This year marks the 25th anniversary of the return of wild turkey hunting to Ontario, and by all accounts the coveted game bird has made a fantastic comeback. Populations have become so healthy, in fact, the province initiated a fall season in 2008, allowing hunters to take either a hen or a tom.
So, why not commemorate this conservation milestone with a classic fall hunt of your own? Just remember, these spring breeders behave much differently in the autumn, and that calls for a whole new hunting approach. Wherever you pursue wild turkeys in Canada, here are 25 season-specific tips to help you put a big bird in the oven.
1. Fall turkeys form four types of flocks, the largest being hens with their poults, while hens without poults make up the second largest group. Jakes running around in gangs make the third flock type, leaving mature toms to compose the fourth and usually smallest group. If you hope to call in a flock, it’s important to know what birds are in it, as you’ll have to call specifically to them to get their attention. Fall calling is hen to hen or hen to poult, jake to jake and tom to tom—and that means you’ll need to have a bigger repertoire of calls than you would in the spring.
2. The best time to identify a flock is at fly-up or fly-down at the roost site. There’s typically a lot of turkey talk at fly-down as turkeys reconnect with one another and sort out the daily issue of the pecking order. Go to a high ridge or hilltop to listen for roosted turkeys. Toms can be recognized by their heavier wing beats, deep-toned clucks, short strings of yelps and possibly a gobble. Hen flocks will have plenty of hen clucks, yelps and cackles; if poults are present, they’ll make kee kee calls. As for jakes, they’ll cluck and yelp with a raspy croak, not unlike a teenaged boy whose voice is changing. Jakes will also often tack on a few coarse yelps to the end of a kee kee call.
3. Fall turkeys are all about food. They’ll find a suitable roost close to a prime food source, such as waste grain, spilled corn or a cattle feeder, or a bumper crop of acorns or berries. Scout to find the food and you’ll also find the turkeys; then set up between their roost and their dining area. If there’s no concentrated food source, however, turkeys will scratch and peck for tidbits all across their range, forcing you to do some walking to find them.
4. Turkeys wake up hungry and like to go to sleep with a full belly. With that in mind, hunt food sources early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
5. In the fall, scouting and reading turkey sign are essential. Do the legwork to find flocks, tracks, droppings, feathers and scratchings on the ground where the birds have been moving leaves, twigs and other debris to find food. If you don’t find any sign, that’s a sign, too—namely, that turkeys aren’t using the area and you should move on and look elsewhere.
6. You’ll know that turkeys are still likely nearby if you find fresh sign, such as droppings that are not yet dried out or soil that is still moist from scratching. If you find both fresh and old sign together, it means turkeys regularly visit the area, making it a good place to hunt.
7. When turkeys scratch in the leaves, they create a triangular bare patch of dirt pointing in the direction they were facing. From this, you can sometimes determine which way they were heading, but only if it was a small flock or a single tom. Otherwise, large flocks will mill around and scratch in all directions, offering no clue as to the direction they were heading. That said, at least you’ll know it was probably a flock of hens and poults by the amount of scratching.
8. In open country, watch where flocks are going and use your knowledge of the land to get in front of them, all the while remaining quiet and out of sight. If the birds have to go through a funnel point, wait for them there.
9. In order to see better, feeding flocks will keep the sun at their backs when it’s low in the sky during the early morning and evening. You won’t turn a flock into the sun with your calls, so try to set up in the shade at a right angle to the sun. This way, the sun won’t be in your eyes, too, and the flock can pass in front of you with the sun behind it. As the sun climbs higher, this is not an issue and staying in the shade becomes more important if only to avoid detection.
10. If you find a concentration of wing feathers on the ground, you’ve likely discovered a roosting area—wing feathers fall out when turkeys fly up or down from their roost branch. If it’s a tom roost, there will also be black- tipped breast feathers and J-shaped droppings nearby. If it’s a hen roost, the breast feathers will have tan tips and the dropping will be shaped like Milk Duds. Once you’ve determined what type of flock is using the roost, match your calls accordingly and hunt the area late in the afternoon when the birds will be returning.
11. Turkeys in flocks are not strongly inclined to come to calls. They may answer, but they won’t stray much from their route. But by responding, they at least let you know where they are, enabling you to plan your next move. In the fall, the best locator calls are turkey calls themselves. Hens will answer hen talk and poult kee kees, while toms may answer tom yelps, clucks and gobbles.
12. A classic fall tactic for hunting hens is to scatter a flock of hens and poults, then call them back to the same location. To scatter the birds, simply run into the flock and scare them—you want them to separate and head off in all directions, not take off in a group. If any birds fly up into trees, scare them off again. Once separated, hens and poults are anxious to reunite, making them susceptible to your calls.
13. If you accidentally bump and spook hens or miss a shot, consider it a scatter. Get up, get running and finish the job—chase them off in all directions, then find a good place nearby to set up. Wait a half-hour or until you hear a call, then start calling.
14. When calling back scattered hen flocks, make your calls loud and bossy. This will give the birds more confidence, since they’re used to coming to a boss hen. Use the hen assembly call, which is a loud string of six to 12 yelps. The poult kee kee call will also call in hens looking to reunite with their young; glass pot calls make very good kee kee calls. Mix it up with several different calls to mimic an actual flock.
15. If you’re trying to call back a scattered flock and hear a nearby brood hen make an assembly yelp, you won’t be able to out call her because the flock knows her yelp. Instead, try luring her in with kee kee calls. If she doesn’t come quickly, however, get up and scare her out of the area before she assembles the flock and moves off.
16. If your hunting grounds are limited to a small acreage, scattering flocks could make them leave your area. So, instead of scattering, hunt with low-pressure, low-impact methods—namely, pattern the birds’ movements and set up along their route.
17. Mature toms are not as anxious as hens to get back together when scattered. For them, wariness overrides the need to be together. Low-pressure tactics, such as patterning their route, will keep them calm and in the area. Scattering and calling them back might work sometimes, but reserve the tactic as a last-ditch effort for the last few hours of the season.
18. The sneak-and-Peek tactic is key to finding fall flocks, especially at midday if your morning roost set-up didn’t pan out. Simply move slowly through good turkey habitat while searching and listening intently for flock—feeding birds scratch in the leaves and make random soft clucks and purrs. Strive to see or hear them first, then sneak in as close as you can in front of them.
19. Toms gobble all year, though less in the fall than in the spring. A loud gobble call reaches out a long way and may trigger a tom to gobble back, helping you find him. If you get an answer, move as close as you dare, then resume calling with tom clucks and yelps. Gobblers are usually curious about new toms in their territory, so they may come in to investigate the stranger.
20. When prospecting for turkeys in the big woods or wide-open fields, boat-paddle box calls and metal pot calls carry the farthest and are likely to get a response before you’re close enough to spook a flock. These are the best searching calls in wind, fog and rain, too. After you locate a flock and move in close, switch to finesse calling with your favourite slate or mouth call.
21. For hen flocks, the lost yelp is a good searching call because it’s loud and long, comprising a string of 20 or more yelps that typically become raspier toward the end as the bird’s vocal chords tire. Call, wait 15 minutes, then move and call again until you get an answer. The poult kee kee run is another good searching call for hen flocks because it’s loud and can trigger a hen’s maternal instinct to answer or come in to investigate.
22. If you suspect turkeys are nearby but it’s impossible to move quietly near them, mask your movements by trying to sound like a turkey yourself. Shuffle your feet through the leaves with three quick steps, then wait and do it again; this will sound like a turkey scratching for food. As well, keep a mouth call in place to give a little cluck if you break a twig—just be ready to set up or shoot instantly in case your call brings in a curious bird.
23. Sorting out the pecking order is a year-round issue for toms. Inciting jealousy in a dominant tom is probably the only way to get him to cast caution to the wind and make a mistake. Fire him up with excited tom clucks, cutting, aggressive purrs and gobbles to make him come in to show who’s boss.
24. Jakes brawl among themselves, as well as with new jakes they meet. Call to them first with kee kee calls followed with jake yelps. If that doesn’t bring them in, amp it up with excited jake yelps, clucks and cutting.
25. Gobblers also fight one another, as do hens. These scraps always arouse social curiosity and bring in turkeys of the same sex in the fall. Basically, the birds are interested in the outcomes of such fights because they could affect their rank in the flock. Stage a tom or hen fight with loud aggressive purrs, excited cutting, wing beats and thrashing in the leaves. And use a mouth call and a pot call at the same time to sound like two different birds—hit just the right notes, and you’ll soon be enjoying a well-deserved turkey dinner.