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How Much Should I Call to Turkeys?

druryThe more I talk to other turkey hunters, the more I get confused. Some guys tell me I need to yelp a lot to gobblers. Others tell me I should shut up and that I call to much. What's the right answer? — Ransom Lewis, Jackson, Miss.

Not an easy question, but I will take the easy way out with the answer. Here's a copy of an article I wrote a couple of years ago. — Brian Lovett

When folks ask me what kind of field-caller I am — aggressive or subtle — I typically shrug my shoulders.

“Both, I guess,” I’ll say.

Really?

Sure, why not? I’m not going to pigeon-hole myself into one calling style before I assess a situation and try to determine what a gobbler wants. That’d be pretty stupid.

Still, we turkey hunters love to label callers and calling styles. Some contest guys are typecast as “power callers,” and others are labeled as “routine guys” or “stage callers.” Likewise, in the woods, some guys are said to “make their ears bleed,” yet others like to play coy and hard-to-get.

But which style is best? Is there middle ground? And how do you decipher that when a hunt hangs in the balance?

The Extremes

Old-timers used the soft, subtle approach, mostly because turkeys were far less abundant years ago, and hunters couldn’t risk spooking the only gobbler in the county. Also, many inexperienced hunters are reticent because they’ve heard they’re not supposed to call too much or too loudly to a turkey. As such, they sit in one spot and eke out a few soft clucks once every five or 10 minutes. Then, they usually go home.

However, I’ve enjoyed some great hunts with such callers. About 10 years ago in Alabama, I hunted with a fellow we’ll call Al (because that’s his name). Al was an excellent caller, but he did not like calling to turkeys. He preferred woodsmanship and tactical observation, and he was good at it. He just wouldn’t call.

One morning, Al and I got on a hard-gobbling bird and hunted him for two hours, moving twice in the process and eventually killing the longbeard. During the hunt, Al called fewer than 10 times, some of which were so soft I could barely hear them. The turkey, meanwhile, gobbled 150 times. To me, that represented the extreme in soft, passive calling.

Fast-forward 11 years to Missouri. World-champion caller Mark Drury and I got on a pair of gobblers less than an hour before Missouri’s 1 p.m. closure. The birds gobbled well, but they were on a neighboring property across a county road, so we had to make something happen.

Mark poured the coals to them, aggressively cutting and yelping at the birds in rapid-fire fashion. The gobblers fired up and moved closer but then seemed to stall. After a quick strategic move to a timbered ridge, Mark again hammered the turkeys. The ensuing gobbling show was one of the finest I’ve witnessed, and those longbeards ducked under two fences and crossed the road to approach within 30 steps of my barrel. I shot the strutter at 12:59 p.m., ending a hunt for the ages.

So, which extreme tactic worked best? Both, obviously, in the situation they were used. Al could have easily called five times as much to that Alabama bird, but he didn’t feel comfortable doing that, and used his woodcraft and knowledge of the land to put us at a killing setup. It worked.

To be fair, Mark’s hand was forced, because we had little time to pull off an improbable hunt. He had to make something happen, but it’s a credit to his calling prowess that he did. Again, it worked.

My calling philosophy has always been somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the aggressive side. Gobblers respond to hens, after all, and they respond with more gusto to excited or agitated hen calling. However, I’ve seen the soft, subtle approach — even silence —work too many times to ignore it.

The key, it seems, is to have the woods savvy to know when either calling extreme is appropriate.

Conventional Wisdom

The problem, of course, is that many turkey hunts fall in the vast gray area between those extremes, and you’ll encounter dozens of varying circumstances — including hens, barriers or fruity turkey moods — that can affect a gobbler’s demeanor and responses. How do you approach those all-too-common in-between hunts?

The best and most common answer is to take a gobbler’s temperature. Yes, that’s a cliche, but its wisdom rings true. You should assess a turkey’s mood and adjust your calling frequency and urgency accordingly. A gobbler can’t tell you how much hen-yelping it will take to lure him in, but he provides clues in his response or lack thereof.

Tad Brown, renowned caller and call developer with Flambeau Outdoors, probably summed it up best. He likens taking a gobbler’s temperature to striking up a conversation with someone on a bus. Sometimes, the person is chatty, and you strike up a lively back-and-forth conversation. Other times, the person doesn’t say much, and although you might converse, talk is often spotty and brief. And other times, the conversation falls somewhere in between, with streaks of chattiness broken with periods of silence.

Likewise, in the turkey woods, if a gobbler responds to every calling sequence and moves toward your setup, you can call a lot to him. You’ll keep him fired up, and he’ll let you know where he’s at with every gobble. Plus, it’s just plain fun to experience those increasingly rare blow-your-ears-back hunts.

If a bird only gobbles at every three or four calling sequences and doesn’t move much, it’s probably wise to tone down your calling to soft clucking, purring and yelping. Call every few minutes, and act like a disinterested hen going about her daily routine. Moving also helps in such situations, because turkeys rarely sit and yelp in one place for long.

But Wait ...

Yes, you’re right; those examples are also extremes. What about a bird that starts out chatty but shuts up? Or a turkey that only gobbles after you haven’t called for five minutes? Or a bird that suddenly fires up but moves away? Or a bird that howls but won’t budge?

Tough questions, and I could write articles about every one of them — and more. When it comes to subtle versus aggressive calling in such situations, you can only assess the circumstances, try to determine why a turkey is acting the way it is, and then formulate a calling strategy.

Above all, remember this: Be confident in your calling, and never be afraid to call. Also, when you’re in doubt, call. If you think you should yelp at a turkey, go ahead and yelp at him. Don’t be timid or scared. The worst-case scenario is that the gobbler will ignore you. You’ll have done no harm.

Remember, hen turkeys yelp, cutt, cluck, purr, cackle and make all sorts of other calls all the time. Even if you cutt on a box call at what turns out to be an inopportune time, a gobbler doesn’t think, “Crap, there’s a guy with a box call over there trying to kill me.”
So be aggressive this spring. Or be subtle. Or be somewhere in between, depending on your best assessment of the situation.

Observe, analyze and adapt your calling. And if that doesn’t work, try the opposite. Hey, they’re turkeys.

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