Show Me -- Fabulous Fall Turkeys!
September 30, 2010
Today, Missouri supports one of the largest eastern wild turkey populations in the nation -- and fall's as good a time as any to hunt them. Here's where.
Photo by Ralph Hensley
"Fall turkeys don't respond to calls." How many times have you heard or read this statement? In my case, more times than I like to recall.
This all changed last year during my annual fall turkey camp. Each fall Bob Whitehead, Joel Vance, and I meet in an undisclosed location in the Ozarks that lies alongside one of Missouri's more famous smallmouth streams and next to one of the largest blocks of public land in Missouri. We hunt both private and public lands.
Fall turkey hunting provides an excuse to meet, companionship with old friends, good eating, and a reason to forget the office for a time. Such fringe benefits have tended to be the highlights of these three days each year -- and good thing, too, because this event has for several years been characterized for us by little if no success in hunting fall turkeys.
Last fall, in addition to my partners, Ray Eye, videographer and producer of Eye On The Outdoors, joined us to video a fall hunt and shoot introductions for his program. Ray sleeps, eats and talks turkey. The first afternoon after setting up camp, I changed to camouflage, loaded my 12-gauge Remington turkey gun, and walked downstream to an old pasture, brush-hogged earlier in the year. Last year I discovered turkey broods using this field during late afternoon to feed and some days to roost near the field.
I set Gertrude, my hen decoy, along the field edge and pushed back 10 yards, there to sit concealed against an old white oak. I called softly several times, using my slate call -- because I could. The afternoon remained silent. Mosquitoes buzzed my headnet, seeking admission. A redtail hawk that had been gliding overhead settled in a pine tree across the field for no longer than it took a flock of crows to harass it into taking wing again. The afternoon was quiet, warm, relaxing. I warmed in the afternoon sun. My eyes grew heavy, and presently I dozed, enjoying the day, letting the world back at the office recede into remote triviality.
Turkeys squabbling in the field interrupted my dreams. A brood of half-grown poults and two hens had wandered out into the field along the opposite edge; there they fed while poults chased each other, working to establish dominance within their very literal pecking order. I was reminded of teenagers hanging at the mall.
I called again. No response. Neither hens nor poults paid any attention either to Gertrude or to my calls, though they could doubtless see her and definitely hear me. They paid no attention. I once again confronted my limitations as a turkey caller, and remembered about fall turkeys not responding to a call.
As the sun disappeared behind the hill and shadows spread over the field, a doe and yearling fawn joined the turkeys, feeding on new grass. As darkness fell, someone in the turkey club decided to move to a roost, and the entire flock flew across the field to settle in trees about 60 yards from my position. I had a decision to make: Wait until the turkeys settled down and then, using the field edge for cover, back out, leaving Gertrude? Or retrieve my decoy, possibly spooking the birds?
Gertrude spent the night in the field.
Over grilled steaks that evening, we puzzled over the birds' refusal to respond and the approach to take in the morning. Bob and I decided to return to the field well before first light and set up near Gertrude; I knew the birds could see her from where they roosted.
At dark-thirty the next morning, we eased along the field edge and set up near where I'd sat the afternoon before, under a pin oak at the field edge. At dawn the roosting turkeys began to wake up on the roost and tree-call. Bob answered softly using a Lynch box call. The birds flew off the roost -- to the opposite end of the field, ignoring both the call and Gertrude. We discussed our next move as we watched the flock feed. Several more turkeys joined the flock; it looked a like a turkey convention.
Three turkeys, a hen and two poults, interrupted our discourse, flying out of trees opposite where we were hunkered down. The hen landed in the pin oak above our heads, while the two poults landed by Gertrude.
"Shoot!" Bob stage-whispered.
I looked at the hen in the tree 5 yards over my head, and then at the poults 30 yards out in the field. Thanking her for bringing the kids, I shot one of the poults.
We sat quietly then, letting the adrenaline subside, relaxing as the sun reached us in the field. I like to believe that the hen came to Bob's calls, proving that at least some fall turkeys respond to a call.
Hearing the shot, Ray Eye joined us and, with the glowing fall colors as a background, shot some video of Bob and me walking out of the field with the turkey. It was a first for me: the first time I'd observed fall turkeys respond to a call. And it was the first turkey killed by any of us at fall turkey camp.
We were hunting on private ground, near one of Missouri's largest public holdings, the Mark Twain National Forest.
WHERE TO HUNT FALL TURKEYS
Missouri's turkey population has grown steadily since the early 1960s, when Missouri Department of Conservation biologists began reintroducing wild turkeys trapped in southern Missouri to selected locations all over the state. Early on, biologists believed the largest populations and the most introduction success would come from the release sites in the wooded Ozark hills. As the introduced birds began to multiply and the population expanded, not only the Ozark introductions were hugely successful but also, surprisingly, those in the northern prairies and farmlands, which worked just as well -- in some cases, better, as wild turkeys adapted easily to farmlands and woodlots.
Today, Missouri supports one of the largest eastern wild turkey populations in the nation. Each year, Missouri turkey hunters harvest more turkeys than do their counterparts in any other state. The MDC was so successful with the introductions that they later traded wild turkeys, live-trapped on public and private lands, to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and other states for ruffed grouse and other animals to support reintroductions here in the state.
CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN
Mark Twain NF
One area that we hunted abutted a unit of the Mark Twain National Forest, which served as a focal point for early wild turkey introductions. The forest encomp
asses more than 1.4 million acres spread in blocks of land from central Missouri to the southern Ozark boarder. And regardless of the site of your hunt, it supports an excellent wild turkey population.
The Cedar Creek district, just east of Columbia, south of Fulton, and northeast of Jefferson City, would be my first choice for hunters in central Missouri. The Cedar Creek district is a checkerboard of forest lands interspersed with small fields spread along Cedar Creek. The district and the MDC use food plots in many of the open fields to help manage the wild turkey population. Several campgrounds are available.
This district's uniqueness, I believe, lies in its relatively flat or gently rolling topography, which eases the hunter's labors. Mark Twain NF's administrators manage major chunks of the woodlands along the southern border. Springfield turkey hunters should check out the Cassville and Ava districts. Farther east are the Willow Springs, Doniphan, Eleven Point and Popular Bluff districts.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Several districts of Mark Twain NF also abut both public lands belonging to the MDC and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, in the care of the U.S. Park Service. Interestingly (to me, at least), the Ozark Nation Scenic Riverways along the Current and Jacks Fork rivers is the only national park that allows hunting. It supports some great turkey hunting along both rivers. I like the Current River because of the patchwork of old fields along the river, and the easy access from roads or by canoe. For a unique turkey hunting experience, float in to a turkey camp along the river.
MDC Conservation Areas
If you live near St Louis, check out Danville CA, south of I-70 near New Florence, which comprises more than 2,600 acres of mixed woodlands and open fields. Also, Daniel Boone CA in Warren County has more than 3,000 acres, and Little Lost Creek CA has more than 2,600 acres of woodland. Both support excellent wild turkey populations.
MDC Conservation Areas
North Missouri has a ton of managed MDC conservation areas, all supporting excellent turkey populations. Check out Helton CA in Harrison County (2,500 acres), Lake Paho in Mercer County (1,700 acres), Rebel's Cove CA in Putnam County (4,000 acres), Union Ridge CA in Putnam and Adair counties (8,100 acres), and last, but certainly not the least, Indian Hills CA in Scotland County (4,000 acres). These represent only a small sample of North Missouri public hunting areas available for fall turkey hunting.
I've found that most of these CAs are far enough away from major metropolitan centers to be lightly hunted. If I had to pick one, it would have to be Indian Hills, which supports some of the best wild turkey hunting in Missouri; because of the rural nature of its terrain, it's easy to pinpoint the turkeys' whereabouts there.
WESTERN MISSOURI USACE Lands
On the west side of the state, the lands surrounding Truman provide great turkey hunting. This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake has more than 54,000 acres of managed lands in Benton, Henry, Hickory, and St. Clair counties. The Corps also manages Smithville Lake north of Kansas City with more than 7,000 acres. A refuge section closes during waterfowl season, but the remainder is open for fall turkey hunting.
FALL TURKEY TACTICS
Let me fess up: I'm probably the world's worst turkey caller. The first time I tried a mouth call, my partners speculated as to whether they'd have to take me to the hospital to remove the call stuck in my throat -- as a result of which episode I learned that you have to blow, not suck. I've had grown men almost fall off chairs laughing as I practiced calling.
Most fall turkeys that I've been lucky enough to kill fell to what amounts to ambush hunting: The bird just walked by. The exception was the poult that I harvested last fall.
After Ray Eye joined us, we learned that his last video of fall turkey hunting -- shot while afield near the Jacks Fork River last year -- had been declared a fake by a viewer, who wrote in an e-mail, "Everyone knows you can't call fall turkeys." The next morning Bob, Ray and I revisited the field where I'd shot the poult, the birds were across the river and not interested in calls. Even Eye's enticing calls didn't work.
After breakfast, we scouted fields up river, glassing them from a high lookout bluff. We found a bachelor group of six gobblers in a field across the river. We crossed the river and worked our way to a couple of hundred yards from the six gobblers. Ray set up his video and attached a shotgun camera to Bob's shotgun. I settled down against a sycamore tree where I could see a portion of the field and Bob against another tree further along the field edge.
Once we were settled, Ray cut loose with a series of coarse-sounding calls interspersed with loud gobbles. Six gobblers displayed and gobbled in unison, answering Ray's calls. The dominant gobbler strutted slowly toward the patch of woods where we were concealed and then disappeared in a shallow overflow channel washed by spring floods.
"He's coming. Get ready," Ray whispered as he videoed the strutting tom.
Bob raised his gun, bracing it on his knee. The calling continued; then the bird moved back to the other five birds out in the field, displaying the whole distance.
"Why didn't you shoot?" Ray asked. "He was right there."
"Couldn't see him," Bob responded, visibly shaking as the adrenaline drained from his system.
We worked the birds for another 30 minutes, but the birds had had enough. They flushed to the adjacent hill. We'd blown our chance.
On review of the gun-camera video, the gobbler's head was clearly visible; Bob just couldn't see it. We'd proved that fall gobblers can be called successfully. All it takes is an expert caller equipped with both a rough-toned mouth call and the ability to gobble.
Eye explained that the birds were responding to the sounds of a strange gobbler invading their territory. Mature gobblers in the fall are very territorial, their dominance structures all worked out. Bring in a stranger, and you create a situation in which they're predisposed to answer a call.
This fall, give turkey hunting on public lands a try. I can't think of a better time to be in the woods. And, if you like a challenge, keep this in mind: Ray Eye has observed that calling turkeys in the fall is more challenging than it is during the spring.
For more information and maps for MDC public areas, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102;
www.mdc.mo.gov. Also, use your Internet search engine to identify Web sites associated with Mark Twain NF or Corps of Engineers lakes in the Show Me State.
One last thought: Exhale, don't inhale, if you use a mouth call.