Opinions and beliefs about autumn turkeys are wide and varied, which sparks great debate about myths and realities of hunting these great gamebirds.
“Calling a sexed-up gobbler in spring is about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.” — Overheard in a Pennsylvania roadside diner in the early 1970s.
“Hunting fall turkeys is just too easy. I’d rather hunt spring gobblers.” — A comment from a turkey seminar attendee this year.
You hear a lot of ideas about turkey hunting, some with merit and others, well … Myth? Fact?
Following are 10 topics that merit study before you load up and head out this fall.
Spring turkey hunting is a long tradition
The turkey hunting tradition actually has its roots in autumn and winter hunting. Before the notion of “spring is for beards, fall is for antlers” came into the minds of modern turkey hunters, flock-seeking sportsmen sought out their game during the woodstove months. Back then some hunters held a prevalent notion that taking a breed-minded gobbler in the spring was easy. Even unfair.
A Pennsylvania native, I first hunted wild turkeys in 1971 at age 12. I can still remember old-timers (guys my age now!) talking about how turkey hunting in the spring was just flat-out wrong. You see, Pennsylvania had just legalized spring turkey hunting in 1968 after being closed since 1873. Yet, by 1984, a month-long Keystone State spring turkey season was in place for bearded birds, and has been since. Traditions shift.
As reported by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “Since 2000, the number of spring turkey hunters has exceeded that of fall turkey hunters in Pennsylvania. This switch is not only the result of fall hunters switching to spring turkey hunting, but also an influx of new turkey hunters who hunt only in the spring.”
You can’t call fall longbeards
Not unless you try. Thinking like a turkey will help. In spring, toms are inclined to seek out hens to breed them. Our calling tradition then focuses around making clucks and hen
yelps to lure gobblers in. In fall, male turkeys roam in gobbler gangs. Survival — primarily roosting and feeding — and pecking order rule their movements. To call a fall longbeard to the gun or bow you have to adapt your calling. Clucking, gobbler yelping and gobbling can do that.
On a Vermont fall hunt, my English setter Midge broke up a flock of gobblers my buddy Lawrence Pyne had seen while bow-hunting. Our hunting partner Marc Brown would be the shooter. Our calling included clucking, gobbler yelping and, most importantly, aggressive purring.
I watched as one longbeard skirted our setup and moved on past. Not long after, another approached silently and looked toward the calling. Just then, Brownie purred aggressively, and I watched as the tom’s brick-red head turned red, white and blue. The fired-up tom, his shoulders hunched like Count Dracula, stalked into range. That was the last thing that longbeard did.
Fall turkeys are too easy
Some are. Some aren’t. Autumn turkeys can be easy once you find them, but locating flocks isn’t always a sealed deal. Food sources can be widespread in October and November, the heart of fall-turkey hunting around the country.
As a result, groups of birds can roam widely. This is especially true for ridgetop turkeys in mountainous regions. You may find sign in the form of scratchings, tracks, droppings, and dusting areas, but never contact the live birds. When you do though, yes, it can be easier, but not always.
I’ve tagged fall turkeys on opening day not long after flydown. I’ve hunted autumn flocks on a Vermont ridge for days, with fresh scratchings all around me, without filling a tag. Is this anything different than spring hunting? Turkey hunting is turkey hunting.
Scattered gobblers won’t regroup for days
Big gobblers flush far. Sometimes they take their time regrouping, but other instances prove otherwise. I’ve seen some flushed fall male turkeys attempt to regroup with clucks and raspy three-note gobbler yelps within the hour, often sooner. And yes, I’ve called them in. It’s not uncommon to hear these birds gobble as they regroup. As mentioned earlier, aggressive purring will also draw their attention as it suggests a pecking order dispute. Haven’t tried it? Why not?
I’ve scattered mid-September gobblers during the New Hampshire archery-only season, which begins Sept. 15 each year. On one occasion, I managed to send a gang of five into all directions. I set up at the flush site and waited. Maybe 20 minutes later, I gobbler yelped. A gobble ripped back from the near woods.
Another bird answered in the other direction. Soon all of them were regrouping. If you haven’t enjoyed the sound of five fall longbeards gobbling to each other as they locate flock members you’re missing something. Did I kill one of those birds? Well, I’ll just say that locating and flushing autumn turkeys is one thing. Arrowing one is yet another …
Autumn seasons hurt turkey populations
Wild turkey management is a modern success story. Fall turkey hunting, depending on where you do it, is regulated in a variety of ways. Season length is one method. Limiting tags is another. Opening hunts to residents only is yet one more. Biologists regulate seasons based on kill numbers and harvest data — spring and fall. Hunter participation in this effort helps. We’re all in this together.
In their report, “Pennsylvania Turkey Hunting,” PGC biologist Mary Joe Casalena and NWTF biologist Bob Eriksen wrote:
“We are privileged to be able to enjoy both spring and fall hunting in this state. To continue to have the outstanding hunting we have come to expect, fall harvests are carefully monitored and trends in spring harvests are watched. Modern research has shown that spring gobbler hunting can provide maximum recreational opportunity to hunters with little impact on the turkey population. Research has also shown that we can maintain fall hunting, too. However, we must acknowledge that as hunter numbers and the popularity of the sport grow, fall hunting opportunities might not expand as rapidly.”
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Editor’s Note: Steve Hickoff is the author of Fall & Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook. For more information on Steve Hickoff’s books visit http://hickoff.blogspot.com/