And Even Some Recipes to Cook Your Autumn Bird . . .
Fall turkey hunting seasons are available in 42 states and even some Canadian provinces.
You needn't wait until spring to get on these big birds. Go here for 5 early archery seasons for fall turkeys. The New Hampshire bow season for both turkeys and deer runs for months. Others are generous in terms of opportunities and available hunting tactics too.
You can't do it everywhere though. Alaska (no spring season either), Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada and both Carolinas don't offer fall turkey hunting seasons. That's a shame. On the upside, though, all those others do and they're just a well-earned road trip or flight away.
Never hunted fall turkeys? Here's what you need to know to help put a wild bird on your Thanksgiving table. Check to see if your state offers opportunities on autumn birds. Next you have to find the flocks.
Scouting Fall Flocks
When scouting and hunting, move slowly. Look ahead to glimpse distant flocks (though wary birds may see you first). Also study the ground where they've recently traveled. Finding evidence — tracks, scratchings, molted feathers, roosting and dusting areas, plus droppings — is important to solving the scouting puzzle.
Tracks: Tracks are left in muddy or snowy areas where flocks roam, where they move from roosts to feeding zones, along game trails and even creek beds. The middle toes of adult gobblers (often 3 inches or more) are typically longer than a hen's (less than 3 inches). Mixed track sizes in one location indicate a family flock with younger turkeys.
Scratchings: These indicate where turkeys have raked leaves while feeding to expose insects and hard mast such as acorns and beechnuts.
Molted feathers: Feathers show where turkeys have been in late summer and into fall. Indiscriminately scattered feathers under likely roosting trees, paired with excessive droppings beneath branches, reveal a likely roost.
Roosting spots: As most hunters know, turkeys sleep in trees. Roosting areas provide a sense of security. Big-branched trees such as pines, oaks and maples often hold flocks.
Dusting areas: Wild turkeys sometimes roll in loose soil, belly down, and shake themselves in the dirt, as other birds do. These shallow depressions signal areas flocks use.
Droppings: These leavings are either j-shaped (for male turkeys), or bulbous (for females), though exceptions are found. Unlike spring's bearded bird requirement, in autumn hunting, an either-sex turkey is often legal (check your regulations to be perfectly sure; for instance, Florida is gobbler or bearded bird only in fall).
As scouting sign goes, in all cases, pay attention to both fragmentary and consistent turkey evidence in a particular area you're scouting and hunting. Get out there frequently.
Foods and Feeding Zones
Find food sources. Fall turkeys will follow.
Your local flocks, like others around the country, rely on high-protein grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects for nutrition. Through summer as brood hens raise poults (young male and female turkeys), and as gobbler gangs (as in the lead photo) — plus broodless hens — travel with their own sex, flocks often hit open field or edge cover locations daily.
As colder months arrive, fall turkey flocks often transition to spending more time in the woods and along edge cover, feeding on both lingering soft and hard mast such as various berries, beechnuts and acorns.
Over the years I've routinely investigated this bird's crop — or craw, the turkey's thin-walled, sac-like food storage area — to determine what they've been feeding on. The results might amaze some.
Here's a short list of some contents I've found there: grasshoppers, crickets, stinkbugs, worms, frogs, salamanders, alfalfa leaves, beechnuts, other hard mast, small pebbles, pine nuts, miscellaneous tubers, and berries.
Sometimes it seems there's nothing a wild turkey won't eat.
Fall Hunting Strategies
As strategies go, there are two primary fall turkey hunting approaches: you can passively wait for patterned wild turkeys to show up in range. That's a good blind-and-bow tactic. Do so either on the ground, in a blind, or from a treestand, or find a flock and attempt to scatter them on foot. This traditional find-and-flush approach is full of action . . .
Patterning turkeys to see where they roost and feed can put you in range for the break. Relying on the fact flocked turkeys want to be together, you can scatter birds then set up to call them in to your position. Using dogs for fall turkey hunting is also permitted in nearly 30 states. They'll do an even better job sometimes at separating flocked turkeys.
In the latter scenario, birds will want to regroup — especially autumn family flocks. Yes, it seems contradictory to find then move individual turkeys into flight and in different directions. This relies on the chance you won't be in shooting range, but close enough to rush them on foot, or use a trained canine where legal. Plus it's just plain fun.
Once turkeys are separated, you can set up at the scatter location and try to call them back in to you.
Wild turkeys call to contact flock members, to vocalize a sense of well-being, and to express alarm at a predator's presence. Roughly 30 call distinctions exist, while less than half of these are applicable as hunting calls. Some hunters tag birds regularly with only clucking and yelping. Others use as many calling vocalizations as possible.
Calling turkeys is an interactive game where the hunter speaks the language of wild birds to coax that quarry into range. As calling fall turkeys goes, imitate their vocalizations by age and sex to evoke a response from the kind of individual bird or flock you want to hunt.
In family groups, young birds-of-the year respond to kee-kees and kee-kee-runs. Brood hens use assembly calls — a long series of yelps — to gather separated flock members. Adult gobblers and broodless hens (the other two types of fall flocks) communicate with raspy yelps (gobblers), and higher pitched yelps (hens), as well as clucking.
Instructions for use are often provided with calls, and time with the turkeys will help you master these tools. Go here for our Realtree video on kee-keeing with a box call.
Call softly, or aggressively, situation depending. Wild turkeys call to communicate in the wild, and at times, almost any turkey sound the human hunter makes chances at luring a curious bird in for a look. (Or not.) That's the calling game. You need to interpret what you're hearing from live birds to successfully imitate them.
Even if you don't use the range of available calls, hearing live birds afield can clue you in to what might happen next. It helps you think like a turkey.
Closing the Deal
Your shotgun should be camouflaged or have a dull finish to avoid detection. It should also deliver a tight pellet pattern at optimum shooting range (20 to 40 yards). With wild turkeys, body shots are out. Aim for the head and neck to drop that bird cleanly. Know your gun and the loads it shoots.
If you hunt with a bow, get the turkey even closer: 10- to 20-yard shots are ideal. Use a blind to conceal your movements. Time your shot on a calm, standing turkey in range. Your arrow's broadhead should be turkey-specific for solid flight and serious cutting diameter.
The effort here is to know what your gun or bow will do, and take that turkey cleanly.
Okay, you've got a bird in hand. Now what?
Eating wild game and fish, especially wild turkey, is high on my list of living well, and a way to extend the hunt. If possible, I like to utilize as much of the meat as I can, including the breasts and the drumsticks; even the remaining carcass once the legs and thick chest meat are drawn.
As this goes, you can basically use breast meat in any recipe that includes store-bought domestic chicken fillets or farm turkey. It's that simple. Many simply opt to finger the meat, roll it in egg batter then flour, and fry it in cooking oil. That's cool — it's good, and seasonings offer flavor profiles. Wild turkey chili is another great go-to option.
I like to parboil the drumsticks in a tall lobster pot ¾-full of water. After 90 minutes or so, you can remove the legs, cool them, and pick the meat for use in soups and stews. Breast meat and legs now removed, you can do the same thing with the skinned and gutted body of the turkey (snap it into two pieces).
Try it. You might be amazed at how much meat is still available.
For other recipes, our Realtree Timber 2 Table blog often includes Michael Pendley's wild turkey recipes such as these:
Steve Hickoff hunts wild turkeys around the country, spring and fall.
[Editor's note: This Realtree.com turkey hunting article was first published Sept. 1, 2015.]