Legends Of The Fall

Legends Of The Fall

Fall turkey hunting is cloaked in myth and mystery -- and the right practical tactics can propel Missouri turkey hunters into the storied annals of success. (October 2007)

Photo by D. Toby Thompson.

"I don't fall turkey hunt because gobblers don't gobble in the fall," the pipe-smoking, overall-clad farmer said. Another sage of the hunt scooted his ladder-back chair a bit closer to the potbelly stove that stoically served as the gathering place for locals at the dilapidated, old country store. He stretched his hands slowly toward the glow of the stove, both to gather its warmth and to signal his comrades that he had words of wisdom to impart about the subject at hand. He spit a slug of tobacco into the crusty bucket in the corner.

"The onlyest way a feller cin git 'imself a fall turkey ista walk the leather offn his bootsoles 'n scear the livin' daylights outa the whole durn bunch, when and if'n he happens upon 'em. Then it's a matter of waitin' fer the old hen to call 'em poults back to that verie spot. One can hep 'er out by a scratchin a few wailin' calls like a lost youngun on his gunstock with a little cedar box. Them little birds eats mighty fine. But killin' a big, ol' gobbler is kinda like killin' a ghost. If'n a man says he did sich a thing, well, you'd best scratch your head twice."

Perhaps the legendary Mark Twain said it best, even though his comments did add to the myth and mystery of hunting fall turkeys. He spoke of a hen turkey being immoral and deceitful. Twain referred, of course, to the hen turkey's feigning injury to lead intruders away from her nest or poults.

"When a person is ignorant and confiding, this immoral device can have tiresome results. I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed her and could not think she would deceive a boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest," Twain wrote.

We can laugh at Twain's interpretation of his hunt, but modern-day turkey hunters continue to wallow in old myths, those traditional stories of unknown authorship serving to explain some phenomenon of fall turkey hunting.

As late as 1998, the author of a well-known book on turkey hunting wrote of fall gobblers: "Fall gobbler hunting has won a well-deserved reputation as the ultimate exercise in frustration. Mature male turkeys rarely respond to calling in the fall and are often almost impossible to influence in any way. This is why most turkey hunters forget about mature gobblers in the fall and use the autumn turkey season to concentrate on young, tender poults, which eagerly respond to calling."

It is no myth that far more hunters participate in the spring gobbler season in Missouri than do during the month-long fall season when birds of either sex are legal. Longstanding myths are largely responsible for the easy acceptance of defeat by so many hunters. However, there are those accomplished turkey hunters who have refused to be duped by myth and old legends. Turkey hunters would do well to listen to those who have become so adept at fall turkey hunting that they, themselves, have become living legends -- Legends of the Fall.

"Aggressive clucking and putting will often stir up the gobblers in the fall." -- Alex Rutledge

Knight and Hale Pro Staffer and Ultimate Hunting Team member Keith Wahling of Villa Ridge is no newcomer to fall turkey hunting. He addressed the myth of having to walk your shoe soles off to find fall turkeys.

"One of the toughest things about fall turkey hunting for many people is finding the birds," he began. "The biggest mistake hunters can make is to wait until opening day to begin looking for birds. Fall birds flock together and it is going to take a lot of food to feed the flock. Those birds are going to concentrate on a food source, whether it is waste grain in crop fields or on a ridgetop that has an abundance of acorns. Find the food, find the turkeys. However, waiting until opening day to find those food sources is a waste of valuable hunting time. I love to squirrel hunt. I make those enjoyable trips into places where I often turkey hunt. I can tell in September where the food sources are going to be come October. Squirrels love acorns and will concentrate on them before they begin falling to the ground. But once those nuts begin falling to the ground, the turkeys will find them, too. Using my squirrel hunting adventures as turkey scouting trips has paid big dividends for me over the years, and definitely saves on the shoe leather."

Also, Wahling believes in being in the woods well before daylight. "Gobblers flock up in the fall, too, separate from the hens, poults and jakes. Gobblers are very territorial. Early scouting efforts will help locate where gobblers roost. Once a hunter locates a roost, he can slip in quietly, well before first light and get set up. Slow, coarse yelps, repeated in sequences of five to six calls per sequence, is often the magic tune that brings the whole flock looking for you. A box call is super for this exercise. Many hunters overlook the box call in the fall."

Wahling has hunted fall turkeys in dozens of locations. He highly recommends the Deer Ridge Conservation Area west of Hannibal.

"This CA covers over 6,000 acres," he explained. "It lends itself well to fall turkey hunting. The terrain is broken up into old fields, thickets and rolling hills. It is a great area to go to for an extended hunt."

If you are unfamiliar with the area, Wahling suggests seeking the highest ground before sunup.

"Calls will carry a long way from a high point. Starting softly is wise, just in case birds are nearby. As daylight approaches, begin to call louder. Use purrs, yelps, kee-kees and lost calls. Two or three series of the same calls often brings a response. But wait 15 to 20 minutes before calling again. And use your eyes and ears. Those guys in the old stories that say gobblers can't be called in the fall may have never dealt with a bird that just sneaks in silently."

Hunter Specialties Pro Staffer Alex Rutledge from Birch Tree is another legend among fall turkey hunters. Rutledge believes there is more than one way to skin a cat. His philosophy about fall turkey hunting dispels the old myths about "scatter and call back" being the only technique that will work. And no one can argue with his success.

"There are three distinct types of fall turkey flocks," Rutledge began, with that usual wide grin of his. Excitement exuded from deep down inside of him as he continued. "There are fall flocks made of hens and poults. There are flocks made up of jakes, and there are flocks made up of adult gobblers. The techniques to hunt each of these groups can be quite varied.

"Harvesting a fall gobbler is easy, IF a hunter puts in the scouting time to find the bachelor groups, especially where they roost." -- Steve Stoltz

"All the old stories about fall turkey hunting include the method known as scattering the flock," Rutledge instructed. "It is an established method of fall turkey hunting and still works today. Scouting ahead of time will put you on to roost sites. The best way to scatter birds is to walk through the roost area before daylight and flush the birds off the roost. It will get very noisy, as the hens soon begin to give their assembly calls to round up the young birds. Imitate what you hear. The hens themselves and the young, too, will soon be on their way. But stay very near where you split the flock. You can increase your chances of attracting the young birds by calling 10 to 15 minutes after the breakup or before the hens start calling. Whistles and kee-kees work magic on these birds."

Rutledge loves to try something different with turkey calls. I once joined him for a fall hunt in Texas County. I laughed when he broke out what I thought was a teal whistle. It turned out to be a six-in-one call made by Hunters Specialties. The call produced excellent imitations of a bobwhite quail, red-tailed hawk, a mallard drake, pintail, widgeon and teal. The innovative Rutledge added one more sound to the repertoire -- the kee-kee of the wild turkey. To prove his point, he soon struck up a conversation with two hens. Fifteen minutes later, the pair lay flopping on the ground.

Jakes require little different calling to bring them in, according to Rutledge.

"Jakes may or may not travel with the hens and poults. If you find them in a different flock, they may be scattered and the same types of calling that works on hens and poults will work on jakes. But another call that I like to use on jakes is a lost call, which is a series of 10 to 15 yelps followed by two or three clucks. Jakes often come in silently to this call.

"Aggressive clucking and putting will often stir up the gobblers in the fall," he explained.

Rutledge grew up near the expanses of Mark Twain National Forest.

"The U.S. Forest Service owns tens of thousands of acres of excellent turkey habitat in southern Missouri," he said. "Scouting ahead of time is very important in these areas. But study topo maps and try to pick an area that has old fields on it. Young turkeys eat lots of grasshoppers in the fall. The protein helps with rapid growth. Look for sign in these areas. Droppings, dust sites, discarded feathers -- they are all signs that turkeys are using the area. Also, walk nearby ridges to look for scratchings. Turkeys love acorns and will tear up whole hillsides looking for them."

"I hear it everywhere I go: 'Fall turkeys don't gobble.' And they are saying that while I am showing them footage of gobblers strutting and gobbling in July." -- Ray Eye

Use the methods Rutledge mentioned for the target age group of turkeys you are hunting and you are sure to increase your odds for success and may become a legend in your own right.

Steve Stoltz of St. Louis is another Knight and Hale Pro Staffer who is attracted to fall turkey hunting because of the dramatic vocalizations of the birds.

"Anyone who says turkeys are not as vocal in the fall as they are in the spring has not been in the middle of a big flock of fall birds," Stotlz surmised. "I hear sounds from fall birds that I never hear in the spring. Fall is an excellent time to actually study all the vocalizations of wild turkeys."

Stoltz is legendary for his ability to harvest turkeys with a bow, and fall turkeys are no exception.

"I love to bowhunt fall turkeys," Stotlz said. "It gives me the opportunity to scout for big bucks at the same time."

Stoltz provides a shock to the system of those who claim that fall gobblers are the next thing to impossible to kill.

"Harvesting a fall gobbler is easy, IF a hunter puts in the scouting time to find the bachelor groups, especially where they roost. Key in on how the gobblers travel from their roost site to their primary feeding location, and then on how they make the return trip to the roost. Fall gobblers can be consistently taken by setting up an interception point on the birds' daily travel path. They will travel the same routes, if they are not disturbed, because they are feeding heavily to get ready for winter.

"Gobblers yelp and tree cluck a lot in the fall. We don't hear that in the spring because the toms are busy gobbling. In the fall, hunters often mistake the tree calls of a gobbler as hen calls."

Stoltz uses the same calls in the fall that he uses in the spring.

Stoltz recommends the 4,500-acre Deer Ridge CA in Lewis County for fall turkey hunting.

"It is a big area with gently rolling terrain, which is mostly wooded. It holds lots of birds. Some agricultural crops are raised there and some of the land is in CRP. The drainages and creeks are good places to hunt."

For well over two decades, Ray Eye of Dittmer has been known as a living legend among turkey hunters. "He is the best, no doubt about it," Alex Rutledge said.

"I love turkeys," Eye fondly admits. "Unfortunately, fall turkey hunting is one of the most misunderstood of the hunting sports. It is like someone, at some point in time, wrote fall turkey hunting rules in stone. And they stuck. I do seminars all over the country and I hear it everywhere I go: 'Fall turkeys don't gobble.' And they are saying that while I am showing them footage of gobblers strutting and gobbling in July. They do that stuff all year 'round, because they are constantly working on the pecking order. It is their nature to want to be the dominant bird in the flock. People don't hear it or see it because they are not out there. I study and film turkeys all year long.

"Fall gobblers can be stirred to a frenzy quickly," Eye said. "Aggressive clucks, cackles, yelps and fighting purrs will appeal to their natural instincts to fight to move up in the pecking order."

Eye must have been the first to teach such tactics. I had never heard about fighting fall gobblers until I accompanied Ray Eye on a hunt in northern Missouri. I could not believe my eyes as five mature gobblers ran to Eye's aggressive, raucous, combative calling, fighting among themselves all the way to a load of 6s. As Eye continues to share his skills, he is sure to break that proverbial stone tablet of rules -- no myth or mystery, just facts that will become legendary.

Fall is the most splendid time of the year, with fresh, cool air, stunning colors and an air of mysticism about the past and the future of fall turkey hunting. And, harvesting a wild turkey for Thanksgiving should be much easier this year by imitating the Legends of the Fall.

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