November 16, 2021
Fall turkeys just don’t get a whole lot of love. Outside of a few eccentric, go-against-the-grain hunters and the folks who have it bad for turkey dogs, it’s mostly a bolt-on hunting opportunity. Part of this is due to bigger quarry being available, but the lack of interest also stems from some misconceptions about fall birds.
Most hunters don’t think it can be as exciting and interactive as spring hunting, so why bother? The reality is fall birds don’t fit our preconceived notions about them. They can actually be a blast to hunt—you’ve just got to open your mind and give it a shot. Here are five common myths concerning fall turkeys, and some strategies to make your autumn hunting more fun—and successful.
MYTH 1: Fall Birds Aren’t Vocal
Why We Believe It: We aren’t listening. We reason that because gobbling is a spring thing and there really isn’t any reason for hens to yap away in October, they must not talk now.
Why We’re Wrong: Gobbling like mad off the roost won’t happen too often in the fall, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I once sat 75 yards away from four fall toms that gobbled 500 times in an afternoon before I killed a different bird that slipped into my setup. Longbeards will gobble, but they are also just as likely to yelp back at your calls.
- Note: Fall turkey hunting dates vary in each state. Check your state’s regulations for the latest info.
Hens, on the other hand, are much more vocal in the fall than in the spring. They talk and talk and talk. In fact, if you want to learn how to be a better all-around caller, let a flock of hens tell you how to do it in October.
How to Exploit It: Fall turkeys often need encouragement to speak up, so get them going. Call like it’s your job. I use a slate and a mouth call together to sound like two hens getting after each other. Ramp up aggressive yelping and cutting and mix in some scratching.
When you get a response, engage them in a rap battle. Too many hunters think that because the birds won’t talk first that it’s time to whisper or shut up, but it’s not. Do the opposite.
MYTH 2: Fall Toms Don’t Strut
Why We Believe It: When we’re cruising the backroads in the fall, we don’t see black blobs in the backs of fields with regularity. This is because toms aren’t out there showing off for the ladies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see some strutting or other spring-specific behaviors.
Why We’re Wrong: I’ll admit it’s hard to get a tom to strut in the fall. In fact, it’s much easier to get a hen to strut. Territoriality is the name of the fall-turkey game, and dominant hens do not like interlopers on their food sources.
I’ve shot and arrowed quite a few hens in my time that were posturing up and trying to intimidate their rivals. I’ve also shot some toms that came in to fight and, while not strutting in full display, did put on their best bad-boy act. It’s pretty incredible to witness, and you can see it with some regularity if you know how to call, where to set up and what decoys to use.
How to Exploit It: The key to witnessing bad-to-the-bone turkey behavior is to make them mad. You do this by calling correctly and then addressing the following two myths about decoys and daily bird patterns.
MYTH 3: Fall Birds Don’t Decoy
Why We Believe It: I honestly don’t know why so many hunters believe this, because turkeys are social critters. We could decoy turkeys every day of the year if we so desired, but we don’t. We think this is something that only happens in April and May. This myth probably just stems from a lack of actually trying to hunt with decoys in the fall.
Why We’re Wrong: Just think about this for a second: Turkeys have a pea-sized brain and they hang around with other turkeys most of the year, especially in the fall. If they see another turkey, which they do every day of their lives, they don’t think that—because it’s not April—they’re not going to interact with that bird over there. Fall birds are more concentrated than they are at any time of year (except the dead of winter), and they are quite used to being around their fellow turkeys. This is all you need to know about whether decoys will work or not.
How to Exploit It: Skip the full strutters and bring out the hens. If you’ve got a flock of ladies scouted out, a single feeding hen decoy is the ticket. It’ll work on a flock of longbeards too, but in that case I prefer a single quarter-strut jake. The goal is to represent a lone, vocal bird right in the middle of a flock’s preferred feeding grounds or on a tight travel route like a logging road.
Fall turkeys are insanely territorial, and they will not tolerate a single bird squawking away where they want to feed or walk. I’ve had several dominant hens come in to this type of setup and strut, chest-bump my decoys and even stomp birds that I’ve already arrowed. It’s pretty wild, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s also important to note that while both toms and hens will commit to a single decoy, the toms usually come in much quieter but with a purpose—so pay attention.
MYTH 4: Fall Turkeys Are Random
Why We Believe It: Let’s be honest, most turkey behavior looks random throughout the year because we only see a glimpse of it on any given day. This is like getting three trail camera images of a buck in September and assuming you have him patterned for the remainder of the fall—it’s just not a complete picture. With turkeys, what we see is random, but what they do is not.
Why We’re Wrong: Nothing is more patternable than a flock of fall turkeys. The boys will hang with the boys; the girls will hang with the girls and the youngsters. They’ll roost in very specific spots every night and take specific routes to food sources each day. Wild cards might show up to alter the routes at times—things like a warm fall day that gets the grasshoppers going or a crabapple tree that is loaded with good stuff. However, what they do today, they’ll generally do tomorrow. This is a huge benefit to the fall turkey hunter.
How to Exploit It: Scout. Establish where turkeys are hanging out and feeding over the course of several days. Whether they are scratching along a wetland edge for bugs or hitting up a freshly picked cornfield, fall birds live through their stomachs. They spend the daylight hours eating, and they don’t want to spare a calorie for any turkey that isn’t in their clique.
When you find a hot food source, you’ll know it. There will be droppings, tracks and random feathers. If the birds are there today at noon, get in there tomorrow before noon. Use scouting to inform exactly where to set up.
MYTH 5: Fall Birds Aren’t As Fun
Why We Believe It: We’ve mostly been doing things wrong. A poor or misinformed effort will lead to less-than-stellar results, which aren’t much fun.
Why We’re Wrong: Listen, fun is subjective. But the idea that fall birds aren’t—or can’t be—as enjoyable as spring birds is bananas. It’s a different game, and you have to look at it as such. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a blast, because it can be.
It’s also an opportunity to hunt a low-demand situation. Public-land hunters and folks who deal with high hunting pressure in the spring might actually have a more enjoyable hunt in the fall simply by not facing the same competition.
How to Exploit It: The only way to know is to go. Better yet, go with the idea that the birds will call and decoy and should offer up a great hunt. If you don’t want to post up for the birds in a specific spot, run and gun them like in the spring. If you want to try busting them up, do that. In the right situation, a scattered flock and a hasty setup is as good of a time as you’ll have with turkeys no matter what month it is. Spend some time out there focusing on the birds and what they offer up as far as hunting opportunities, and you’ll see what so many others are missing out on.