Three Strategies for Fall Gobblers

By Dan Small - November 1, 2012
Many turkey hunters for whom the spring hunt is a serious affair have a different attitude about fall hunting. Talk to someone who has hunted turkeys in fall, and odds are you'll hear something like: "It's not the same as a spring hunt," or "It's almost impossible to bag a tom in fall," or "I get a fall tag just in case I see a turkey while I'm hunting grouse, squirrels or deer."

I may be in the minority, but I am one turkey hunter who can't wait for the fall season. I'll grant you that a fall hunt doesn't measure up to the springtime game of calling and trying to outsmart a wary tom with love on his mind. But now that Wisconsin's fall turkey season runs for more than three months and leftover permits are available over the counter, there are plenty of opportunities to hunt the big birds during the "second season."

And by "big birds," I do mean gobblers.

The classic strategy for a fall hunt involves locating a flock, busting them up, then setting up near the point where the birds scattered and calling them back together. While this tactic works fine for large flocks of hens and young birds, to bag a fall gobbler, you'll have to try a different strategy.

Toms spend the summer, fall and winter in small groups with other toms. They are hard to bust up, often flying off together when spooked. And if you do scatter them, gobblers don't seem to be in any hurry to reassemble, often content to spend a day or two alone.

Here are three tactics that have helped me bag toms in recent years. Maybe one of them will work for you:

Ambush 'em

Probably the easiest way to kill a gobbler in fall is to pattern a flock and get in their way. Toms are creatures of habit, often roosting in the same general area - if not the same trees - night after night. When they fly down in the morning, they usually head for the same food source, often an alfalfa field, corn, soybean or other grain field, or an oak woodlot.

I killed my first fall tom in an ambush. Lenny Heisz and I had surprised several toms in a cornfield late in the afternoon and watched as they flew to a nearby oak woodlot. The next morning found us on a narrow ridge between the oaks and the corn. We heard the toms fly down and simply waited as they walked along the saddle trail right into our laps. As they ambled toward us in a ragged line, I shot one at 20 yards.

Call 'em

Contrary to popular belief, you can call toms in fall. They aren't likely to respond to hen yelps, as they will in spring, but they do pay attention to the vocalizations of other gobblers.

Turkeys, even gobblers, talk pretty much constantly when in sight of other turkeys. To keep track of each other, they yelp, cluck and purr. They will even gobble occasionally, but not as aggressively as in spring.

Fall calling works best when you have patterned a flock of toms as they move between a feeding area and roost. They might not take the same route each time, though, and that's where calling comes into play.

A couple years ago, I had located a flock of six or eight gobblers on a farm where I had permission to hunt. The birds roosted every night in a grove of tall spruces and spent the day in an adjacent 40-acre tangle of brush, and marsh grass.

I couldn't hunt in the morning, and there was no way to approach them in that jungle, so I tried to catch them coming back to roost in the evening. For several days in a row, I set up at the edge of the spruce grove, hoping to ambush a tom as the gang returned to roost. Each time, I would hear the birds fly up from a different spot. Once on the roost, they'd bark out a few hoarse yelps, then settle in for the night.

On the fourth afternoon, I set up under a big spruce that overlooked a dry creekbed at the edge of the marsh. From time to time, I banged a gobbler call against my leg to imitate the low-pitched yelps of a gobbler. Just before a developing rainstorm reached the spruce grove, a lone tom walked up over the creek bank. I saw him about the time he realized something was wrong and turned to leave. My shot caught him before he dropped back into the creek bed.

I can't prove that I called that bird in because he was heading for the spruce grove anyway. He did enter the grove right where I was sitting, however, and it was the first night I used a call, so I'm taking credit for calling him in.

Stalk 'em

Few people recommend stalking a gobbler because it is potentially dangerous. On public land, you might stumble into another hunter's set-up or put yourself in the line of fire of a hunter who's targeting the same bird.

That said, if you are on private land or absolutely know you are the only hunter in the area, you might try a stalk.

Forget about sneaking up on a flock of toms. There is always one head in the air, and it only takes one eye to bust you. If you find a lone tom, though, you might get lucky.

Late one afternoon last fall, I peeked through a dense hedgerow on a farm I was hunting and spotted a tom feeding alone in a small, isolated hayfield. He was working his way south toward the woods where he would likely roost for the night, so I backed out of the hedgerow and hurried south parallel to him. When I reached the tractor lane that entered the field he was in, I could see he was nearing the corner of the woods. Using a slight rise as cover, I duck-walked toward the corner, then belly crawled until I knew I was within range.

When I sat up 40 yards from him, he hesitated just long enough before bolting for the woods to let me get off a shot. That was one of the most satisfying hunts I have had in years.

Fooling a mature gobbler on a fall hunt is not an easy task, but it's a challenge worthy of some effort, especially if you have a tag or two and think you're up to it. As I write this, I am making plans to lay a few tricks on the gobbler flock I've been seeing most mornings in my neighbor's field. There are a dozen of them, but all I need is one willing to make a mistake and I'll have the main course for my Thanksgiving dinner.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoor Wisconsin on Public Television and Outdoors Radio. He is also contributing editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News. He has written several thousand articles for national, regional and state-based outdoor publications since 1972. Listen to his syndicated weekly radio show on stations throughout Wisconsin and here on Lake-Link. For more information visit www.dansmalloutdoors.com.