Last weekend while harvesting some mulberries, I noticed a truck back into my neighbor’s driveway. Out popped two men and a young boy dressed head to toe in cheap camo. The boy was marching around with excitement like a little soldier. I then saw the two men pop down the tailgate of the truck, move some things around and pull out a turkey toward them to begin butchering. I later asked for the wings of the turkey so that one day I could make primitive arrows with the stone points I am making and actually hunt with them.
The young boy shot the turkey and was the grandson of my neighbor. I wasn’t initially planning on hunting turkey this year due to a lack of confidence within the spots I had scouted and a lack of experience hunting turkey. It took me seeing the boy get a turkey so late in season for me to believe that maybe I too could get lucky and run into a turkey at one of the spots I have been looking into. I then decided to buy a tag despite it being the last four days of the season and spent as much time as I realistically could attempting to hunt turkey.
Despite not finding success in the form of a tom in the freezer, I still consider every time spent in the woods as some form of success. I do so because of the meditative like experience, learning more information about a spot, and lastly, gaining confidence and a great respect/understanding of the animal that I am attempting to harvest.
I had six “successes” that I learned while hunting this past week, those of which included, understanding the importance of location, being able to adapt to changing turkey habits, honing your own patience, understanding the time in which to be ready to hunt, changing habitat preference, and how their behavior changes in response to various variables/circumstances.
1. Location is everything
When going into the late season especially in the Midwest where the amount of public hunting access is limited, it is crucial that the spots you choose to hunt hold active signs of turkey. Turkey move around a lot, but are not like deer in the sense that they may get bumped off of property or switch to being more nocturnal, but naturally like most wild animals, they tend to have a range in which they travel. Some of these places may hold things like food sources, hard to reach habitat, water, mates, etc. A good rule of thumb is to allocate a day or two in the late season to reevaluate the area you are in as the turkeys may start favoring other spots more due to their concealment or water/food access.
If you are finding things such as nesting hens, feathers, recent tracks, scat, or are hearing gobbles/hen noises nearby it is safe to say that your location is still active.
For those who go to a spot where there may once have been turkeys, but aren’t any longer, understand that your season is close to the end and the hunting will be tough. You need to be willing to put in the time and effort to getting into those hard to reach places and observing what is happening around you while you are there. Now is the time to worry about what you can learn from a spot, rather than what you can get from it.
When you find a spot and you know it has turkey, you may have to play around with how you set up on that land. See how a morning or afternoon of hunting is in thick brush or small clearings along creeks. If that doesn’t work maybe try hunting on the edge of a field as if you were deer hunting in the Midwest.
Just be open to new ideas and opportunity. You will never really waste time when you are trying something new in the field. You are always learning, listening, and understanding the habits of the animals within the ecosystem.
It can feel stressful when nearing the end of a season and you are coming up empty weekend after weekend. It may feel unappealing to consider trying new areas and “risking” missing a turkey at your normal spots. I assure you that this time isn’t wasted if you are making rational evaluations of land and habitat sing.
When hunting decent spots with a lot of sign it is important in the late season to be patient. Take a breath and understand that the turkey have to be smart to ensure their survival. They made it through almost the whole season without being shot, which takes some degree of intelligence and luck. Understand that we are not nearly as quiet as we like to think when walking through the woods. The game animals will always see us 9/10 times before we even notice where they are at.
It is sometimes best to sit and wait for the toms to come to you as you may spook the turkey away if he is already on the move to you and he sees or hears you get up and start breaking branches in the woods. Keep in mind that when hunting areas with high amounts of hunting pressure, it may be more advantageous to keep your calling to a minimum. Many hunters will use hen calls in hopes to get a response from a male turkey (Tom) and locate him based on his response. The turkeys quickly catch on to this and will go nearly mute in the late season.
From my experience it is better to show up early at a spot (around 4:30-6 AM) and listen to hear any gobbles in a spot while the birds are still in their roost. They will be calling at anything that makes a noise, but don’t abuse the hen call! An alternative that works well in locating the turkeys includes using a crow call or mimicking an owl calling. This spooks the birds and makes them call again. This allows you to get as close as you can to the bird’s roost without being seen.
Timing is relatively important. If you decide that you are only going to hunt from mid-morning until late in the afternoon, sure you will be in the woods, but you may be missing more hints of sign. One of the days I showed up to a spot at about 8 AM and did not hear a gobble the whole time I was out, but did see a hen hanging out around her nest. The next day I decided to show up a little earlier at about 6 AM. As I got out of my car I was met with the loud gobble across the field. I did not see any turkey, but it was reassuring to know that the animal I was targeting was close to where I was and my previous scouting and observations weren’t too far from the truth.
Had I not made the effort to show up earlier and be present to observe, I would not have known that toms were in the area that late in season and would have probably moved on to a different spot to try my luck in finding more clear evidence that toms were present and actively still trying to breed with hens.
5. Habitat Preference
While committing the effort to take the time and show up early, it is crucial to understand that there will rarely be any easy turkeys on public land that late in season. Unless you find evidence of a tom strutting in a specific path habitually you will not be able to do the normal hunting strategies like sitting on the edges of large agricultural fields in a little blind or behind a tree. The bird’s small parcels of public land will have known better by now and will not stroll about so carelessly. The odds will always be stacked against you so you must really take the time to scout and listen before the season and during the early season.
Don’t be scared of crossing any dry creeks and walking through thick brush to find a vantage point. If you walk long enough you may eventually stumble into an area rich with turkey, ready for you to sit and take advantage of the opportunity.
6. Behavior Change
Lastly, understand that behavior is changing this late in the season. Most of the hens have been bred and a lot of the surviving Toms are ready to return to normal post-rut behavior, leaving only a fraction of the chance that one would have had when hunting a good spot in the early season when you have a lot of young, inexperienced jakes roaming around. Push yourself to take the risk and try out new strategies that you may not have considered in the early season.
Turkey hunting is fun. It is fun because of the challenge and excitement one gets when seeing a blue and red little head bob around in the bush or when getting a response to a call that you made. It is the connection to an ecosystem and organism which is so direct that one can almost feel the energy resonate within your soul.
When you are down to your last remaining days or weeks to hunt, it is not a time to throw in the towel and give up. It is a time to double down on your own skills and put them to the test to try and become a better hunter. It is a time to highlight the fundamentals of turkey hunting and become more versatile and patient. It is a time to really observe and respect the animal you are hunting.
Late season hunting is what differentiates amateur hunters who are only willing to hunt when it is easy/more convenient for them rather than those who are more devoted and willing to gain something from a potential run of failed attempts at bagging a turkey.