Illinois' Fall Turkeys

If you think hunting turkeys in the spring is a challenge, you should try the fall season! (October 2007)

Photo by D. Toby Thompson.

The fall turkey hunt is different from the spring season in many ways. The leaves are falling rather than emerging, the birds' habits have changed and the rules of the hunt are different. Actually, just about everything connected with the fall sport bears little resemblance to spring turkey hunting, except for the heart-stopping thrill of watching a big gobbler walk toward you.

Spring turkey hunting is so much easier than the same pursuit attempted in the fall. To paraphrase an old saying, "In spring, a young gobbler's fancy turns to thoughts of love." It is this burning desire to mate that brings about the demise of most of the longbeards killed in April and May. The big dummies gobble mightily in their roosts at dawn, they roar out romantic invitations during the day on strutting grounds, and they eagerly trot in to hen decoys without much encouragement required. None of the above applies in the fall.

In autumn, the turkey's principle interest is simply stuffing itself with nutritional goodies in preparation for the long winter ahead. They are not going to give you any help locating their roosts, and they will generally go about their daily business silently, leaving you few clues as to their whereabouts.

In Illinois during the fall turkey hunt, both toms and hens are fair game, which gives you some idea of the difficulty involved in bringing one of these critters home for dinner. This is the type of situation in which you would rather be lucky than good, because about all you can do is try to figure out where the birds are generally working, and then hope they show up on the days you hunt. Since fall turkey hunting hours stretch from a half-hour before sunrise until sunset, you will have plenty of time to try to cross paths with them.

Because most of our turkey hunting is done in small patches of woods, spring scouting is relatively easy. Often, a hunter can simply park near the property on which he or she plans to hunt, and then listen for the gobblers to give their location away at dawn. That isn't going to be the case in fall, however, because the big guys have no reason to sound off. The birds are not usually congregated in large flocks. The older males will be off by themselves, while the hens and their now-grown offspring will be roosted separately. They will be virtually silent both in the roost and on the ground later on.

Scouting for fall turkeys involves plenty of legwork, unless you have visually plotted their movements over time. If you have seen the flock moving through the same areas on a fairly regular basis, then you are in good shape. You can form a game plan around this information, and if necessary, adjust it as required in the field.

If you don't know for sure where the flock of turkeys is feeding, loafing, roosting and such, you are going to have to search for them. If possible, ask neighbors, the mail carrier or anyone else who regularly passes by your hunting spot if they have seen any birds there. With any luck, they can tell you where they saw them, and at approximately what time of day. This will give you a starting point.

Then you must get out into the field and look for turkey sign on the ground to confirm the exact spot the birds walked. If the ground is damp, there will be tracks, and in any case, you should spot some droppings and a few feathers, along with scratchings where the birds have been feeding. Once you have found evidence of the turkeys having been present, work their trail both ways, and try to develop as clear a picture as possible of their daily route.

If all these pieces come together, you can set up a blind and wait for the flock to appear. This is the part where you want to get lucky, because they have plenty of other places to wander, and they just may do that.

In spring, calling is very effective because the gobblers are consumed with the idea of finding a willing hen. By fall, all such randy behavior has dissipated, and the big birds form small bachelor flocks and ignore the ladies and their clutch of young ones. However, there is one instance when calling may yet save the day for you. The young turkeys, especially yearling males called jakes, aren't used to being on their own, and devotedly trail after their moms. When separated, these youngsters become quite frantic, and begin vocalizing in an attempt to reunite with the flock.

The call of the jake turkey is called the kee-kee run, and if you say those sounds in a very high pitch, you will have some idea of what it sounds like. If you are unfamiliar with the call, get an instructional tape and practice it until you can at least come close to imitating it. You don't have to be perfect, because the young birds probably aren't very good at it either, and within a few more months, they won't ever use it again.

If you should happen to come upon a flock of hens and jakes in the woods, your chance of stalking them is nil. What you must do is charge the birds while screaming and shouting like a crazy person to break that flock up and send them flying in all directions. Then sit down right there and wait five or 10 minutes. After the echoes of your maniacal performance have died out, begin calling with the kee-kee run. You may even hear real jakes doing the same thing as they try to reunite with the mature hens. If a jake comes to your call, shoot it. Fall turkey hunting is a tough proposition; so don't let any opportunity slip past you.

The fall shotgun turkey season runs nine days beginning on the second three-day weekend -- Friday through Sunday -- after Oct. 11. These dates apply statewide for the fall turkey hunt. Eighty-one of Illinois' 102 counties are open for autumn hunting, depending on the size of the turkey population. Permits are required for each county, and hunters can obtain a maximum of two permits for the season. One bird of either sex is allowed per permit. The permits are allotted on a random lottery basis.

As for bowhunting, a maximum of two archery turkey permits can be purchased over the counter at license retailers or at any Department of Natural Resources regional office, and they are valid statewide. Each permit allows the taking of one turkey. The fall archery season coincides with the deer archery season, closing only during the shotgun portions of the deer hunt.

You can check for available shotgun permits and purchase archery permits online at www.dnr.state.il.us.

Turkeys were initially re-introduced in Illinois in 1959. Some of the originally stocked birds were trapped in northwestern Illinois and then released in suitable habitat around the state. Other turkeys were obtained from states already well populated with the big birds, such as Missour

i. In some cases, Illinois traded Canada geese for turkeys, a swap that surely would hold no allure for any state today, considering the widespread increase of resident honkers everywhere.

The success of the wild turkey program is attested to by the fact that every one of Illinois' 102 counties now hosts a viable turkey population, and all but a handful allow hunting during the spring season. During the 2006 spring gobbler-only season, hunters reported 15,628 birds killed, an all-time record that topped the 2005 take of 14,951 toms. The first wild turkey hunt after the re-introduction program started was in 1970, when just 25 birds were shot. Without doubt, the wild turkey is well established in Illinois, and its population is growing annually.

For those of you lacking a place to hunt wild turkeys, the DNR's public-hunting areas offer plenty of opportunities. Region 1 in the northwest part of the state allows fall shotgun turkey hunting at 15 sites, and 32 sites allow archery hunting. Region 3 -- the east-central counties -- doesn't allow shotgun hunting, but it does have six bowhunting sites available. In west-central Illinois' Region 4, hunters can choose from 27 shotgun sites and 32 archery sites for fall turkeys. Region 5 in far southern Illinois has a wealth of public land open to fall turkey hunting, including the sprawling Shawnee National Forest. No less than 20 shotgun areas and 35 archery sites welcome hunters in Region 5.

The Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations is free and available from retailers selling licenses, or at any DNR office. In it, you will find everything you need to know about the fall turkey hunting season, as well as maps and phone numbers for each of the public hunting areas that allow fall hunting. Since each public area has its own set of site-specific regulations, it would be wise to call and learn the details ahead of time.

Those who own or have permission to hunt on property holding wild turkeys should be aware that these large birds can travel up to eight miles to reach suitable nesting or feeding habitat. What this means to hunters is that a patch of woods or a succulent clover field that may have held large numbers of turkeys in the spring could be barren come fall. On the other hand, a flock of birds may move into a new area for the winter, depending on the habitat available.

As a general rule, turkeys usually return to the same habitat in the fall to spend the winter, so if you saw birds there last fall, they probably will be back this year. This fact of turkey life is yet another reason to thoroughly scout your prospective hunting area before the season. It isn't much fun to hunt hard all day, only to learn the birds have moved down the road.

Since fall turkey hunting is very challenging, the results may not accurately portray a county's turkey population, so it may be better to take a look at the records for the 2006 spring hunt. Even though we have noted that the birds may move quite a distance between spring and fall, it is unlikely they will travel far enough to leave a county, unless they live right on the border. It seems pretty safe to say these seasonal wanderings will not affect a turkey population countywide.

Here are the results of the spring turkey hunt in some of the top-producing counties, and keep in mind that these are all gobbler numbers. The top 10 counties were: Pike, 708; JoDaviess, 564; Adams, 560; Macoupin, 468; Fulton, 444; Calhoun, 410; Schuyler, 398; Pope, 378; Hancock, 375; and Marion, 363. It is interesting to note that most of these highly rated counties are located in west-central Illinois.

Also checking in with over 300 birds each were Jefferson with 363, Brown with 348, Greene with 343, Randolph with 337, Madison with 314, Union with 306 and Jersey with 304.

Whichever county you choose to hunt in, keep in mind that it only takes one bird to make your hunt a success.

In addition to a shotgun or archery fall turkey hunting permit, all hunters must have a valid Illinois hunting license, a State Habitat Stamp and, if born after Jan. 1, 1980, proof they have successfully completed the DNR Hunter Education Course, or a previous year's hunting license. Illinois residents must also be in possession of a valid Firearms Owner ID (FOID) card.

New this year is an apprentice hunter program, under which a new hunter may obtain a license without fulfilling the hunter education requirement. The apprentice hunter, if younger than 18 years of age, must hunt with a parent, guardian or immediate family member who does have a valid license. New hunters over 18 years of age must hunt with a validly licensed adult. Apprentice hunters will also be required to obtain any special stamps or permits that may apply. The apprentice license is good for the first year only, and any subsequent license purchase will then require completion of the Hunter Education Course.

In order to better manage the wild turkey population, it is important for DNR biologists to know how many birds were harvested each season from each county. To help in this research, it is mandatory for successful hunters to report by phone their kills. By simply calling toll-free 1-866-ILCHECK, hunters can supply the needed information in just a few minutes. Turkey kills must be phoned in before 10 p.m. on the night of the hunt.

Turkey hunting gear can be as complicated or as simple as you choose to make it. First of all, you need to be camouflaged from head to toe, including your face and hands. A moderately priced camo jumpsuit, with a hat to match, will do the trick, as long as it mimics the foliage around you. A gauze mask or camo face paint is a must, and lightweight camo gloves will also help. Get a call that will make the kee-kee run call and practice with it until you can perform on it easily.

Any 12-gauge shotgun with a full choke is fine, and if you want to invest in an extra-tight turkey choke, that's better yet, but isn't critical. I like Federal Premium 2-ounce, 3-inch turkey loads, with either No. 5 or No. 6 copper-plated pellets. Select the 5s if you are going to be shooting in the woods where longer shots are not likely, and go with the 6s for denser patterns at slightly farther ranges in open fields.

Most experts advise not taking shots longer than 40 yards, and that surely is a killing range. For what it is worth, I have dropped big toms in their tracks at as much as 60 yards, but I must admit I was shocked when, after pacing it off, I realized how far the bird was from me. My best advice is let them come in as far as possible, but if there comes a time when you figure it is now or never, well, let your conscience be your guide.

Hunting turkeys in late October is going to play with your mind. You will be hunkered under a tree while ducks and geese fly unmolested above. Deer will wander maddeningly near while you helplessly gawk. All the while, one nagging thought will return repeatedly: What am I doing here? However, when that big dark shape you thought was a stump slowly steps into the clearing 20 yards away and the bead on your shotgun slides halfway up the bird's skinny neck while your finger tightens on the trigger, you will know what you are doing there.

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