How To Hunt Fall Turkeys (For Your Thanksgiving Feast)
Spring gobbler season gets all the attention, but you can’t call yourself a real turkey hunter until you embrace the challenge and excitement of bird hunting in autumn
Fall was the original turkey season. We eat turkey at Thanksgiving, not Easter, yet the generation of hunters that came of age during the bird’s “great comeback” sees turkey hunting as a spring-only pursuit. Although many turkey hunters have never tried it, they’ll tell you the fall hunt is boring (“Turkey hunting is all about the gobble”) or wrong (“I’d never kill a hen”).
They’re missing out. Half a dozen lost turkeys converging on you from six different directions gets your heart going every bit as fast as a spring gobbler at 30 steps does. Shooting a hen is no more wrong than shooting an antlerless deer, and after you’ve had a 10-pound hen or even a 6-pound poult roasted whole for Thanksgiving, a Butterball will never satisfy you again. If you’re determined to shoot gobblers only, they’re out there in the fall, by the flock.
You already own the gear you need. You just have to adjust your attitude and learn a couple of new skills. Certainly there are plenty of turkeys out there for you to chase. If you complained about gobblers being henned up all spring, here’s your chance to do something about it by improving the local tom-to-hen ratio.
Bagging a fall bird is not as easy as getting a gobbler fired up, like you would in spring. Here are the best ways to get your turkey in the autumn season.
Scatter and Recall
This classic fall turkey tactic is also the most fun. You sneak close–almost within gun range–of a flock of hens and poults, then take your shells out of your gun and rush the birds, screaming, waving your arms, and trying to scatter turkeys in all directions. A good break is crucial. If the birds see you and run off together, all you’ve accomplished is scaring them away. But if they fly away, usually they fan out enough that you can go 100 to 200 yards in the direction they flew and set up. The perfect break, though, sends turkeys to all points of the compass. The best flock busters are turkey dogs, where legal. They can cover more ground, smell out turkeys, and scatter flocks better than humans can. Sit down at the scatter point, wait a few minutes to let the woods settle, then start calling. Soon turkeys will surround you, calling to one another as they regroup. Chime in with kee kees and/or lost yelps of your own. You could have birds in range within 10 to 15 minutes.
Get Under a Roost
Once you locate a roost, you can sneak in and set up in the dark the next morning, as you would in spring. In one hour under a fall roost, you will hear more different turkey sounds than you will throughout an entire spring season, including gobbles. You may find 50 to 60 birds roosted together. When that many turkeys fly down, there’s a lot of calling back and forth as they sort themselves out to start the day. Yelp and cluck quietly. A decoy might help here, but it’s not essential.
Challenge a Flock
Turkeys are usually curious about new birds and how they fit into the pecking order. Walk along logging roads and ridgetops, near field edges, or where your scouting leads you to believe that turkeys are within earshot and call, yelping and cutting. Have a flock patterned? Set up between the roost and their breakfast, put out a hen decoy, and yelp occasionally. When you get an answer, call back with an aggressive response. Do it right and the whole flock will come running, ready to rumble.
Provoke a Gobbler
To call a fall gobbler, you have to sound like one. Use gobbler yelps to strike a bird. When you get a reply, come back with feisty yelps and angry purrs. Catch birds in the right mood, and they will treat you to a strutting and gobbling show that matches a spring hunt.
Turkeys speak the same language in fall as they do in spring. The difference is, in fall you make female sounds to female turkeys and male sounds to male turkeys. Have these calls in your autumn repertoire:
Kee Kee Run
Kee kees are the go-to call after you break up a flock of hens and poults. They can also work as a locator. The kee kee is the sound a poult makes because it’s too young to “break” a yelp. It’s a high-pitched whistle that sounds like hurry, hurry, hurry or boy, boy, boy. To make the sound on a mouth call, simply draw out the high-pitched first half of the yelp. A yelp is kee-yoke. You’re just doing the kee part three or four times. Now and then, mix the kee kees with yelps.
A lost hen makes a series of as many as 10 to 15 plaintive yelps. This call works as a locator for flocks of hens and mixed flocks of hens and poults.
Gobblers make a low, hoarse yelp, delivered at a slow cadence. Often, gobblers will yelp just a couple of times rather than make longer runs. Use two to three yelps and occasionally add an aggressive purr as if you’re looking for a fight.
If you’re having a hard time getting a tom to respond, try using a gobble to challenge a dominant bird or a flock of gobblers to charge in for a fight.
Without wound-up gobblers sounding off, locating turkeys is a lot harder than in spring. Here’s the primer for how to find fall birds. Turkeys are flocked up in fall, but not always in the same place you saw them in spring. Some fall flocks can be patterned to the minute; others are maddeningly random. Still, if you know where they roost and where they eat, you can figure out where they’re going to be throughout the day. In the fall, adult gobblers patch up their breeding-season differences and band together, sometimes in flocks of a dozen or more. You’ll see hens and poults in groups as small as five or six or as large as 60. Here’s where to find them:
Until the first hard frosts of the year, turkeys feed on leafy browse and all the grasshoppers they can catch in fields of longer grasses. Seek out turkeys in pastures, too. An overturned cow pie is a sure sign the birds have been there; they’ll pick the corn out, then flip the patty to expose insects underneath. After the harvest, glass for turkeys in fields of corn, wheat, and beans.
As mast drops, look for V-shaped scratchings in the leaves as well as tracks and droppings in oak flats. A turkey-size depression in loose dirt indicates a dust bath, and if you see lots of feathers and droppings around, birds are probably using it regularly at midday.
Turkeys will change roosts during the fall, depending on where they’re finding food. A roost tree may hold whole flocks, resulting in droppings and feathers piled barnyard-deep around the trunk. You can also pin down a roost as you would in spring, by sitting on a high spot on a calm evening and listening for the sound of big wings lifting heavy bodies into the air.
What you use in spring will work in autumn. But if you’re looking to update or add to your turkey gear, here’s what to get:
You can hunt with your 12-gauge–I do–or a smaller gun. Most fall turkeys are less than half the size of a mature gobbler. A youth-model 20-gauge like the Remington Model 870 Express Youth ($373; remington.com) or the Mossberg 500 Super Bantam Pump-Action Turkey ($389; mossberg.com) is enough gun and easier to tote through the woods than a 12-gauge. Shots are usually closer in fall, but stick with a supertight choke, as you may have to shoot one bird out of a bunch without hitting any others with stray pellets. **
You don’t need as heavy a load in fall as you do in spring. If you’re shooting hens or poults, 13⁄4 ounces of size 6 shot is sufficient because the vitals are slightly smaller and the bones are not as tough. (Winchester Supreme High Velocity Turkey 3-inch shotshells, $20 for 10 rounds;winchester.com)
This strap vest with a built-in chair lets you sit anywhere in comfort, but it folds up for running and gunning. (RedHead Bucklick Creek High-Back Turkey Lounger, $70; 800-920‑4400; basspro.com)
Snakes or no snakes, these are wonderful turkey hunting boots: comfortable, supportive, and tall enough for you to wade small streams. (Cabela’s Gore-Tex Cordura Snake Boots, $130; 800-237‑4444; cabelas.com)
Light, compact, and with rubber armor coating, good glasses like these are fall essentials. Quality optics help you spot birds in fields and distinguish hens from gobblers. (Zeiss Conquest 8×30, $625; 800-441‑3005; zeiss.com)
The roll-up decoy weighs nothing in your gamebag and looks like a real hen. Put out one to represent a lost turkey, or a few to resemble birds regrouping after a scatter. (Flambeau Upright Hen, $20; 800-232‑3474; decoys.com)
The following are especially well suited for the autumn season:
• This old favorite double-sided box makes hen yelps on one side, gobbler yelps on the other. (Lynch World Champion Box Call, $45; 229-226‑5793; lynchworldwide.com)
• The best mouth call for fall gobblers is a three- or four-reed diaphragm that’s loosened up with age and use. The World Champ has four medium-thick reeds, great for making low-pitched gobbler yelps. (Quaker Boy Screamin’ Green World Champ, $7.29; 800-544‑1600; quakerboy.com)
• With two thin reeds, this diaphragm creates high-pitched whistles with ease. (Quaker Boy Kee Kee, $5.69; 800-544‑1600; quakerboy.com)