The bigliver-headed pointer had been gone for several minutes, and I knew something was up. The damp November woods still showed a lot of color high on a ridge in southwest Virginia, and we had been walking in fresh turkey scratchings for 200 yards. So fresh was the sign I thought I could almost smell the turkeys myself, and the anticipation in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Just then, a few hundred yards above me, I heard the excited, high-pitched, almost hysterical barking of the pointer, Patches. Next came the heavy, thudding wing beats of turkeys clawing at the air and trying to gain altitude to escape the fleet canine pursuing them.
The wuff, wuff, wuff sound of wings mixed with excited alarm putts of turkeys rousted from a morning of feeding on white oak acorns. Looking skyward, I saw big, beautiful turkeys with set wings drifting overhead: one here, two farther out, none in shotgun range or I would have tried one.
Patches was now working singles, turkeys that had remained on the ground and had run away from the flush. She was an old hand at this. Swinging back through the flush site, she’d pick up the scent trail of a turkey and run it full blast till that bird was airborne, barking every time. I saw or heard at least 10 turkeys take flight, and there was bound to be more.
The young dog we had with us came streaking past me, running toward the area where Patch was barking. He was probably too late to the dance to get in on the action, but he would learn. Soon I heard the soft footsteps of my partner, and we had a short briefing on the specifics of the flush. It was time to move on to phase two of the turkey dog operation, build a blind near the flush site and start calling, hoping to lure a turkey into gun range. Patch came in, reluctantly, and I petted and praised her and told her she was the best. All was right with the world.
Rooted in Virginia
Unfortunately, we now have a generation of turkey hunters with little or no knowledge of fall hunting. The spring hunt has taken center stage and gets most of the attention. Those who know about fall hunting with dogs are even fewer, but the technique has a long history.
Although its origin is not certain, most turkey-dog hunters agree Virginia is where it started. The state remains the traditional stronghold of turkey dogs and hunting with them, but devotees are now spread throughout the 28 other states that permit fall turkey hunting with dogs.
Recorded accounts of turkey hunters using dogs date back to the late 1800s, and there are several classic turkey hunting books that include references to fall hunting with dogs. Edward A. McIlhenny collected the work started by Charles L. Jordan and produced “The Wild Turkey and Its Hunting” (1914), which devotes a chapter to hunting with dogs. Henry E. Davis’ classic “The American Wild Turkey” (1949) speaks to the subject, too, as do “Tales of Wild Turkey Hunting” (1928) by Simon W. Everitt and “The Wild Turkey in Virginia” (1943) by Dr. Henry Mosby.
Back in the day when hunters wanted a turkey dog, they probably started with a cast-off bird dog. In Virginia birds meant quail. When hunters found a pointer or setter that was harder than usual to break to wing and shot, and would rather chase birds instead (especially if he barked while doing so), he would be recruited as a turkey dog.
As time went by, ardent hunters developed lines of dogs of their own for hunting turkeys. Most were English pointer and setter crosses, commonly known as “droppers.” Some breeders added a small amount of other blood, such as hound, to the mix to get the characteristics they were after in their turkey dogs.
There are still hunters scattered over Virginia that raise litters of pups specifically for turkey hunting. Traditionally, these guys are tightlipped and stay out of the limelight; the dogs they raise go to hunting buddies or someone they know. By far the most famous breeder of turkey dogs was John Byrne of Lowry, Va. He developed his own line of turkey chasers years ago and dubbed it the Byrne Turkey Dog. The line is carried on by his son, John Tyler Byrne. I understand puppies are occasionally available, but you may have a bit of a wait.
I have heard almost every breed of hunting dog be recommended as a potential turkey dog. My opinion is you need to look at bird-dog breeds first: pointers and setters, or a cross of the two. Flushing dogs like springer spaniels and some Labs may work, and the Boykin spaniel is reported to have been bred with turkeys in mind.
Like any hunting dog, a turkey dog needs a strong prey drive and a good nose. To be successful you need one more characteristic that is sometimes harder to find. This dog needs to bark when he is flushing turkeys. Now you can hunt turkeys with a dog that will not bark and you can kill turkeys with that dog, but most turkey-dog hunters want their dog to bark when he puts turkeys in the air. It is much easier to tell when and where your dog flushes if he tells you about it.
Success in the Scatter
Fall turkey flocks have a strong instinct to regroup after being separated. This goes for the hens and poults, the young jakes, as well as the bachelor groups of mature gobblers. Don’t let anyone tell you that old gobblers can’t be scattered and called in. Usually it just takes longer, and it can be some of the most challenging and satisfying turkey hunting you will ever do. I have known old-school turkey-dog men that targeted old gobblers almost exclusively, leaving the young turkeys to those with less patience and skill.
The basis of the fall hunt relies on getting turkeys scattered, which is well separated. Although fall hunters talk about “flushing” turkeys, in order to be successful you need to really scatter a flock. A group of turkeys that get off the ground together and go in the same direction may do little, if any, calling. Scatter that same flock to the four winds, and you may hear garrulous calling for two hours.
Fall hunters with no dog usually sneak around trying to get close enough to rush a flock and break up the turkeys. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. If you’re wondering why someone would want to use a dog to hunt turkeys, imagine your success in the fall if you had a hunting partner who not only could run three times faster than you but also had a nose that could smell birds at great distances. Those qualities describe a turkey dog, and they make him the best partner a fall turkey hunter could have in the woods.
After the dog scatters the birds, phase two of the hunt begins. Most hunters choose a site close to where the flush occurred, construct some sort of blind to hide them and the dog, and wait in hopes of hearing turkeys calling. That’s right, the dog sits in the blind with the hunter.
The dog that was running flat out trying to catch turkeys 30 minutes ago now has to sit quietly as you call turkeys! It adds another dimension to training, and older dogs that have learned the game can be a wonder to watch. They will hear a turkey calling long before you. When a veteran turkey dog suddenly lifts his head and stares in a certain direction, you had better get your gun up and be ready.
Essence of Fall
Most turkey hunters today don’t realize that the fall season has a much longer tradition than the spring. To me, the essence of hunting fall turkeys with a dog is getting back to the old-school way of doing things. I like the two-stage aspect of the fall turkey-dog hunt.
The dog races through the golden fall woods, and you marvel at the seemingly tireless rawboned pointer-cross as he heads into an oak flat. Maybe he’ll strike gold on a flock of old gobblers, maybe not.
When you get a flush, sitting in the blind you have constructed for yourself and your canine buddy can be sublime. Turkeys well-flushed are like money in the bank. Listening for a turkey to call with a tired dog snoring beside you may be one of the greatest hunting experiences to be had. You offer a plaintive call, and far off you think you might have heard an answer. The old dog jerks his head up and makes an unwavering stare to your left. The game is afoot!
Hunting with a turkey dog is a warm fall afternoon dozing in the blind with your dog, and cold mornings in December hoping you have enough clothes on to sit and call. It’s a young dog making his first flush on turkeys and your old dog somehow finding a flock when you didn’t think there was a turkey within 50 miles. It’s the incredible triumph you feel as a puppy learns the game and fulfills all of his potential, and the devastating sadness when the old dog comes to the end of trail. It is, in fact, made up of all the things that make us hunters.
Paint Bank, Va., is in the heart of the beautiful Potts Creek Valley about 50 road miles north of Blacksburg, in the southwest region of the state. The town is surrounded by turkey country, including the expansive George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The Depot Lodge, Paint Bank General Store, Potts Creek Outfitters and Swinging Bridge Restaurant are all located at the Paint Bank crossroads, making it the perfect place for your headquarters while hunting this region. depotlodge.com, paintbankgeneralstore.com, pottscreekoutfitters.com
Turkey Trot Acres has been a premier hunting destination and lodge in the Finger Lakes region of New York since 1987. Run by Pete and Sherry Clare, Turkey Trot Acres offers guided fall turkey hunts using Byrne Turkey Dogs, as well as spring gobbler hunts. turkeytrotacres.com