Dawn splashed October's eastern sky as my friend Justin and I strapped on our hunting vests. By the time we'd made our way a quarter-mile into the frosty Washington County woods, it was hard to tell if the growing glow came from the brightening sky or the colorful leaves.
We stopped and listened. Finally, after about 10 minutes, soft yelps pierced the crisp air, then some more. The birds were nearby. Splitting up, Justin and I, with unloaded guns, rushed the turkeys from different directions, yelling and whooping and banging sticks on trees.
Fill your fall turkey-talk arsenal with five basic calls. Box calls make loud, raspy yelps that grab attention. Peg and slate calls produce soft, relaxed calling for finessing flocks. Use a mouth call to avoid telltale hand movements when turkeys are close.
Yelp: Hens make this two-note call—kee-owk, kee-owk, kee-owk. Gobblers yelp too, though in a throaty, croakier tone. Make your yelps sound urgent and pleading after a scatter. Try a bossy and sassy approach—loud, sharp, and with attitude—to attract an intact flock. A "lost" or "assembly" call uses 12 to 16 yelps.
Kee-kee: When trying to yelp, young-of-the-year turkeys make a three-note whistle, kee-kee-kee. The young bird's vocal cords aren't developed enough for a full yelp. Responding to a youngster in distress, any turkey, adult or juvenile, may sound off and come looking.
Kee-kee run: In the fall, 4- to 6-month-old jakes whistle kee-kee-kee followed by a couple of poor yelps. Kee-kee runs attract attention from any turkey, but especially from young jakes.
Purr: This is the pleased, relaxed roll of notes that feeding or at-ease turkeys make.
Cluck: Whether you are hunting intact flocks or scattered birds, soft clucks are essential to replicate birds looking for each other at close range.
One sound that you don't want to make is the sharp, repeated popping sound, known as a putt, that alarmed turkeys make.
Listen to real turkeys making these sounds by visiting the National Wild Turkey Federation
It was almost perfect: Turkeys flew to three of the compass's four directions. It was time to get to work.
We set up side by side against a wide white oak, pulled up our camouflage face masks, and waited for full shooting light. With it came urgent turkey calls. The separated birds wanted to get back together.
A concert of bossy yelps and worried whistles ensued. I joined the fray, using a box call to make pleading yelps and adding plaintive whines from a diaphragm call in my mouth. As the cacophony peaked, a gray-blue turkey head came bobbing through the woods.
When thinking of wild turkeys, most Minnesota sportsmen and women consider only the spring hunt. That's no surprise. Turkeys take a back seat in autumn because the season is filled with so many other hunting opportunities: upland birds, such as grouse and pheasants; waterfowl, from ducks to geese; small game, including squirrels and rabbits; and, of course, white-tailed deer in both bow and gun season.
By 1990 wild turkey populations became robust enough to support fall hunting. Unlike spring, when only gobblers (male birds, also known as toms) are legal targets, it's OK to shoot hens in fall.
"The fall harvest is so small compared to the large number of turkeys across Minnesota," says Bryan Lueth, forest wildlife habitat team supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources and technical committee representative to the National Wild Turkey Federation. "Biologically, the fall harvest, even with hens, is an insignificant number. And the hunting is challenging. You need the opportunity to harvest any bird, not just a gobbler, to have any chance for success."
Minnesota held its first fall turkey hunting season in 1990, with 326 birds shot by 951 hunters selected in a lottery. In 2012 fall turkey licenses were available over the counter for the first time, instead of through a draw. That year a record 10,779 hunters took 1,753 turkeys. This past fall 8,193 hunters harvested 1,078 birds.
"Good fall turkey hunting depends on a strong spring hatch, because young-of-the-year birds [those hatched that spring] are prime in the harvest," Lueth points out. That's because juvenile turkeys are more numerous and less wary than their adult counterparts. "A cold, wet spring can really hurt reproduction," he adds. Such conditions could account for the drop in hunting success rates in fall 2013.
Hunter success rates may also change as turkey populations stabilize. "In some areas of Minnesota, turkey numbers are still expanding, but in others their numbers are settling into equilibrium and it seems birds are not as numerous as they once were," Lueth says. "This happens as the birds arrive at their true carrying capacity in that particular habitat."
"Biologically, it's a classic scenario," he explains. "As a species expands and exploits new range, it often reproduces beyond carrying capacity. But sooner or later, things settle down, and equilibrium is reached. That seems to be what we're seeing."
The fall hunt has an overall lower success rate than spring turkey season, and hunter behavior might help explain that. "We suspect a lot of people pick up tags 'just in case' but don't give fall turkey hunting much priority," Lueth says. "A lot of archers probably pick up fall tags. Then if they see a turkey while on a deer stand, they can choose to try for it or not."
Flocks and feeding.
Fall turkey hunting starts with an understanding of flock structures and eating habits.
"Mature males segregate into bachelor groups," says Lueth. These small flocks often break out by age, with mature gobblers banding together and ½-year-old gobblers (sometimes called super jakes) joining ranks. These gobbler flocks are reclusive, difficult to locate, and notoriously hard to call.
Hens with young turkeys in tow are the most fun and productive to hunt. A hen with her young of the year is the most common kind of fall flock, according to Lueth. "Sometimes, multiple hens and their broods will join together, especially as autumn wears on," he says. These flocks consist of adult hens, young males (jakes), and young females (jennies).
Savvy hunters can follow the food to find their birds. In fall, turkeys concentrate on building fat reserves to tide them through the coming winter. "Recently harvested corn fields make great fall turkey feeding areas," says Lueth. "The birds really home in on that waste grain. An ideal habitat mix consists of woodlots, preferably with oak trees, next to cut corn."
"Mast is an important food source too, especially acorns," adds Lueth. "Turkeys scratch through oak woods. Early in fall before hard frosts hit, turkeys also work hay fields for greens and grasshoppers."
Spring turkey hunting is all about hunting toms that are out gobbling and looking for hens. Fall turkey hunting is like pursuing a whole other bird: A wary survivor worried only about staying with its flock, fattening up for winter, and remaining alive. Three strategies prevail: scattering and calling the birds, hunting intact flocks as they go about their daily business, and walking and calling.
Although it may seem counterproductive to scare off the very game you want to hunt, scattering a flock of turkeys, as Justin and I did, works well—if you get the scatter right. The key is making the birds fly off in multiple directions, so they have to call and search to reassemble. You can scatter birds from their roost trees at dawn or dusk. Turkeys can be easy to call after they have spent a lonely night separated from their flock mates.
Scattering becomes more challenging when birds are on the ground. If the turkeys fly or run off together, you lose. One trick: Loop ahead of a traveling flock and rush the birds from the front or side to try to split the group.
Once the birds are scattered, find a wide tree nearby and set up against it in full camouflage, including face mask and gloves. Start calling sooner rather than later. If you wait too long and have to compete with a real hen, you'll likely lose the contest.
A lower-impact strategy is to hunt the birds like you would deer—by stationing yourself at feeding areas and along travel routes. In a place where you're going to be hunting the same birds all fall, or on a small parcel where you don't want to spook the birds off, you could put up a portable blind and wait out a flock. The challenge is convincing a flock to come your way. Decoys can help attract birds that want to challenge "newcomers" on their turf. Scouting is essential: Be where the birds want to be.
"Familiarity with your hunting area is key," confirms Lueth. "Knowing the birds' roost area, feeding areas, and daily circuit is the trick."
Spring hunters sometimes walk good turkey habitat, stopping occasionally to call and try to get a tom to gobble. Fall hunters can use a similar approach. I call it "the sneak and yelp." I like to hunt birds this way at midday, or when I'm just tired of sitting and waiting. Here's how. Walk woodlands that turkeys use as daytime loafing cover, stopping every 40 or 50 yards to call. Lean against a tree before calling so you can skooch right down and start working a bird that answers.
Our dawn scatter worked like a charm. The approaching turkey paused in an opening only 20 yards away, looking for the source of those yelps. Justin's shot dropped the fat young hen. After securing the bird, we tried to call in another bird for me, but to no avail.
We continued on to a secluded hay meadow, where Justin had seen birds feeding while he was bowhunting deer. After setting a couple of decoys, we backed up against an ancient, russet-leaved white oak. The sun was just warming our bones when a flock of 10 or 12 turkeys appeared across the green field. I called softly with a few yelps, and the birds drifted our way, feeding as they came. Pausing about 30 yards out, the lead bird seemed to sense something amiss and started to putt—an alarm call. I picked out a bird that had separated from the flock and shot.
Rising and running over on stiff knees, I grabbed the flopping turkey. While our total take—18 pounds between our two young hens—would not even match the weight of one typical spring gobbler shot in Minnesota, we congratulated each other. We had reward and memories enough from hunting "the other turkey" on a glorious October morning.