SOME SAY THERE IS A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SPRING AND FALL TURKEY HUNTING. HOWEVER, THE SIMILARITIES CAN BE SURPRISING.
Like many turkey hunters, I used to think carrying a gun into the turkey woods was reserved for spring only. Little did I know that fall turkey hunting has a long and storied past. TV shows and magazines had ingrained "spring only" into my head, so I never actually gave the matter of fall turkey hunting much thought. Sure, I'd drawn a couple of fall tags in my home state of South Dakota, but my turkey efforts were always quickly supplanted by pursuits for the other spurred bird. In fact, I can only remember trying for a fall turkey once, and it didn't work.
Ironically, last fall I missed the hallowed opening day of South Dakota's pheasant season for the first time in 14 years for, what else, turkeys. I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but during the third weekend of October, I was ... turkey hunting.
The Education Begins
I was the guest of Tad Brown, product development manager for Kolpin's M.A.D. and Lohman lines of calls and accessories. Before my trip to Brown's home near Preston, Mo., I was an apple-cheeked rookie with delusions of turkey grandeur running through my head. I was, however, offered some words of wisdom by Jim Schlender, editor of Turkey & Turkey Hunting. When I asked if I should hold out for nothing less than a longbeard, Schlender had an immediate and humbling answer: "I'd shoot the first thing that walks by. Going after them in the fall isn't always easy."
At the time, those simple words didn't fully register in my mind ...
As I arrived around midday at Brown's comfortable country home in southwestern Missouri's Ozarks, I was not only greeted by Brown, but also by the high sun and hot weather. I'm a flatlander from the north, used to cooler October days, but it was hot, even by Missouri's standards.
After introductions were made, we decided to head out for an afternoon hunt. Fall turkey hunting hours last until sunset, which is different than the 1 p.m. closing time of Missouri's spring season. Another difference is that you can harvest two birds of either sex on the same day.
After a short drive, we took off across a pasture toward an oak-covered hillside above a small creek.
"I'm pretty excited you came down," Brown said as we walked. "It's been a while since I've had the chance to really get after them in the fall."
"What's the plan?" I asked, more out of curiosity than really trying to understand our strategy.
"We're heading to a traditional roosting site in those oaks," Brown explained as he pointed toward the hillside. "We're just going to set up, call a little bit and see what happens."
Halfway up the hill, Brown picked up a turkey feather and motioned for me to sit next to him. Knowing I was there for a story and that I really didn't have any fall experience, Brown continued to lay out his plan, whispering through his face mask: "In the fall, unless I have a flock roosted, I hunt them a lot like I do in spring. We don't have time this afternoon, but I generally like to cover a lot of ground to try and locate them. I chose this spot because I know they like to roost in these trees."
Turkeys molt in late summer and early fall, and the feather Brown had picked up was a sign that birds had recently been using the area. In fact, after we sat down I noticed a number of other feathers strewn across the scratchings-riddled hillside.
"I'm always amazed each time I look at one," Brown said as he rolled the feather's quill through his fingers. "Much like spring, finding dropped feathers is a great way to identify roost sites. And, most of the time, you can identify what kind of turkey it is by the feathers' coloration. Of course, a tom's tail and wing feathers will be bigger, but more importantly, the many breast and body feathers you find can tell you the sex: Young and old gobbler body feathers will have a black edge at the tip, and a hen's will have a brown edge."
Brown then turned back toward the creek bottom and executed an extended series of cutts and yelps on his River Otter box, followed by a few kee-kees and kee-kee-runs on a diaphragm. He repeated the sequence a few times over the next hour and a half, but the only responses we received were chatter from an agitated squirrel and a white-tailed buck's malcontented blow. We didn't see or hear a turkey, but I couldn't help but revel in the day's events. Pheasants were now the furthest thing from my mind.
In fall, turkeys generally form four different groups: family, bachelorette hen, gobbler-only and a gang of jakes. Conventional wisdom says the best fall strategy is to locate roosted birds, scatter them and then use calls that coincide with the type of group scattered. But, as Brown said, if you don't have a flock roosted, your best bet is to revert to a cutt-and-run technique that covers a lot of ground in an attempt to locate a responsive bird. Sound at all like spring?
The following three mornings, we attempted scatter tactics on a few different properties. And, we achieved a few good scatters, but nothing ever panned out. In fact, in the growing light of the second morning, we flushed a bird in the opposite direction from the rest of the flock -- an above-average fall scatter.
"That's the bird we're going to kill," Brown said with a determined glance. The turkey, however, had other plans and never made a peep after touching down.
For three days, the turkeys acted like turkeys: Once located, they would either revert to pre-Columbus days and fall off the map, never to be seen or heard from again; or stumble into each other before they found Brown's calls. As a result, the ol' legs were sore by the end of each day after treading what felt like most of Hickory County.
Finding turkeys was never a problem; getting to cooperate was. We'd scatter birds, get them to respond, and then listen as the kee-kees and clucks would concede to the deafening silence of the blank woods. It seemed we were merely receiving ill-fated "courtesy" yelps or kee-kees, akin to spring's infamous courtesy gobble.
The first morning we scattered a flock and set up, then realized we were in between a family group and a group of bachelorette hens. The result? Nothing. We did hear a lot of turkey jargon, but we never saw a bird.
Later that same morning, we came up on four gobblers feeding in an opening in the woods, not more than 30 yards away. I didn't see them right away, however, because I was standing with my head turned back toward the way we came, fixated on a cluck I had just heard. I turned back around just in time to see Brown motioning me forward ... and the four glistening gobblers vanish into the cedars. And, to pour salt on the wound, the hen I heard cluck behind us then sailed down from a nearby treetop into the forested beyond. The fact she was still in the tree at 10:30 a.m. was perplexing, but that wasn't the end of it.
We got busted while trying to put the sneak on a family group hugging the edge of a pasture. We even split up and worked different properties one evening to try and roost some birds. We did put some birds to bed -- only to find them already gone the next morning. We were so close so many times, but nothing seemed to work in our favor.
I guess frustration isn't restricted to spring turkey hunting. And ever so slowly, I was beginning to understand the initial advice my boss had given me.
It's Still All About the Hens
Through the frustration and over the countless miles we walked, Brown took careful steps to further educate me on fall turkeys -- and turkeys in general. When we came to a ridgetop or field edge, Brown would stop in a shaded area and hammer out some cutts on his box, followed by loud yelping and vice versa. A hen's more-expressive nature makes her an easier target to locate in the fall; hence, spring is not the only time of year when hens dictate the hunt.
"Aggressive calling will cause an old hen to do one of three things," Brown explained. "Nothing; cutt and yelp aggressively and go the other way; or start coming at you -- out of curiosity or cutting hard to run you off. Fall hens are extremely territorial, whether they're a brood hen or not, and they don't like it when another turkey moves in on their turf, especially when the mast and bugs begin to disappear.
"You know, there's a group of bachelorette hens that I watch down by the creek by my house. And as they mill along, they spend more time harassing each other than they do anything else. Toms and jakes are more mellow, but the hen's have it in for each other."
Often, when we didn't hear a response to heavy cutts and loud yelping, Brown would throw out a couple of kee-kees and kee-kee-runs, trying to take advantage of the motherly instinct of any boss hen in the area or a poult that might have been separated from its group. Again, we would have birds give us the inclination that they were interested in saving a poor, lost soul, but they never showed themselves.
At one point as we crested a large hill in a 15-yard-wide clear-cut that outlined the entirety of a large stand of beautiful hills and hardwoods on his cousin's property, Brown reached into his vest, pulled out a hen decoy and staked it in the ground.
"Decoys?" I asked, partly thankful for the opportunity to rest as we took cover in the overgrown fence line that paralleled the clear-cut.
"Yup," Brown nodded. "Just like spring, turkeys will want visual confirmation to match what they're hearing. Setting up a hen or jake decoy can often lead to more of a response, especially from hens. If an old hen sees that decoy, it might get her really worked up."
The hillside perch was not the only place we used decoys. Brown had planted a food plot in a clearing next to a creek for deer. The extremely dry conditions slowed the germination process, and some loitering turkeys had taken advantage of the situation by scratching up the seeds. We spaced out three decoys in the food plot and sat in blind in hopes the birds would show up for dinner. However, the end result was the same.
"Huh," Brown muttered as he shook his head. "I can't believe this."
A little before the sun hit its peak on the fourth and last day of the hunt, we found ourselves cutting and running again on the back side of his cousin's property. As we neared the clear-cut's corner where it turned at a 90-degree angle back to the south, Brown told me to ease up and peak at the pasture that stretched kitty-corner from the clear-cut to the northeast. As I neared the cornerpost, something caught my eye.
Picking at grasshoppers in the shade provided by a solitary oak, the family flock of Easterns was about 200 yards away, totally unaware of our presence. We set up in the fence line, and Brown kee-keed and yelped a few times. Although he had gained their attention, the birds seemed more content to gradually make their way into the safety of shadows provided by the tree line that ran along the far edge of the pasture.
"You're going to have to go after them," Brown said with a grin. "They're not going to come straight across that pasture, and we could be here all day before they make it up the fence line."
I cringed. You see, crawling and I have never really agreed with each other, and staring at the void in front of me offered no consolation. The entire distance to the turkeys was downhill through ankle-high pasture grass. The only cover available was a brush pile 80 yards out. But, it was crunch time, so I ditched my vest and crept underneath the barbed-wire.
Out of fear that my posterior would stick up too high over the wilting grass, I was relegated to using only my elbows and seldom-used abdominal muscles. I was dressed inappropriately warm for the 85-degree day, and sweat was pouring off the brim of my hat while each breath I took fogged my glasses over. It was turkey hunting at its finest.
As I reached the brush pile, I took a quick breather and contemplated if I should stand and sprint at the flock to attempt a scatter, thereby avoiding any more crawling. But, after arguing with myself, I inched one elbow's length at a time toward the lounging turkeys.
After about another 40 yards, I heard something cascade down and through the autumnal buzz. At first, I couldn't believe my ears, and, if I weren't already on my stomach, I would have fallen flat on my face. From the back corner of the pasture came a distant kee-kee followed by a flawless kee-kee-run.
"Did I bust the birds? Is he signaling me to come back?" I silently wondered. After the initial shock of hearing Brown's calls, I decided to risk a quick glance to see if the turkeys were still there. I knew they had to be at least 60 yards away; however, to my delighted surprise, the birds were actually working their way in a direct line toward me as they seemed drawn to Brown's kee-kee cadence!
The 60-yard gap quickly closed to 30, much to my body's relief, and then the lead bird made a hard turn and started working its way to my right, followed in step and in single file by the rest of flock.
"First Thing That Walks By ..."
I don't know if it was out of spite or sheer stupidity, but with two tags burning in my pocket and a single-shot T/C 12-gauge Encore in hand, from my prone position I centered the red dot in the shrinking sliver of daylight between the second and third birds' necks.
After crawling 120 yards, losing 10 pounds of sweat and self-inducing a hernia, two 8-pound jennies lay silent in the pasture as the rest of the flock broke loose in every which way. The kill, as in most cases, was rather unremarkable, but I could not have been happier.
Brown came flying down the hill and congratulated me with a one-armed bear hug as I tried to stretch out my screaming stomach muscles. "Boy, we're going to make a turkey hunter out of you yet!" he chided with a laugh. "Sometimes you have to crawl 'em instead of call 'em!"
In turkey hunting, I guess that goes for both fall and spring, too.