Mention turkey hunting in Missouri and people think of spring with its blooming dogwoods, the resonant calls of whip-poor-wills and misty dawns with turkeys gobbling in all directions. No wonder that at best, fall turkey season often gets second billing. Some hunters ignore it entirely. Fall turkey season is a different ball game than spring, but one with its own set of challenges and thrills. Getting close to a flock of turkeys in a large tract of forest can be every bit as tough as trying to talk a spring gobbler into shotgun range. Fall is also a super time to be in the woods.
I like fall turkey season because it is hunting in the most active sense. Hunting for deer, waterfowl and doves usually requires you to sit and wait, but wild turkey hunting in the fall requires actively seeking out a quarry.
But before venturing out in the woods, it's important to understand a little about turkey life in the fall. Mating season is long over, so you're not likely to hear any gobbling. Fall turkey flocks are segregated into two main categories: smaller groups of adult male birds and larger groups of adult hens with this year's youngsters. A third category consisting of adult hens without young is more common in years when the hatch is poor. Remember, it is legal to kill birds of either sex in the fall.
The most common fall turkey hunting tactic is a simple one: locate and scatter a flock, then call to the birds as they attempt to reassemble. This strategy is more effective with groups of young birds than adult gobblers. Young birds need the security of the flock and will respond readily to calling after they have been separated.
The most important consideration is the same as it is for real estate-location, location, location. You have to locate the birds before you can shoot one. Here are some things to keep in mind that will increase your odds of locating turkey.
1 Be an early bird. Get out before dawn, find a good vantage point and listen. You may hear birds fly down from their roost. You may also hear calling. Young birds in particular are quite vocal after leaving the roosts. They want to re-establish contact with the flock and be assured that all are present and accounted for after spending the night in the trees. This is your best opportunity to have fall turkey tell you where they are.
2 Watch your step. One of the first things I pay attention to is the amount of rain prior to the fall turkey season-not because of its effect on the turkeys, but because of its effect on what my footsteps sound like in the woods. If it's dead calm and the leaves are like dry corn flakes, your chances of approaching a bunch of turkeys are slim.
In that case you're better off walking on logging roads, trails, power line cuts, creek beds or anywhere you can tread quietly. Keep in mind that turkeys also walk trails and forage on the herbaceous plants and insects they find along the edges. Fix your eyes down the trail and be alert when rounding a bend in the trail or topping a hill.
If the leaves are damp, or if it is windy, get in the woods. Hunting the ridgetops usually puts you in a better vantage point for hearing, seeing and calling turkeys, and it's much easier on you than climbing hills and hollows all day.
3 Take it slow. Be deliberate and alert. When walking in the woods, stop often to listen, look and call periodically. Sometimes I count my steps and make myself pause every ten steps. It may sound strange, but if you don't consciously do this, you'll soon find yourself noisily tromping through the woods instead of hunting. Pausing frequently gives you the opportunity to hear or see turkeys before they hear or see you.
4 Check out the hangouts. Much is made of scouting feeding and watering areas to locate turkeys. This sounds good but, in truth, turkeys are opportunistic and eat what is abundant and easy to find. It's tough to stake out every oak tree, dogwood berry, walking stick or grasshopper out there. However, do look for large areas of scratched-up leaves where turkeys have found an acorn mother lode.
If it's a dry year, isolated water holes will have tracks along the shore that will tell you that turkeys have visited recently. Check out any grassy opening, old field or small clearcut in a heavily timbered area. Turkeys love to feed and loaf in these areas-especially in rainy conditions!
Once you locate a flock and they are unaware of your presence, you can try to call the birds to you. This works occasionally. However, a better tactic is to scatter the flock. One of the odder aspects of fall turkey hunting is that after expending a lot of effort to find turkeys, the objective suddenly shifts to scaring them away! You may need to run toward the birds and yell. You need to make the birds fly, to prevent them from running off as a group. Remember, the idea is to scatter the birds so that they must call to each other to regroup.
If you can scatter a flock, move about 100 yards in the general direction the birds flew, sit down and call. If they scatter in all directions, simply sit down where the birds dispersed. A basic "yelp" works fine; make it a loud aggressive call in a longer series than you would in spring.
Remember that you are imitating a lost and desperate bird. Do your best to imitate whatever you hear the birds doing. Young turkeys can make a variety of unusual-sounding calls. Young birds often respond quickly and sometimes at a run, so be ready.
If you bag a fall turkey, you may be disappointed to discover that it is considerably smaller than the gobbler you took home last spring. Typical young fall birds weigh 6 to 12 pounds.
You won't be disappointed when you put the bird on your table, however. Biting into the drumstick on an old gobbler can be like trying to take a bite out of the toe of your sneaker. Young fall birds are tender and delicious. The effort required to bring home that bird and the memories of October days in the woods will improve the flavor even more.
Fall Turkey Facts
Some turkey hunters may be concerned about taking hens during the fall season. It is important to remember that in healthy populations, nature always provides a surplus. Research biologists estimate that hunters can kill up to 10 percent of the fall population with little impact on the overall population. Currently, Missouri's fall season takes approximately 2 to 3 percent of the population.