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Basic Fall Turkey Hunting Strategies for Beginners

Autumn turkey hunting is a great way to expand your opportunities along with learning more about gobblers and hens. That knowledge could help you in spring, too. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

When I finished my Nebraska archery deer hunt early at Goose Creek Outfitters, I rushed back to camp to purchase my fall turkey license online. Hunting turkey at any time of the year is exciting, but fat, fall turkeys are exceptionally good in the pot, and with two birds allowed on a license, I knew I’d have a few more days of excitement around camp.

By Brad Fenson
For Turkey & Turkey Hunting

We had watched a flock of nine longbeards working the transition area between the Great Sandhills and the farming edge of the flats along the local creeks. The redheads had worked out a daily routine that had them wandering a couple of miles, and enjoying the rich feeding opportunities along the way. Knowing they fed along a woodlot late in the afternoon, I set up a blind that would hopefully put me within crossbow range.

Many fall turkeys settle into an area and stay there till spring. There is usually good thermal cover and terrain to ensure they have the food, water and shelter required to make it through the rigors of winter. If not disturbed, the turkeys will often stay there for months. But give them a reason to get nervous, and they will find alternative feeding and roosting sites — their defense against predators. Knowing the wary nature of a turkey, I prefer to use a crossbow to hunt fall birds. There is no loud bang, and most of the time the rest of the flock carries on with their daily routine without so much as batting an eye. Anyone who has hunted with a shotgun can attest that the loud report can send a flock of seemingly comfortable turkeys into the next county.

Turkey hunting with a crossbow is a super way to enjoy autumn seasons along with providing for some challenging hunts. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

I had a new Wicked Ridge Invader crossbow in camp and sighted it in out to 40 yards. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas, pacing at the lodge, waiting to head for the blind. The plan was to intercept the birds as they filtered across the grassy hills and then followed the fence line on the edge of the woodlot. If all worked well, I’d have a shot between 20 and 25 yards.

Getting comfortable in the blind was easy with the warm weather we were experiencing. In fact, it made me rather sleepy. If not for the thoughts of big turkeys strolling out in front of me, I might have closed my eyes. While sitting for close to an hour, I’d ranged every fence post, tuft of grass and change in elevation. Any turkey that walked in front of me would be in big trouble.

I kept busy looking out each window — my head like a submarine periscope — and could feel a surge of adrenaline rocket through my veins when I looked east and saw a line of longbeards feeding toward me. As if programmed, the turkeys showed up just like they had every other day we were in camp. Patience and patterning the birds had paid off big time; now it was just a matter of taking my time and shooting straight.

It seemed like a half hour had passed by the time the birds headed in my direction. They had teased me, by feeding up the fence line away from my blind, but it was short lived, and they were soon feeding contentedly back my way.

I had an opportunity for a 30-yard shot out the side window of my blind, but could tell the birds would end up right in front of me, so I steadied my bow on a set of shooting sticks and let the boys feed right to me. A big, dark-feathered bird led the pack and I wasted little time levelling my crosshairs on his vitals, waiting for him to stop walking. When his feet were firmly planted in the green vegetation that had drawn him to the area, I gently squeezed the trigger.

The slightly audible thump of my bow string launching the arrow didn’t cause a single head to lift. However, the arrow cutting through the big gobbler sent him into a spinning walk. The circle he walked got smaller and smaller, until the big tom fell over in the grass. The rest of the flock made all kinds of unique noises and they danced around their fallen comrade and pecked at him as if trying to wake him up. When the dead bird stopped moving, the others simply wandered along their merry way, just as they had every other day for weeks.

Wildlife managers know turkey populations can sustain some impact from autumn hunting or they wouldn’t have the seasons. (Photo: Brad Fenson)

You Can’t Stockpile Turkeys

I had shot a mature male bird, even though my license allowed me to harvest any turkey. There is often a stigma attached to shooting females, as we are programmed from the spring season to protect them as the future of the flock. However, there is no biological reason to hold out for a male bird during fall. Turkeys live relatively short lives, and many succumb to winter conditions. Killing turkeys in fall can be looked at as offsetting the mortality that naturally occurs throughout winter. Let’s face it; if there was a reason to protect any turkey during fall, game managers would be doing it.

I had never shot a hen and after having a conversation in camp with other turkey hunters, I set out to fill my next tag with a hen. We had seen huge flocks of hens and young jakes feeding and roosting along a river. There were hundreds of them lining roosting trees every morning and evening and I knew a well-placed blind would put me in a perfect shooting position.

It took only five minutes until a flock of hens fed toward the blind. Some were only 5 feet out the front window and I enjoyed watching the social nature of the birds. Leveling the crosshairs of my Invader crossbow, I launched an arrow at a beautifully colored hen in the group. The wing-flapping and alarm calls had turkeys running in circles trying to figure out what had happened, but again, without a loud bang, the birds went back about their business without ever getting seriously alarmed.

After the rest of the flock fed over the hill, I ran from the blind to collect my first-ever hen turkey. Laying the bird on its back, I admired the unique colors and highlights of its feathers. It truly was a beautiful bird. A thick layer of fat could be felt under the skin, the very reason why some hunters target hens in the fall. I knew I’d be plucking feathers when I got back to camp.

Break Them Up

Some hunters like to hunt fall turkeys by breaking up the flocks and calling at them back to regroup. It works extremely well, but can stir the birds up. Many hunters have small parcels of property to hunt, and when you have turkeys living in your backyard, it’s nice to keep them there. If you pattern birds, set up quietly, and shoot quietly, the birds will continue to live in your backyard.

Spot-and-Stalk

Watching birds and getting in front of them is also a good tactic. Back on the river bottom where I shot my hen, we spotted birds working along the bottom of a ridge. My buddy dressed in a ghillie suit and sat at the base of a tree that would put the birds in a direct collision course with him. It took about 20 minutes, and the birds fed right down in front of him. I didn’t hear his crossbow fire, but I did see the turkey flopping and several others scatter.

Fall is a great time to hunt turkeys. There are more birds around than during the spring and if you manage your properties and hunting properly, you can enjoy watching them, and hunting in a sustainable way.

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