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Five Phases of Fall and Winter Flocks

Understanding the five phases of fall and winter flocks can help you take a wild turkey for your holiday dinner table this autumn season, and even plan for the coming spring.

1. Pre- and Early-Season Groups

Scouting flocks with fall turkey season in mind begins as springtime ends – or should. It’s a continuum for the year-round turkey hunter. Watching these game birds, then later hunting them, is an ongoing, enjoyable process.

Across the country, individual brood hens hatch their eggs, and begin raising their poults sometime in late spring or summer. Biology tells us that not all regional hatches are simultaneous. As a result, so-called early- and late-hatch turkeys may be seen in the same specific habitat. Sizes of family groups may vary.

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Pre-season summer flock scouting is often low-key, but no less important than later on. Turkey hunting opportunities aren’t offered during this first phase of brood development for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, looking for newly hatched groups of birds is a worthwhile start to the hunting you plan to do that fall.

Simply spending time in areas you’ll later hunt can pay dividends. Gobbler groups, composed of mature toms and jakes, remain together after the spring breeding season – often in areas where you’ve hunted them just months before. Also, broodless hens — unsuccessful at nesting — form same-sex flocks during this time.

By early fall when seasons commence around the country, family flocks, gobbler gangs, and broodless hens have each established distinct groups. As fall turkey hunting season opens, you might see these groups together in habitats where the food source may be concentrated, or the habitat limited, or both.

2. Phase Two-Field Flocks

As late September transitions into October — the heart of fall turkey hunting — all three groups will be seen bugging in fields.

Family groups, gobbler gangs, and broodless hen flocks often favor insects. They’ve done so throughout summer, eating protein-rich bugs, insects that also provide a source of moisture. Edge-cover margins with uncut grasses separating woods and pastures hold bugs, and turkeys gravitate there. If grasshoppers and crickets haven’t been frosted off, turkeys will hit these and other field bugs. Once the post-freeze transition begins, and assuming mast is available, wild turkeys will search for beechnuts, acorns, fruits and tubers, among other edibles.

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Locate these food sources — areas that hold serious insect numbers — and the flocks will follow. Checking the crops of tagged October and November fall turkeys, I’ve routinely found a variety of insects, from grasshoppers and crickets to so-called stinkbugs, and even a praying mantis on occasion. This omnivorous bird just doesn’t favor insects, either. A buddy in fall turkey camp once found salamanders filling his autumn bird’s crop. I’ve taken turkeys that have eaten worms, small frogs, and other morsels.

During this time, flocks will not only roost in an area that provides a sense of security, but one that offers a direct path to the field or woods where they feed each morning and late afternoon. Time in the habitats they favor — either scouting or hunting — will allow you to decode the mystery of their movements. There’s really no substitute to this approach short of hunting with somebody else who is doing the scouting, possibly a guide or landowner who’s watching the turkeys for you.

3. Broodless Hens and Gobbler Gangs

If hens breed unsuccessfully, they gather in groups, creating broodless flocks that stay together through summer, fall, and into winter. These groups can include adult hens, and female turkeys that are one-and-one-half years old by autumn’s hunting season (“super jennies,” if you will). In late fall you may also encounter a brood hen with young hens born that late spring and summer, especially if growing fall jakes have left their family flock.

Adult and juvenile gobblers flock together in late spring and summer, after breeding activity ends, hens begin to nest, and broods hatch. Like broodless hens, male birds travel in autumn groups, and into the start of winter. This includes gobblers over two years old, and male turkeys one-and-one-half years old (so-called “super jakes”).

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Hunting adult longbeards is considered the ultimate experience in the autumn turkey woods. Targeting broodless hens is equally challenging, as mature fall wild turkeys of both sexes “ no longer driven by breeding (toms/hens), or tending to poults (broodless hens) ” are sometimes tough to draw into range with your calls and setup tactics.

If scattered while hunting, both fall adult turkey groups use visual recognition to safely regroup, often with spare vocalizations such as clucks and soft yelps, disappearing into the autumn woods. Other times both broodless hen and gobbler groups can be highly vocal, and responsive to your calls. Each autumn, I see toms strutting, and hear them gobbling. If you’re a hardcore fall turkey hunter, you have too.

4. Late-Fall Jake Groups

Born that late spring or summer, juvenile male turkeys assert dominance before they leave the family flock in late autumn or winter, challenging the brood hen’s governing status.

As autumn progresses and birds grow, a single dominant jake will sometimes assemble family flock members following morning fly-down or after a predator (or hunter) flushes them. Flock harmony is disrupted for a time, as the hen that raised these birds from the egg is sharing flock control. While in the family group, and after they leave it, male turkeys routinely fight to establish pecking order.

Read more.

In these jake-only flocks that leave family groups, a dominant bird usually rules this entire gang. Male turkeys want top-dog status on a year-round basis. This is why some of us have shot a gobbler, only to see other male birds move right in to peck at, claw, and mock breed the dead turkey.

As fall and winter progresses toward spring, these jakes will often join one or more adult gobblers. One bird in that group — often a longbeard — will hold spring breeding rights to all the hens in that habitat; that is, unless this dominant position is challenged. Nevertheless, it’s also not uncommon to see a band of rowdy shortbeards defeat an adult gobbler in a fight. I’ve watched gangs of juvenile turkeys run off longbeards, and vice-versa.

5. Winter’s Many-Featured Flocks

I watch turkeys, a lot. Last winter a local group of Easterns got my attention, and held it until they broke up in spring as breeding season approached. Three longbeards spent time in the same farmer’s field as a family flock. Between November and March, I found them through the binoculars (and on foot) in the same relative area, before the group broke up. Often the toms were in full-strut winter splendor.

Through fall and winter turkey hunting seasons (if available), you can obviously determine flock composition while listening to birds on the roost according to the calls they make, even without visual recognition.

By understanding the five phases of fall and winter flocks, you can hunt them with appropriate strategies during available seasons, or simply maintain scouting interest as spring approaches.

Steve Hickoff

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