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Fall Gobblers: Playing the Waiting Game

fall longbeardEditor's note: Here's a classic fall turkey hunting tale from an inveterate autumn hunter: Steve Hickoff

Fall turkey camp in New York was pretty much history, as almost everyone had taken birds.

Folks shared handshakes, photos and good wishes, and many of the guys — fellow addicts of the autumn turkey woods — were heading to hunt Ohio flocks. The problem was, Daryl Stubbs and I still had some gas in our tanks and a couple of New York tags to spare. A plan was hatched.

Turkey Trot Acres’ Pete Clare had his big-running Byrne dog Clyde along. When we heard gobbler yelping in the woods, it wasn’t long before our canine partner was on the assignment.

Barking followed, and then flushing turkeys, and more barking up the hill and even beyond. After the flock was separated, we set up at the break site to try to call them back. Clare installed Clyde in the blind. Scott Basehore, a renowned custom call maker and turkey dog man, did the same with his canine, Jenny. Daryl overlooked one side of the setup, and I did the other. We had it covered.

Fall gobbler hunters know such scenarios can take time. Scattered fall gobblers can come back gobbling and yelping after a break — even strutting. Sometimes it happens instantly, but often enough, it does not. This setup took almost two hours. Pete gobbled, and Scott tagged jake yelping on the end of it. We heard one turkey fly down near Clyde’s second round of barking, and then another. We waited a bit more.

Suddenly Basehore, surveying the woods, hissed, “Turkeys to your left. Don’t move.”
Two beard-flopping gobblers cruised down the incline, stalking our calling. Stubbs had the shot, albeit a tough one. The bird was down but not out. The second poke did the job. The survivor sprinted down the far hillside. Wow. That never gets old.
After a fist bump or two, Daryl and Pete left, and Scott and I hatched a plan.

“I’m ready to wait here all day if you want,” he said. I smiled at that. Game on.

It was another long sit, but I could live with it. The scene was something out of a Ned Smith painting — a gorgeous hardwood hillside in turkey heaven. My pleasure increased as Scott floated some well-timed gobbler yelps and then laid on some silence. Then, from the direction the surviving gobbler had run, came yelping, coarse and steady. I readied myself in that direction. That was when another gobbler started yelping from above, the site of Clyde’s third round of barking. It sounded closer, so I wheeled and set up, shotgun facing that direction.

No sooner had I done that than I saw movement up the incline and through saplings: a black body. Gobbler coming. The bird bobbed and weaved through ground cover, stalking the setup and likely the sound of the other turkey. I picked my window of opportunity. The full-fan gobbler stepped out and looked. What a beautiful thing. I pulled the trigger. We had closed the deal on the ultimate experience in the fall turkey woods.
Here’s how you can, too.

Hurry Up and Wait
Big gobblers flush far. Sometimes they take their time regrouping, but other examples prove otherwise.

Can’t call them in? Can’t wait that long? Not unless you try. Thinking like a turkey will help. In spring, toms typically seek out hens to breed them. Our calling tradition focuses around making clucks — including cutting — and hen yelps to lure in gobblers. In fall, male turkeys roam in gobbler gangs. Survival — primarily roosting and feeding — rules their movements. To call in a fall longbeard, you must adapt your calling and waiting strategies. Clucking, gobbler yelping and gobbling can help you do that.

On a Vermont fall hunt years ago, my English setter Midge broke up a flock of gobblers a buddy had seen while bow-hunting. Another hunting partner would be the shooter. Our calling included clucking, gobbler yelping and, most important, aggressive purring. The latter keyed on the desire of gobblers to maintain their pecking order.

We waited. Then we waited some more.

A twig snapped nearby, and my eyes cut to that spot. I watched as one longbeard skirted our setup, where I sat concealed with my dog, and moved past. Not long after, another approached silently and looked toward the calling, head periscoping up. Just then, I watched as the tom’s brick-red head turned red, white and blue as it moved in on our aggressive purring. The fired-up gobbler, his shoulders hunched like Count Dracula, stalked into range. That was the last thing he did.

Throughout fall and even winter, depending on where you hunt, you stand a chance at calling one in — provided you wait it out on turkey time. Sometimes, the action commences much faster than you imagined.

I’ve scattered gobbler gangs during New Hampshire’s archery-only season, which runs Sept. 15 through Dec. 15. Once, I sent a gang of five in all directions. I set up at the flush site and waited. Maybe 20 minutes later, I gobbler yelped. A gobble ripped back from some nearby 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 another.

Pattern, Flush or Both?
Either way, you wait.

You can wait for patterned gobblers to arrive at your setup, a tactical advantage gained through scouting and woodsmanship. You can also find and flush longbeard flocks, and then try to call them back to your position. You might also shoot a patterned gobbler and scatter his running buddies in the process. Sit tight if you’re hunting with a partner. Those birds will likely return to the scatter site.

The idea of flushing fall gobbler flocks is based on the notion that you want to call the turkey to your setup after the birds have been scattered. But if you’ve patterned or happened into fall turkeys, and a bird is in range, sure, take the shot. You choose.
Often, though, you encounter a flock on the edge of range. What do you do? That’s when you might need to flush them. This strategy is based on the fact that turkeys are gregarious, including fall gobblers, and your hope that the flock will want to regroup.
There’s a difference between good and bad flock flushes, as veteran fall turkey hunters know. With a lousy break, smaller groups of birds stay together. Sending several gobblers one way and several more another doesn’t qualify as a good break. That puts you at a tactical disadvantage. In a good scatter, turkeys fly or run in all directions, and they’ll likely want to regroup.
You just have to wait and see.

Call Waiting
Gobbler yelps are deeper and have a slower cadence than the higher-pitched hen yelps we use in spring. In my fall hunting experience, friction calls imitate gobbler yelps best, though resonant diaphragms also work.

Often, three deeper, slower yelps — “yawp, yawp, yawp” — will get the interest of a mature turkey or “super jake,” a 11/2-year-old male turkey. Like the cluck, it’s a questioning call that seems to say, “Where are you? I’m right here.”

When slate-yelping for gobblers, run your striker closer to the call’s center than the rim. While holding the peg like a pen, draw it toward the call’s middle with the one-two-three yelping rhythm of a gobbler. Experiment with strikers.

In spring, a gobbler is primarily attempting to call hens to his position. In fall and winter, he’s declaring his proud presence, and possibly gobbling during daily efforts to maintain pecking-order status or move ahead in rank as he fights other male birds. If you raise a gobbler with a cluck and then start yelping at the bird, try gobbling at the turkey.
Gobbler calls, when used sparingly, can provoke responses from adult toms, super jakes, and young male turkeys. If you’ve broken the flock on foot or with a dog, where legal, listen as the gobblers regroup. Often, they’ll gobble when lost or looking for other turkeys. Call as they do.

Aggressive purrs, cutting and gobbling can interest male birds into approaching you. Just as a crowd gathers during a street fight, gobblers will investigate spots where such sounds indicate fighting turkeys. You can hold the lid of your cap and smack it against a tree or your leg to imitate wings colliding as you purr, cutt and gobble — provided the turkeys are out of sight and won’t see your movements.

End Game
Again, autumn toms take time.
It’s often a test of your will, woodsmanship and calling ability against that gobbler’s survival instincts. You can always tag out early on a bird of the year or hold all the cards for the big payoff: a fall longbeard by the feet.

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