March 26, 2021
By Brian Lovett
Great spring turkey hunts follow a lively script: Lots of calling to locate birds, electrifying interaction highlighted by raucous gobbling and then a heart-pounding finish.
But, unfortunately, gobblers don’t always follow that script. In fact, in many areas or during certain phases of spring breeding, longbeards can be unresponsive and frustratingly quiet. Your best yelps and cutting are met with silence. Promising setups stretch for hours, offering no clues as to the whereabouts of turkeys. And after a day or two of such doldrums, you might feel like giving up.
Don’t despair. Silent gobblers are certainly frustrating, but a little knowhow and a few tricks can help you punch your tag.
WHY GOBBLERS GO QUIET
Given their notoriety for sudden changes in mood and behavior, it’s no wonder turkeys sometimes get quiet for seemingly unknown reasons. But many days, you can easily pinpoint factors that create silent woods.
Bad weather, for example, can turn previously vocal birds into voiceless wraiths. During hard, soaking rains, longbeards often feed or hunker down in open areas, seemingly uninterested in strutting or gobbling. High winds can also stymie gobbler activity, though this seems to affect turkeys in relatively open regions, such as Kansas or Nebraska, less than birds in areas with more terrain and timber, where stiff breezes aren’t the daily norm. Likewise, unseasonably cold temperatures can muffle turkeys, although not as much in northern areas where frosty spring days are common. Even low barometric pressure makes turkeys go quiet; as studies have proven birds gobble more during high-pressure conditions.
Often, though, turkey hunters can look in a mirror to see why turkeys go silent. Human pressure in heavily hunted areas generally stifles gobbling, and when hunters are successful it can mean the removal of many vocal, willing birds from the flock. Radio-tracking studies indicate many turkeys disturbed by human contact—whether bumped, shot at or otherwise spooked—simply relocate to less-pressured areas of their home ranges. And any public-land hunter can affirm that birds are far less vocal after periods of heavy pressure, such as opening weekend.
Sometimes gobblers go quiet because of a pretty predictable reason: hens. If a longbeard has a passel of girlfriends nearby, he’s usually less compelled to sound off and is instead content to strut and spit and drum for the ladies. Locator calls or aggressive yelping or cutting might get henned-up toms to gobble once or twice, but those vocalizations are often just “courtesy” gobbles, essentially saying, “Come join the party. I’ll be here.”
These silencing factors can thwart the best efforts of even skilled hunters. However, adapting your mindset and tactics can turn the tables on non-vocal longbeards.
Even the tightest-mouthed turkeys usually won’t stay quiet all day. Often, they’ll gobble a bit from their roost before flydown and sometimes might sound off after they fly up for the night. Use those sparse clues to get as close as possible to roost sites, as setting up near birds on the limb greatly increases your odds of killing a gobbler soon after flydown.
Start by roosting turkeys aggressively during evenings. Find a good listening spot, such as a high ridge or trailhead, or slip close to a traditional roosting area before sundown. Resist the urge to use turkey or locator calls until the sun has slipped well below the horizon and turkeys have flown up to roost.
Then, start with a traditional locator call such as a barred-owl hooter, or run some fly-up cackles on a pot or mouth call. Wait a few seconds for a response. If nothing answers, pause a few minutes, then attempt another sequence or two. Or, switch things up by using a coyote howler or another locator. Often, turkeys won’t answer until it’s almost dark.
When a gobbler responds, note its whereabouts. Using cover, terrain and darkness, slip as close as possible to the bird and attempt to identify its exact location—even the specific tree in which the bird is roosting, if possible. If you’re having trouble pegging him, use more locator calls as needed, but don’t overuse them to the point the turkey ignores them. Then, mark the area on your phone or a mapping app, and slip out undetected.
Identify a good setup near where the turkey will likely fly down, such as an ag field, small meadow, open woods or timbered ridgetop. Return there well before dawn the next morning and slip as close as possible to the bird. Many times, you won’t even need to call, as the gobbler might simply pitch down within range. In other situations, some light tree clucks or tree yelps will let the longbeard know you’re there, and he might pop in for a look after flydown.
Silent gobblers eliminate the first step in a turkey hunter’s game plan: Locating birds and forming a strategy. This is especially true in areas with severe terrain or lots of timber, where it’s difficult to see turkeys in open areas.
When gobbling gets sparse, refer back to pre-season or in-season scouting. Note where you’ve seen turkey tracks, droppings, scratching, feathers, strut marks or dust bowls, and try to determine how fresh that sign is. Then, try to determine how, when and why birds are using those areas. Scratching along an acorn-laden flat, for example, indicates birds like to feed in that area, probably fairly soon after flydown. Tracks through pinch points, such as cattle gates or creek beds, suggest that birds use those areas while traipsing between roosting sites and feeding or loafing spots. And ample droppings and wing feathers in areas of big timber often reveal a frequently used roost.
Use your recon to identify likely places to cold-call where you might intercept traveling, feeding, loafing or strutting turkeys. Then, get comfortable and spend a few hours calling, listening and observing. Pop-up blinds are great for such setups; they let you move and stretch without getting busted by unseen birds. Even if you sit with your back against a tree, make comfort a priority and it will boost your patience.
This passive approach isn’t as appealing as cutting and running while trying to locate vocal birds, but it’s far safer with quiet turkeys. Bumbling through the woods while blasting calls is a sure way to spook unresponsive birds.
Don’t be afraid to call to silent turkeys after setting up. However, mix up your sounds and keep things realistic. Arrange several pot calls and a box around you, and run one every few minutes, switching up sounds and tones. Throw in a mouth call, tube call or wingbone for extra variety.
Above all, strive to make your sequences natural. Generally, start with softer calling, such as plain yelps or clucks and purrs. Try to envision how a hen might call as she walks along a ridge or through a meadow, and mimic those vocalizations. You can get louder and more aggressive at times, but do so sparingly. Don’t get carried away. And always listen for distant gobbles or the sound of spitting and drumming, which might indicate a quiet strutter is closing in.
Spring hunters typically use pretty basic calling sequences, re-creating hen vocalizations to stimulate responses and interest from gobblers focused on breeding. But turkeys have a vast vocabulary and interact with each other socially in many varied ways. For example, hens associate with, call to and respond to other hens every day. Jakes and gobblers do the same. Often, replicating that approach can make a difference.
Calling to hens is especially effective with henned-up gobblers. Angering a bossy hen, luring her close with aggressive cutting and yelping and then shooting a quiet strutter that follows her in is a great tactic, but it works best early in the season, when hens are still grouped up, or with hens high in the pecking order.
Usually, you’ll have more success by initially engaging hens with soft, subtle sounds—light yelps, clucking and purring. Old-timers called this “asking for permission,” as those vocalizations simply try to prompt a response from other hens, no matter their mood.
If hens respond with similar soft calling, continue the conversation. Try to spark an interaction and lure them closer. If a hen becomes agitated and ratchets up the intensity of her calling—cutting, yelping or purring aggressively—follow suit and mimic her, again hoping to prompt a response that might pull her and a gobbler suitor within range.
Likewise, jake and gobbler sounds can also work well in spring. Many hunters use jake yelps when working an obviously henned-up gobbler. The hope here is to make him think a youngster is intruding on his turf. Some days, slow, measured gobbler yelps prompt a response from longbeards that refuse to answer hen talk. Gobbling at toms can also spark interest, especially if a longbeard thinks a rival is nearby, or if it’s late in the season when many gobblers group back together in large bachelor flocks.
TAG A TOM
Using somewhat subdued or oddball tactics for unresponsive turkeys will never be as exciting as yelping in a red-hot gobbler. However, these strategies produce spring after spring when birds inevitably get tight-lipped. And when a silent strutter pops into range, you’ll likely find that outwitting a hush-mouthed monarch during tough conditions can be just as rewarding as collecting a noisy bird.
TOP TURKEY TRIPS
Five great destinations for the gobbler road warrior.
- Kansas holds Rio Grandes in the western two-thirds of the state and Easterns and hybrids in the eastern third. North-central and northeastern Kansas continue to support the most turkeys and have abundant public access. Tags and optional game tags (which allow the harvest of a second turkey in some units) can be purchased over the counter.
HAWKEYE HOT SPOTS
- Long known for heavy Easterns, Iowa features excellent turkey opportunities, especially in the northeastern, southern and north-central portions of the state. Non-resident spring hunters must have applied for a tag back in January. If you didn’t do so, you’re out of luck this season, but there’s always next year.
- The Land of Lincoln might be a sleeper turkey state compared to its neighbors, but it offers excellent spring opportunities for hard-gobbling Easterns. Hunters must apply for spring permits, but unclaimed tags are then distributed through second and third lotteries, and then over the counter.
- Once the undisputed titan of Eastern turkey hunting, the Show-Me State still provides quality opportunities, especially in the Ozarks and the northern portion of the state. Hunters can purchase tags over the counter.
BADGER STATE BIRDS
- Wisconsin might be the best-kept secret in turkey hunting, as it consistently produces high harvests on big Easterns. The southern two-thirds of the state typically offer the best opportunities. Tags are initially distributed via a drawing, but unclaimed permits—typically for later weeklong hunting periods—are sold over the counter in March.
SIT IN STYLE
If you’re going to wait out a silent gobbler, you might as well do so in comfort.
If gobblers have gone quiet and you’re setting up to intercept birds based on your scouting, chances are you’ll be sitting for extended periods. A comfortable setup is key, and if that doesn’t entail a popup blind and a chair, you should strongly consider a field seat.
The Millennium Treestands Field Pro Turkey Seat ($89.99; millennium-outdoors.com) is an excellent option, whether you’re in it for the long haul on silent birds or running and gunning for active gobblers. The seat’s Comfortmax fabric and fully adjustable back make it comfy and easily adaptable to the given terrain. With a built-in folding seatback, you don’t have to limit setups only to areas where trees offer back support. Meanwhile, its powder-coated aluminum frame will stand up to years of abuse. With a weight of 6.4 pounds and a padded carry strap, the seat is also quite mobile. — Drew Warden