Fall turkey hunting with a dog has been around a lot longer than spring hunting…
When people think about turkey hunting, they often think of gobbling longbeards, yelping hens, flowering dogwoods and the fresh spring air. Few people think about barking dogs and busting flocks of turkeys in the fall. The ironic thing is that fall turkey hunting with a dog has been around much longer than spring turkey hunting. Spring turkey hunting has only been legal for several decades where fall turkey hunting with Fido has been a tradition in the South for over a hundred years.
Michiganders can now partake in the tradition. For the last several years, fall turkey hunting with a dog has been legal even though few people hunt turkeys with a dog in the fall here. In fact, few people hunt turkeys at all during the fall season here. Al Stewart, the Upland Game Bird Specialist for the Michigan DNR says Michigan has a wealth of fall turkey hunting opportunities including the option to use a dog and the interest level isn’t extremely high. As a result, I thought I would share the basics of fall turkey hunting strategy with and without a dog so maybe a few hunters would consider the sport.
Most hunters who fall turkey hunt apply for a turkey tag or buy an over-the-counter tag after the drawing and if they see a turkey while bowhunting or small game hunting, they put it in the freezer. Most people don’t realize that turkey hunting in the fall by busting up flocks of birds and calling them back in it can be just as exciting as spring hunting and more challenging.
If you use a trained turkey dog in the fall, the dog typically wanders through the woods in an area where turkeys frequent. Most hardcore turkey doggers let their dogs loose in large wood lots where there is lots of food for turkeys. The dog roams far and wide, similar to a coon dog. When the dog gets the scent of turkeys, it follows the scent until it finds the flock of turkeys. When it finds the flock, it runs into the middle of the flock barking and carrying on at which point the flock takes off in flight in all directions.
When a group of turkeys get separated from each other, within an hour they typically start yelping to locate each other. If your dog busts a bunch of young turkeys and a mature hen or two, they are often vocal immediately. If you break up a group of gobblers, it can sometimes take hours or even an entire day before you hear them yelping to locate each other. “Gobblers in the fall aren’t very eager to run into a setup like they are in the spring,” Brett Berry from Zink Game Calls said. “They relocate each other eventually and yelp a little but it is often very soft and they come in quietly.”
After a flock is busted up, the hunter and his dog sit down against a tree near the bust sight because that is often where the birds go to try to find each other. The dog climbs inside a duffel bag and often goes to sleep. The hunter starts yelping like a lost poult by doing a kee kee call if the flock that was busted was hens and poults. The hunter does a low raspy yelp of a gobbler if a flock of longbeards was broken up. “I often start calling when I get situated against a tree,” Berry explained. “I like to start calling before any of the poults or hens start calling so the birds start working their way towards me before a mature hen intercepts them. Sometimes I end up shooting a young bird that is four or six months old; other times I kill an old mature hen and when I get lucky, I call in a longbeard.”
Gobblers are often like ghosts in the fall woods. Once they are separated from each other, they sneak around the woods in an attempt to find each other. John Byrne, breeder of the famed Appalachian Turkey Dog which is the breed Brett Berry and I own, said he has sat against a tree gobbler yelping for six hours or more before calling in a gobbler he busted hours before.
If you decide to try fall turkey hunting with a dog, there are a few specialized breeds that are bred for fall turkey hunting. However, some fall turkey hunters teach their Lab or upland bird dog to break up flocks of turkeys. Training consists of teaching your dog the importance of the smell of the turkey. To do this, I hide turkey wings in the yard and tell my dog to find the turkey.
At six months of age, my dog flushed several flocks of turkeys and barked when she flushed them. Barking is an important part of the hunt. When a dog barks when it flushes a flock, it lets you know exactly where the flush took place so you know where to go to set up.
Another important aspect of dog training is teaching the dog to lay still at your side in a bag of some sort. That is easier then you think. When my pup was three months old, I started putting her in a duffel bag with a few treats. By the time she was six months old, she jumped into the bag and laid down when I opened it.
Like coon dogs, turkey dogs are often several hundred yards from the hunter when they find a flock of turkeys. As the hunter, your goal is to slowly walk through the woods quietly and allow the dog to do its job. When my dog leaves the vehicle, I put a Garmin Dog Tracking GPS Collar on her which comes with a handheld GPS. This helps me know where she is at all times so I don’t have to worry.
When fall turkey hunting with a dog, it is best to hunt big woods so you don’t have to worry about your dog running into a road or onto property you don’t have permission to be on.
If investing in a dog doesn’t sound like something you would like to do, there are other options if you want to bust up flocks in the fall. I’ve heard of people sneaking within seventy-five yards or less of a large flock in a field. Several people run at the flock from a variety of directions, forcing the birds into the air. This can be extremely difficult because turkeys are very fast and will often run away together before you break them up. If a flock runs off together, you are out of luck because unless the birds are separated from each other, they likely won’t come to your call.
The best option if you don’t have a dog is to find roosting locations, fall feeding areas or travel routes like you do when deer hunting and shoot a bird coming and going from a feed source.
One benefit of fall turkey season is there are always left over tags in many units so drawing a tag isn’t very difficult like it can be in the spring. Second, the fall season is nearly two months long. It starts on September 15th and closes the day before deer rifle season, November 14th which gives hunters plenty of time to locate and pattern fall flocks.
Many people don’t hunt turkeys in the fall because they believe you can’t call birds in the fall. When in actuality, calling is a big part of fall turkey hunting. Fall turkey hunting often requires a better understanding of the turkey vocabulary, better calling skills, better woodsman-ship skills and more patience than spring turkey season. Many old time fall turkey hunters I have interviewed have given up spring hunting altogether and most turkey dog owners would rather break up turkey flocks in the fall with their trusty sidekick than call in a spring gobbler any day.
Are you looking for something fun to do this fall that is a little out of the ordinary? Give fall turkey hunting. Practice your calling and learn the kee kee and kee kee run call of the poult turkey. Practice the assembly yelp of the hen and the low raspy gobbler yelp of the longbeard and prepare for some fun. Nothing beats the sound of a barking dog and the sounds of turkey wings and alarm putts.
When Brett Berry hunts turkeys in the fall, he uses the Zink Avian X line of decoys. These decoys look very realistic. He often puts out several decoys at once to make it look like turkeys are reassembling where the flock was originally broken up.
Would you like to go on a guided fall turkey hunt complete with Appalachian Turkey Dogs? Contact Pete Clare from Turkey Trot Acres in upstate New York. He has the only hunting lodge in the country that specializes in fall turkey hunting with fall turkey dogs. His website is www.turkeytrotacres.com.