Dark-thirty. Clouds made it seem even darker as Bob and I stumbled down the field access road, heading for a fallow bottomland field. I’d roosted a flock of hens and poults the previous evening along the Big Piney River. To avoid spooking the turkeys the evening before, I’d left my decoy set up in the field as I backed out at dark.
Dawn was but a thought in our minds as we moved quietly along the field edge to where we could see Gertrude, my old decoy, and then backed into the fence line under low oak trees for concealment. Bob used a low seat; I had a bucket to rest on.
Dawn showed over the Ozark hills as the roosted turkeys began to talk with one another. It was light enough. Bob yelped softly using his box call. Turkeys answered. Pulses quickened as we anticipated turkeys dropping out of the trees and into the field.
Turkeys left the roost, hooked a hard right and flew to the end of the field a quarter-mile away from where we sat. The story of my life: Close but no cigar! That’s why they call it turkey hunting.
We called a few more times with no visible response from the feeding birds.
We relaxed enjoying the new day while Bob lit a cigarette and we commiserated and discussed what to do next.
Three birds sailed across the field from the far hill. One landed in a tree above us, and two others in the field near Gertrude.
I slowly raised my shotgun, waiting from Bob to shoot.
“Shoot,” he whispered in my ear, then louder. “Shoot!”
The old hen over our heads, cocked her head and looked down.
Now or never, I thought, and pulled the trigger on one of the half-grown poults — a fryer. Mom and her surviving offspring flushed, flying downfield, joining the other turkeys as they, too, flushed from the field.
Bob congratulated me as we relaxed in the new sun, as dawn reached the field and warmed the world.
As we walked out, Ray Eye, Eye On the Outdoors host, met us with his ATV and congratulated me again. He’d finished filming earlier in the morning and after hearing the shot came to pick us up. We talked turkeys and how they’d react in fall. Ray explained that for him fall hunting was much more challenging than spring gobbler season.
THE INS AND OUTS OF FALL TURKEY HUNTING
Let me combine Eye’s thoughts and mine about hunting fall turkeys. Fall for me is one of the most beautiful times to be in the Missouri woodlands and hunting turkeys is just one of the many opportunities we have each year. What makes fall turkey hunting so enjoyable is the long season, without the pressure of only three weeks that we have in spring; fall colors run rampant both in the Ozarks and wood lots of northern Missouri, and the turkey population is at its peak.
Ray Eye’s thoughts and mine suggest in fall most turkey hunters ambush their turkeys. I’m guilty. Over the years, I’ve ambushed most of my fall turkeys, birds that walked by a fixed blind or location and were shot. There’s nothing wrong with that approach; however, Eye points out that fall birds — hens, poults, and toms — can be just as easily called. Yes, you read this right, fall toms will respond to a call; more on this later.
Missouri’s fall turkey season is an artifact of the great success the Missouri Department of Conservation has had restoring wild turkeys to the state and the population response to the management efforts. Turkey hunters kill more Eastern turkeys in Missouri than in any other state.
Fall turkey populations are at their highest, and hunters are not restricted to hunting only bearded birds. All sexes and ages are fair game, and males, females and poults respond to calls if hunters play the game right.
Eye showed me how easily females and poults can be called. I’ve killed several fall birds over the years, most young poults or hens. However, all wandered by my blind and were ambushed. Ambush turkey hunting is the lazy man’s hunt. Set up a blind or hide in locations holding turkeys, add a hen decoy or two, then lean back, pull out a book and enjoy the fall day as you wait for a turkey to wander by and enter the bag.
The first year we hunted together, Eye showed me how easy it was to call back flushed hens and poults. We flushed birds at dawn and then Eye called back several poults and one old hen. I’d like to say we were successful, but it wasn’t to be. The returning birds landed in trees across a creek and would not cross.
The kee, kee, kee call of a young poult needing to regroup or the yelp of a hen calling to poults will attract birds back to your location. The key is locating flocks of turkeys and knowing where they roosted in the evening, or getting ahead of a moving flock, and then aggressively flushing the birds.
Fall tom hunting is a cat of another color. For years I was of the opinion that males banded together for fall and winter would not respond to a call. Eye changed my view of all that.
Over evening libations at turkey camp last year, he’d groused about receiving an e-mail from a viewer, taking him to task about calling fall toms in a recent TV program. The viewer said it couldn’t be done and the video was faked.
Eye is one of the best turkey callers I know, a master of the art, and I suspect he’s part turkey. He thinks like a turkey and hunts and films birds all over the Midwest.
The key, he explained, is locating workable flocks of males and then setting up near the birds and calling. Calling hard. As Ray said, in the fall you can’t call too much.
The next day after the morning hunt, we glassed old fields from an overlook along the Big Piney River and discovered six mature toms strutting and displaying in one field. We crossed the river and set up in heavy cover along the edge of the river and field.
Eye set up his cameras, attached a small video camera to my partner’s shotgun, and started calling. He gobbled and yelped like an immature tom by using mouth and slate calls. Out in the field, the six birds puffed up, sp
read their tails and strutted, responding to Eye’s calls.
One bird, the dominant male in the flock, strutted down a weedy ditch toward where we’d set up. The calls continued and became increasingly insistent, but no shots. The turkey returned to the group and we flushed them, hoping to call one or more back for a shot. It wasn’t to be, but sure demonstrated to this old turkey hunter that fall toms could be called to the gun.
Later that evening, reviewing the video from Eye’s camera and the gun camera, the toms in the field could be seen responding to Ray’s calls, and the dominant male’s head showed on the gun video camera before returning to the center of the old field. But from where my partner was hunkered down in the tall grass, he couldn’t see the bird.
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