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Fall Turkey Hunting: A Lesson Learned

fall hunterEditor’s note: Here’s a classic feature by Lovett E. Williams Jr., one of America’s all-time great turkey biologists and hunters.

Calling to talkative turkeys in fall makes for hunting exciting, but unless you scatter a flock, the best calling might bring no response. That can make a fall turkey hunt dull and disappointing.

I didn’t understand that when I was learning to hunt turkeys. With almost no knowledge about calling, my main strategy was to sit for hours near abundant sign and hope a turkey was in for an unlucky day. If I was unsuccessful, I went to a favorite roost area and tried to shoot one from the roost. I killed a few that way, and it was satisfying. However, I also spent a lot of time in the woods alert for the slightest sound, hoping it was a turkey.

One afternoon, I moved into a familiar oak grove on a hill overlooking a swamp. There was enough turkey sign there to make a young hunter dizzy — tracks, droppings, dusting pits, and old and new scratching everywhere. I had settled directly under a small chinquapin tree — a Deep South version of the American chestnut — and brushed aside a few of the spiny husks. I had been hunting hard that mild, overcast day, and toward late afternoon, I stretched out with the brim of my hunting cap over my eyes and fell asleep.

I awoke a quarter-hour later to hear raindrops falling on the dry leaves near my ears. As I regained consciousness, I heard the louder, rhythmic scratching of a turkey. With eyes shut and heart pounding, my overexcited brain was deciding my next move. As my hand touched the cold steel of the shotgun on the ground beside me, I heard confirming alarm putts that told me with authority what I already knew: I was in the presence of a flock of turkeys.

I rolled over and bolted upright, and turkeys ran and flew in all directions. There must have been at least 15 in the flock. I brought up my shotgun and pushed off the safety, but I felt like I was stuck in slow motion while the turkeys departed in fast-forward. I missed all three shots — one while seated, one as I rose and one while falling over sideways. When it was finished, I stood and stared out over the swamp.
A few days later, a college friend lent me a copy of The American Wild Turkey by Henry Davis. It was the first turkey book I ever read, and I finished its 328 pages in less than three days — almost flunking college chemistry in the process. There it was in black and white: Davis said that the hardest part of fall turkey hunting was scattering a flock. He said when you scatter turkeys, you need to find a good place to set up, make a blind and call one back.

As I read the book, I pictured the lost opportunities of the first three years of my self-taught turkey hunting career. I knew Davis was right. After all, turkeys have to get back together, and calling would be their main method of doing so.
That rainy afternoon at Chinquapin Hill had been fruitful. Here’s what I’ve learned about scattering turkeys.

Scattering on the Ground
Every flock has been attacked by predators or flushed by humans, and birds know how to regroup quickly. Turkey flocks that are surprised on the ground usually run without flying or fly a short distance and stay together. If the birds flush but fly in the same direction, they can assemble with little yelping and offer no hunting opportunity. You must fire your gun, get after the flock immediately and do everything possible to make turkeys fly in all directions.

A turkey dog is a wonderful aid in finding and scattering fall turkeys. If dogs are legal where you hunt, find somebody with a turkey dog. You might decide to get one yourself.

Scattering from the Roost
The most reliable way to scatter turkeys in fall hunting is to roost a flock and scatter the birds from the trees. Scattering should be done after daylight in the morning before turkeys fly down. If you scatter a flock in the evening, the turkeys will get over their fright during the night and assemble rapidly the next morning. Turkeys can gather quickly when they land close together, so it’s important to follow up and make some of them fly farther. Ideally, you can scatter the flock 360 degrees.

If you make a scatter in the morning, the birds will start to call after about 30 to 50 minutes. Young turkeys will call for about 30 minutes before the brood hen calls. If the brood hen was flushed far from the roost, the young birds might call to each other longer than that. However, when the brood hen calls, the fat lady is singing.

Calling Young Turkeys
Young turkeys do not like being separated from their family flock and brood hen, and they call a lot to get back together. A scattered flock will typically reassemble near where it was flushed, often within shotgun range of the actual spot.

In wooded landscapes, turkeys are usually in trees when they start calling. You’ll often hear a plaintive kee-kee or kee-kee run 30 to 45 minutes after the flock is flushed. Flocks that have not been hunted before might start calling sooner. You can stimulate earlier calling by uttering a kee-kee run 15 to 30 minutes after the scatter. I like to answer almost every call by attempting to duplicate it. Frequent calling might contradict the wisdom of the ages, but if you listen to a scattered family flock, you’ll realize that advice does not apply.

Young hens use the same kee notes to begin their kee-kee runs and always continue with elaborate runs of yelp notes. Young males sometimes abbreviate their kee-kee run to a four-note version. Jakes also make longer, more elaborate kee-kee runs like young hens, but hens seldom use the abbreviated form. The jake form of the kee-kee run is “yelp, kee-kee, yelp.”

If you’ve been calling for a while and a turkey approaches, it will often cluck. A clucking turkey is asking, “Where are you?” It knows your calling is from nearby and expects to see a turkey. Further, it can pinpoint sound and might see you if you call or move.
Brood hens return near the scatter site to call the brood back together. Their calling does not include kee-kees or kee-kee runs. Rather, it consists of loud clucking, yelping and various other vocalizations. If you’re hunting when the brood hen calls, a good tactic is to rush her and frighten her away. If she can call to her young, the hunt is finished.

Sometimes, a few thoroughly flushed young turkeys are too far away to hear the hen’s assembly yelping. When that happens, you can hunt that area later. A lost young turkey will visit the scatter site to search for the flock.

If somebody in your hunting party shoots a turkey, that might dampen the calling for a few minutes, but it won’t spoil the hunt. Relax a few minutes, but don’t get too relaxed, because young turkeys typically make no connection between gunshots and danger.

Calling Adult Turkeys
Calling adult turkeys is similar to calling family flocks, only less productive. Young turkeys are in distress when separated from their brood hen, but adults of both sexes long ago broke ties to their parent and are not distressed when temporarily separated from a flock. They’re not in a hurry to regroup.

Sometimes, it takes two or three days for adult birds to reassemble, and they often do so without much calling. They’re not as likely to reassemble at the scatter site. Adults often assemble by continuing to use their home range and encountering other flock members.

When adult birds call to assemble with flockmates, they typically use lost yelping at a distance and plain clucking at close ranges. If they have been frightened, they tend to use abbreviated calls such as single and double yelps.

To call adult gobblers in fall hunting, you must sound like a gobbler. Yelp slowly at a lower pitch. To call adult hens, yelp at a higher pitch and with a quicker beat. When you’re sure that a lost adult turkey has responded to your calling, you don’t need to call much more. Don’t be surprised if an adult turkey comes in silently. Also, don’t be surprised if you call in an adult turkey a day or two after a flock was scattered.

Calling Unscattered Turkeys
As a rule, intact flocks don’t come to calling. Turkeys in flocks aren’t in a gathering mood and might merely answer calling or, more likely, ignore it. However, a level of social curiosity sometimes drives a turkey to break the rules. They will sometimes call back. If one bird in a flock comes to your calling, it might drag the group along.

Calling to Locate Fall Turkeys
Some turkeys get scattered after the season has been open a few days. When it’s safe to do so, I like to move slowly through the woods, stopping now and then to call loudly so any turkey I encounter has a chance to hear my yelping and respond, if it’s in the mood. When in moving-and-calling mode, I often sit for long periods — a half- hour or longer — at inviting places.

The lost yelp works well for the move-and-call tactic because turkeys can hear it farther than plain yelping. By moving every 10 to 30 minutes and calling two or three times per minute, I almost always hear a response from a turkey sooner or later.

I’ve learned quite a bit since that rainy Florida afternoon, and those lessons about scattering and calling can help you this fall.

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