Get The Drop On Fall Turkeys With Help From ScoutLook

Opening day of fall turkey season blew in cloudy and cold. When I checked the radar on my HuntStand app to make sure the front that had dumped an inch of rain across my home Tennessee county had pushed on to the south

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Now is the time to find the preferred local food sources and log them (and their best approach angles) in your HuntStand app. Your next task? Prepare a wild-turkey dinner.

GaryTurks1 600Opening day of fall turkey season blew in cloudy and cold. When I checked the radar on my HuntStand app to make sure the front that had dumped an inch of rain across my home Tennessee county had pushed on to the south, I saw that, indeed, the rain clouds had stalled out over Birmingham. Perfect! I would have been out there with the big birds in any kind of weather, but was glad the storm had passed.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear any turkeys scratching in the wet leaves that morning, but the soggy ground cover let me slip in close to a stand of beech trees I had marked in the HuntStand app on my smartphone. I didn’t hear any turkey sounds when I got there so I called to see if anyone was home. My pleading “lost” yelps were answered immediately—by a bossy old hen telling me to get my stuff together and get myself back with the flock. The quick response made me grin into my face mask; thank you HuntStand! I love it when one of my best-laid plans actually works.

GaryTurk4 600When I had checked the beech trees in late August I made notes on my  HuntStand map showing the location of the trees, and also noted the fact that they were loaded with a bumper crop of triangle-shaped beech nuts, in my HuntStand log. I was able to meet the turkeys at my HuntStand location on a damp November morning because I knew the turkeys were likely to show up in the area as soon as the nuts started falling.

In the fall and winter months, preferred food sources make turkeys as predictable as they will ever be. If they are undisturbed, they will continue to frequent an area that provides reliable forage until the food sources dry up.  Once I realized I could pattern turkeys on food sources and mark their locations on my smartphone using the HuntStand app, their “need to feed” became the basis for my favorite fall turkey hunting strategy: Find the food, find the turkeys—and I could keep all the information in my smartphone!

GaryTurks5 600The fruit and nuts and seeds that attract turkeys are clearly visible in their immature state on the trees and vines in late summer, so when I scout treestand locations for the upcoming archery deer season, I am also scouting locations for fall turkey food. I use my binoculars regularly to check the local trees and mark the “high food production areas” on my HuntStand maps—along with any other pertinent information, in my HuntStand log book.

Hard mast (nuts) and soft mast (fruit) producing trees and vines are very erratic and capricious in their production. A tree that was overburdened with acorns this year may not bear again for two or three years, and it’s much the same with wild grapes, beech nuts, and other hard and soft mast sources.

Once I find the food-bearing trees and vines, I check on them in late summer for production and mark the mast- and fruit-laden areas on my detailed HuntStand map. I make it a point to revisit each area as the season gets close, to see how much use these sources are seeing, and to determine the best way to approach them unnoticed by sharp turkey eyes. If turkeys are feeding in the area I want to be able to get as close to them as possible—undetected—so I can use the element of surprise to get the flock well scattered, or to find the right blind location if I am hunting smaller “boundary-restricted” tracts.

GaryTurk2 600An example of what turkeys like to eat in the fall is illustrated in the photo above, of the contents of a rather typical turkey crop. The crop you see here came from a turkey hen taken on a late-afternoon hunt in south-central Tennessee on the 16th of November.

GaryTurk3 600The crop above was obtained in mid-October. The wide variety of foods and the amount (a full crop is about the size of a tennis ball) illustrates the appetite and the diversity of the wild turkey’s diet. Some preferred foods are not in the two pictures above, since the choices vary according to regional availability and time of year, but most of the items are widespread in their occurrence so I will identify and discuss each item pictured.

GaryTurks6 600Wild grapes and grape seeds are the most-abundant items in the crop photos.  They are a preferred food when and if the turkeys can find them. The small, dark purple grapes are mostly seed and skin with just a thin layer of fruit covering, but turkeys seem to like the seed as well as the fruit. Wild grapes like these seem to produce best high up in the tree tops, so they are most-readily available to turkeys in cutover hardwoods and areas with recent blowdowns. The grapes will also be utilized later in the winter when the clusters dry and fall off the vine, so be sure to mark fruit-laden grape vines on your preferred food log.

White Oak 600White oak acorns are the next-most-abundant food in the crop photos. The white oak acorns were scattered on the tree I photographed—so the picture shows only a few nuts—but the rounded lobes on the leaves and the white-barked trees are what to look for when you are scouting.

GaryTurk7 600Red Oak acorns are also high on the turkey’s preference list when they are available. They mature later in the fall and are usually more plentiful than white oaks, but turkeys will be there when the nuts start falling. Oak trees, both red and white, are the most-consistent mast producers and the most-reliable “turkey magnets” in my part of the country.

Beech trees, found mostly in the south-central and eastern U.S., produce triangle-shaped nuts that are turkey magnets in the fall. They are nearly absent in the crop photos (one clear shot and a couple of partly obscured images) due to drought conditions that resulted in below-average mast production. Beech trees, with their smooth silver-gray bark and leaves that turn golden-bronze in the fall, are erratic mast producers, but you should check them every year for the burred nut cases. If you can find mast-laden beech trees as referred to in the beginning of this article, you will have an excellent starting place for your fall hunt.

GaryTurk8 600Ash seeds were also on the turkeys’ menu that fateful afternoon, since there were 10 or more of these single-bladed seeds in the crop. I wouldn’t call ash a “super attractant” because they are inconsistent mast producers (and they fall to the ground sporadically throughout the winter), but turkeys will feed on the seeds when they find them. To locate ash tree mast look for the light green seeds hanging blade down, side by side, on the outer limbs of ash trees in mid-summer (see image above). The mature tan-colored single-blade seed pods usually start dropping in September, but they can stay on the tree throughout the winter, so there is no concentrated mast drop.

Surprising entrées in the smorgasbord of preferred foods according to the crop photos are “stink bugs.” There are six green and four or five brown stink bugs in the first crop photo above. I wasn’t expecting them to be on the menu because of the several, way-below-freezing nights we had before the turkey season opened. I thought the sub-freezing temps would delete insects from the bill of fare until I did some research. The stink bugs apparently “over-winter as adults under the cover of leaf litter on the forest floor.” It would be impossible to anticipate likely spots for turkeys to find bugs, but I thought you’d like to know what they are looking for when they scratch in the leaves.

standard dogwood 600Another preferred food that is nearly absent in the first crop photo (one berry shown) is the fruit of the dogwood tree. We have two different varieties in my area, the standard bright-red berry (see above) and one with a berry that turns black when ripe. Turkeys relish dogwood berries but the crop photo shows only one berry, since the drought affected fruit production that year. Dogwood should be high on your list of food trees to find. The trees are easy to find during the spring when the bright white flowers tell us the turkeys should be gobbling, and in the fall, during a normal year, their limbs will be alive with bright crimson or shiny-black berries. Keep an eye on the dogwood trees in your area; when the berries fall the turkeys will be there to pick them up.

The green leaves and stems in both crop photos above are mostly clovers. The small seeds are grass and weed seeds that are more prominent in the October crop photo. Clover leaves, grass and weed seeds along with buds and shoots are consumed in the fall randomly and don’t warrant any special attention beyond recognizing them as a part of the diet.

best slate600Don’t rule out row crops when you are scouting areas where they exist.  Depending on the condition of the grains and their availability, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and milo are attractive food sources as primary forage, or as supplements to the forest foods. If turkeys are using the cutover grain fields, a blind and a couple hen decoys can be your best bet for a successful fall hunt. Even if the waste grains are plentiful, you will still want to scout the woods. The acorns, beech nuts, wild grapes and dogwood will still be visited on a regular basis, since they contain nutrients that are an integral part of the turkey’s diet.

skeptical hen 600Turkeys are “buffet” diners. They are going to feed on something, somewhere, every day. Your job is to locate the buffet line. You can set up a blind on the food and wait for the turkeys to get there; or scatter them and call them back. Another good tactic is to carefully approach a known food source and locate the flock with “lost” calls, as discussed at the top of this article. If you are wondering how that hunt turned out, the turkey that answered my call was close. The next move was mine. I eased carefully out of the draw I’d used for cover, and answered the first alarm putt by sending a load of low-velocity No. 8’s into the sky (I use dove loads to scatter the flock because they are cheaper and don’t kick as much as turkey loads). Then came a quick follow-up shot in the direction the flock flew, followed by two more shots in the air when a few turkeys flushed out of nearby trees, and I had the flock scattered to my satisfaction. Then I simply eased up to the flush site, stuffed some turkey loads into my shotgun, and waited for the turkeys to start calling. Twenty minutes later I struck up a conversation with a young hen. I echoed the “kee-kees” and yelps she made right back at her until she walked into shotgun range. How sweet it was.

stand up snow turk 600Locating a flock is more than half the battle in fall turkey hunting. Knowing where their tables are set, marking the locations and logging food and use frequency, will make that job a lot easier and save you a lot of “turkey searching” time. Then, when the season opens, all you have to do is fire up your smartphone; your HuntStand app will have you “dialed-in” to the best place to start your hunt on opening day. As the old saying goes, life, and turkey hunting, is so much better when you have a plan.



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