Fall turkey hunting gets no love, except from a few hunting outcasts who either run turkey dogs or just want to be contrarian. In my home state of Minnesota, fall license sales usually tally up to roughly 15% of spring sales. Spring is where it’s at for turkey hunting, and persuading folks to give the fall birds a real shot is usually a lost cause. But I’m going to try anyway, on the grounds that working birds now will make you far more lethal next April.
This might seem like a stretch, but the reality of turkey hunting is that the more you understand the communications and habits of individual birds and flocks, the better you’ll be during the spring. The more you peek behind the curtain, the more you realize that turkeys have a reason for everything.
This is never more evident than right now.
Whether you’re dealing with flocks of hens and poults or a group of same-age gobblers, there will be a distinct pattern to their travels. From dark to dark, they’ll originate and end at a roost, with the hours between devoted to calories. It’s that simple, and they often follow a tight circuit. The birds you see scratching in the corn stubble today will likely be there tomorrow at around the same time unless there is a drastic shift in the weather or a predator throws them off.
More importantly, their schedule revolves around the timing of their favorite fall foods’ availability. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appealing calorie source than grasshoppers. Turkeys will key in on them hard, but this will be a midday or mid-afternoon endeavor when the air temperature is peaking.
This happens in the spring too, especially during the early green-up where it might be 30 degrees at sunrise and 60 degrees by 3:00 in the afternoon. Scratching for waste grain might be there only option when it’s below freezing at sunrise, but when the nuclear generator in the sky gets the bugs going, the birds abandon the corn and soybeans and head to the insect-filled grass.
Fall birds should be on a pretty tight circuit with their travels when they aren’t hindered by the breeding frenzy. However, the same rules apply to spring birds as well, at least to the hens. If you understand what route the ladies are taking throughout the day, you’ll understand where the gobblers are likely to be as well. That’s a huge advantage.
Talking the Actual Talk
It took me a lot of years of shooting turkeys in the face with a 12-gauge before I decided it was time to bow hunt them. When I did, I realized that my encounters with gobblers while running and gunning caused me to miss a lot of the interaction. With a shotgun, the birds cross the 40-yard mark and it’s usually over. With a bow, you’ve got to talk them into the decoys and wait for your moment.
This close-up observation and back-and-forth conversation made me realize how much is said between gobblers and hens that isn’t gobbling or loud yelping. The purrs, clucks, and cuts that we talk about all mean something, and they are often the difference between persuading a bird to strut in or not.
I don’t believe there is a better way to learn to really call turkeys than to listen to a lot of live birds interact. It always makes me laugh when people say something like, “fall birds don’t really call.” They do, a lot. In fact, even though you probably won’t hear gobbles (sometimes you do, and I have no idea why), you will hear everything else a turkey has to say. That’s an education that carries over nicely into the spring woods, especially if you hunt pressured birds where it’s key to say exactly the right things to get them to go from hung up to in your lap.
My favorite tactic for fall turkey hunting is to scout an active feeding site, set up a blind, and put out one feeding hen decoy. Whatever flocks are using the spot will not tolerate an interloper stealing their calories. The amount of posturing and angry cutting you can elicit is incredible. It’s also a crash course in turkey decoy choice.
This is one of the things a lot of spring hunters miss when they simply put out decoys and then cross their fingers, never really considering what type, style, and quantity of decoys work best. This choice is often made without considering bird reactions to the set while waiting on a suicidal two-year old to confirm bias.
When fall birds commit, they do so with the same gusto as spring birds, and the crazy thing is how often the dominant hen will strut in, chest bump a decoy, and try to fight it. Fall gobblers will do the same thing, but there’s an interesting window of opportunity that informs my spring calling. When there are hens around, instead of being timid and just matching a responding hen, I’ll try to pick a fight with her.
I don’t know how many times I’ve done that and had the back-and-forth fire up silent spring gobblers or bring them right in. It has accounted for plenty of filled tags. And it all came from watching how hens responded to my fall decoy choice (and calling) and realizing how there is a whole dominance structure among the female birds as well. It’s easiest to witness in the fall when territoriality over prized food sources is high, but it’s a year-round reality that can easily play into the spring hunter’s strategy.
It’s hard to peel away from the treestand to go set up for fall turkeys but, when you do it right, it’s a blast. Even better is the simple fact that the interactions you have with fall flocks will undoubtedly make you a better spring hunter, which is more than enough reason to get out there to kill some midday hours.