By Vic Attardo
As a friend says about turkeys, if their brain is only the size of a pea, why, then, are they so hard to hunt?
It may be because the birds, at least the older, mature and war-weary gobblers, have heard it all before. Their brains may be small, but their instincts are as sharp as a tack.
For the hunter hoping for success, this means knowing a little something extra that the turkeys don’t. It all comes down to versatility in calling and new strategies in delivering those calls. Sometimes it means invention, and sometimes it means reinventing the wheel.
Even in grade school we are taught that perseverance is an admirable trait. At the time, few of us knew that this would apply to turkey hunting, but it certainly does.
By combining perseverance with a variety of calling tactics, I was once able to take a bird that had eluded me for eight days. The experience demonstrated that in today’s heavily pressured turkey hunting, it’s often important to reach deeper into the bag of calling tricks.
I was working a large wooded area in mid-season. The oak, maple and beech trees across the ridge and ravines in the rolling terrain were leafed out. I had found what I thought to be a magnificent bird, and like an arrow intent on a target, this was the turkey I wanted.
For over a week, I entered the woods and tried to tease this gobbler close enough for a shot. He was, as we say, “henned-up,” with a ready harem of females to keep him company. The best I could do with my selection of mouth, box, slate and tube calls was to bring him within 50 yards, even with close-in decoys.
Through this period, my repertoire consisted of the usual hen yelps, putts and fly-down cackles. I changed position each day but thought it unwise to move around during the hunt.
Each day after I knew I’d been defeated, I slowly and carefully backed out of the woods. Because he seemed to be hung along one particular ridge, I thought it important not to walk through his territory. This was clearly the boss gobbler of the ridge. Anytime some 2-year-old upstart approached his kingdom, he warred with him unmercifully.
Other hunters tried working this bird from other directions in the woods, but he would not approach them, either. The talk of the valley was that this bird was impossible to attract. A few of the other hunters had taken some of the defeated jakes, but no one had fooled the boss.
On the ninth day, when no other hunters were in the woods, I set up without decoys. While I was leaving the cabin that morning, I picked up a gobbler shaker that imitates the gobble of a boss tom. Of course, it has a different sound and tone than most other friction and mouth calls.
At first light, I gobbled hard with the shaker. This was something he had never heard before, and the old tom came in on a string. He was looking for a younger bird so he could beat up on it, and before he realized his mistake I gave him the last fight he was ever going to see.
When agricultural fields are available to woodland turkeys, the birds often respond to bad weather by heading towards open land. It’s believed that turkeys don’t like to be in the woods during a rainstorm because one of their keenest senses (hearing) is obstructed by the rain beating on the leaves. This makes it harder for them to detect the sounds of approaching predators.
On numerous occasions, I’ve seen individual birds and flocks looking forlorn at the edge of a farm field during a pouring rain. And I’ve picked off toms that were in the open during substantial storms.
One thing about those successes took me a while to realize, though it now seems so obvious that it’s laughable. To get to an open field for their rain response, the birds must travel through the woods. This makes the edges of woodland, and the known turkey trails along its edges, key ambush points.
On the second day of a recent spring season, the trees in the woods were dense with leaves. When a solid rain hit the fresh, full leaves soon after sunrise, it sounded like an overflowing gutter spout. In the vernacular, it was “raining cats and dogs.”
That day, I had started into the rolling woodland before the skies opened up. I made a few tentative early-morning tree yelps with a pushpin call, which is a very soft call. I heard no response, but because of the density of the birds in the area, I still believed I was working near a roost.
Of course, I could have started with an owl call to get an initial response, but I had heard many other hunters working the owl trick while they scouted during the pre-season, and I thought the birds were becoming wary of it. I also opted for the pushpin call because other hunters were using box calls and mouth calls on the first day, and there had been heavy shooting in the woods.
Just about full sunrise, the skies opened up and a typhoon let loose. As I was getting drenched, I thought about the birds’ probable march to open land. I also thought I should be waiting some distance back from the woodland edge to intercept their commute.
I was making my way to the edge of the woods when the birds began calling to each other. I sat down and responded with some yelps from a loud mouth call. A couple of birds immediately responded with gobbles. I purred and clucked again, but this time heard only silence. I added a series of putts, an exited yelp that tells gobblers the hen is hot and ready to breed, but the gobblers did not respond. My instincts were telling me that the weather, and the probability the gobblers had found hens, was conspiring against me.
Still, considering the effects of the storm, I liked my position about 70 yards into the woods from the edge of a large rolling field where I had seen birds before the start of the season.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, I made only a few soft purrs and clucks. The birds weren’t making much noise in the rain, so I simply imitated what they were doing.
Sure enough, as the wind continued to blow and the deluge poured down, along came two mature toms and a jake. They were heading toward the open field and me. As they came into view, I continued with a smattering of soft sounds and then got ready to shoot.
I gave them one more series of soft purrs and clucks, and this was enough to bring one bird in to my sights. I shot it at 56 yards, a distance later checked with a range-finder.
The taking of “Typhoon Tom,” as I later called this gobbler, was a combination of calling and weather-related tactics. The rain had the birds acting shy, and I doubt they would have responded with more-aggressive calling.
This was not a day to make assertive sounds, which might have alerted the incoming birds. Often, good calling tactics are a matter of imitating what you hear at the moment, and in bad weather the birds act the way some humans feel on a lazy, rainy Sunday.
One season, an army of hunters had been working some state land during the third week of the season. The trees were in full foliage and visibility was limited. The terrain consisted of a wide woodland with numerous shelves, ravines and creek cuts. Any bird that came along was not going to be seen until it was quite close.
A partner and I got into the woods at 6 a.m. and heard a bird gobble right off the roost.
My companion, a veteran caller, took up a strategic position, and after setting three decoys (two hens and a half-strut jake), he responded with excited yelps and clucks. Our quarry bid was double- and triple-gobbling, showing an intense desire to find a mate. My partner continued to call, and gobbling came from his left, then from his right, then from his left again. It could have been more than one bird, but my companion thought it unlikely.
“It was one of those nonstop gobblers, and I could almost trace his tracks back and forth,” he said.
While the turkey was obviously excited, we soon realized the bird was not moving close. Because of the lay of the land, we surmised the gobbler was on a ridge.
“I kept calling and calling. My biggest concern was that hens would go to him and take him away. If that happened I had little chance of pulling him in,” he said.
My hunting partner knew he had to get the gobbler off the ridge and through the terrain that separated them. He got up, leaving everything but his gun and mouth call, and started walking in a straight line away from the gobbler, all the while loudly yelping and cutting, sending a message that said, “Look, honey, I’ve given you enough time to come to my place, now I’m going somewhere else.”
He moved about 100 yards from his previous position, and then realized the gobbler was moving with him. The walk-away calling was apparently driving the tom wild.
What happened next was unexpected and a little funny, but it ended well for my hunting partner.
As soon as he realized the gobbler was coming in, he raced back to where he had been sitting, about 25 yards behind his decoys.
“I almost couldn’t find the spot, I was so excited,” he said.
Just as he regained his shooting position, he saw the top of a spread fan about 45 yards away. The turkey drummed and gobbled and my partner continued with mouth calls, this time using plaintive purrs and clucks, letting the hot gobbler do most of the talking.
Once again the gobbler started moving from side to side on a closer ridge. My hunting partner could catch only glimpses of the tom, sometimes his legs and sometimes his fan. Finally the turkey exposed itself in open cover, and my companion took it at 40 yards.
“The bird originally wanted the hens to come to it as it moved back and forth along the ridge,” my partner told me. “By walking away, I was telling the gobbler he had to come to the hen.”
This calling tactic is particularly effective with a hung-up gobbler, but it won’t work if the tom already has hens.
When my companion examined his trophy, he found that the bird had already been shot at. There was a wound on one wing that could have only come from an early-season hunter.
This bird had been educated and wasn’t going to move. But he just hadn’t been able to stand a hen walking away from him, and that had brought him into range.
If a gobbler that is some distance away answers the calls, the lead hunter should stay put, but the second hunter should get up and walk away. The lead hunter continues to purr and cluck on his call, and the retreating hunter continues to yelp, too.
When the walk-away tactic works as it should, the bird comes on. But if the walk-away hunter realizes the turkey is no longer hung up and is close to the lead hunter, he should quit calling.
Two-man teams are generally an advantage in turkey calling, particularly if the two hunters know each other’s tactics. It’s most important that each hunter work a different type of call. Different calls create the illusion that there are a number of hens on the ground, and sometimes it’s just a matter of the gobbler responding to a particular call type.
Any number of calling tones can be created with the number and types of calls that are on the market today; however, the key to success is to make sure you and your partner sound like more than one hen.
The simplest two-man tactic to perform is when one hunter is an experienced caller and the second hunter is the shooter. The shooter is placed several yards in front of the caller. The caller uses everything in his bag of tricks and, hopefully, the lead man gets a shot at the bird coming in to investigate.
selection of calls and use them, just like a baseball pitcher uses fastballs, curves and change-ups.
When you are concerned that changing positions will chase away a bird, you may want to adjust your position so that the calls you make sound as if they are coming from different directions. Do this by calling from various positions around the tree that you are using as a backstop. First, call in the 12 o’clock position, then turn your body to 3 o’clock, then move to the 9 o’clock stance.
Also, don’t be afraid to turn around and direct the call into tree. The sound that bounces off a wide hardwood trunk can resonate through the woods and seems like it’s coming from many places at once.
I have even seen some excellent callers utter yelps and clucks from one side of their mouths when using a diaphragm call. They act like carnival ventriloquists as they direct their lips from one side to the other.
There are so many ruses to the game of turkey calling, even veteran hunters admit that there’s always more to learn. Even they continue to wonder how a bird with a brain the size of a pea can be so tricky to hunt!
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