When the subject of turkeys comes up, most outdoorsmen think of spring hunting and the challenge of calling in a wily gobbler. But if you want some exciting hunting before the redbuds start to bloom again, try the big black and brown birds this fall.
The season runs from Dec. 3-29 and Jan. 12-26 in Shenandoah, Frederick and Clarke counties.
Both hens and toms are legal during these late seasons. Here are some tips that have helped me in the past in the quest to harvest a turkey in fall and winter.
Search for turkey sign. The most important sign to look for is areas where the birds scratched leaves away searching for nuts, insects and other foods.
You can tell which direction the turkeys are traveling by the way the leaves are turned up. They will be piled in the direction they came from, as the birds rake the leaves back with their foot.
Be on the look out for dusting areas as well. These are oval depressions in dirt piles or ant hills where the birds cover themselves with dust to get rid of lice, fleas and old feathers.
Also look for droppings beneath tall trees, often pines, indicating the birds roosted there. All of these signs will help you pinpoint the quarry and learn about its travel patterns.
Be sure to cover lots of ground. The most successful fall turkey hunters have strong sets of legs and cover a lot of territory. The birds are grouped up, so you need to travel far and wide to find them.
A recent study in Virginia showed that a group of hens with young traveled in a two to five square mile area even when food was abundant. When it's scarce they cover even more ground than that. The more territory you probe on fall hunts, the more likely you'll find birds.
Always use your ears as well as your eyes. Sometimes you might actually hear the birds before you see them.
A flock of 10 or 20 turkeys makes a lot of noise as they scratch in the forest leaves. They might also call to each other with clucks or occasional yelps. Watch for the quarry, certainly, but also keep your ears tuned for telltale signs that turkeys are near.
Try calling occasionally. As you walk through the woods, pause to call with a yelp or cluck from time to time. You won't likely call a bird in this way, but one may answer you and then you'll know where the flock is. Put on a blaze orange cap or vest when you do this and be sure no other hunters are in the area.
Once you locate a flock, act decisively. At times it may be possible to simply sneak closer and take a shot. This rarely works, though, and definitely does not yield the most exciting hunt.
The standard tactic at this point is to rush carefully towards the bird (with the gun unloaded or left on the ground) and flush the flock. The idea is to scatter the birds as widely as possible. Then, because of their desire to regroup, you can try to call them back.
You can set up at the flush site, or if a large part of the flock stayed together, move slightly in that direction, 50 to 100 yards or so.
Set up to call with your back against a tree. A large-girthed tree provides back support and camouflages your silhouette from birds as they come to your calls.
Keep your knees up and the gun propped over your left knee (if you're right handed.) This is the best position since it lets you be ready to shoot, yet able to wait for an extended period.
Be patient. The turkeys may try to regroup in 10 or 15 minutes. If they've been pressured, though, or are older birds, it may be an hour or more until they start calling.
Wait at least a half hour before starting to call unless you hear the birds themselves begin to talk. If they start calling, imitate exactly what they sound like. It may be kee-kee runs, clucks or yelps. Learn all three of these calls and use the one they do.
Make sure the quarry is within range before shooting. As the turkey starts to come in to your calls, be patient. You want it to come well into clean range before firing. This usually means 25-35 yards, 40 at most. The closer the quarry approaches, the better.
Aim correctly. The head and neck are the place to aim. Use size 4, 5, or 6 shot in heavy loads with a tightly choked gun.
Hunt safely. Always be sure the area behind the bird is clear and no other person could be in the line of fire. And most important of all, be 100 percent sure what you are aiming at is a wild turkey. Good luck.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.