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Fall turkeys with Brad Harris at Cabela's

Fall turkeys with Brad Harris

Author: M.D. Johnson

The perfect hunt to compliment a Thanksgiving dinner, can turn into an annual fall obsession.

Photo by Julie McClellan-Johnson.

All right, so I have a confession to make. Until my wife, Julie, and I moved to Iowa in 1997, I wasn't much on fall turkey hunting. "There's no gobble," I told anyone who would listen - and even those who didn't. "And this thing about shooting hens. And young birds. And on and on and on."

Five years and a quintet of fall seasons later, I find myself in somewhat of a quandary. Do I hunt ducks during November? Or do I concentrate on what I've discovered to be one of the most challenging and fascinating, not to mention educational outdoor opportunities available? Yes, I'm speaking of fall turkey hunting. You see, I guess I could now be considered a fall turkey hunting fanatic.

What happened to cause such a drastic change? Actually it was three things. The first was a hunt on the 30th of November in 1997. Temperatures in Iowa hovered around the 20-degree mark, but you would have thought it was the 20th of April with the mercury roaming around 70 with the way these big old longbeards gobbled and carried on. The next came the following year; again, on the 30th of November. Two adult gobblers walked into our decoy spread at the edge of a cut cornfield, both in full strut complete with red, white, and blue heads. They continued toward the decoys until Julie ended the hen-chasing career of the largest of the pair at 14 steps. And finally, there's the education. Each November, without fail, I learn more about wild turkeys, turkey vocabulary, and the way these interesting birds interact with one another than I do during the course of any two or three springs. Armed with this new information, I'd like to think I walk into April better equipped to deal with the frustrations of gobbler hunting.

There was one more thing that contributed to this turn-about in regards to my views on and participation in the sport that is fall turkey hunting. To be a bit more precise, that would be one more person. On a recent spring hunt in the Missouri Ozarks, Julie and I had the opportunity to talk with Lohman Game Calls' guru, Brad Harris, on a wide range of turkey hunting topics. Eventually, as I secretly hoped it would, the conversation turned 'round to fall hunting. Currently serving as vice-president of public relations for Outland Sports, Harris, 45, has for years been a devotee of the Show-Me State's fall turkey seasons. During that time, Harris has come to learn a thing or two about hunting this fascinating, yet eternally frustrating creature known as the wild turkey.

But just what has Harris learned during his pre-winter forays that helps him consistently score on fall birds? Fortunately, the man's as eager to share the secrets to his good fortune - some of which may actually surprise you - as he is talented with that old box call he always carries. Yes, Spring AND Fall.

Julie McClellan-Johnson with a mature gobbler.

Johnson - "With food widely available during the early part of the fall turkey season, how do you go about locating a group of birds? I mean, can't they be just about anywhere?"

Harris - "Obviously the classic means of scouting - glassing and covering a lot of ground - but you can't get away from systematically checking to see what your particular area offers in the way of food sources. Maybe that's white oaks or maybe grasshoppers in a green field or maybe a planted field. Regardless, it just takes time to eliminate those places that aren't attracting birds and discovering those places that are."

Johnson - "Does it make sense to start your fall scouting where you left off hunting in the spring?"

Harris - "It does, but don't be disappointed if you don't find fall turkeys in spring habitat. I always tell people that if you find fall birds, that's a good place to start in the spring. But don't be surprised if they're not there. And that's simply because the forage and the habitat will change from fall to spring and spring to fall, and the turkeys will move in order to adapt to those changes. Great place to start, but it isn't always the place you're going to finish."

Johnson - "Sticking with this finding them theme, Brad, aren't locator calls a spring thing?"

Harris - "I always use locator calls in the fall. On those nice, cool, crisp, bluebird days in the fall, turkey will yelp and cut and carry on in the trees, and you can antagonize them by doing a lot of aggressive yelping and cutting. Get those hens fired up on the roost. You can also use crow calls and owl hooters to try to get gobblers to gobble in the fall. You're going to be surprised at the number of turkeys you can locate on fall days using traditional spring calling and locating methods."

Johnson - "You said that scattering the birds to "all points of the compass" is the ultimate break - the thing you're looking for. What if that doesn't happen and the birds instead leave in a couple of larger groups. Are you wasting your time to sit down and try to work those birds?"

Harris - Even though you have a poor break, you're going to hear some calling. Then you'll have the opportunity to pull a bird in that's getting anxious and wants to join back up with the main group. But you'll hear the other birds calling, looking to rally back into larger groups or that single flock. And what this does is give you the chance for a second break. By sound you can pinpoint the two groups trying to get back together, and maybe that second time around you can get that break you're looking for."

Shooting a mature tom in the fall is a tremendous accomplishment.

Johnson - "The kee-kee is THE traditional fall call, but is it the only fall call a hunter needs to know?"

Harris - "The kee-kee is something that you will definitely want to use in the fall because of all the young birds, but the sounds you use really depend on the birds you bust. If there are two-year-old birds in the group and I know that - I've seen them or I hear them calling back and forth - then I'll switch to giving them those old gobbler lost yelps. I'll also throw in some excited hen yelping just to try to rally those birds back to me. So all those calls are very important in the fall - the gobbler yelps, the basic hen calls, and the kee-kee all come into play, but it really depends on the type of turkeys you break and what you're working with."

Johnson - "Specifically targeting fall gobblers. Said to be the toughest game in town. Folks say call, don't call. Break them up, don't break them up. Is there a secret here?"

Harris - "I think you treat them (fall gobblers) just like you do any other flock of fall turkeys. I mean if I locate a flock of fall turkeys, whether it's gobblers or hens, my first instinct is to get a good ambush point on that flock before I break them up. I want to try to call that flock to me before I break them. Breaking (NOTE: Read this carefully!) is the last resort. Many people treat it as the first resort, and you shouldn't because gobblers and turkeys in general, are gregarious and will naturally come to other turkey sounds. So if they're totally calm and relaxed (NOTE II: Which they aren't immediately after you've run into their midst screaming and shouting.), even though they're in a group, I'll try to get a good angle on them or get ahead of them and just call to them. Lots of times I'll have turkeys break and come right to me. That's what I'm looking for first. If that doesn't work, then I'll resort to the breaking up."

Johnson - "Something new to many fall hunters is the use of decoys. Effective? A waste of time?"

Harris - "Wildlife has so many what I'll call senses of defense. With the turkey, his eyesight and his hearing are his two most critical defense mechanisms. As hunters using calls, you're trying to fool one of those senses. So it only makes sense to work on the other line of defense, and that's eyesight. It's (decoys in the fall) a no-brainer as to whether it will work and should it be applied."

Note on Safety: While Harris believes in the effectiveness of decoys in the fall, he also stresses the safety issues associated with this practice. "You treat decoys in the fall like you do in the spring. You make sure you're hunting very open country. And if it's real thick and brushy, the decoys aren't going to do you any good because the turkey won't see them until he's within gun range anyway. So I'm looking for those open fall woodlots and those open fields where those decoys can be seen. There, they become very, very valuable tools."

Fall hunting for turkeys is a tremendous challenge, but with a little practice, patience and a few tips from pro's like Brad, you are well on your way to becoming addicted yourself.

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