Make A Plan For Fall Toms

Make A Plan For Fall Toms

Taking a turkey for Thanksgiving can be easy if you do your homework. This expert advice will help you to make the most of your time in Oklahoma's turkey woods this fall. (Nov 2006)

Hawk Bledsoe, the author's son, heads back to camp with a fall turkey over his shoulder. He bagged it on an Ellis County property whose birds, and the patterns of their daily lives, were well known to him.
Photo by Bob Bledsoe.

But fall hunting can be so easy --if, that is, you've done your scouting.

Fall turkeys are creatures of habit. In Oklahoma, they'll often leave the roost and follow the same routes and routines day after day after day. They'll change seasonally, especially during the spring, and they may change if they're disturbed around their roosts or if disturbed repeatedly along a travel route. They may also alter their behavior after a storm, cold front or other weather change.

But often they'll fly down from the roost and move along the same paths for days or weeks at a time. That makes the birds easy to hunt in the fall, as long as you've been able to watch their movement patterns and know where to set up an ambush along the way.

A few feel that it's not sporting to ambush a wild turkey this way -- that if you can't call a bird into range, you don't deserve to take him. But there's nothing unethical or illegal about it. For one thing, fall birds are unlikely to be in a call-responding mood, certainly not to the degree they are in the spring. And hunting birds this way is no different from putting your deer stand near a well-trodden deer trail through the woods. It's just hunting.

However, you can call in the fall if you like. Sometimes a little subtle calling can help coax a bird into range. Sometimes it's fun to "talk" with the birds, even if it really isn't necessary in order to kill a turkey.

However, if you choose your spot carefully and the birds follow their usual routines, you may not have to make a sound to take a fall turkey.

I bagged the tom I killed in Western Oklahoma last fall by backing up into the dense foliage of a cedar tree adjacent to a private road (not a public right-of-way) leading to an oil well site. Each afternoon a large group of turkeys had been coming from several directions and gathering in that dusty road to socialize for a few minutes before flying over a fence to roost.

I could have shot at numerous hens, which are legal in the fall in the area I was hunting, but held my fire until a nice-sized tom appeared within range.

I came close to shooting a hen that gobbled repeatedly. During a 30-minute period, two birds that I assumed were a hen and a gobbler exchanged calls again and again. One bird in a small patch of woods would yelp; immediately, another bird would gobble. A minute or two would pass, and the first bird would yelp again, again to be answered by a gobble.

I couldn't see the bird that was gobbling because it was hidden by tall grasses and a patch of young sumac. But each time it gobbled, it sounded like it had moved slightly closer to an opening where I could get a shot.

Finally, it gobbled from very close. I raised my gun. A hen stepped into view. I kept my gun raised, sure that the gobbling tom would appear right behind the hen.

Then, to my surprise, the bird in the woods yelped again. Immediately then hen I was watching stretched out her neck and gobbled just as loud and vigorously as any male might do. I lowered my gun and sat there for a minute trying to figure out if I had just seen and heard a hen gobbling. But I could see the bird clearly: no beard, blue head -- definitely a hen. And it definitely gobbled: again and again.

Fortunately, it wasn't long before a real gobbler appeared. It was only an average-sized bird, but it was good enough for Thanksgiving dinner. So I took it, and gladly.

I gathered up my binoculars and folding stool and stepped out into the road to collect my bird. There were about 15 turkeys still dusting and talking in the road 50 yards away. I was sure I'd spook them when I stepped out and grabbed my bird, but they didn't appear alarmed. I walked quickly in the opposite direction toward camp.

I had several turkey calls in my pockets, but I never used them: I didn't need to -- because I knew about where to ambush the turkeys at that time of day. It was just a matter of getting well hidden and keeping still and silent.

I had a big advantage on that day, as I was hunting on property in Ellis County, which sits right up against the top of the Texas Panhandle. Friends Pat and Greg Hoggard had hunted there for the past 35 years. Their hunting camp is within sight of the turkey roost and they observe the birds regularly. They had been in camp for several days before my son and I arrived, and so knew exactly where the birds were going when they left the roost and where they assembled before returning in the evening. Collecting that fall tom was a breeze; I didn't even have to do my own scouting.

I had killed a really nice gobbler in the same area during the spring season a year and a half earlier. I didn't call that one, either. I merely got hidden before daybreak and waited for birds to stroll past after they left the roost. Sure enough, an hour or so after daylight, several birds came past me. It was just blind luck that the biggest gobbler in the bunch stopped 30 yards in front of me to stretch his neck up and look around. I dropped him on the spot.

I'll grant you that it's much more fun in the spring season to call a gobbler toward you by imitating a hen. Just ambushing a bird by hiding near where you believe it will walk is almost too easy and not nearly as suspenseful. I was prepared to call birds that morning, but I didn't have to since the big gobbler stopped right in front of me.

Now, having said how easy it is to ambush a bird in the fall without calling, I should also point out that birds don't always do what you expect them to, nor do they go where you expect them to go. I know that will come as no surprise to veteran turkey hunters.

Last fall, having watched the birds leave the roost and gather a short time later in that oilfield road before dispersing in smaller groups and heading across the countryside, I suggested to my son Hawk, who wanted to take a bird with his bow and arrow, that he sit in a small clump of brush near a cattle guard and gate on that road. The previous morning, about 40 birds had walked up the road and crossed over the cattle guard and milled around within 10 yards of the brush that I'd told my son to hide in.

That night we experienced the passage of a significant cold front. High winds battered our tent throughout the night, and the temperature dropped 40 degrees or more below the previous day's temps.

When we got up early the next morning, Hawk donned his camouflage and grabbed his bow and hunting stool. I drove to the spot and he quietly rolled out of the truck, staying hidden from the birds on their roost 400 yards away. When I drove out, the birds were still roosted and the eastern sky was just beginning to lighten.

Unfortunately for our plan, the birds left the roost that morning without a single one following the path that dozens of turkeys had been taking before the cold front.

It soon became apparent there were not going to be lots of opportunities for a bow-and-arrow shot in that spot that morning. And when two other hunters strolled past carrying a shotgun and a rifle, then stopped within 5 yards of my son, it became even less likely that any turkeys would come hang around that morning.

I watched all that with binoculars from a quarter-mile away, hoping to see Hawk kill his bird with an arrow. I wondered what those hunters were talking to him about. After they walked up a hill and out of sight, I drove down to pick up my hunter son and ask about the other hunters.

"They weren't talking to me," he said. "They never knew I was there. They were talking to each other about where to hunt."

I suggested that maybe he should have spoken up -- at least to tell the hunters he was sitting there, lest one of them turn and shoot at a noise or movement in the brush where he was seated. But he said both hunters kept their guns slung on their shoulders and had their hands full of decoys and folding stools and other stuff, so he hadn't felt as if they were about to fire an unsafe shot in his direction.

We were hunting on property owned by Kenneth Mayfield in southern Ellis County. Mayfield had bagged a bearded hen with his .410 revolver the previous afternoon. Mayfield has hunted turkeys and has protected the turkey roost on his family's property for decades. I asked him why the turkeys did a total change-up that morning, and why not a single bird had walked past my son's hideout, when dozens of turkeys had been going that way every day.

To Mayfield's thinking, the big cold front that moved through the previous night probably was the culprit. "Sometimes they'll do everything different right after a big weather change or a big storm comes through here," he said. "They can be predictable day after day, but then something happens, and they change. Sometimes you can relate it to the weather; sometimes you just don't know."

We saw further evidence last spring of Mayfield's theory about storms changing the birds' habits. A friend came along from Tulsa to try to bag a bird with his bow and arrow. I bragged all the way on the five-hour drive out there about how easy it was going to be to kill a turkey and how he would probably have dozens of birds within range that very evening. I planned for him to sit in the same area where I previously had ambushed turkeys so easily.

That afternoon, two brief thunderstorms rolled through. Both storms cut loose with a lot of thunder and lighting and brief periods of heavy rain. The first was enough to send me back to camp to dry out. My friend, on the other hand, stayed in place for several hours, waiting for the birds to come back and mill around in the ranch road before flying to roost.

Not a single bird came down that road. In fact, as darkness fell, there wasn't a single bird in the roost trees, which were normally filled with turkeys at dusk. Something, probably the lightning and thunder, changed their routine. Some birds roosted a few hundred yards farther south than normal that night. And some roosted a half-mile or more to the east.

We could hear numerous toms gobbling the next morning from the high ground a half-mile east of camp. In their usual roost the birds slept in the high branches of some very tall cottonwoods that grew along a small, spring-fed creek. But that night they must have roosted in the post oaks and shinnery that grew on the higher ground, for there were no large trees in that area.

By the following evening, birds were coming back to their usual roost. That night, 25 or 30 birds perched in their usual spots in the cottonwoods.

I describe those specific incidents to illustrate that turkeys, while they can be very predictable, can also change their habits suddenly. Scouting and patterning their movements can pay off quickly, but it's not a guarantee of success. So be prepared. If there's a major cold front, a thunderstorm or a similar event, the birds might go a different direction, at least temporarily.

Hunters who live very close to their hunting grounds have a big advantage in that they can scout and pattern their birds before the season opens, or at least before their actual hunt. Those of us who drive long distances for our hunting have a greater challenge. Sometimes landowners or other hunters can offer valuable advice about when and where the birds move. That's especially true if there are corn feeders in use on the property, for turkeys often visit feeders at about the same times each day. And while you can't legally hunt too close to a feeder, you can still set up ambushes along the paths the birds travel to reach the food.

You may sometimes find that turkeys, especially the Rio Grande birds that occupy two thirds of Oklahoma, occupy the same roosts and show the same movement patterns from season to season, year after year. What the birds do and where they go this fall or next spring may be exactly the same pattern they followed last fall or last spring. Learning those patterns and hunting accordingly is one advantage of being able to hunt the same spot each year.

Eastern birds are much more likely to change their roosts and change their movement patterns -- not only from season to season but also from day to day. On several occasions I've watched eastern birds leave the roost, and then I'd try to sneak in the next morning to a spot where I could ambush them, only to find that they flew down in the opposite direction.

One other thing that will often force birds to change their daily habits is interference from hunters. Some hunters can't resist crowding the roosts and shooting their birds as soon as they fly down. That kind of activity is likely to drive turkeys away and force them to seek a new roost. If you plan to hunt a spot again in the future, it's probably best to keep at least a few hundred yards between your ambush spot and the roost. The birds may continue to roost in the same spot for months, even years, if they aren't disturbed there.

On some of Oklahoma's best public lands where turkeys are hunted, it's not unusual for hunters to crowd the roost. I've heard widespread complaints -- from hunters at Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area, at Black Kettle National Grasslands, and from the Three Rivers WMA and the McGee Creek WMA in Southeastern Oklahoma -- of hunters driving birds away from a roost that had been providing turkeys for

other hunters to shoot.

It happens on private lands as well. But at least on private lands there usually are fewer hunters, and landowners or lease-holders can set rules or exercise more control.

The fall turkey gun season this year runs Nov. 4-17. The archery season started Oct. 1 and continues through Jan. 15, 2007. Scouting and making a plan can make it easier to kill a fall bird, no matter if you're holding a gun or a bow.

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