Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A turkey in a woodlot © Jerry Davis

In the fall, turkeys spend a lot of time feeding in woodlots on mast crops such as acorns and searching for insects until a hard freeze occurs. Find a good food source and you just might find turkeys congregating.
© Jerry Davis

October 2014

A "tail" from the field

Why I traded spring turkey hunting for fall.

Tony Rzadzki

Years ago, Wisconsin started allowing the use of dogs for fall turkey hunting. I was surprised and drove to a DNR office to confirm that it was true. I've never had much luck getting close to a turkey when hunting quietly by myself and so wondered how I could ever get close to a wary turkey while hunting with a curious canine?

"Try a well–behaved dog like a border collie that you can manage well to locate the birds and that will return to you on a whistle," the DNR customer service representative suggested.

"But, I have three Labradors," I answered.

"Well, good luck with that," she responded with a knowing smile.

I walked away pondering my predicament. Labs are a lovely but lively breed.

Opening day for fall turkey hunting arrived a week later. It was warm and sunny when I arrived at a friend's farm. My dogs went nuts when they realized we were at the farm where I had taken them since they were puppies. Huck, the male black Lab, Hazel, his sister, and their mom, Heidi, a miraculous handicapped chocolate Lab, accompanied me. As my Labs tore from the truck, I remembered the suggestion that I try an obedient dog like a border collie.

I followed my dogs as they bounded down the hill and into the Mullet River. History told me that I'd most likely find turkeys on the other side of the river.

The dogs joyfully splashed in the riverbed and lapped up a drink. I didn't worry about their noisiness, yet. The plan was to scamper up the tree–lined bank to an alfalfa field and gauge if there were gobblers to be had.

Once across the river, I shed my hip waders and changed into my boots. My Labs were patient and stayed close to me — a major achievement for any Lab. Their instinct is to hunt, and hopefully, flush under the gun and retrieve.

Reaching the edge of the field, the dogs raced out into the greenery. I looked up and down and spied two turkeys near the tree line 150 yards away. Then, the gobblers saw me and alarmed, raced into the trees followed by 11 other frightened birds.

Fortunately, my dogs were too busy sniffing to notice the birds. I made my way up the field until the dogs perked up. Huck took the lead running 20 yards ahead of me followed by his sister and then his mother. They soon scented the birds and the fastidious females plastered their noses to the greens, taking in the wild scent. Huck found the line first, but instead of heading into the trees after the turkeys, he raced into the opposite direction.

"He's going the wrong way!" I panicked. Then, as if reading my thoughts, Huck hit the brakes. He turned and bee–lined it back into the trees. Hazel and Heidi followed.

The dogs were then out of sight, but I could hear a raucous cacophony. Squawks, yelping, the thumping of wings and the sounds of birds fleeing — 13 of them by my count.

Then, above the tree line, one of the turkeys took off flying. I pulled my 12–gauge to my shoulder, put a snap lead on the bird and pulled the trigger. My gun barked back, the turkey fell, and the dogs — hearing the shot — returned to the field. They reached the bird before I did and gently mouthed it with eager eyes and wagging tails.

The whole event took less than five minutes, but in that time I learned a lot about hunting turkeys with Labs.

First, if you discover a flock of turkeys in a field and they see you, they will run to the nearest cover — usually trees. The goal then is to quickly get your dog on their scent and let the dog do the work in flushing the turkeys back into the field.

I was lucky to get a clean shot at a flying turkey my first time hunting with my dogs. But by shooting at a turkey in flight, you run a greater risk of merely winging it. But that's another benefit of hunting turkeys with a dog — if you do wing a bird, chances are your dog will find it.

And you don't need as much gear. You can shed camouflage suits, turkey calls and face paint. Blue jeans, a T–shirt, water for you and the dog and a well–fitted 12–gauge will do the job just fine.

Finally, hunting with a four–legged friend is fun. They are a joy to watch especially when they feel frisky and the season inspires. Spring in Wisconsin can be very fickle. So I hunt turkeys in the fall instead. The weather tends to be more to my liking and I enjoy that the dogs can tag along, too.

Tony Rzadzki writes from Sheboygan Falls.