Tactics For Taking Missouri'™s Fall Turkeys
September 30, 2010
The author's experience strongly indicates that you too can become a fall turkey hunter.
By Gerald J. Scott
What's now way back in September 1978, my wife and I conceded the big-city rat race to the rats and "retired" to a 325-acre hardscrabble livestock farm in Benton County. I knew how to raise cattle and hogs for market, and I knew how to fill a freezer with deer, squirrels and such.
Turkeys, however, were a different matter entirely. I'd never even seen a wild turkey, much less shot one. All I could do was turn to my new neighbors and say, "Show me Missouri's fall turkey hunting."
To my everlasting good fortune, I was introduced to a soft-spoken man who knew more about turkeys than most turkeys do. Gary has long since passed over to that realm where the season never closes, but before he left this world, he taught me everything I needed to know about hunting turkeys and ignited a craving to learn even more.
At least that's what I say now. When Gary and I walked into the timber the morning he first introduced me to fall turkey hunting, it was still black dark. Gary (who, by the way, didn't believe in flashlights) led me on a seemingly aimless hike through thigh-scratching greenbriers and cheek-slapping oak brush.
An eternity - OK, 15 minutes - later, he stopped, patted the trunk of a huge white oak and whispered, "Sit down right here, keep quiet and stay put. When the turkeys come by, pick out one you like and shoot it." With that, he disappeared into the darkness.
Now I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. And truth be told, I'd been the perpetrator of more than my fair share of practical jokes. This setup had all the earmarks of a "snipe hunt," but, I reflected, daylight was getting closer by the minute, and I was armed with a shotgun rather than with a burlap sack. I decided to lean back against the tree trunk, relax and show my so-called mentor I could take a joke.
Legal shooting time (a half-hour before sunrise) found me becoming increasingly tempted by the teeming hordes of squirrels scampering all around me. On the other hand, what if my being here wasn't a trick? I doubted that shooting squirrels would meet Gary's definition of keeping quiet. About then, two bucks strolled past without a clue I was there, making my decision to stay put awhile for me.
I started to hear scratching noises to my left and about 30 yards down slope sometime around sunrise. After a half-hour of pulse-raising anticipation, the noises seemed to be getting closer. Finally, I saw a slate-blue head poke up above the buckbrush. Then I saw another and another.
Photo by Ralphy Hensley
I don't remember raising the shotgun, but I must have, because there was a loud boom, and the stock jarred my shoulder. One of the turkeys went down in a flopping heap, and the remainder scattered in every direction. A minute or so later, I heard a shot from the direction Gary had struck off in.
Have you ever contracted post-shot buck fever? Well, I did that morning, albeit the gobbler version. It was several minutes before I stopped shaking enough to allow standing up. I ran down the hill to claim my first turkey - and it wasn't there! There were feathers everywhere, but there was no dead bird. I was still searching when Gary arrived on the scene. We kept at it for an hour, but it was hopeless. On the long drive home, Gary gently admonished me, saying, "No turkey is dead until your foot is pressing down on its neck."
(A related aside: One morning later in that season I was driving down my quarter-mile-long driveway when I saw a flock of turkeys light in a patch of tall grass. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed my shotgun off the rack and headed across the pasture. I had just entered the tall grass when turkeys burst into flight to my left, right and front. An old Kansas pheasant hunter knows what to do with birds that act like that. The turkey I chose had barely hit the ground before I was on it like a duck on a junebug. This proves either that turkey hunters should have long driveways or that it's better to be lucky than good.)
As for Gary's fall turkey hunting tactic of ambush, he hadn't picked the spots we set up at random - far from it. He'd been scouting this particular flock's roosting and feeding habits for weeks. The night before our hunt, he "put them to bed" so he'd know exactly where they'd begin their next day's activities.
To be honest, the primary reason Gary chose to be in the woods well before the turkeys flew down from their roost was that he operated a small dairy farm, and I raised beef cattle and hogs. Both of us needed to be back home early in the morning whether we'd killed our turkeys or not.
Although Gary believed that filling its crop was a fall turkey's first priority in the morning, he also believed that a turkey's initial direction of travel depended almost entirely on "whatever direction its beak is pointing when it hits the ground." Arriving while it was still dark allowed us to set up within 100 yards of the roost. The spot Gary put me in covered the head of a hollow where most of the oaks were dropping their acorns. He chose the approach to a picked cornfield. Had both spots been wrong, we would have eased out and tried again another morning. However, if we'd had more time, we'd have determined which way the birds had gone and then tried to get in front of them.
If - and the word if should be written in type large enough to fill an entire page of this magazine - you know exactly where a flock of turkeys (or a lone gobbler for that matter) will be roosting, the near-roost ambush is perhaps the surest way to fill a fall turkey tag. Calling is absolutely not a prerequisite for success, but, done properly, it won't hurt anything either.
That being the case, this is as good a place as any to discuss Gary's theories on turkey calling.
TACTICS FOR CALLING
Gary gave me my first two turkey calls. One was a commercially-made slate with a wooden striker, and the other was a homemade walnut cylinder with an 8-penny nail driven into the center of the cylinder's bottom. The head of the nail was resined and then stroked with a spearhead-shaped piece of walnut. It made the sweetest turkey music you've ever heard.
I can still remember his turkey-calling lessons well enough that what follows, while probably not technically word for word, is worthy of quot
"When you really get into turkey hunting, you'll start buying every new thing that comes on the market, and you'll learn to make more different yelps, purrs, cuts, putts and gobbles than any real turkey that ever lived. That's OK. In fact, it's part of what makes turkey hunting fun during the off season. But never fool yourself into thinking that it takes a fancy call or fancy calling technique to put meat in the freezer.
"The truth is that the single-note cluck is the key to turkey hunting success even in lightly hunted areas. It may well be the only sound turkeys will respond to after they've been pressured by other hunters.
"The cluck of a contented turkey - which is what you want to imitate - is soft. It may also be either inquisitive or plaintive. Stay away from aggressive clucks. Dominant hens do cluck aggressively, and if another dominant hen hears your aggressive call, she'll probably come in. However, that same aggressive call will have scared off every subordinate hen and jake that hears it."
My experience confirms everything he said. Over the years I've owned dozens upon dozens of calls, and (by human standards, at least) I know how to use them. Even so, when boot leather meets fallen oak leaves, I rarely use any call except the one-note cluck. I admit to being partial to yelps and cuts in the spring, but I turn to the cluck when the going gets tough.
Those among us who don't feel a turkey hunt is complete without calling are often advised to find a flock of turkeys, scatter it "in all directions" by whatever means necessary and then call the scattered birds back together via the time-honored but seldom heard kee-kee run.
I know I'm going to offend a few self-professed experts when I say this, but if I can get close enough to a flock of wild turkeys to scatter them far and wide, I'm going to shoot one of them and go home. Let me put it another way: The scatter/callback technique is like the 50-yard dove shot - it works just often enough to sucker you into trying it again.
That's not to say that calling has no place in fall turkey hunting, because it most certainly can help. Calling is an excellent adjunct to still-hunting. Turkeys of both sexes are social creatures during the fall season. When one gets separated from its fellows - which happens often, and for a variety of reasons - it will respond to a call far more often than not. Just be ready to set up for a shot instantly if you get a response.
I remember one fall hunt on which I was sure glad I took my own advice on that score. I was still-hunting up a half-mile-long drainage with timbered sides and a grassy bottom. By staying about halfway up the slope, I was able to keep an eye on the bottom and to have a reasonably good view through the timber. I had crossed several coves reaching back from the main drainage when I came to one with lots of fresh turkey scratching around its mouth.
This, I said to myself, is where I kill my turkey. I sat down with my back against a tree and clucked three times. Less than a minute later, eight gobblers came down the cove at a fast walk. The bird in first place won a load of No. 5 shot.
As you can see, still-hunting can be an end unto itself. However, I usually use still-hunting to set up opportunities for my favorite fall turkey hunting technique: spot and stalk. This appropriately named tactic is the soul of complex simplicity. "All" the hunter must do is locate (spot) one or more turkeys without being detected and then maneuver (stalk) within shooting range - again without being detected by a creature utterly devoid of curiosity and equipped with the best combination of sight and hearing of any game animal in Missouri.
Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? Well, sometimes it is easy, if you don't count the hard work involved. In addition to a couple of dozen firearms tags, I've filled four archery tags via spot-and-stalk. The first, third and fourth of these were pretty routine by turkey hunting standards. In each case, I located a flock of turkeys feeding near the head of a timbered hollow and was able to crawl into position for a one-shot-one-kill victory.
Archery turkey No. 2 is one of those stories you tell on yourself to keep anyone else from telling it on you.
The flock in question, which consisted mostly of mature gobblers with a few hens thrown in for good measure, was feeding in a hay field bordered by cedar trees and oak brush. I was familiar with the area and was confident that I knew where the birds would leave the field and enter the brush.
I was hurrying along the inside edge of the worst of the thick stuff, about two-thirds of the way to my destination, when a snapping twig froze me in mid-stride. The next thing I knew, the turkeys, which obviously didn't understand where they were supposed to be, were right in front of me. About the time my heart passed my tonsils, a longbeard stepped into an opening only 17 yards away.
I promptly sent an arrow about 3 inches over the top of his back. The clatter of the arrow bouncing through the brush behind the gobbler panicked every bird in the flock except the one I'd shot at. He stood stock-still. It was a good plan on his part, because I put a second arrow within an inch of the first. This was too much even for a suicidal gobbler, and he departed stage left. As I walked glumly over to where he'd been standing, I heard a putt. I looked to my right and saw a hen standing facing me. Her toes were 37 yards from mine, and she was standing behind a bush with an opening the size of basketball in line with her breast. My arrow hit my point of aim so accurately that the broadhead sliced through her breastbone and smashed her spine. Go figure.
EXPERT ADVICE ON
Perhaps my favorite thing about fall turkey hunting is that it's an all-day sport. Turkeys are active from the time they fly down from the roost at first light until they fly back up at dusk. That means that tactics like still-hunting or spot-and-stalk work equally well throughout the daylight hours. Very few other hunting sports give the hunter so much freedom to choose when he'll be in the field.
My very close second favorite thing about fall turkey hunting is that it can be done virtually anywhere in Missouri. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that wherever two or more trees are within half a quarter of each other, there will be turkeys. What's more, that's as true of public land as it is of private land.
Last but not least, fall turkey hunting still hasn't caught on with Missouri hunters in anything like the way that spring turkey hunting has. In fact, statewide hunter numbers are so low that the odds of hunter densities on the state's most popular areas being low enough to allow everyone to have a quality hunt are extremely high.
Take that as a word to the wise. Give fall turkey hunting a try this fall. You'll be glad you did.
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