By Linda Gallagher
Michigan’s sportsmen and women will have another great upland gamebird opportunity offered to them this fall, thanks to the work of Michigan’s DNR and dedicated wildlife organizations like the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Once again, interested hunters will be given the privilege of putting a real Thanksgiving turkey on the table-one of Michigan’s wild turkeys, harvested during our upcoming 1998 fall wild turkey season.
Offered sporadically in past years in certain specific areas of the state, this year’s hunt, with more than 9000 tags, will be quite a contrast to last year, when the DNR declined to offer any fall season at all, saying wild turkey numbers and hunter interest did not indicate a need for a fall season. Many sportsmen chose, instead, to lay the blame for the denial of this additional hunting opportunity on DNR budget cuts, time restrictions, and early retirements.
Utilized in previous years only as a population control measure, especially in areas where winter feed programs were necessary for wild turkey survival and crop damage complaints by farmers and landowners were common, few Michigan hunters appear to be aware of any of the time-honored methods of successful fall hunting practiced since colonial times in traditional fall turkey hunting states like Pennsylvania, where these methods are not only considered a fine art, but a family-taught heritage passed from generation to generation. In many of these more traditional turkey hunting areas of our country, it is spring gobbler hunting that is considered a relatively new concept; fall turkey hunting has been an acceptable means of harvesting our largest gamebird since Pocahontas’s first gift of wild poultry to the Pilgrims.
If you’re a lucky Michigan sportsperson who’s been awarded a tag for this season’s hunt, you’re probably wondering, "All right, then, enough history, just HOW do I go about hunting our wild turkeys in the fall?"
There’s definitely more to a fulfilling fall turkey hunt than ambushing a flock in a field, or just hoping to encounter birds while out chasing ruffed grouse or bow-hunting for whitetails, methods which many of our hunters have resorted to in the past. And remember, it’s illegal in our state to take a wild turkey over bait!
Although it is possible to take a mature gobbler in October, most serious fall turkey hunters target family flocks of hens and poults, which are fair game at this time. Not only will you find this type of turkey hunting great sport, you’ll soon realize that a fat hen or young bird is much more tender on the table than a tough old tom!
As in spring gobbler hunting, pre-season scouting is the integral key to a successful fall hunt. Begin scouting your hunt area as soon as you receive your tag, targeting known feeding and roosting areas. In most areas of Michigan, fall turkey flocks spend much of their time fattening up for the winter on acorns, beechnuts, and chestnuts, so scouting hardwood ridges during good mast years should produce results. As grain and corn crops are harvested, flocks can often be seen later in the fall cleaning up what the combine’s left behind.
By mid-October, most wild turkeys are moving into areas they may spend the entire winter in, and have joined up with other small flocks, often creating big flocks of fifty or more birds. Experts believe this "shuffle" accomplishes several goals, among them more protection from predators.
In Michigan, these groups consist of matriarch hens, babysitting "aunt" hens, and both young jennies and jakes. Although in more southern states the adolescent jakes, which by now will have a faint pinkish cast on their heads, may be cast off from the family unit by mid-fall to try life on their own, this does not appear to be the case in northern regions. Mature gobblers remain in small groups by themselves, like whitetail bucks during the summer. These gobblers will not often mingle directly with larger flocks, but usually work a "satellite orbit" around the group, occasionally showing up to socialize. Specific travel routes are chosen by the flock, and by daily observance, you’ll soon know where the flock is likely to be at any time of the day.
Now that you know where your birds are, it’s time to grab your gear. Everything you use in the spring is just as necessary in the fall, the exception being that your camo should be more in keeping with Michigan’s autumn colors.
A variety of shotguns can be used, but most hunters opt for a twelve gauge, in either 3" or 3 1/2", and copper-plated buffered magnum shot, in sizes 4, 5, or 6.
Again, as in spring hunting, use the call you’re most comfortable with. And don’t worry about how you sound or how much calling to do-you can’t call too much to a fall flock! Practice loud, aggressive yelps, mimicking a mother hen demanding obedience from the kids. Contented clucks and purrs are other useful fall calls, as is the call of the young poult, known as the "lost" call or the "kee-kee-run". Used almost constantly by immature birds, this call is best learned by simply listening to poults in the wild. If you find the sound difficult to learn with one of your man-made calls, try simply whistling-it works.
One of the finer points of fall turkey hunting is the hour of the day you begin-as long as you know where the birds are, you don’t have to drag your body out of bed at 3 in the morning-8 a.m.is fine. You’ll soon realize that the birds are most visible in the morning and late afternoons. If it’s raining or blowing, stay home and relax. Fall hunting in bad weather is even more of a disappointment than wet, windy spring hunting.
Now you’re ready for the fun to begin, but remember to bring your feet and a good pair of running shoes! Fall turkey hunting is generally NOT for the weak of heart or body, and you may want to spend some pre-season time getting in shape with your bicycle or some jogging, just as you would for a strenuous western elk hunt.
Because now that you’ve got the flock spotted and you’re ready to hunt, you’re going to do something very different-you’re going to "bust" up the flock by making them scatter, flying, to the winds. You’re going to run, faster than you’ve probably peddled your feet since high school.
By running at the flock at top speed, screaming and waving your arms like some sort of demented demon, you should succeed in frightening the birds out of the immediate area. To effectively scatter the flock, you must make them fly in several different directions, which isn’t an easy feat, and hope they don’t just simply take to the nearest trees. Needless to say, you don’t want to scatter the flock with a loaded shotgun in your hands-your shotgun or bow should still be cased safely at this point in your vehicle.
Why would you want to do this, you say. Why scare a flock of turkeys to death when you can ambush one when it’s feeding contentedly right in front of you? Because after you effectively scatter a flock, the fun really begins!
Now that the flock has been "busted", set up on the birds at the point of scatter. If it’s late afternoon, you may want to quit for that day and return at dawn, when the flock will want to re-unite after a long night alone. If you’ve effected a morning scatter, quietly set up on them and settle back for a while-your flock may begin returning into the area immediately, or you may wait a couple of hours; every flock reacts differently.
At this point you should have your weapon of choice prepared, your calls available and, if you use decoys, a hen decoy set out about twenty feet in front of you or off to the side. Listen carefully, and soon you’ll hear the first calls of the flock attempting to find each other. If the calls heard are the kee-kee-runs of young birds, answer them with loud, aggressive hen yelps. If the dominant hen in the group is the first heard, answer her with your own "lost" calls-it won’t be long before you’ll see the first few birds on the horizon, and don’t be surprised if the birds literally come running!
Another excellent, and effective, method of fall turkey hunting can be done without risking a coronary. After spotting your flock, get in front of them a hundred yards or so in the direction they’re headed, making sure, of course, that you aren’t spotted. Again, set up on them, using a hen decoy. Begin making loud "lost" calls, again; don’t worry about how much you call, how loud you are, or how bad you sound. Be prepared for the entire flock to run you down, the dominant hen screeching at the top of her lungs, just like your mother behaved when you skulked in the backdoor at dawn for the first time!
Another traditional method used for generations in southern states involves the use of trained "turkey" dogs, used to locate and flush flocks. Selective breeding of dogs with hound and terrier blood has produced a black and white short-haired, long-legged animal known for his exceptional olfactory sense, speed, and biddability. A good turkey dog will locate the flock, notify his handler of the flock’s presence by barking, flush the birds when commanded, then immediately return obediently to lay quietly zipped in a camouflage duffel bag while the hunt commences. Many of these dogs are also trained to retrieve fallen turkeys. Turkey dogs are gaining in popularity across the country and are legal for use in the fall in Michigan.
However you choose to hunt your fall turkeys, remember, NEVER shoot blindly into a flock-if done correctly, you’ll have more than enough time to pick your bird. Always have permission to hunt private property, observe the laws, honor the land, and share the bounty. Hunting is a privilege we’d all like to continue-if you’d like to pass on your own new-found "tradition" of fall turkey hunting to your next generation, respect the resource and the heritage, and give thanks for your Thanksgiving bounty.