The Tough Tom Secrets of Pro Turkey Guides

Are the gobblers you hunt tough to call, deadly silent, or henned up? Don't give up yet. Instead, try the tactics that work for professional guides Joe Kelly and his sons.

by Terry Madewell

Every experienced turkey hunter has a dream . . . and it's essentially the same dream. Mine is of being deep into a hardwood ridge before dawn on a clear, crisp spring morning. I'm standing there with a good hunting buddy - anyone who loves to hunt turkeys - and we hear a gobbler sound off in the distance. Immediately, we both point in the same direction. (I said it was a dream.)

We move deftly into calling position without alerting the bird. The gobbler hammers back with an aggressive double-gobble to my cutt. I yelp, and he gobbles. I purr, and he gobbles. I cluck, and he gobbles. We are well concealed, and soon he struts into view, a magnificent monarch of the spring woods in all his colorful glory. He parades within range of our shotgun, beard dragging the ground. A single cluck causes him to stop and stretch his long neck out . . .

For most hunters, the dream hunting-scenario involves calling a big gobbler off the roost. That is the way many think every turkey hunt is supposed to be all the time.

But in the harsh light of reality (a harsh light that usually comes about two hours after sunrise), most hunters have not achieved that dream hunt.

Fortunately for hunters who find themselves birdless at midmorning, the chance of taking a gobbler has not ended. In fact, it's actually just begun - if you have a good game plan for taking tough toms.

Joe Kelly and his three sons, Raymond, Rodney and Scott, have several game plans for tough situations that are faced by turkey hunters. As topnotch professional turkey guides, they have to be able to produce turkey hunting action regardless of the situation.

Here's guide Joe Kelly with a bird that couldn't be called. Kelly stalked the bird for a half-hour as it fed in a food plot. Photo by Terry Madewell

I have hunted with Joe and his sons for many years and have learned that turkey hunting is more than just an early-morning sport; long after the roost hunt segment of the day has ended, a well-prepared hunter still has several chances to take a turkey.

"We hunt every day of the season and often hunt in different states to extend our season. The small number of successful early-morning roost hunts we encounter would surprise most inexperienced turkey hunters. However, by continuing the hunt after the birds have flown down and scattered, our odds of success get surprisingly high," Joe Kelly said.

"I've long maintained that by far the most effective time for calling in a bird for my clients is after the roost hunting is ended. Midmorning hunting is actually when we take most of our gobblers, and they usually come in gobbling. Without a doubt, the early-morning hunt, calling birds off the roost, can be thrilling. But anytime I can get a gobbler within range, it's a special hunt. The ability to be versatile is the key to successful turkey hunting," Kelly noted.

One of the Kelly clan's favored tactics is walking and calling to locate a gobbler. Many top hunters use this strategy, known as cutt and run, but the Kellys' technique is more subdued than tactics employed by many hunters. Joe slips through the woods quietly, using old logging roads or trails. Often it's necessary to cover a lot of ground before finding a gobbler that has strayed off alone or has been abandoned by the hens. Walking and calling will often put you within range of their hearing. When that happens, turkeys will sometimes come to you on a dead run.

"The idea behind this ploy is first to get a gobbler's attention," said Scott Kelly. Thus, the soft, seductive calls are not really the best to begin with. Scott uses loud, repeated, aggressive calling to attract a distant gobbler's attention. The "lost" call of the hen, a long series of 15 to 25 or more yelps that first rise and then fall in a pleading effort to get a response from another turkey is the most effective tactic in this case, Scott said.

"Walk a couple hundred yards or so between calls, but not too far, because you don't want to be right on top of a gobbler when he responds. If you're too close, you'll get spotted before you can set up. And trust me," the lanky Kelly said, smiling, "a gobbler can get there in a real hurry when you're calling him like this."

Typically, Scott will wait long enough to give a gobbler a few moments to consider his options. "Always keep listening, because many times I'll hear a gobble shortly after I start walking again. Maybe the bird took a minute before he responded, or perhaps he's approaching fast and was so far away I didn't hear his initial gobble. You've got to be alert to hunt in this manner, or you'll find yourself face to face with a longbeard at 30 yards. I don't know who is the most surprised, the gobbler or me, when this has happened, but you can bet he wins most of those staring contests. That's why it's essential to move quietly and listen for any turkey sound," he advised.

When the bird gobbles, the Kellys will quickly set up, since the bird may be coming in on a dead run. Thus, it's imperative to select a good calling site to make your "lost" call from. You may have to set up in a hurry, and you may not have time to move. You'll also need to read the mood of even the most interested gobbler.

"Once the gobbler is coming, I'll give him whatever works best in terms of calls. If the turkey responds best to loud and aggressive calling, that's what I'll give him. If soft and subtle clucks and purrs keep him super-charged, then I'll give him that," Scott emphasized.

For tough turkeys, especially those that have been hunted and called to before, the Kellys believe successful hunting requires the use of different sounding calls. The tube call - a Kelly trademark - is their call of choice when the situation is tough.

"The tube call can change your turkey hunting life," joked Raymond, the youngest of the brothers. "Turkeys can get accustomed to hearing the same pitch and sounds from box or mouth calls, so by giving them something different and unique, we can often get them to respond and work in, gobbling every breath. If you don't use a tube call, I'd suggest learning how if you want to take tough gobblers consistently. But the key is to be able to make calls different from what the turkeys have been bombarded with," he added.

For most hunters, the definition of a "tough turkey" is a henned-up bird. But these birds can be had. My introduction to the tube call was one that dramatically demonstrated this. Joe Kelly and I encountered two very tough toms that had live hens right there with them. We were looking at two long-be

arded gobblers about 200 yards away in a clear-cut area. They were in full strut, displaying for the hens that circled them. The birds were in no mood to "come hither." In fact, the hens seemed to be trying to lead the gobblers farther away.

I was frustrated, and I suggested that we leave these gobblers for a while and either circle them to set up in a different spot or seek more willing birds. We could always come back and try these later when perhaps the hens were gone, I suggested.

"Naw, we haven't even gotten down to the serious stuff yet," Kelly responded. With that, he grabbed up the homemade tube call that always dangles from a lanyard around his neck and began making calls that immediately grabbed the full attention of both gobblers. They came out of strut and sent booming gobbles in our direction. When they began a brisk walk in our direction, my partner had to combat the live hens' cutts with his own variation of a "fired-up" hen.

Within 10 minutes, the birds had traversed the clearcut with the hens in tow. I made the shot on the lead gobbler at 25 yards. At the shot, Joe demonstrated the versatility of the call again. After Joe made loud, quick clucks in a series he later described as an "assembly" call, the second gobbler (which had run in the opposite direction at my shot) stopped and then gobbled and returned to the side of the downed gobbler. Either of us could have taken the second gobbler.

When the gobbler finally walked off, my friend held the tube out for my inspection and said, "If you don't learn anything else, learn how to use this call. It can literally make any turkey sound you'll ever need."

I did, and it does.

While the tube call is a Kelly trademark, the point here is to have an ace-in-the-hole type of call. Use one that you are good with that is capable of producing different sounds from the ones the birds in your area typically hear. It can be the key to making a tough turkey come trotting.

Many hunters will give up on a bird they can see or hear but can't work in within a reasonable amount of time. Successful hunters don't give up so easily. Such a situation occurred to Joe and me late one morning. Walking the last leg of a wide sweep through the woods, Joe and I were talking about strategic plans for the next morning's turkey hunt. We had been in the vicinity of a gobbler, but he wouldn't come in within range. Sometimes turkeys are tough to call in for no apparent reason. Just being a gobbler is enough reason, I suppose.

As we walked into sight of a big field, we suddenly stopped almost in midstride at the sight before us. Three huge gobblers were standing on the far side of the field we were approaching. Based on their lack of reaction to our presence, they had not seen our movement. We were still within the cover of the woods, and the birds were some 350 yards away.

After my initial excitement, the difficulty of the situation brought me back to earth. The birds were in the middle of a huge field and were headed away from us. There were hens with them. This was a tough turkey situation.

"We'll stalk them," my partner said.

At first, I thought I had not heard correctly. Stalking a turkey is usually a very low-percentage game, but I had hunted with Joe enough to respect his opinion. The plan was to make our way to a creekbed on the far side of the birds and crawl and wade through the water to a position near the birds where we would have a reasonable chance of luring them our way. Patience is also a Kelly virtue. For 45 minutes, we worked our way along the creek.

Our final approach was a belly crawl to a calling position less than 100 yards from the birds. We were in ideal calling position. I thought I was prepared for almost anything, but I wasn't. When Joe made the first calls, the formerly nonresponsive gobblers turned and began running in our direction. It was every man for himself, and the hunt was successfully concluded a few moments later. The adjective "intense" doesn't even come close to describing that hunt. Odds are very high the birds would have continued to ignore calls from our original sighting position. By using a bit of out-of-the-ordinary logic, we got the bird.

Another overlooked turkey tactic is to hunt feeding areas. If they don't bag a bird first thing in the morning, many hunters will hunt aimlessly or simply go home. Instead, locate a feeding area. It can be a wheat field, chufa patch, hardwood mast or any area with plenty of fresh scratchings. Wherever there are turkeys, the turkeys will be eating something. Turkeys do not have to be on-site at the time you arrive, either. This tactic requires patience, but it will produce.

One of Rodney Kelly's favored tactics is to set up a small blind and then sit and call intermittently. Rodney will often use two calls at the same time to imitate the sounds of contented, feeding turkeys. A mouth call and a slate work great in tandem, as do a tube and a push-pull box.

"Occasionally, I'll use a few loud yelps to attract the attention of a distant bird. If that's the case, as he approaches, he'll pick up on the softer clucks, purrs and feeding turkey sounds. Often the gobbler will walk right up on you without a gobble, since he's really coming to a feeding area to eat and for companionship. Although a spring gobbler seems to always have mating on his mind, just the thought of other turkeys around seems to add an important security factor," Rodney added.

Many times gobblers looking for food approach silently or make only soft clucks. The burden is on the hunter to remain still while calling.

The final Joe Kelly tactic I'll relate may sound strange, but it is deadly. Sometimes the only way to get a hard-core gobbler to approach you is to make him think you're leaving him high and dry. Walk away from him - but not too far. On some occasions, the hard-hunted birds get extremely wary about coming to any call. These veteran gobblers have had some close calls and seem to insist that the hen come to them. They may gobble a response to every call you make, but they simply will not walk on in, even though you may change calling locations and perform some of the tactics already described.

"I've had excellent success simply walking directly away from the bird," Joe said. "Even at that, I'll cup my hands and pitch the sound away from the bird to make the sound even more distant. Sometimes, I follow with a gobble from my tube call, one of the few times I'll use a gobble call. This tactic works best when you've already had a 30-minute to an hour calling clinic with the gobbler. Apparently, the bearded bird cannot let that hen walk away after investing that much time in her."

On some occasions, a tom will come in on a dead run when confronted with a hen going bye-bye. A great two-man tactic involves the hunter holding at the original calling location while his partner walks away, calling. Lone hunters can slip back into a shooting location without being spotted, and they can silently wait for the gobbler to give chase. It works often enough to be one of Kelly's favored tough-tom tactics.

When the early-morning calling to a roosted bird doesn't produce a strutting gobbler, many hunters are out of luck and ideas. Don't give up.

"You've got to hunt smarter to tag that tough ol' gobbler," Kelly said, sporting a big, knowing grin.

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