Making Something Happen
Don't get involved in the "passive vs. aggressive" argument. Instead, assess each situation and then act accordingly.
It's a fun topic to read about and discuss, but in the real world I've found that the best hunters are those who refuse to be drawn into the argument about which approach is better. They know that the best way to kill a turkey is to not try to force a turkey to do something -- you can't bend a gobbler to your will. Rather, it means assessing each hunt, each day and each turkey on an individual basis and acting accordingly.
Eddie Salter, one of the turkey hunting fraternity's most popular characters, loves to run and gun. In fact, he told me on a Florida hunt a few years ago that sitting in one place for too long "just kills me." Well, with one morning left to hunt and an unfilled tag in my pocket thanks to some seriously henned-up toms, Salter pulled the last trick out of his playbook: We hiked into a flooded cattle pasture an hour before daylight and pitched a tent blind smack in the middle of it. Less than two hours later, just as water was beginning to seep through my snake boots, we were watching an impressive show as three toms, four jakes and at least 20 hens paraded at the edge of gun range. Salter's almost nonstop calling caused a few of the birds to casually drift just close enough, enabling me to kill my most impressive gobbler ever -- an Osceola with 13/4-inch ice-pick-sharp spurs.
Turkey guru Ray Eye is another aggressive hunter from whom I've learned a lot, and I've seen him literally rush a loud but planted gobbler in an attempt to get in the bird's face and force it to make a move. But the first bird I ever killed with him was a hesitant 2-year-old that came in after the hard-gobbling tom we'd set up on flew down and took his harem with him. Eye knew it was pointless to continue trying to work the dominant bird, but he was sure there was at least one more tom in the group. So he went silent for a while, and then put forth two or three series of light yelps that pulled the shy tom right past me for an easy shot.
I can think of another dozen examples where being flexible and willing to change the original plan made a difference, but I never discussed it at length until a Florida trip last spring with Michael Waddell, host of the widely acclaimed Realtree Road Trips television show. Like anyone trying to produce a quality TV show, Waddell doesn't have the luxury of waiting until the moment is right to work a bird on his terms. His job is all about adapting because he needs to record action -- and lots of it -- even when birds are being difficult.
Waddell's goal, he said, is to make something happen. To do that, here are five points he always keeps in mind no matter where or when he hunts.
1. Adding Realism
Waddell's calling ability ranks with the best of them. In fact, it was a win at a Georgia calling contest that caught the attention of Realtree founder Bill Jordan and landed Waddell a position with the camouflage company more than a dozen years ago. His calling ability has earned him countless contest titles, a fact he says is irrelevant when he's in the woods.
"It's about realism, and that means a lot more than making perfect-sounding calls," Waddell says.
Sometimes creating realism means breaking some rules. For example, when a bird won't cooperate and getting closer isn't an option because of terrain or a property line, Waddell's go-to tactic is to walk slowly in tight loops 50 to 100 yards from the setup, lightly cutting on a box call or diaphragm the whole time.
"I think this is one good way to add realism," Waddell says. "I'm imitating a hen that's in her own zone. She's moving, but she's not leaving that zone. Gobblers are so good at pinpointing sounds that, to me, sitting in the same place and giving him the same old calls for a long time isn't very realistic.
"A hen doesn't stand in one place and yelp, cluck or cutt for very long. When you get out and move around you're giving him a different sound that I think is a lot more like the real thing."
A couple of notes about all of that: Regarding the safety rule about not walking and calling, understand that we were having this conversation while hunting a friend's large ranch in northern Florida. There was only one way into the place, so dealing with other hunters wasn't an issue.
Second, we found ourselves in the above situation during our first setup on the first morning. After messing with this gobbler for nearly an hour, we packed it up and moved on. In Waddell's world, the rule about never leaving a gobbling bird is followed by "... unless you think you can do better somewhere else."
2. Have to Believe
Running and gunning, of which Waddell does plenty, isn't moving for the sake of moving, he says. You have to know you're covering ground in a smart way, and that means your calls have to count.
"If you're going to be a run-and-gunner, you need confidence in a shock-type of turkey call," Waddell explains. "That confidence is everything. If I have a call that I trust will make a turkey gobble, and then a turkey does gobble at it, then I believe I can kill him."
Waddell's go-to call for striking is a sharp, high-pitched box. His most recent favorite is a Hunter's Specialties Ol' Mama Hen. Depending on the situation, he might also use a four-reed diaphragm.
"Every time you run that call, you have to believe you're working a turkey," he says.
3. Don't Discount Friction
Waddell believes the box call is underrated. In fact, he says if he could carry only one call, it would be a box.
"At every setup I'll have a box call in my hand and a diaphragm in my mouth," Waddell says. "I measure the success of my calls by how much they sound like a good, solid box. Look at Eddie Salter. Everyone knows Eddie as a mouth-call man, but when you listen to him, he sounds like he's running a box call.
"People think of a box as a beginner's call. Well, it can be an easy call to use, but you get so much more out of it if you experiment with different ways to run it -- different pressure points and different grips. My best advice is to treat it like an instrument and learn to play it like one."
I was glad to hear Waddell reinforce something I already knew. Of the many great turkey hunters with whom I've been fortunate to learn from during the past few years, I can only think of two who didn't carry at least one box call.
4. Get into the Rhythm
Back to realism for a moment. Good calling is about how you sound, of course, but just as important is the cadence you impart to your calls.
"Rhythm is everything, in my opinion," Waddell says. "You don't have to be a contest caller to call turkeys. Study the natural rhythms you hear when a hen makes any kind of call. And study the situations she uses them in. How does that relate to the way a gobbler reacts? You have to try to figure out why a turkey is doing what it's doing. That helps you plan your strategy. And that's when it becomes fun because now you can start hunting as opposed to guessing what kind of calling you should be doing.
"Remember, not every turkey you 'work' is a hard-gobbling turkey that responds red-hot to your calls. Sometimes pouring on the heavy calling is the worst thing you can do. Ther e's no magic way to know the right response to every situation. It's just something you have to learn through experience."
5. Trust Your Setup
It seems most turkey hunting discussions revolve around calling, but Waddell says he wonders if maybe too much emphasis is placed on calling.
"A call is still only one tool," he says. "When I'm hunting ground I'm familiar with, I don't call nearly as much. There just aren't as many questions in my mind. Once you have knowledge of turkeys' habits in an area, then it goes back to what I said earlier about getting down to the business of hunting turkeys and not just calling to them.
"One example where this is really important is when you have henned-up gobblers that just aren't responding to calling. To me, the only good way to hunt henned-up gobblers -- the way to make something happen -- is to use your knowledge about which areas the turkeys are using and set up a decoy. As long as you trust your setup, you can still have a good hunt during what is usually a tough time of the season."
Popularity of Gobbler Decoys is Increasing
Hunters have been using hen decoys for years. Then, jake decoys came into vogue. But the use of commercial gobbler decoys is a relatively new concept.
From my observations and conversations with other hunters, gobbler decoys seem to be most effective early in the season when toms are eager to fight for their place in the pecking order. That's not to say they couldn't be effective at other times, but the results seem more predictable before the heaviest breeding gets underway.
Last spring in Florida, I killed two gobblers that responded to gobbler decoys on the first two days of the season. I then watched two more toms get suckered in by male fakes, presenting slam-dunk shots for two other hunters.
My first kill was on opening morning when I hunted with Realtree's Dodd Clifton and his friend Ted Jaycox, host of The World of Hunting TV show. Clifton had staked out a Montana Decoy gobbler silhouette in a wide fire lane. Less than a half-hour after daylight we were working a pair of toms that came up the lane slowly and cautiously. When they saw the decoy, they broke into a horse trot and closed from 50 yards to 20 yards in a matter of seconds. They came so fast they almost got past us before I could pull the trigger on the lead bird.
The next day I hunted with Michael Waddell and his made-for-TV decoy, Road Trips Ralph, a taxidermy-mount tom. Waddell cut Ralph's beard down to jake length, lopped off his spurs and replaced his tail with a ragged tail fan that he flips up and down with a length of fishing line. The result is a young-looking, strutting tom that's been beat up a few times too many.
When we struck a pair of hot toms that sounded less than 100 yards away, we quickly positioned Ralph and a Hazel Creek hen on a logging road and dove for cover. The gobblers were there in minutes, making a beeline for Ralph. We had set up so hastily that the decoys were only 10 yards from us, and for a moment I wondered if maybe we'd get busted. As it turned out, we could have been dressed in orange and it wouldn't have mattered.
The birds circled Ralph, purring angrily for more than two minutes. They took turns flogging the decoy with their wings and spurs before Ralph finally tipped over. As the somewhat-spooked bullies skulked away, the cameraman finally gave me the go-ahead to shoot one, and I did, capping a great performance that was caught on video for Realtree Road Trips and Realtree turkey hunting DVDs.
Gobbler decoys are here to stay, as evidenced by the many new offerings from manufacturers. Turkey & Turkey Hunting will cover the use of jake and gobbler decoys more extensively in future issues.
As is the case when using any decoy, safety should be your No. 1 concern. Using a gobbler decoy on public land would be foolish. Limit their use to private land where you know you're the only hunter with permission. Set up so you have a wide field of view where you can spot anyone who might approach, and never transport the decoy uncovered.
-- Jim Schlender