By Robert Streeter
To take fall turkeys, you must know their travel route between roost and feeding area. That's where you set up to greet them.
When you're hunting turkeys in the fall, it's rare when things go exactly as planned, and rarer still when they go better than planned. But as I watched an entire flock of turkeys make its way downhill across the corner of an alfalfa field and head right for my setup in the woods, I couldn't help but be surprised to find that the hens I'd roosted the evening before had undergone a midnight sex change. All the birds in this flock were mature toms, save for a single hen bringing up the rear. My attempts at sounding like a flock of turkeys digging in the leaves for breakfast apparently had convinced them that they needed to get to the buffet before it was all gone.
I was messing with my video camera and realized it was time to put the new toy down. As I rushed to grab my longbow, two nice toms stood within 15 yards of the blind. I drew down on the bird on the left and took the shot. Apparently he had better plans for Thanksgiving and simply hopped to the side as the arrow flew harmlessly by him. The two turkeys seemed perplexed at what had just happened, giving me the opportunity to draw again. "Take your time," the little voice in my head said as I tried to relax. The release was good and the arrow smacked the second gobbler right where I was looking. He ran off with the rest of the birds behind him and finally dropped. With fall turkey season only a couple of days old, I had a beautiful Eastern tom, resplendent in all his incredible plumage.
Since the advent of the popup blind, many archers have taken up the challenge of hunting turkeys in the springtime. In the fall, however, bowhunting for turkeys is typically relegated to encounters with birds that pass too close to someone's treestand during deer season. This is too bad, because fall turkey hunting with the bow has opened up a new "big game" season for me. Turkeys pose an incredible challenge, and as a bonus, my state's turkey season starts two weeks ahead of the archery season for deer, providing more time in the woods.
While tagging a nice tom in the spring is a bit easier than tagging one in the fall, you can lure fall turkeys within range of a ground blind. From my experience, the trick is learning where to strategically place the blind and decoys (where legal). It's also important to learn the right sequence of calls for the fall. When everything comes together, the action can be frantic. Multiple times I've had flocks within 20 yards, yielding plenty of shots and prompting the switch to a six-arrow quiver for my longbow. The darn birds just won't hold still very long!
Turkey Habits and Blind Location
For a fall hunt, you need to know two things: where the birds are roosting, and where they are feeding. In most of my hunting locations, turkeys climb up on a ridge in the evening to roost, and work their way downhill in the morning to feed.
In the fall, turkeys are split up into two types of flocks. Hens and young birds from the spring hatch will be grouped together. Toms prefer the company of other toms. But you can call flocks of either makeup within bow range without scattering the birds, as is done in classic fall hunts. The trick is to know and use their habits to choose your blind site.
Multiple decoys work well in the fall. I often place two hens and a jake 10 yards from my Primos Double Bull blind.
Food sources vary each season, depending on available mast and woodland foods or farm crops. The exact food source can also change a little on a daily basis. For my hunts, I just want to have a general idea of where the food is in relation to the roost so I can be on that path. Finding feeding areas is pretty easy. If the turkeys are feeding in the woods, the whole place will be marked by their scratchings on the forest floor. Using binoculars, you can also spot turkey flocks from a distance feeding in farm crops. Either way, the important thing is to learn how the birds are going from roost to food and back again.
Turkeys travel where they can use their keen eyesight to their advantage. They will avoid specific obstacles and thick areas where they can't see. On one farm where I hunt, the birds move from the roost to the fields along a ravine. The roosting area is open, but the woods along the ravine are so thick it's hard to walk through them. The only open area is on the edge of the ravine, creating a choke point. A couple of seasons back this spot proved to be deadly, and I was able to use this setup to take a pair of nice hens.
Somewhere in the terrain between food and roost is a choke point, and this is the right place to be. For a morning hunt, I put the blind near the roost on the most likely path the birds will take on their way to feed. I set up in the dark, usually within 100 yards of the roost. If it is dark, and you are quiet, you can set a blind up very close to roosted turkeys without their spooking. I use the same locations in the evening, trying to catch birds coming back from feeding.
While yelping with a mouth diaphragm, I use a push-button call to make purrs.
While finding roosting locations has brought me the most success, it is possible to head into a strange patch of woods and call in a whole flock of birds in the middle of the day. Turkeys are curious birds. One time I went to a farm and set up on a maple ridge around lunchtime. I was preoccupied boiling water on a pack stove when I looked up and saw too many decoys. A flock of hens and young birds had silently responded to my calls and were milling about in the decoys. Somewhat flustered, I missed, but the incident shows that if the morning setup doesn't work, simply relocate to another area and try calling blind. I've had plenty of encounters doing this, although the birds often come in silent.
Blind and Decoy Tactics
I use a Primos Double Bull blind with mesh windows and set it up so that the front of the blind points in the general direction in which the birds should be coming. Three or four decoys -- about as many as I can carry or I would use more -- are set out on the two front corners of the blind. Being right-handed, I place two hen decoys about 10 yards from the right corner of the blind and set them so their heads will be looking right at the blind. Turkeys approach other turkeys head on, so setting up th
is way often provides close shots. The third decoy, a jake, is placed off the left corner. This covers the bases if there are gobblers on the way. Most of the time, the birds come to the right side, where it's easiest for me to shoot. Whatever the case, make sure approaching birds are going to have an unobstructed view of the decoys.
If I'm near roosted birds in the morning, a few tree calls lets them know a strange hen is close and wants to join the flock. If the birds are hens, the dominant hen usually responds. Let her set the pace for calling. Don't call too aggressively or she will lead the flock away when they hit the ground. Match her yelps and clucks in roughly the same cadence.
When the sun starts up, I usually will do a fly-down cackle and then switch right over to feeding calls. I use multiple turkey calls and will usually make purrs with a push-button call while softly clucking with a diaphragm to sound like feeding turkeys. Interspersed with this, I scratch the leaves with a decent-sized twig to mimic feeding. The birds typically fly down and slowly approach to see what everyone is eating.
Toms talk back and forth with each other with a coarser yelp, usually one at a time. These single, coarse yelps can be used to call them.
Fighting calls are also useful in the fall. Basically, these excited purrs and clucks sound like a couple of turkeys in a scrap. Turkeys sometimes come in and check out these calls, and fighting calls are good for the middle of the day.
In my opinion, turkeys are undoubtedly big game, and hunting them with a stickbow is an incredible challenge. When you look out the blind window and see a flock of birds coming your way and you know you're going to get a shot, the excitement is every bit as intense as it is for any other big game animal. And by adapting your turkey hunting tactics for the fall, you can have just as much fun as in the spring. Just be sure to bring enough arrows!
The author is a freelance outdoor writer from Fonda, New York.