What do wild turkey eat and where do you find them? Get your holiday birds the old-fashioned way with these fall turkey hunting tips.
Wee-wee-wee, yawk-yawk-yawk! Wee-wee-wee, yawk-yawk-yawk! I repeat this sound across the area with my mouth call. Almost immediately, I hear the same sounds reverberate from the Virginia mountainside above me. And shortly afterward, the calls erupt from the oak flat below me. Then, I hear the same sounds from both sides of me as well.
A half-hour earlier, I had scattered a flock of young turkeys, and after waiting quietly for 15 minutes at the bust site, I launched into the lost call of young turkeys, also known as the “kee-kee-run,” produced phonetically as at top. The bust had been an ideal one, as I’d been able to run down the mountainside into the gang of birds, scattering them in every direction.
Now, my biggest challenge will be to guess which birds will be the first to return, so I can sit facing them. If I guess right, the odds are astronomical that my wife, Elaine, and I will have Thanksgiving turkey on the wild side. If I guess wrong, the birds will come in from behind, and no shot will be possible. And the ensuing putt-putt-putt (the turkeys’ alarm note at not seeing the “bird” that’s calling them) will ruin the hunt.
From their kee-kees, the birds behind me seem closer, so I pivot in that direction. I note some trees that are approximately 40 yards away (the effective range of most 12-gauges), mount my shotgun on my left knee, and begin scanning the forest. Soon, a jake (a young gobbler) rambles into range, and I send a load of No. 4 shot his way. The Thanksgiving entrée is assured!
Although more than 40 states in the United States allow fall turkey hunting, the spring gobbler season now claims the attention of most turkey enthusiasts, and the autumn version is often just an afterthought these days. This has been true for some 60 years, since turkey populations began to be reestablished, and sporting literature began largely promoting just the spring season.
That’s too bad, because there’s much to celebrate about fall hunting, says Larry Proffitt, a pharmacist from Elizabethton, Tennessee.
“Fall of the year was traditionally the time that most hunting of game was done, including the wild turkey,” says Proffitt, who annually pursues turkeys in multiple states. “Most hunting occurred in the fall for many reasons: cooler temperatures, mature and healthy game, as well as mature antlers on deer and elk,” he says. “Moreover, we see the tradition of, ‘It has always been done that way.’ There were several prominent hunters and writers in the decades before World War II who opined that hunting the wild turkey during the spring season, when the gobbler was crazed by the mating instinct, was far from sporting.”
Proffitt adds that he considers pursuing fall turkeys an exciting and rewarding pastime, both for the sporting soul as well as to secure an entrée. “[These birds] are probably the easiest of the extremely wary wild turkeys to bring to bag when they’ve been scattered by a hunter or a turkey dog,” he says. “They’re certainly prime table fare cooked in most any method. I particularly prefer them cut up like a chicken and fried in my big black cast-iron skillet. With a pan of gravy and biscuits, there are smiles all around the table.”
Fall Turkey Hunting Tips: Tracking
One of the aspects I enjoy most about fall turkey hunting is that the pastime puts a premium on woodsmanship. That includes reading both audio and visual turkey sign, knowing hard- and soft-mast tree species, and being aware of the habits of fall birds.
“Woodsmanship is of great importance in most hunting, but especially in the fall turkey season,” Proffitt says. “The first axiom of hunting the wild turkey is to hunt where there are turkeys. The hunter must learn, of course, how to move quietly through the woods and stop and listen and look intently for game, and especially sign of the wild turkey and the age of the sign.”
Reading scratching is one sign that hunters can use to track down fall turkeys.
“I’d rather find scratching from this morning than to see the birds,” Proffitt says. “If the scratching is that fresh, the hunter is alert, looking and listening for turkeys scratching in the leaves. Some scratching is made by deer or other smaller game. The wild turkey’s scratching will often be the size of a huge serving plate with earth showing. … Be extra attentive when you see this. If you’re stealthy enough, you may peer over the next ridge and see a turkey in range.”
What Do Wild Turkey Eat?
Another good sign that turkeys might be about is droppings. But make sure you know what a turkey’s looks like. “Hen droppings will look like a wad of brown popcorn. Gobbler droppings will be a single brown dropping with one end in a ‘J’ shape,” Proffitt says. “Mash the droppings with a little stick to see if they’re moist and break up easily. If so, they’re within a day or so old, depending on weather conditions.”
Proffitt adds that anytime hunters come to a wet place, they should look for turkey tracks. Many times, he’s noted a little muddy water seeping into the track, a sign that a turkey or even a flock may be close.
Another important aspect of finding fall turkeys is to know what they eat and when. In early fall, before the acorns and other mast start to fall in abundance, Proffitt says he’ll witness flocks hunting in pastures and hayfields, often in midmorning and late afternoon, for grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and other insects.
However, in a matter of days, it may seem like the turkeys have disappeared from the fields. If that’s the case, then acorns, wild cherries, beechnuts, or wild grapes have likely started hitting the ground, and the turkeys are feasting on those hard- and soft-mast menu items. Sometimes, windy weather will cause a downpour of acorns or wild fruits and berries – and the turkeys will take advantage.
Quick Terms and Resources
Bust site: The location where a hunter spooks and scatters a flock or individual turkey, either accidentally or purposefully.
Mouth call: An instrument placed in the mouth that’s used to imitate a turkey’s call.
Turkey sign: A collective term that refers to any audio or visual indications of turkeys in an area, such as calls, droppings, or scratching.
Mast species: The fruit of trees and shrubs in a forest; there can be both hard mast (such as nuts) and soft mast (such as berries).
To hear recordings of many of the calls mentioned in this article, search “wild turkey sounds” at National Wild Turkey Federation.
Calls of Fall Birds
Besides the aforementioned alarm and lost calls, turkeys give voice to a number of other sounds. Learning those sounds and how to realistically mimic them will dramatically increase your chances of successfully bagging a bird. One of the most fascinating of these is the jake gobble. To explain the effectiveness of simulating this sound, let’s review some fall turkey behavior.
In much of the country, turkey poults hatch in late May and early June, and for months afterward, the jakes (young males) and jennies (young females) depend on the mother hen, hearkening to her voice and following her lead on where to forage for food and roost for the night. But testosterone exists in birds just as it does in humans, and as it starts to surge in jakes, they’ll become less likely to follow the dictates of the mother hen and will grow more quarrelsome with her and the jennies – and especially with each other. In short, the pecking order that drives chicken behavior is similarly present in wild turkeys, and the young males spend much of the fall determining who will rule the proverbial roost.
The daily jake skirmishes become so frequent that eventually the mother hen and jennies will go their own way and the jakes will go theirs. A rowdy flock of jakes is the most vocal of any autumn gang of turkeys. (Old gobblers and mature hens without young birds also form flocks by sex.) Hunters can take advantage of this fact by learning the nuances of a jake gobble.
Whereas a mature tom will emit a base, full-throated gobble that seems to shake the very forest, a young male’s version often collapses halfway through and is almost laughable at times. The lack of volume doesn’t prevent young males from repeatedly gobbling, though, especially at dawn, when it’s time to greet the new day. In fact, while fall hunting, I often make jake gobbles come sunrise if I suspect turkeys are in the area.
For example, on one November morning before sunrise, I set up in a creek bottom, the type of place turkeys like to roost throughout the country. About 20 minutes before fly-down time, I emitted a jake gobble and immediately heard numerous responses about 50 yards away. I continued to gobble until dawn broke, when I glimpsed three jakes charging through the woods to teach the “young male upstart” – me – that they were the proverbial cocks of the mountain, not him. The first young tom that arrived rode home with me that morning.
Another aggressive sound that turkeys make, especially jakes, is the fighting purr, which is a louder and more aggressive version of the soft purring sound all turkeys utter when they’re moving about and feeding. A fighting purr can have the same effect on young males as the jake gobble does. And the soft-sounding purr is a great sound to mimic when turkeys appear to be close and heading your way. It signals that food and safety are nearby.
All turkeys, regardless of age, vocalize yelps and clucks, but they sound quite different from each other. For example, a mature fall gobbler’s yelp is a deep, slow, throaty yawk, while on the opposite end of the sound spectrum, a jenny’s version is a clear, often fast sound.
Regarding clucks, Proffitt describes old gobbler clucks sounding as if a huge drop of rain fell in a water-filled barrel. Jakes and adult hens emit raspy clucks, while jennies harmonize in clear “chucks.”
Whatever sound you make to whatever sex or age of birds, one constant exists when hunting fall turkeys: They boast incredible vision. Never try to rapidly raise your shotgun at an approaching bird – they’ll detect any unnatural movement and run or fly away. Instead, wait for a bird’s head to disappear behind a tree or other obstruction, and then mount your gun.
Tracking with Turkey Dogs
The European settlers of the 1700s brought their hunting dogs with them to North America, so it’s not surprising that various breeds of canines eventually became turkey dogs. Mike Morrell of Forest, Virginia, owns Bailey, an Appalachian turkey dog who’s 1/4 Plott Hound, 1/4 Pointer, and 1/2 English Setter.
On my most recent outing with Mike and Bailey, the pooch was ranging about 700 yards from us, according to the GPS Mike carried, when we heard frenzied barking – alerting us that birds had been separated from each other. Mike and I reconnoitered with Bailey at the scatter point, constructed a blind for Bailey to lie down in, and then set up and began emitting kee-kees. About an hour later, we called in a jenny, which I killed. At the shot, Bailey sprang from the blind and subdued the flopping bird. All in all, it was a classic fall turkey dog hunt, part of the U.S. autumn sporting tradition.
And so is the pastime of fall turkey hunting itself. This year, consider getting your birds the old-fashioned way.
Bruce Ingram is a freelance writer and photographer, and the author of 10 books, including Living the Locavore Lifestyle, a book on living off the land. Learn more about Bruce at Bruce Ingram Outdoors, and get in touch with him at BruceIngramOutdoors@Gmail.com.
Join avid hunters Jami McCabe and Matt Stephens on the “Mother Earth News and Friends” podcast to discuss the hunting techniques used with turkeys, and why turkeys may give beginning hunters the most rewarding first hunting experience. Listen at Hunting Turkeys.
Turkey Hunting Tips
Longtime hunter Dennis Biswell shares how to successfully hunt wild turkeys, which are prone to wariness and require some creative techniques to let you get close. Read about his experiences at Turkey Hunting Tips.