Fooling Fall Turkeys

If you expect to collect a turkey this month in Oklahoma, the first thing you need to do is to forget what you learned about hunting them in the spring.(November 2007)

It's not hard to bag a fat fall tom if you know how. Malcolm Nieman -- formerly a kangaroo hunter in Australia -- shot this Ellis County bird with a little help from the author. It was the London shotgunner's first North American wild turkey.
Photo by Bob Bledsoe.

The last two fall-season turkeys I killed were so easy that I almost felt guilty.

In both cases, I knew where the birds were roosting and the approximate routes that at least a few of the birds would take to their daytime feeding and loafing areas.

All I had to do was get up early, go sit in a clump of brush near the travel route but several hundred yards from the roost itself, and wait until a good tom strolled past.

I wouldn't even have had to wait for a male, because it's legal to take a hen turkey in the fall season in several counties, including the one where I hunted. But in both cases I didn't have to wait long for a respectable turkey to show his snood in front of my hiding spot. A pop from my dad's old Model 97 Winchester "thumb-buster" pump with a 32-inch full-choke barrel was all it took to bag Thanksgiving dinner.

I'd like to claim that such easy hunting is the result of my skills and prowess as a woodsman. But the truth is, I was really lucky to have a hunting spot where there were lots of turkeys and where I knew the birds' daily routine. Anyone who can sit still for a few minutes and raise a shotgun shoulder-high could have killed those birds just as easily.

That's the great thing about fall turkey hunting: It can be so easy! There's no tomfoolery about it (no pun intended, I assure you). You don't even have to call a bird to you if you have an idea where they travel.

I wish that were true in every county in the state -- but it isn't. Counties populated by eastern wild turkeys can provide much tougher hunts than the counties inhabited by the Rio Grande birds. And the northwestern counties that have such huge populations of turkeys can provide much easier hunting than the more sparsely populated ones. But even in the tougher counties, the hunting can be much easier in the fall than in the spring.

I started hunting turkeys in the 1970s and I had a real streak of beginner's luck.

To take my first two springtime gobblers I merely strolled into the woods and sat down and yelped with a diaphragm call. Both times I got immediate answers from gobblers and both times I got my bird in 45 minutes or less.

My first fall bird, though, was tougher. I had read several articles that advised startling a flock of birds to break them up, then sitting down and calling softly to bring them back together. So that's what I did.

I could see a small group of turkeys moving through a clearing, probably 150 yards or more away. I yelped and purred. One hen yelped back at me but the birds didn't come any closer. They were moving out of sight and sound, so I stood up and ran toward the birds and scared them away. Then I sat down near the clearing and called some more. The birds never came back.

That was in the morning. I got my bird that afternoon by hiding in a spot that was, more or less, on the path that I had seen the birds traveling in the morning. I hoped they would take the same route back to the roost in the evening, and they did.

That was the last time I ever intentionally spooked a flock of turkeys while hunting. I don't recommend it.

To me, the key to successful turkey hunting in the fall -- it's not bad advice in the springtime either -- is to scout your birds ahead of time. At least spend some time locating a roost and observing from afar with binoculars to see which direction and what route the bulk of the turkeys take when they leave.

Turkeys may change their behavior suddenly, especially if there's a big storm or a big change in the weather. But usually they are creatures of habit. They typically fly down to the same spot and take the same route away from the roost, day after day, for weeks at a time.

I don't advocate hunting too close to a roost. What that usually accomplishes is to make the turkeys go roost somewhere else, probably on some nearby land that you don't have permission to hunt.

Protect the roost, but study where the birds travel. Then it's a simple thing to ambush them as they pass.

I know that some diehard turkey hunters consider it unsporting to kill a turkey in any way besides calling it in. I disagree.

There are also turkey hunters who criticize anyone who shoots a hen, even in the fall in counties where it's perfectly legal. And the there are those who cry foul about anyone using a rifle to kill a turkey. Rifle hunting also is legal in the fall in several of our western counties. (See the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklets for specifics about rules in each county.)

To my way of thinking, whatever tools and tactics you choose are fine, just as long as they are legal and not detrimental to the bird population.

I'll concede that fooling a lustful gobbler in April by pretending to be a potential mate adds another dimension to the hunt. And shaking a gobble-call to draw a territorial gobbler in to do battle with a gobbler decoy can be exciting as you watch the bird approach and try to figure out just what that decoy is up to.

I know that some diehard turkey hunters consider it unsporting to kill a turkey in any way besides calling it in. I disagree.

But there's nothing wrong with an ambush now and then. After all, that's the way we Oklahomans kill most of our deer and other big game.

Where are the most promising places to hunt turkeys this fall? Northwest and southeast -- that is, those counties lying west of I-35 and north of I-40 have the best populations of Rio Grande birds. And that northwest area that encompasses Harper, Woods, Beaver, northern Ellis, Major, Dewey and Woods counties has more turkeys per square mile than anywhere I know of in the region. Roger Mills County, where Black Kettle National Grasslands is located, is also topnotch.

Hunting eastern turkeys in the fall is tougher in Oklahoma. Several of the southeastern counties aren't even open for fall turkey season. Some are, though, and checking the hunting r

egulations or going on line to <a href="http://www.wildlifedepartment.com/" target="_blank"www.wildlifedepartment.com can show you which counties are open and what rules are currently in effect.

Hunting on public lands can be productive in several areas of the state. In the northwest, the Hal and Fern Cooper Wildlife Management Area, Canton WMA, Packsaddle and Ellis County WMAs, plus the Black Kettle National Grasslands in Roger Mills County offer better turkey hunting than many private lands. I have seen sizeable flocks and numerous flocks of turkeys on all of those areas in recent years. Hunters travel from throughout the nation to hunt at Black Kettle, a vast array of small public tracts interspersed among private holdings. The birds move freely from private land to public and back again on many of those tracts.

Camping is available at several sites in the area and there are motels in several towns along I-40, a few miles south of the grasslands, and in Cheyenne, the county seat, which is even closer.

Several tornadoes swept through that portion of Oklahoma in early May last spring and may have taken a toll on turkey flocks. The small town of Sweetwater, just south of the grasslands and north of I-40, was heavily damaged by a twister.

My friends who have hunted wild turkeys for 35 years out of a private camp not far from Packsaddle WMA saw their camp wiped off the map by another twister on the same night. That one destroyed both of their travel trailers as well as two mobile homes and two permanent structures on the land.

It also made a dozen or more tall cottonwood trees -- where lots of turkeys were roosting -- vanish. It happened on the last weekend of spring turkey season and my friends, who had spent the previous five weekends at the camp, had all gone back to their homes when the storm wiped out their camp and the nearby turkey roost.

Let's hope the storms weren't as devastating to the turkey populations as they were to the buildings, trees, powerlines, etc., in the area last spring. No doubt a few birds perished, but tornadoes have been blasting through Oklahoma for as long as we know, and the turkey populations have withstood it thus far.

No matter what part of Oklahoma you live in, it won't be far to a spot that offers a good chance at bagging a plump bird for the Thanksgiving table. And it may be easier than you think.

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