Photo courtesy of Jay Affinito.
Turkey expert Jay Affinito of Esperance, N.Y. has been a student of the sport for the past 20 years, but has dabbled in the sport since the late 1960s. His favorite aspect of the sport is “talking turkey.” When he yelps, the gobblers listen!
A New York Department of Environmental Conservation instructor in hunter safety, Affinito offers tips on how to locate, roost and set up on turkeys.
His excitement over the sport is demonstrated by his amazing collection of handmade yelpers and box calls created by craftsmen around the country. His favorite is a box call made by his friend and mentor, the late Ernest Cotton of Warner Robbins.
Affinito stated that when he goes hunting, he takes with him as many as five box calls, a diaphragm call and a few yelpers.
“If one call doesn’t appeal to a gobbler, another one will,” he said. “One time, I tried two different box calls, and they didn’t work. So I tried a yelper, and a big gobbler walked right up to me.”
Affinito practices diligently with his calls. That, he says, makes it easier to mimic the complex rhythm and volume of the many turkey vocalizations.
“The more you practice your calls and scout the areas you plan to hunt, the more you can learn about the sounds the local turkeys make,” he said.
Affinito begins his scouting a month before opening day. He said that knowledge is the key to a successful hunt, and his main objective is to scout for longbeards every chance he gets.
Affinito hunts the Duanesburg, Cherry Valley, Mariaville and Schoharie Valley regions of New York.
“I am very familiar with these areas,” he said. “They are filled with pastures, woodlots and croplands, and it’s easy to come up with a good strategy.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
At dusk, the birds routinely head to their roosting sites. Affinito recommends that hunters go out before the season begins, and especially the night before a hunt, and “put the gobblers to bed.”
“Listen for the gobblers to sound off on their own,” Affinito said. “If you don’t hear them gobbling, try a few crow calls, box call cuts or a few yelps. If there are any longbeards around, they will either answer with a gobble, or you’ll hear their wing thrusts. If you hear a longbeard gobble or fly up to the roost, you’ll know where to be early the next morning.”
Quietly sneak into the area before sunrise the next morning and set up 100 to 150 yards from the gobbler’s roost. Wait for the tom to blast off.
“It’s always a good feeling when you plan a morning hunt in an area where you’ve put a longbeard to bed the night before. It may seem like a done deal, but remember that turkeys can be unpredictable. Just when you think you have things all figured out, the gobbler will sound off, fly down and walk way in the opposite direction, gobbling repeatedly and totally ignoring your calls.”
Affinito noted that pre-hunt preparation is important.
“Always bring decoys, yelpers, box calls, shotgun and shells (yes, some hunters do forget to bring their guns or shells!),” Affinito cautioned.
“Sometimes a tom will run straight in to the fakes. But it’s also known for some birds will stop 50 yards out, go into a strut and wait for the ‘hen’ to walk the rest of the way to them. Having a decoy or two on hand, or some different-sounding calls, could eliminate some of their hesitation.”
Affinito recommends that hunters carry life-sized foam hens and a foam jake.
“When woods hunting, place a fake hen 20 yards from your setup, so that you’re sitting between the decoy and the longbeard you’re yelping to,” Affinito said. “That way, if the tom walks in and stops 50 yards from the fake, he’ll be well in range.”
Most hunters these days wear camouflaged clothing. But they forget that incoming longbeards have very keen eyesight.
“I sit with my back against a wide tree. The wider, the better because it helps to break your outline and hide you from the incoming tom. It also helps provide a stable shooting position,” he noted.
“Try to find a place with a few extra feet of elevation. This increases your visibility when you scan the foliage for incoming birds.”
BRINGING THEM IN
Affinito’s hunting day begins at 3:30 a.m., an hour before dawn, and he plans to be in the woods before the turkeys leave their roosts.
Affinito often does the calling for two or three other hunters.
“Things works best if someone else does the calling. It distracts the bird from the shooter,” he said. “I start out with one of my handcrafted yelpers and switch to a few cuts on the box call.”
When he hears a bird gobble, he’ll begin the matriarchal call — three soft yelps.
“The soft yelps are important until the birds hit the ground and begin to assemble for the day.”
CAN YOU CALL TOO MUCH?
Affinito likes to hear the birds gobble and has been accused of over-calling. But in his opinion, no one can ever call too much.
In fact, Affinito admits he is relentless once he hears the gobble from a longbeard.
“Place a fake hen 20 yards from your setup, so that you’re sitting between the decoy and the longbeard you’re yelping to,” Affinito said. “That way, if the tom walks in and stops 50 yards from the fake, he’ll be well in range.”
“I think a lot of calling gets the tom excited,” Affinito said. “He’ll strut right up to the decoys and begin to fan and parade around for what he thinks is a whole flock of eager hens.”
Affinito noted that most hunters fail because they either use continuous yelps or under-call. He said that as long as yelps are uttered in three-note sequences, the birds will respond.
If no gobblers respond after 45 minutes, Affinito advises hunters to pick up and move to another spot.
“Time is short, and you can’t waste it on a barren tree.”
Affinito said his most memorable experience was when he worked on a bird for 12 days, prior to taking longtime friend Rick Mayo on his first hunt.
“I called six or seven times, and finally called in the longbeard with a box call and a diaphragm. When the bird got close, Rick said, ‘I see a blue head!’ The tom kept on gobbling his way right up to the decoy, maybe 20 yards to the left of Rick, who made a perfect shot right to the upper neck.”
Affinito stated that safety, sportsmanship, ethics and respect for the wildlife and the weapon you’re using are all important aspects of an enjoyable turkey hunt.
“First and foremost is safety,” he said. “Most spring turkey hunters wear camouflage and they are hard to spot. Make sure you see a turkey before you aim your gun.”
Sportsmanship and ethics are important, too.
“If another hunter is in the same patch of woods,” he said, “find another gobbler. If you’ve done your pre-season scouting, you’ll have more than enough places to try. New York is full of birds right now, and there are plenty of gobblers out here.”
Affinito likes to begin each season by reciting a poem he wrote for his call-making friend, Robert Clifft:
THE LAST CALL
“What’s that sound?” Ol’ Tom
Thought as he flew.
The big hen turned
And called back, too.
His feathers were puffed
And his tail was fanned.
His big wings scraped leaves
And made lines in the sand.
He strode to the left
And strutted back right.
His feathers glistened
In the morning’s first light.
And off in the distance
That lone hen kept yelpin’.
Ol’ Tom wanted to mate,
and that lone hen wasn’t helpin’.
The lone hen made clucks
And purred so enticin’,
It made that big hen
Feel like fightin’.
So after that lone hen they did go,
The big hen, the flock,
And Ol’ Tom in tow.
Ol’ Tom was spittin’ and drummin';
Toward that lone hen
They kept comin’.
The hunter’s heart rate peaked
As those turkeys did sneak,
For they knew not the danger
Of running in out of anger.
And when the hunter’s gun did roar,
Ol’ Tom’s mighty gobble
Was heard no more.
And as the hunter stood over his bird,
Ol’ Tom realized it was
“The Last Call” he had heard!