I started turkey hunting a couple of years ago and have had some success. However, I'm still confused about when to call and what calls to make. And there are so many contrasting opinions. What do I really need to know to call in turkeys? — Tom Lane, Elmwood, Wis.
You could write a book on that topic, Tom. But for starters, here's an excerpt from something I wrote a while back. It should get you started in the right direction. — Brian Lovett
Every call you make in the woods should have a purpose. Know what you are saying, and know why you’re calling. Are you trying to strike an unseen turkey? Are you working a hot gobbler? Are you getting under the skin of a boss hen? Know the difference. Much of your woods-calling style should be dictated by turkeys themselves. Here’s my take on some common calling scenarios.
For early-morning roost hunts, conservative almost always wins the day. As dawn breaks and birds start gobbling, try one or two soft tree yelps. In this situation, I only want a gobbler to honor my call. If a bird answers, put your call down and wait. He knows where you are and is probably interested. Calling more will only hang him up on the limb.
If he doesn’t answer you, wait a few minutes and then try again. Then, regardless of whether he answers, it’s probably wise to stop calling till the birds fly down.
There’s one big exception to that philosophy. Often, you’ll quickly know whether a gobbler is alone or with hens. If he’s roosted with hens, you can throw the conservative tree-calling right out the window. You have nothing to lose because the gobbler is probably going to fly down with hens anyway. Start with some fly-down cackles to pretend you’re the first hen on the ground. Then, go to cutting and aggressive yelping, like a hen that just won’t be denied. If you’re lucky — and you have to be, because this won’t work all that often — a bird might pitch down early and try to find that hot hen.
When a gobbler hits the ground, I begin my calling in earnest. I won’t usually mess around with fly-down cackles, but I’ll start with a few soft yelps and maybe transition into some clucking and purring. I just want to sound like a hen that has landed and is feeding or messing around. I always start softly and sparingly, only getting more aggressive if I think I must.
Remember, call just enough to keep a bird coming to you. How much is enough? That depends on the situation. It’s not that your calling will scare him; it won’t. However, the more you call, the more he’ll gobble, and the better the chances he’ll attract a real hen. Further, the more you call, the easier it is for him to pinpoint you, and if your setup isn’t ideal, that can spell trouble. Often, the best tactic is to call enough to get him hot, and then play coy, making him look for you. Many times, a bird won’t just rush in. Why? Again, discern whether he’s with hens. If so, you have a tough job, because he’s probably not going to leave real hens.
Often, a bird without hens still won’t rush in. He might just play the old spring game and take his sweet time approaching. Again, stay fairly conservative, just sounding like a hen; purring, yelping lightly and softly clucking now and then. As long as a gobbler is moving and responding to your call, be patient.
If things don’t progress, one of two things could be happening. Maybe something is blocking the bird’s approach, or perhaps you’re in a spot the turkey doesn’t want to go. Provided you’re safe from his vision, you can try moving to a better setup. This has another advantage, too, because it gives your calling the illusion of movement, which is very natural. Hens don’t usually sit still and yelp from one place for long periods.
Patience is a virtue, but quick calling decisions are also important. Typically, when a turkey gets fired up, you have about a 20- to 30-minute window when he’s red hot and will really work to a call. He might respond after that, but he’ll never be quite as hot, and your odds will have decreased exponentially. So, the quicker you can identify situations and make decisions — whether to sit or move — the better. Of course, that’s tough.
If your roost-hunt blows up — and most will — don’t despair. Stay on the turkey, or try to fire up another. Note how the gobbler responded to your calling, and then try to get one going with similar sounds.
Working a Turkey
At any time of day, working a bird — that is, convincing him to approach within gun range — often presents the toughest decisions.
Again, your style of calling should really depend on a turkey’s “temperature.” That is, if a turkey is really hot and gobbling at everything, you can call to him much more than you would to a tepid turkey. You don’t have to, however. (Remember, it’s wise to call just enough to keep him coming.)
If a turkey is moving and gobbling at least fairly regularly, you don’t have to hammer him, and it’s best that you don’t. By not calling frequently, you put the power of curiosity on your side. In fact, it’s never a bad idea to fire a bird up and then be quiet. That gets him hot and prompts him to hunt for the hen. This is also a great tactic on a hung-up bird that won’t move. Shut up for at least 15 minutes. Sometimes, he’ll break and come in.
Also, with tough birds, call with a partner, who can throw his calling or float it behind you, even moving away like a real hen that’s disinterested. That often helps pull in a difficult bird.
If a bird hangs up but you’re confident in your setup, you must assume the turkey is reacting to something you’re doing. Usually, you’ll have been calling too much, so it’s wise to tone it down or even go silent. When I do this, I’ll give one last series of yelps, put my call down and resolve to wait a half-hour. Often, the turkey will go out of his mind and look for the hen. But either way, you must change something you’re doing. That represents a fairly standard approach.
Want a dissenting opinion? Look no further than well-known hunter Ray Eye. He only stops calling when he shoots because he wants to keep a turkey interested and coming hard. That’s not unnatural, he says, because that’s what hens have done for generations. Further, Eye does not worry about calling hanging a bird up because if the gobbler is truly hot and you’re where he wants to go, he’ll commit.
Up in the Day
Turkeys do 75 percent of their gobbling on the roost or soon after flydown. So, if your morning hunt whiffs, you’ll often be listening to silence by 9 a.m. Sometimes it’s because of bad weather or henned-up turkeys. Often, they just don’t feel like gobbling. Either way, you must locate a gobbler. You have two basic options. Find a good area, set up and blind-call, or hit the road trying to get a hot gobbler to talk. Either way, you’re trying to find an active, lonely gobbler.
Let’s say you choose the passive method, which is often the best option for folks who only have 40 or 80 acres to hunt. Refer back to your scouting, which hopefully revealed a spot that was full of scratching or other sign. Sneak into this area, find a comfortable setup (blinds are not a bad idea), let the woods quiet down a bit, and then start with some soft calling. You’re probably where turkeys want to be, so just act like a lonely hen. Begin with some soft yelps and clucks, and throw in some purring. If nothing happens after a 15 minutes to a half-hour, you can turn up the volume a bit with yelping and cutting. Stay at least an hour. If the spot you’re in has seen loads of turkey activity, you might consider staying two or three.
Run several calls during these sessions. I follow Quaker Boy pro Ernie Calandrelli’s lead, and lay four or five calls out in front of me. Then, I start with the call to the left and work through the calls clockwise. When I reach the final one, I reverse the order and run the calls counter-clockwise. Often, a turkey won’t gobble until the second or third time through the semi-circle.
Many folks favor a more aggressive approach. This is very popular for late-morning hunting, but you have to temper it with some common sense. First, you have to have enough land to do it. You can walk and call through 20 acres pretty quickly. Also, make sure there’s sufficient cover. If the farm you’re hunting has mostly cattle pasture and open woods, you’ll probably spook more turkeys than you’ll work, especially early in the season or when birds aren’t gobbling much. If walking and calling is viable, slip slowly and softly along ridges, logging roads or hillsides, stopping at least every 100 yards to call, and using the terrain to your advantage. Never call unless you have a tree you can dive into immediately; always call before topping a terrain rise or bend.
You never know when a bird might be close, and starting with loud cutting might do more harm than good if he’s 60 yards away. I usually start with a couple of clucks and soft yelps, which a hot turkey will usually answer. I’ve had them hammer at one cluck. If that gets no response, go to moderate yelping and cutting. If that doesn’t work, throw out some yelps but finish with a hard cutting series. If nothing else, this might evoke a shock gobble. If everything fails, move on.
Further, mix up your calls. Don’t just hammer one glass call for an entire ridge or calling sequence. Start with a friction, go to a box and finish with a mouth call, or vice versa. Mix it up. Often, as mentioned, turkeys hone in on one specific sound and might react only to that.
Calling is a skill you can fine-tune during the entire off-season, and I encourage you to do so. That way, when you encounter a gobbler in spring, your calling and calling philosophy will be second nature.