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We’re already a week into October, and while many hunters are focused on archery deer, waterfowl or upland birds, there is a contingent of sportsmen who are more interested in bagging their fall wild turkey. As always, “it’s complicated,” but the basics boil down to an open fall season on wild turkeys using archery gear in Zone 1 (the Rolling Thunder distribution area, more or less) from Oct. 8-22, and then shotgun hunters may join in from Oct. 15-21. Hunters will need a valid hunting license plus a $20 fall turkey tag to participate.
Oddly enough, there is an overlap period where both shotgun and archery hunters may be in the woods chasing turkeys at the same time, but on the last day (Oct. 22) only archers will be allowed to finish the season.
Bow or shotgun, the methods for taking a fall turkey are somewhat different from the techniques used to take spring gobblers. In May, for example, hunters are targeting (and allowed to kill) only bearded birds, which generally means adult male turkeys. There are a few bearded hens out there (I had two in my yard last winter) but they are rare “trophies” and are not as responsive in spring as gobblers. However, come fall, hunters are allowed to take hens or gobblers, so the odds increase at least as far as that goes.
The challenge in fall is in getting the birds to respond to calls and decoys because they are no longer in the breeding mode and therefore won’t come running in like love-struck teenagers.
Instead, fall turkeys will be traveling in large family flocks, roosting and feeding together with no great interest in anything other than avoiding predators and filling their crops with acorns, apples, insects and other preferred turkey delicacies.
This behavior gives the fall hunter a few options. Most common (in the literature, anyway) is the “bust and call” approach, where the hunter finds a flock of feeding turkeys, runs up to scatter them and then sits down to call a straggler back to the gun. When the stars are perfectly aligned this method works quite well, but on other days there can be complications. It may be a small flock that will just run away and not “bust up.” The birds may gather again around the boss hen or they will simply go away and not return no matter how good or convincing the caller may be.
I’ve had better luck busting the flock and then continuing to walk in their direction till I hear them calling back and forth to each other. Then I will set up to call and most times have good luck luring my bird of choice into range.
Another, perhaps more productive method, is to get into the woods before sunrise and set up close to a flock of roosted turkeys. They will cluck and yelp and (sometimes) gobble for quite a while before they decide to fly down and begin feeding. A hunter who’s in position and utters a few seductive yelps of his own could have the entire flock file by, giving him his pick of the available birds. In this scenario, the camouflaged hunter should sit quietly, bow or gun at the ready, and let the first birds (usually hens and this year’s poults) go by in hopes that there will be bearded birds behind them. The hunter has to decide if he wants to shoot a hen or a bearded tom, knowing that in many cases fall flocks consist only of hens with their spring broods. For example, moments before writing these words I had a flock of 13 hens in my back yard: Legal for fall hunting, but not the “trophy” bird most hunters want to shoot – until the last day!
Hunters with only a late afternoon to hunt can still have good luck by heading for the same roosting area where he spotted birds last spring. Just get there first (an hour or two before sunset) and sit tight. Unless the flock has been disturbed, the birds will come slowly back to their bedroom and begin heading for their roosts just before dark. Be there first and pick a bird while they are still on the ground. It is legal to shoot turkeys that are on the roost but, to me, that’s akin to murder unless you are using a longbow or muzzleloading flintlock as our colonial ancestors did.
Another technique that works well is to set up in woods known to be frequented by turkeys and spend the day calling. Add a few decoys to spice up the spot, although they are not necessary. This method requires that the hunter stay put all day because turkeys have great memories. Even if they did not respond in the morning they will, sometime later during the day, come back to investigate the “lost hen” they think is nearby. This requires a lot of patience – it may be several hours before the flock swings by. This is a good technique for hunters who are in unfamiliar territory, know turkeys are in the area but don’t have the time to scout. Get in, get set up, sit still, call sparingly and wait. Nothing to it!
Another method that October deer hunters will attest to is sitting in a tree stand all day and calling occasionally. Most fall archery deer hunters I know have seen or heard turkeys while waiting for deer to show up, and many of them say they could easily have shot a bird. This is another method that requires lots of patience and a small amount of calling skill. Cluck, yelp or purr sparingly (every 30 minutes is enough) and be ready to shoot when the birds show up.
If you didn’t get enough of turkey hunting last spring and have a fall tag in hand, give the fall season a try. If nothing else, it’s a great break from the norm for a few days. As if there weren’t enough to do in October!
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