Gerald Almy: Tips on bagging a turkey this fall

Gerald Almy

Mention wild turkeys and most sportsmen think of spring hunting and the challenge of calling in a wary gobbler. But if you want some exciting hunting before spring, try going after the big black and brown birds this fall and winter.

This year in Shenandoah and Frederick counties the season will be open Nov. 24, Dec. 5-31 and Jan. 14-28.

Both hens and toms are legal during these late seasons. Here are a few tactics that should help you harvest a turkey for a Christmas or New Year’s dinner.

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 lookout 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 in flocks, so you need to travel far and wide to find them.

A recent study in Virginia showed that a flock of hens with young traveled in a two- to five-quare-mile area even when food was abundant. The more territory you cover on fall hunts, the more likely you’ll find birds.

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.

As soon as 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 toward the birds (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, however, 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.

Aim at the right spot. 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.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.