkeys are as wary and high-strung as whitetail deer. Their eyesight and hearing are acute.
Stalking a mature tom close enough for a shot is all but impossible and can be very dangerous if other hunters are in the area. Instead, select a strategic spot and talk him into range – mimicking the calls of an unmated hen, or sometimes the gobbling of a rival tom.
In springtime, the main hunting season for gobblers, turkeys are intent on courtship. The birds’ urge to breed is triggered by increasing daylight hours, which stimulate the sex hormones of the toms.
A mature tom, or gobbler, assembles a harem of two or more hens. His gobbling and strutting attract them, which also serve to intimidate lesser toms.
A year-old male, or jake, may strut or gobble but usually doesn’t mate. Dominant toms hook up with the first mature, receptive hens and perform most of the initial breeding.
Early in the spring, a gobbler expects the hens to come to him. This is the hen-gathering time, which may last several days or a week, and is the first of two “gobbling peaks”.
Once the toms are encircled with harems of hens, gobbling activity decreases.
At daybreak, gobblers will sound off only a few times from their roost, if at all. During this time, when the mature toms fly down to mate with their multitudes of female partners they will clam up and may only gobble a few times.
Toms are referred to by many, while acting in this manner, as being “henned up”.
In a short while, a week or so, the impregnated hens will begin visiting nests to lay one egg each day. This will generally happen in the late-morning hours and will take nearly two weeks for a hen to lay a full clutch of ten to twelve speckled eggs.
The incubation period then kicks in for the hens and they desert the toms for tending to their eggs. Gobblers tend to still be lovesick and will scout the woods for new mating opportunities.
At this time, the gobbler is more willing to pursue any hen he hears at a distance and will gobble long and hard once again. This is the second “gobbling peak” and it may last from a few days to a week. Any of these days where the old boss gobbler is searching for new hens is a prime time to hunt!
A tom and his harem roost close to each other at night, occasionally in a secluded ravine or over a creek or swamp. At first light, they fly to the ground and then the toms get down to the business of mating. He attends first to the harem and afterwards, he will be more likely to respond to your overtures.
This period after daybreak is the most productive for hunting. After toms fly down and mate with all of the available hens, he will be most vulnerable – be patient and you may have a chance to score!
As the day wears on, the turkeys move around to feed. At dusk they roost again, returning in many cases to the same vicinity or even to the same tree.
I can’t begin to tell you how many tom turkeys I’ve taught a thing or two during the past 15 years. Consider one gobbling bird my wife and I went after last spring.
Just a little closer, I thought, as we carefully inched forward to find a suitable place to set up. Then I spotted the perfect tree only 30 yards ahead.
We never got there.
Instead, we heard the dreaded “flap-flap-flap” sound of a turkey beating a hasty retreat. Not only had the turkey spotted us trying to make that last move, but we’d also “educated” him in the process.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe a gobbler is capable of reason. However, he has strong survival instincts, and an incident such as the one I just described will keep him on an even sharper edge than usual for days, which often makes him a lot harder to work than he normally might be.
We probably do more things to tip off gobblers to our presence than we could possibly imagine, but I’ve come up with five pieces of advice to help you avoid the most common mistakes hunters make–errors that complicate the already difficult task of calling in a mature spring tom.
Bumping birds-as my wife and I did–typically occurs when a hunter gets in a hurry and feels he needs to get just a little closer.
Proximity certainly counts when calling a gobbler: The closer you are to him, the less distance he has to travel to get to you. The less distance he has to travel, the more you build his confidence and the better the chance that something won’t go wrong before he walks into gun range.
Unfortunately, all too often we cross the line between not close enough and too close.
Consider a turkey that has heard your calls. He answers enthusiastically. He’s curious and staring intently in your direction, but you’re moving in and he busts you. There’s a tom you won’t be able to work for a while.
Although it’s possible to bump a bird at any time of the day, it probably occurs most often at dawn when toms are on the roost.
When moving toward a roosted gobbler, always remember that a bird in a tree can see much better than can one on the ground. He’s also anxiously awaiting the arrival of a hen, which is precisely why he carefully scans the forest floor below him.
Foliage is another factor.
If spring arrives late, and the woods haven’t greened up, you can’t get as close to a gobbler as you might be able to otherwise. Note, too, that when there is no foliage, a bird will usually sound closer–whereas heavy foliage makes a turkey sound farther away.
Never assume that you should always set up 100 or 150 yards away just because it’s some rule of thumb.
It’s better to start from one place–and move closer once you know you can–than to move forward when the situation is risky. You always have a chance of calling up a bird from a considerable distance, but you don’t have a chance of luring in a bird that has spotted you.
I’ve always believed that the best setup is the one you have at hand.
We’ve been taught that we should find a tree wider than our shoulders where we can see anything approaching from a safe distance–and you should definitely do so whenever possible because it reduces the chances that another hunter will shoot you in mistake for game.
However, if I insisted on always setting up in these places, I would have killed far fewer turkeys. Staying on the move to look for a perfect setup after you’ve raised a gobbler often leads to spooking the bird. If a bird gobbles, and he’s close, you have to choose a location close at hand or back up to find something better.
That’s why it’s important to think before you call.
A gobbler doesn’t expect a hen to be in places where he wouldn’t go. For example, you’d be well-hidden if you set up in the middle of a huge logjam, but a gobbler knows a hen probably wouldn’t be there if she’s searching for a mate.
Granted, I’ve shot many turkeys in thick spots, and sometimes I’ve had to make a gobbler hunt for me, but I prefer setups where I can see about 40 to 50 yards so the gobbler will have to come in that close to see the hen–and it means he will be in or nearly in gun range once he gets there.
If he can see for 60 yards or more, he may hang up. If it’s so thick that he has to get within 20 yards to see the source of the hen calls, he’ll likely ignore you.
In field situations, it’s best to avoid setting up in cover situated in the middle of a field. A gobbler will often move close enough to scan an open area for a quick view, and if he doesn’t see anything, he leaves.
So how can you make sure your first setup will be a good one?
Avoid random calling; call only when you’re in an area that lends itself to killing a gobbler. If you’re in thick brush or other undesirable place but still want to check if there are any toms within earshot, use a locator instead of a turkey call.
That way the turkey might give away his location and not be interested in where you are, giving you the chance to find a good setup from which to start him.
When you’re hunting through an area where you think you could work a bird successfully but haven’t heard anything yet, choose a tree or other solid backdrop, call and wait a few minutes before moving on.
Many gobblers have been educated when they sneaked in quietly and caught a hunter moving–or when they were so close and came in so quickly that the hunter never had a chance.
I don’t believe a gobbler can be educated by hunters’ turkey calls. Sure, you must sound something like a turkey, but hens make all sorts of sounds, and they have individual voices as well.
On the other hand, I do believe that you can screw things up if you call at the wrong time.
Most of us like to call a turkey every time he answers; I know I do. When a bird answers, I’m anxious to send him another sweet yelp or two. But when a bird is coming–and he often is once he begins answering calls–over-calling can cause him to put on the brakes.
The key is to recognize when a gobbler is on his way.
Once you know he’s moving toward you, I prefer to stop calling.
I remember a few years ago when I was hunting in Oklahoma with Realtree hunter Joe Drake. I jumped on an eager-sounding bird late in the morning with one call after another. The bird gobbled furiously at first and then went silent.
Fortunately, after hanging up for a while, he sneaked in. After I shot the gobbler, Drake explained that my continuous calling nearly stopped the bird from getting to us. I knew that he was right and that I was lucky.
Pay close attention to how quickly a gobbler answers your call. A delayed response may mean you’re not giving him the sound he wants to hear.
I know of several birds that responded late–or not at all–to common yelps. These same turkeys, though, gobbled without hesitation when they heard clucks, purrs or an aggressive cutt.
Yelps are the most popular hen calls used, and rightfully so, but they can raise suspicion in a gobbler–particularly late in the season.
I don’t believe a gobbler is capable of deciphering turkey calls; he can’t determine if the call is coming from a real hen or hunter. In fact, many turkey hunters sound better than real hens.
However, as the season progresses, some gobblers may come to associate a flat, mechanical-sounding “yelp-yelp-yelp” with danger because it’s the sound he has heard whenever something went wrong.
Always be prepared to give a turkey a call other than the common yelp. It might be okay to start with a yelp, but never believe that it will be the only call you need to get him into gun range.
A cluck, purr or another sound may be what it takes to build his confidence.
If there’s one sure way of putting a gobbler you’re working on high alert, it’s by remaining in the same location. Earlier I discussed moving too much and bumping birds. True, you have to use common sense when moving on a gobbler and when setting up to keep from being spotted, but don’t plan to remain in that location too long.
It’s a turkey hunter’s nature to stay put and let it all happen. After all, you found the right place, and the gobbler doesn’t know there’s anything else around except your turkey talk. If you stay put, you know you won’t spook the turkey. Why take the chance on moving and risk finding another setup as good as this one?
Any gobbler that hears turkey talk coming from the same location for a long period is probably not going to show up. He might gobble furiously and make you think he will, but odds are he’s standing back there and waiting for you to come to him.
In a case such as this, you may have to move. Granted, you should give a turkey a chance to show up where you first called to him. However, I can honestly say that I’ve killed few gobblers from my initial calling location. Sometimes it was the second spot, sometimes the third, and there have been times that I couldn’t tell you how often I got up and moved.
I sincerely believe that changing positions has helped me to coax gobblers into gun range. Just how far you need to move depends on the location of the gobbler. If the bird is close, consider short moves of 20 yards or so. It doesn’t have to be toward the bird, either. He will know you moved, even it’s just a small, lateral move.
A gobbler knows that a turkey is going to move. It might stay in the same proximity but not in one precise spot. I typically give a bird 20 minutes or so to make a move toward me before changing setups. If the bird isn’t coming, I call to get a response to learn his precise whereabouts. Then, if the coast is clear, I move a short distance and call again. This tactic really fires up most gobblers.
For a sport that carries such a woodsy texture, so much of turkey hunting occurs on the open ground. Depending on where you live, you’re likely to encounter food plots, meadows, clearcuts, pastures or even entire valleys that will in some way impact your pursuit of a gobbler.
Granted, there might be one or two occasions during a lifetime of turkey hunting that you’ll spot a bird out in the open, sit down, and have it walk straight to you, but for the most part, you’re going to earn any bird that’s standing in plain view.
On many occasions, empty terrain will hinder you in one way or another. You’ve just got to accept that when a gobbler is out there in the open, it’s using two primary strengths–its senses of sight and hearing–to its advantage.
Any direct approach on a gobbler that has a hundred yards or so of flat, uncovered ground around it will be futile, and you’re left with really only two viable schemes:
In either scenario, you’ll find that dealing with an open-country gobbler is an entirely different discipline than working a bird in the woods. In a lot of ways, it’s more deliberate than intense, but it’s every bit as discriminate.
Brad Harris, who’s as respected for his prowess as a turkey hunter as for his association with Lohman Game Calls, has hunted much of the same country I have, and he stresses the need to slow things down when you’re on a bird that you’ve spotted out in the open.
“In the big woods, you cover a lot of ground, and are always moving, and calling, and setting up,” he says. “In the open, you’re doing the same things, but you have to slow down ’cause you get busted more often.”
When you consider that a turkey whose eyes and ears are unobstructed by any form of cover is going to entertain a certain sense of security, you don’t want to upset that by letting it know you’re there.
Be patient to the extent that you remain totally concealed. And remember that when you’re up against an open-country gobbler, time might be measured in days, not hours.
Once you’ve located a gobbler on a vacant patch of land, gather a quick read of what information is immediately available.
Is the gobbler with a hen? Are there other birds nearby?
Then whip out the binoculars and start getting patient. Study the gobbler’s tendencies, and pay particular attention to when and where he enters and exits the field.
At the same time, you need to learn all you can about the terrain.
Since staying concealed outranks any other requirement in your approach, determine what route you’re going to have to use to get to your chosen set-up spot.
Even if staying hidden means going miles out of your way, be willing to go the extra distance.
Missourian Ray Eye, who’s as impressive a turkey hunter as I’ve shared camp with, relies heavily on what he refers to as “turkey tunnels.”
His homeland features entire systems of eroded creek bottoms, and they often provide all the concealment he needs to slither into position.
When he locates a gobbler, he starts thinking in terms of what tunnels he must follow to get as close as he can to the bird.
And even if things don’t go exactly as hope on the first day, don’t consider it time wasted.
As Harris notes: “Even if you don’t kill a bird, you can learn his patterns by watching him. That will help you make precise setups on day two or three.”
Those of us who are without an abundance of creek bottoms or ditches to crawl around in have to use whatever cover we have at our disposal: berms, ridges, tree lines or even knee-high brush. Spotting a bird before it spots us offers such an advantage, but only when we can use it to full effect.
Again, when you to call to a gobbler that’s enjoying the comfort of a secure location, the last thing you want to do is make him nervous.
Often, the easiest way to do that is to lack believability–call from where a hen wouldn’t be, or in any other way come across as fake.
Sometimes you can turn him off by being too aggressive, other times by being too timid. Eye tends to lean more heavily on the aggressive side, and it’s fun to watch him work a bird. When he locates a strutting gobbler out in the open, he’ll pick his path to it, and call hard up to within 100 yards of the gobbler.
“I want that gobbler to know I’m coming in after him,” Eye says.
“Then I’ll come right up under him.”
Eye remains just as aggressive when he attempts to steal a gobbler away from a live hen by calling loud, hard and often. His theory is based on the premise that if he can sound like a hen that’s more amorous than the one the gobbler’s currently with, something positive might happen.
Harris, also a world-class caller, suggests experimenting with the various makes of calls. Volume is often going to be an issue in open country, since such terrain is so susceptible to sound-dampening wind.
The safest way to play it is to start out easy at first, then get progressively more aggressive until you start drawing the proper response. If you can spend enough time with the same batch of birds, you’ll figure out how best to call to them.
Both Harris and Eye agree that a hunter’s chances of calling in a bird are greatly increased when he has the opportunity to set up decoys. When you’re calling to a gobbler in a field, you’re so much more credible when he looks your way and sees, particularly, an arrangement of jake(s) and hens.
“Open-country birds rely more on eyesight, so if they look out and don’t see what they want to see, they won’t respond as well,” Harris says.
Additionally, by exploiting a gobbler’s breeding and territorial instincts, you don’t have to be quite as concerned about the quality of your setup. When he has the opportunity to place decoys, Harris won’t hesitate to position himself at the bend of a creek, along with a fenceline or at some other such place he would never feel comfortable in if it weren’t for the dekes.
“You can always get good setups in open country when you have the decoys out,” he says.
But no matter what tricks you pull on a gobbler, give him time to work. There’ll be occasions when the best efforts fail, but most of the time what should happen will. And there’ll always be those rare occasions when you just get lucky.
Stop and consider for just a moment why many turkey hunters hate seeing the arrival of the late season. The turkey hunting gets downright tough; many birds turn and walk away from even the sweetest hen yelps.
You can thank “educated” gobblers for the late-season blues.
To beat them, you may have to change your methods. Keep in mind that as the season wears on, turkey behavior is changing. The ardor that characterized the early part of spring may be cooling; in some areas, the reverse is true–the end of hunting season can coincide with intense gobbling.