When the subject of wild turkeys comes up, most hunters picture scenes of spring hunting and the challenge of calling in a cautious gobbler into shotgun or bow range when the redbuds are in bloom. If you want some exciting hunting before spring, though, try going after turkeys this fall and winter.
This year, hunting will be allowed at various times in November, December and January in different Shenandoah Valley counties. Consult the game department website for details at dgif.virginia.gov.
In fall and winter, both hens and toms are legal. The main difference between spring and fall hunting is that in spring you’re going after an individual gobbler. In fall you are pursuing flocks of birds and trying to bag one of the members of that group.
To help you harvest a turkey for a Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s dinner, here are some proven tactics I’ve picked up from expert fall turkey hunters across the country.
Look for turkey signs. The most important sign to look for is areas where the birds scratched leaves away searching for nuts, insects and other foods.
It’s possible to determine 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.
Try to pinpoint 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, other insects, and old feathers.
Search for droppings beneath tall trees. Pay particular attention to pines. Turkeys like to roost in those because of the open limb structure. All of these signs will help you pinpoint the quarry and learn about its travel routes.
It’s important to cover lots of ground. The most successful fall turkey hunters have strong legs and cover a lot of territory. The birds are grouped up in flocks, so you need to travel expansively to find them.
A Virginia study showed that a flock of hens with young traveled in a 2- to 5-square-mile area even when food was abundant. The more territory you cover on fall hunts, the more likely you’ll bump into birds.
Always pay attention to your surroundings with your ears as well as your eyes. Sometimes you might actually hear the birds before you detect them with your vision.
A flock of eight or 10 turkeys makes a lot of noise as they scratch in the forest leaves. The birds might also call to each other with clucks or occasional yelps. Watch for the quarry, certainly, but also keep your ears tuned for signs that turkeys are near.
Use calls 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.
When you locate a flock, act decisively. At times it may be possible to simply sneak closer and take a shot. This rarely works, however, and definitely does not yield the most exciting hunt.
A better approach is to rush carefully toward the birds (with the gun unloaded or left on the ground) and flush the flock. The goal of this step is to scatter the birds as widely as possible. Then, because of the birds’ desire to get back together, you can try to call them back.
It’s usually best to set up at the flush site. Alternatively, if a large part of the flock stayed together, move slightly in the direction they flew, 50 to 100 yards or so.
Now get set to call with your back against a tree. A wide tree is best because it provides back support and camouflages your silhouette from birds as they come to your calls.
Prop your knees up with the gun resting 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.
Don’t expect birds to come in immediately. Turkeys may try to regroup in 10 or 15 minutes or 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. 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.