Turkeys play by a different set of rules in the autumn hardwoods, and that means hunters need to also change their playbooks. If you want a fine turkey dinner from the wild this fall, use these tactics to help put something special on the platter.
1. Find the Flock
By mid-October, most wild turkeys will have joined one of three types of flocks, depending on their age and sex. Toms hang together in small bachelor groups, while one-and-a-half-year-old jakes form gangs to head out adventuring on their own. Hens and poults, meanwhile, make up the third and largest type of turkey flock.
Flocks are easy to find when they’re feeding on waste grain in fields. But if their presence isn’t so obvious, get into the woods with a shotgun or .22 for some small-game hunting before turkey season opens and look for turkey scratchings on the forest floor. A flock of turkeys needs a lot of food, and it can really rip up the carpet. Even in dry weather, scratchings a few hours old will still have moist, bare soil.
Flocks range over hundreds of acres in the fall as they forage, and may not return to the same spot for days. They’ll poke along grassy laneways and field edges looking for grasshoppers, cruise ridges for acorns and scour the scrub for berries and seeds. Walk slowly and listen carefully while you scout—you may hear some scratching in the leaves, or clucks. And always be sure to carefully peek over ridges and around corners along the trail if you hope to find the birds before they spot you.
Near an exceptional food source, flocks may use the same roost site each night If you find a concentration of droppings and feathers under hardwoods or in a sheltered hollow of conifers, you’re likely onto a roost site. Get some cranberry sauce. You’ll need it.
2. Read the Roosts
A simple way to find out if there are turkeys in a bush is to be there before dawn. While it’s still dark, get to a high spot where you can hear a good distance and listen for birds coming off the roost. They’ll make quite a racket, yelping while still on the roost to re-establish contact after a night of separation, then cackling as they fly down, their wing beats carrying through the still morning air like thunder. And once on the ground, they’ll mill around clucking.
With a flock of hens and poults, the boss hen may yelp to assert her dominance and call the flock together before it marches off for breakfast. If it’s a flock of toms, the wing beats will be slower and heavier. Tom clucks also have a lower pitch than a hen’s, as do their slower yelps. The boss tom may even gobble to remind his buddies he’s in charge, while a jake might try a broken gobble. It’s important to know whether the flock you’re hunting is made up of toms or hens, because that will determine how you call to them.
If you find a roost, hunt it the same way as you would in the spring. For starters, watch the roost from a distance in the evening to learn which side the birds approach it from. Before dawn, set up on that same side, as the birds will likely head back that way in the morning. Try to get to within 50 yards of the roost, and when you hear the birds call at first light, mimic their calls—cluck for cluck, yelp for yelp—getting louder and more aggressive with each exchange. Act like an upstart challenging the boss bird, and it may come looking for you. If the birds head off in another direction, make a big circle to get in front of them and begin calling quietly again. Always call from where turkeys are headed, not from where they’ve been, and you’ll be surprised at how good of a caller you are.
3. Talk Like Toms
Fall toms are not the same hen chasers they were in the spring, and they ignore hen talk. Instead, they’re all about improving their place on the social ladder. To call in gobblers, use tom yelps and clucks to fire up their curiosity, making them think you’re a new bird looking to fit in. Usually, they’ll sneak in quietly to check out your calls. If a bird answers back, however, it will likely be a dominant tom. Throw his own calls right back at him, loud and proud, and you may incite him to charge in looking for a fight.
A mock fight with aggravated purrs, wing beats and thrashing in the leaves can also incite toms and jakes to come in. Jakes often fight among themselves, and they’re always eager to watch a dust up. Being careless with curiosity, they’re usually the first customers to a mock fight.
Since there’s no interest between the sexes in the fall, the best calling will play to the year-round issue of dominance in the flock. So, get under their feathers with assertive calling. In the spring, a hot gobbler may come in blind with lust, but in the fall, he’ll come in blind with rage.
To call hens, use the same vocalizations you use in the spring to call toms, along with the addition of the kee kee run, or lost call. The outer edge of a pot call with a carbon striker can produce the high tone of the lost call. Toms and jakes also yelp, cluck, cutt and purr, but their calls are generally lower and slower than hen lingo. You need to accurately match the lower tone and slower rhythm of a fall tom—he’s no longer driven by the mating urge, and therefore far less likely to overlook poor calling. Double-reed mouth calls and pot calls with wooden strikers are good choices to produce the lower tones of a tom, with the centre of a pot call creating the lowest sound.
4. Hound the Hens
If you’re working a flock of hens and poults, use hen clucks and purrs to draw them to your set-up. Expect to hear little calling in return. If you’re calling blind, use a boss hen’s assembly yelp, which is a long string of 20 or more yelps to gather in young birds. This could possibly lure the real boss hen and her flock to your set-up. The lost call of a poult—or kee kee run, as it’s called—can also pull in curious hens and poults.
5. Cruise and Call
If you don’t have a roost to hunt, but you know birds are in the area, move slowly through the woods and listen carefully for a yelp, cluck or scratching in the leaves. Stop to look and listen every few steps in high-percentage areas so your movements sound like a feeding turkey. That way, you’re less likely to tip off a nearby flock as you would by walking at a steady pace. Edge slowly up to new vistas in the woods and scan around thoroughly for feeding birds before moving ahead. Remember, your camo can’t hide you when you’re moving, so it’s essential to see or hear the flock before one of its sharp-eyed members picks you off. If you spot a flock, read its direction and get in front of the birds before trying to call them in. If you can’t get in front of them, set up as close as you can without bumping them, then start calling.
If your hunting area is small, or if you can’t find a flock, set up on a ridge or knoll in a location that shows signs of feeding activity. Call softly at first in case there are birds nearby. If that fails to get a response, let the calls fly loud and clear. Alternate between hen and tom calls if you don’t know which birds are nearby, but would be happy with either sex. Most of us lose focus and begin to fidget after an hour of blind calling, so a pop-up blind is a great asset if you plan to spend a few hours in a good feeding area. If you can’t sit that long, and you have room to roam, move to another spot with good sign and try again.
6. Flush the Flock
If you find a flock but can’t call the birds into range before legal light is up, it’s time for drastic measures. You know that camo gear you spent a week’s pay on? And your finely honed, ghost-like stealth? Forget all that. Now’s the time to unload your gun and run like a madman into the flock, screaming or barking like a dog for good measure. If you’re with a partner, it’s even better if you can charge in from opposite sides. Your goal is to break up the flock and scatter the birds in all directions.
Once scattered, they’ll take a half-hour or so to calm down and regroup, giving you time to get ready. Set up to call in the direction most of the birds ran, or right on the spot where they scattered if it’s a prime feeding area. When the turkeys start to call to each other, match their calls. If a hen starts yelping, out-yelp her so she doesn’t call the whole flock back to her. The kee kee run will also bring in hens and other poults. If you scattered a flock of jakes, meanwhile, use coarse jake clucks and slow yelps to call them back. As for toms, it’s usually not a good idea to scatter their flocks, as they tend not to regroup right away. You’ll only serve to further educate this wily quarry.
It’s true that fall turkey hunting doesn’t offer the thrill of intense spring gobbling, but getting stampeded by a gang of brawling jakes can certainly boost your juice. So can getting cussed out by a bossy hen and swarmed by her flock. And having a fall tom race in—his neck stretched out straight as a poker—will definitely spike up the intensity. Whatever the case, the end reward is the same: a fine bird for the table.
Since either sex is legal during Ontario’s fall hunt, there’s less emphasis on identifying a bearded bird. Nevertheless, always make sure your target is clearly a turkey and that there’s a safe backdrop before squeezing the trigger. Fall hunting has the potential to be more dangerous because there are generally more people in the woods, so be sure to set up in the same, safe manner as you would during the spring turkey hunt (such as positioning yourself in front of a tree or rock that is wider than your shoulders, as shown here). And when you do find success, wear some blaze orange while carrying out your bird.
As always, please be sure to check the hunting regulations for exact season dates, applicable wildlife management units, firearms and bow restrictions, and more.