Yeah, well, it appears to us that you deserve the accolades. I'm looking forward to the day that we can share a hunting camp someplace...
Your calling questions are exactly the right ones, in my opinion. They are the same ones I had when I first met up with Ray Eye, many years ago now, and instantly knew he was the one who calls more like a real wild turkey than anyone in the world. I have sat maybe 10 yards away from him in the dark, as it begins to get light, and listened carefully as he calls to turkeys on the roost, and it is the most amazing thing to hear. Unlike virtually any other caller, if you close your eyes and listen, there is no way to distinguish between Ray and the real birds. It doesn't sound good, it doesn't sound "wow, that's realistic," it sounds like a real turkey doing it.
From that first trip on, I have probably asked him 5,000 questions about calling, and have spent years and years trying things out and listening to real birds out there where they live, and have come to believe completely in the following things:
* If real wild hens will answer your calling and come to it, you are doing some things right. Even during the breeding season, the hens are not as likely to be ruled by hormones and therefore are generally more clear-headed about what you sound like. If you can get them to react to your calling, and get them excited, then you know you are doing a lot of things right. Ray also taught me to tune calls (such as box calls) by bringing them out to the woods, along with a screwdriver or allen wrench, and play with the tones until the real hens open up and respond to them. He and his brother Marty have done this for people over the years, bringing a number of calls in a cardboard box out there, in advance of the season, and tuning them all so that wild hens will yap back at them, and they know those callers are good to go...
* I think you can record your calling, with the mic at a distance, and get a good sense for how it sounds. This is particularly true if there are real turkeys calling back and forth with you as it is recorded. You can compare what you sound like to what they sound like.
* Real turkeys don't always sound like some pure, perfect rendition of a yelp, or a string of cutting, or a series of excited puts. They sound like donkeys half the time. Real turkeys sound funky, if you expect them to sound musical all the time. There is a guttural tone to it, and their calls rise and fall both in volume and pitch. I know you know what I'm talking about. They make a wider variety of sounds than you think they do, especially when they get excited. For me, one of the great joys of turkey hunting is simply getting a hen excited and listening to what kinds of sounds she makes, and trying to imitate those same sounds as she is doing them. Ray has often told me that we should listen to the turkeys, and they will teach us how to call to them. He is right on the money with that, but you have to get to the point that you can make that happen without just get lucky enough to hear it happening on its own. I believe it takes dedication in terms of practice, so you can build your skills to the point that you can futz with your calling devices (especially mouth calls) and just kind of 'know' how to produce the sounds you hear. But then, it takes confidence, as we have been talking about in here, to make some excited turkey sounds out there, in an effort to get real turkeys excited and putting forth these sounds. Even when it comes to yelping, there is a huge difference between the mundane yelps a hen might make when it answers you for the first time, and what she does when she "opens up her mouth" in response to the exchange between the two of you. As this all gets going, it's also incredible to discover how many other turkeys were in the vicinity the entire time, and have now been inspired to join in on the conversation, and then comes all these black blobs through the woods and the next thing you know there are turkeys right by you. None of this will happen if you just go out there and sound like a monotone, machine-like caller that produces the same series of yelps every time!
* As you mention here, the real hens are the barometer, in spring, of how your calling sounds. If you can fool them into talking back with you, and get them to come, your calling sounds good enough! Also, as you suggest, if you get real toms to answer your gobbler yelping and come in, you are also doing extremely well with your calling! They know the difference between hen yelping and gobbler yelping, and if they come to it, you are doing things right.
One last thing: real turkeys call to each other every day of the year, and when they get excited, they sound excited. When you see this, you become satisfied that there is no such thing as a "call-shy" turkey. When you think about it, there is no logic behind the notion that a group of wild turkeys would suddenly stop responding to the calls of their own kind, and yet this remains one of the firm beliefs of a lot of spring turkey hunters, and that belief is used to criticize hunters who call a lot, and call excitedly, to turkeys. Because you are out there doing that, they say, you are screwing things up for everybody else. It's the biggest bunch of B.S. permeating hunting camps everywhere, and it feeds into the no-confidence thing we have been talking about. If you actually believe wild turkeys will "shut up" if you call to them, then you are going to become this silent, moping hunter who blames other people for the fact that you did not kill a turkey, which ruins the fun of the sport for everyone. I hope I live long enough to see that belief drained out of our sport, so we can all go out there (after practicing enough to sound real) and have a ton of fun calling up turkeys, any day of the year we feel like doing it.