Put a Wild Turkey on Your Thanksgiving Menu
While fall turkey hunting isn’t as popular as chasing spring longbeards, hunters in many states find pursuing these birds in the late season a fun and challenging hunt.
By Michael Pendley
Mention turkey hunting to most folks and they immediately think of the gobbling longbeards of spring. But, for hunters in 42 states and a few Canadian provinces, there’s another season for chasing turkeys.
Fall turkey hunting doesn’t get the hype the spring season does, but turkey hunting actually started out as a fall pursuit.
Steve Hickoff, author of Fall & Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook and Realtree.com’s turkey hunting editor, started his turkey-hunting career on fall birds. “The turkey-hunting tradition has its roots in autumn and winter hunting,” he explained. “Before the notion of ‘spring is for beards, fall is for antlers’ came about, flock-seeking sportsmen sought out their game during the woodstove months. Back then, there was a prevailing notion that taking a breeding-minded gobbler in the spring was easy, even unfair.
“A Pennsylvania native, I first hunted wild turkeys in 1971. As a kid, I remember old-timers (guys my age now!) talking about how turkey hunting in the spring was just flat-out wrong. They were all avid fall turkey hunters. Back then, Pennsylvania had legalized spring turkey hunting only in 1968.”
How It’s Different Than Spring Hunts
While fall turkey hunting requires much of the same gear as the spring season, the later season’s hunting strategies might seem a bit odd to hunters used to calling to gobblers during the breeding season. Unlike the small flocks and individual longbeards of spring, fall turkeys tend to travel in large groups, often a mix of mature hens, nearly grown poults of the year and sometimes young or even mature gobblers. These flocks have one thing on their mind: filling their stomachs and putting on as much weight as possible before the coming winter. Keying on food sources like harvested or standing crop fields, mast-producing hardwoods and seed- and insect-rich grasslands can be good bets for locating fall birds.
Many hunters take advantage of the flock’s natural desire to stay together this time of year by locating and scattering the flocks, then sitting quietly and calling to draw the birds back together. “As strategies go, there are two primary fall turkey hunting approaches,” said Hickoff. “You can passively wait for patterned wild turkeys to show up in range or actively find a flock and attempt to scatter them. This traditional find-and-flush approach is full of action. Flocked-up turkeys want to be together, so you can scatter birds, then set up to try and call them to your position. I love it as much as spring turkey hunting!”
While hen yelps, clucks and purrs dominate the spring turkey hunter’s vocabulary, fall calling can be more complex.
“In short, fall call like the turkey you want to kill,” said Hickoff. “If you’re hunting a family flock of scattered birds, a kee-kee or kee-kee-run can work to pull one in. The brood hen, on the other hand, is less likely to come to your plain hen clucks and yelps, as her focus is on keeping her juvenile charges assembled—and you probably want to leave her be anyway. However, if it’s a group of brood-less hens you’re chasing and either-sex fall birds are legal where you hunt, then hen yelps and clucks you used in spring to lure gobblers will work now for these birds.
“As autumn male-only flocks go, use gobbler calls: low-pitched clucks, deep, raspy yelps, gobbles and even fighting purrs can stir things up. You can also call up an entire intact flock using vocalizations of the birds in that group.”
Did You See That Part About Hens?
Hickoff is right. In many states, hens are perfectly legal quarry for the fall season. National Wild Turkey Federation Biologist Mark Hatfield explains it this way.
“As you would expect, fall turkey hunting and the subsequent fall harvest is managed through bag limits, season length, limiting hunting implements and, in some cases, limiting permit or license availability. Biologists carefully monitor population trends and develop seasons that will provide recreational opportunities and assure that over-harvest will not occur in years of poor recruitment or when food is scarce. Knowledge of harvest numbers is essential for biologists to allow hunting without jeopardizing turkey flocks.
“Wild-turkey population research has shown repeatedly that the factors having the greatest effect on long-term population growth are nest success, along with hen and poult survival rate. Hens that survive the fall hunting season and winter are essential to future generations of wild turkeys. They are the source of productive nests and successful broods, which is why wildlife agencies do not allow hunters to take hens in spring,” said Hatfield.
It boils down to this. If your state allows the harvest of fall hens, you can be certain that wildlife biologists have set the season limits with the health of the turkey flock in mind. If you decide to take a legal hen, you won’t be damaging your turkey population. Rather hold out for a male bird? That’s fine, too. Groups of fall longbeards can be scattered and called back together just like their female counterparts.
As mentioned, gear for fall turkey hunting is similar to spring hunting. Depending on state regulations, shotguns can range from smallbores like .410-bore and 28-gauge all the way up to 10-gauge. Just like spring hunting, too, lethal shots on turkeys are those that land a significant number of pellets in the turkey’s exposed head and neck area. If your state allows, smaller-gauge guns benefit greatly from modern turkey loads made from tungsten or other heavy alloys. The heavier shot densities allow the hunter to shoot smaller pellets, and more of them, in the reduced case capacity of sub-bore shotguns. While the most popular lead shot sizes for turkey hunting range from No. 4 to 6, the denser shot alternatives can be as small as No. 9 and still retain adequate energy to penetrate a turkey’s head and neck.
Tight patterns are the name of the game no matter the season, and choke tubes of Full or Extra Full work best to get the job done. On the range, pattern your gun at various distances to see what the maximum effective range is for your gun, choke and load. Look for even shot distribution across the patterning target; there should be no significant areas (say palm-sized) where pellets haven’t struck.
Good camo is as crucial for fall turkey hunting as it is for spring, though with the changing season and foliage, your pattern will probably be different. Keep in mind that as a fall hunter, you may find yourself in the middle of a large flock—something that would be uncommon in the spring—and all of them will be looking for the source of the turkey calls they hear.
Blinds and decoys can be effective if legal where you hunt. If you have a flock patterned on a feeding area, setting up a blind on the edge is a great way to get into shooting range as the birds feed by. Many hunters also employ hen or gobbler decoys after busting apart a flock, because giving the returning birds something to look at keeps their attention and often makes them feel more secure in returning to a spot from which they were startled.
Check your state’s hunting regulations. If fall turkeys are an option, give them a try. You might just find you enjoy chasing late-season birds as much as spring turkeys—and if you’re successful, then you and your family can enjoy a fresh wild turkey at your Thanksgiving dinner table.