Sunday, November 7, 2010

Flock Mentality

Sunday, November 07, 2010
By Ben Moyer
Pittsburgh Post Gazette 

For wild turkeys in the fall, it's all about the flock. As far back as spring when the chicks pecked out of their eggs, the hen's clucks bonded the brood as a unit. They left the nest together, fed and roosted together and regrouped to her calls after every encounter with coyote or hawk.

By mid-summer, broods of different hens combined as larger flocks, which will remain together into the winter sharing the best habitats and food sources they can find. Flocks in Pennsylvania this fall are abundant and large, said Game Commission wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena.

"The state's wild turkey population is above the five-year-average thanks to good reproduction the past three springs and generally conservative fall season lengths, which minimizes the overharvest of hens," she said. The most experienced and successful fall turkey hunters understand the wild turkey's compulsion to flock, and use that edge to their advantage.

Pete Clare spends a lot of time hunting wild turkeys in southern New York, where the fall season is seven weeks long. There, he runs Turkey Trot Acres (, guiding visiting turkey hunters into southern tier hardwood hills on every day of the New York fall hunt.

Clare is a big advocate of the "scatter and call" style of fall hunting, especially since he uses Appalachian turkey dogs to find and break flocks (using dogs to hunt turkeys became legal in Pennsylvania in 2008). He notes, though, that flock dynamics change as the fall progresses and that hunters in Pennsylvania's late seasons may need to make adjustments.

"It's amazing how we can observe the flock maturing during our longer season," Clare said. "Getting toward mid-November, when your season [in Pennsylvania] will just be starting, younger birds do not seem so frantic to get back together when scattered. Also, the young gobblers get bigger than their mothers and they try and take over the flock."

Maturing gobblers can be a huge factor.

"If hunters break birds and call to them only with hen yelps, it won't work if young gobblers are running the reassembly," he said. "Calling back a broken flock this late may take a lot of patience and experimentation."

Clare said he's learned that no matter when the season is scheduled, woodsmanship and knowledge of the landscape are valuable assets to the fall turkey hunter. "The best approach is to follow the sign," he said. "Find what birds are feeding on and then look there for fresh scratching. Go easy and slow and you will walk up on them, then scatter them for the call-back."

Especially for hunters without turkey dogs, Clare said that following fresh sign through open hardwoods such as oak or cherry stands is a good way to hunt. "The most effective break [of the flock] is in open hardwoods by total surprise," he said. "You come over a hill and they're out there feeding and you rush into them for a 360-degree scatter. A woods break is a golden thing -- way better than a field break where the birds will see you and fan way in the same direction."

Success at calling the birds back, though, can take more than just a thorough scatter.

"When birds flush, pay close attention. Try and pick up visual clues to the makeup of the flock," Clare said. "Try to see if it is a flock of old gobblers, hens and young of the year, or a flock of jakes. The flock makeup will determine how you call. You don't want to send out 'kee-kee' whistles for a flock of longbeard toms. It won't work." Clare said a common mistake made by fall hunters is to scatter turkeys from their roost site high on a ridge at early morning.

"If you flush them out of the trees high on a ridge they will most times sail all the way to the valley and it will be tough to call them back," he said. "Let them get away from the roost site and then scatter them. Your success will be much better."

Clare's experiences tell him that the ideal time to scatter turkeys is about 1 1/2 hours before dusk. A break then allows enough time for the woods to settle down before calling, yet the turkeys are eager to regroup before dark. If a turkey isn't bagged that evening, said Clare, don't expect the flock to remain broken at dawn.

"I've seen it so many times. They have some way of getting back together at night," he said. "I don't know if they hop from branch to branch or what, but it rarely works that you can go back in there the next morning and call one in." Clare's most reliable turkey tip? "Do not ignore the break site," he said. "Those turkeys will come back there some time during the day. Don't be tempted to follow two or three from the group. Stay at the break site and call and you will have a good hunt."

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