Best Bets for Fall Gobblers

Fall turkey hunting may not be something that droves of Natural State hunters take part in each year. But they should -- because the late-season action for these birds is seriously good!

Photo by Ralph Hensley

Oct. 31, 2004, was a rainy day in the eastern Ozarks. I'd hunted turkeys during three of the six previous days of Arkansas' all-too-brief fall gun season and had made contact with turkeys all three days, but hadn't been able to close the deal.

I scattered a flock too late in the afternoon for them to get back together, and I couldn't get back there to hunt them the next morning. Then I got a good scatter on a flock at midday, but they flew across the White River, and I couldn't follow. The third time, I'd found a flock of adult gobblers and managed to split them up, but they did what most adult gobblers do in autumn: They disappeared as completely as if the ground had opened and swallowed them up.

Now, Sunday afternoon, the last day of the season, I was making one last try, hunting in the rain. I'd left my truck on the side of a seldom-used Forest Service road in Baxter County and made a meandering circle along a series of more or less connecting ridges, covering about five miles and coming back to the road a half-mile from where I'd parked.

Walking back down the shale and gravel road, I'd already given up on the fall season and was out of hunting mode, mind on other things, thinking about the stuff I had to do in the coming week. I was within sight of the truck when I heard a soft cluck on the downslope side of the road. I stopped, walked quickly to the edge and was rewarded by the sight of a dozen turkeys blasting off across the soggy valley below me like a covey of dark giant quail.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting in the wet leaves against an oak near the bottom of that valley, I pulled the trigger on a young gobbler with a beard the size of a cocklebur. He was our Thanksgiving bird; he was delicious.

My experiences last fall were typical of fall turkey hunting. You do a whole lot of walking, and if you're lucky, there's a flurry of fast-paced action at the end of it. Maybe that part about the walking explains the disinclination of many Arkansans to hunt turkeys in the fall. But even dedicated spring turkey hunters, for the most part, don't bother with hunting fall turkeys. Statistics show that Arkansas' spring harvest outpaces the fall harvest each year, usually by a ratio of 10 (or more) to 1.

Part of that difference, of course, is something that's already been mentioned: Arkansas' short fall turkey season. Last year, only seven days were allotted for modern gun hunting. Another reason for the much smaller harvest is that the fall turkey season has been open only intermittently in the recent past. Between 1996 and 2001, a few members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission decided that they knew more than the biologists and, despite a huge mass of research data proving that well-managed fall hunts are biologically sound, made fall turkey hunting illegal. During the hiatus, fall turkey hunters got out of the habit.

But wiser heads on the AGFC made themselves heard, and the fall turkey season is back in the picture, albeit a much shorter one than it could be.

SCATTERING THE FLOCK: THE TRADITIONAL FALL TECHNIQUE

Most fall turkey hunters rely on the scatter-and-call technique I used to take that gobbler last fall. Since I enjoy being in the woods by myself, I prefer to cover ground on foot, walking ridgetops and old forest roads and looking and listening for turkeys.

I get the impression, though, that most fall turkey hunters here in Arkansas stay in their vehicles and drive backcountry roads until they find a flock. There's nothing wrong with locating birds by driving, provided you don't shoot them from the car or from the road. Indeed, using a vehicle for finding the birds can be a big help, as it lets you cover a lot more territory than you can cover on foot.

However you prefer to look for them, once you find them, the next step is to scatter them so that you can take advantage of their strong flocking instinct. Simply flushing a flock of turkeys isn't good enough. If they all fly off in the same direction, you haven't accomplished anything except to alert them to the fact that something's trying to get them.

Instead, your goal should be to get in as close as possible without being detected and, then, to charge them as if you were trying to catch one by hand, yelling, maybe firing into the air, to make as much noise and to inject as much panic into the moment as you possibly can. You want to send them in different directions.

Some writers advocate laying your gun down and charging the flock empty-handed for safety's sake. But you're out there alone. Who are you gonna shoot if you fall? And if you've ever spent an hour looking for a camo shotgun after a quarter-mile dash through the woods -- during which search your scattered turkeys are getting back together on the other side of the hill -- you know just how ridiculous that advice is. Keep the gun with you. Shoot in the air to make more noise.

Of course, you could just go ahead and shoot your turkey while you're charging them; sometimes you can get well within gun range before attempting the scatter. There's nothing wrong with this, either, since, as any turkey is legal in fall, you don't have to worry about gender identification. But given autumn's one-bird limit, I'd rather scatter them and call them back together, since that's the real fun of fall hunting.

Once you've made a good scatter, pick out a comfortable set-up spot near the point of the scatter that has good visibility. Sit down and wait, and as soon as you hear the scattered turkeys start yelping or kee-keeing back and forth, start calling back to them. Mimic their calls as closely as possible. Sometimes you won't hear any turkeys calling for an hour or more after the scatter. If you're dealing with mature gobblers, the wait may be several hours of more.

But in October, with young birds, you'll often hear them start calling before you get settled into your set-up tree, and when you call, they'll come trotting in like pasture cows when they see the feed truck. You can call them in repeatedly until they finally manage to get back together.

SPRING TACTICS FOR FALL LONGBEARDS

In recent years, though, turkey populations in many parts of Arkansas are becoming dense enough to make possible another hunting option: calling to them as if they were spring birds. This can work on hens or gobblers, on young birds or old ones. It works because, in turkey society, dominance and submission are expressed through a literal pecking order, and aggressive fall calling upends this order.

The technique works best in warm, clear, calm weather, the same type of weather that makes for good gobbling during the spring turkey season. If the weather is blustery or wet, and cool, stick with the scatter-and-call tactics mentioned above. But on Indian summer days, try this one.

Simply move through the woods on logging roads, ridgetops or whatever, covering as much ground as possible. Use sharp, abrupt calling -- yelps, cutts, gobbles, gobbler yelps, fighting purr calls -- to try to get a response from other turkeys. Then set up and attempt to call them in just as if it were April instead of October. Sometimes that's exactly how they'll act when they come in, strutting and gobbling and looking for a fight. It doesn't always work, of course -- but what in turkey hunting does work every time?

PLACES TO GO

If you've been thinking about limbering up your old turkey gun and finding out what this fall hunting stuff is all about, here are a few public areas that might be worth visiting next month.

White Rock WMA: Many public hunting areas in Arkansas are large, but nothing's as large as White Rock. At 280,000 acres, this huge chunk of rugged land stretches across parts of five counties (Franklin, Crawford, Madison, Washington and Johnson) and offers good fall turkey hunting.

Although the terrain is as rough as anything you'll find elsewhere in the state, most of the mountains in White Rock WMA have a series of benches running along their sides, and it's possible to walk these benches for several miles without changing elevation very much. Since (as noted earlier) a lot of walking is one of the ingredients for success in fall turkey hunting, this makes White Rock a good choice.

The major road through the area is Highway 23 north of Ozark, providing access to much of the area via Forest Service roads. U.S. Highway 71 between Mountainburg and Brentwood forms the western boundary, and state Highway 103 northwest of Clarksville furnishes access to the east side of the area.

There are several major campgrounds in White Rock WMA, and literally hundreds of good campsites outside these developed campgrounds.

Piney Creeks WMA: This big, rugged area east of White Rock WMA offers the hunter another 180,000 acres of space to bump around in, most of it excellent turkey habitat. Piney Creeks WMA lies north of Russellville on both sides of Highway 7. It is owned by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and, like White Rock WMA, is managed cooperatively by the Forest Service and the AGFC.

Other highways providing access to Piney Creek WMA are Highway 123 between Hagarville and Pelsor and Highway 16 east of Pelsor. Developed campgrounds at Haw Creek Falls (off Highway 123) and Mocassin Gap (off Highway 7) provide good sites, but there's no shortage of good campsites throughout the area.

Like many of Arkansas' cooperative WMAs, Piney Creek is no place for couch potatoes. There's a good road network on the area, but there's a lot of steep, rough, remote country between roads.

Muddy Creek WMA: In the 1970s, this 146,000-acre area in the Ouachita Mountains north of Mt. Ida was noted for its turkey hunting. But the growth of turkey populations in other parts of the state, coupled with a crippling drought in 1980 that devastated turkey populations in the Ouachitas, took Muddy Creek out of the limelight.

Today, the turkeys are back, but the heavy crowds of the 1970s aren't, and Muddy Creek WMA is once again a premier hunting spot.

An extensive road network provides good access to most of the management area, but there's enough space between the roads, and the country is rugged enough, to allow for some sizeable roadless expanses. However, there's also some fairly gentle terrain available, especially along the valleys and stream courses.

Primary access is provided off Highway 270 on the south and west, Highway 28 on the north and Highway 27 on the east. There are no developed campgrounds on the area, but abundant campsites exist on the ridgetops and in the valleys.

Winona WMA: Since it's close to Little Rock, this 160,000-acre area gets more hunting pressure than Muddy Creek. However, since fall turkey hunting is still a relatively neglected opportunity in Arkansas, fall hunting here is generally good -- and uncrowded.

Bounded on the west by Highway 7 north of Hot Springs, on the east by Highway 9 between Paron and Perryville, and on the north by Highway 60 between Perryville and Fourche Junction, Winona consists mostly of a series of west-east ridges that provide the fall turkey hunter a relatively easy way to cover ground without having to do too much climbing. There's a campground at Lake Sylvia in the eastern part of the area, and numerous campsites on creeks and ridgetops throughout the area.

Caney Creek WMA: This 85,000-acre area in the southwestern edge of the Ouachitas is a geological oddity. The roads are mostly in the valleys, and the ridgetops are mostly narrow, jumbled rockpiles with little or no vegetation.

While Caney's turkey flock isn't as dense as what can be found elsewhere in the Ouachitas, hunting pressure is almost nonexistent and finding a flock of turkeys to hunt isn't as hard as you might think. Access is off highways 71 and 375 south of Mena, or off Highway 246 west of Athens. Developed campgrounds are at Bard Springs and Shady Lake on the south and Albert Pike on the east.

Gene Rush/Buffalo River WMA: This state-owned WMA lies in Newton and Searcy counties, between Buffalo River and Richland Creek about 10 miles east of Jasper. At approximately 16,000 acres, Gene Rush WMA is considerably smaller than the areas we've talked about so far, but it has a strong turkey population, because the area has many permanent openings that are maintained primarily for elk but also benefit young turkeys. Much of the terrain is extremely rugged, especially in the north part of the area adjacent the Buffalo National River.

There are no designated campgrounds in the area, but the Carver access on the Buffalo River, just west of the management area boundary, provides camping facilities. The only interior road on the area of any consequence is Carver Road, which leaves Highway 123 north of Mt. Judea.

Sylamore WMA: Lying within the circle comprised by the White River from Allison upstream to Norfork, Highway 341 from Norfork to Big Flat, and Highway 14 from Big Flat to Allison, Sylamore's 150,000 acres of public land are checkerboarded by thousands of acres of private inholdings, particularly along the eastern and northern boundaries. But this interspersed private land is often cleared for pasture, so it provides an element of habitat diversity that's lacking at other large public hunting areas in the Ozarks.

There are designated campgrounds at Barkshed and Gunner Pool, both on Sylamore Creek in the central and south-central parts of the area. There's also a campground at Blanchard Caverns on the south side of the area, but guns are prohibited in the campground. Primitive campsites are plentiful. S

ylamore has an extensive road network -- too extensive, really, such that improved ease of access comes at the expense of the quality of the hunting experience; ATV joyriders are a persistent problem in the area, for instance. However, the turkey flock is in good shape.

Mt. Magazine WMA: This big hump of dirt and rock climbing out of the Arkansas River Valley south of Clarksville contains 99,000 acres, most of it open to fall turkey hunting. The terrain is rough, but hunting pressure is usually fairly light for some reason, and the turkey population is in good shape. There is one designated campground, at Cameron Bluff on the north face of the mountain. Camping is allowed elsewhere in the WMA, but good campsites aren't as numerous here as at the other areas above.

Even though the fall turkey season is brief, it still provides us turkey addicts a chance to take the edge off our fever by getting out there and chasing October turkeys. If you're like me, 11 months between turkey seasons is much too long.

So don't wait: Try fall hunting. You're going to like it.

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