The subject of turkey vocalization, including what it might mean and the relative importance of calling to hunting success, has inspired fired-up debates for years. Human labels for turkey sounds are likely responsible for misunderstandings and probably responsible for enormous lost opportunities.
Take the subject of clucks, putts and cutting: After countless magazine articles, and audio and video recordings, let’s consider that we’re not singing from the same sheet of music. Regardless of what we call them, it’s possible that those calls are just variations of the same root sounds. It makes sense, considering that clucks become putts as a turkey gets more “excited” (hey, we only have human terms for animal behavior), and when strung together, putting becomes what we call cutting.
That definition of turkey vocabulary comes from the birds, according to a guy who grew up in the Ozarks and was largely raised by wild turkeys. I don’t mean pen-hatched “wild” turkeys that hung around the yard, but flocks of wild birds he would follow for days.
This guy’s turkey diploma was issued by Johnson Mountain University — a reference to where he grew up hunting — and has been tested for more than 50 years against turkeys across the country.
His name is Ray Eye. And when someone challenges his definitions of turkey vocabulary, his typical response is: “I’m just doing what the turkeys do when they call to each other. If you want to question it, question them.”
Putt or Cluck?
Much of the confusion revolves around putts and clucks.
“A cluck is a soft sound; a sound of contentment,” Eye said. “As that turkey gets more excited, it starts putting. It’s a sound with more emotion to it. Putting is excited clucking, and cutting is excited putting. It’s all the same sound.
“All turkeys putt, all the time, and it’s not the alarm putt. I have never scared turkeys off by putting at them. I don’t know where that idea comes from.”
Eye believes that hunters have forever been handicapped because of the name given to the danger signal of turkeys.
“They call it the alarm putt,” he said, “so everybody thinks you’re doing the alarm putt if you’re putting to turkeys. Turkeys putt all day long, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the alarm putt. It’s not the same sound. It doesn’t mean the same thing.”
Pardon Eye for being adamant — perhaps even sensitive — about that. While competing in calling contests in the 1970s, he was flagged several times and given zeroes on his score card for excited putting.
“In those days,” Eye said, “we were asked to do clucks, yelping — which they called the mating call — and your favorite call; whatever you used to kill turkeys,” he said. “For my favorite call, I’d do ‘pup-pup-pup, cow-cow-cow’ (putting followed by excited yelping), and they’d give me zeroes because I was supposedly doing the alarm putt. One time, a judge stopped the contest and told everyone in the auditorium that you can’t do that. ‘Whatever you do,’ he said, ‘don’t putt or make alarm sounds, or you’ll scare all the turkeys away.’”
During the lecture from the judge, Eye’s uncle, a fellow Johnson Mountain grad, stood up and yelled, “Call it an alarm putt if you want, but you judges either don’t hunt much or listen to wild turkeys. That alarm putt, as you call it, has filled my freezer many times.”
When Eye began giving national seminars, he always stressed the difference between the alarm putt and other forms of putting.
“For years,” he said, “I’ve told hunters in my seminars, ‘Don’t worry about making the alarm putt, as I have never scared a turkey off with putting.’ I putt way more than I cluck. Excited turkeys putt way more than they cluck. Excited turkeys get the attention of other turkeys, and it starts with putting. Excited putting becomes cutting.
“In the old days, we never called it cutting, but when I went to Hershey, Pa., in 1977, the Yankee boys — Terry Rohm, Rob Keck, Robbie Rohm, Dick Smith, Kelly Cooper, Paul Butski — called my excited calling putting and theirs cutting.”
The cutting term stuck, and that’s what we know the call as today.
It’s About Emotion and Realism
Calling turkeys is about realism, but it’s equally about emotion and what you can do to get turkeys worked up and headed your way.
When you examine the topic, be careful to keep things in context and perspective. As we talk about clucks, putts and strings of putting — or strings of clucking or whatever you want to call it — you must remember you’re attaching human labels to turkey sounds. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether what you call a cluck is what others call a putt. What matters is what turkeys do and how you can influence them with your calling.
This topic crosses into the soft calling vs. excited calling debate, too. When turkeys get worked up, they say and do things they don’t when they’re not excited. If you always rely on soft calling, it’s unlikely you will hear many excited turkeys. It’s even more unlikely that you will call in excited turkeys and see what they do when their feathers are riled up.
A calling philosophy could be as simple as this: You get what you give.
“If you spend enough time in the woods,” Eye said, “you’ll notice the reaction turkeys give to each other. Turkeys call how they feel. There’s always at least one turkey out there that gets the other turkeys going. I want to be that turkey.
“How many times have you heard a real wild hen that was soft calling when she was going to the gobbler? And when she got close, did she back off and start doing soft calling? Did she purr and cluck? Yeah, right. Why would I cluck? Why would I need to? You’d be hard pressed, hunting with me from March to the end of May, to hear me cluck.”
When Eye is in the woods, every string of calling is some form of excited putting, yelping and cutting. He rarely does anything else in spring.
There’s another type of putting, which you hear when turkeys approach your calling but can’t see the turkey they expect to see.
Typically, you’re hidden and holding still. A turkey approaches your calling position, and you’re holding a great conversation. Then, the turkey gets close enough to assume it should be able to see the other turkey. After looking for you but not seeing anything, the bird often starts expectant putting.
That’s not the alarm putt. It might be one notch removed from the alarm putt, but it basically means, “Where the heck are you?” If you utter it back at the turkey, it can make the bird step out from behind trees or brush to present a shot.
“You’re not going to scare the turkey off by putting back at it,” Eye said. “Remember, they putt all the time in their daily lives. Stay excited. You can yelp and cutt right in his face. Putt back at ’em.”
Keep it Real, Keep it Fun
Persuasive calling is about emotion and excitement level. That holds the deep secrets to calling in turkeys and witnessing cool stuff.
“Just do what the turkeys do,” Eye said. “Listen to how turkeys react to each other when they want to talk and get together. When you call to ’em, you want the same reaction from the turkeys that the turkeys get from each other.”
Turkey hunting is best when it’s fun. When you hear the woods light up with excited turkey talk, booming gobbles, fast-approaching feet and drumming that gets louder by the second, you experience the sport to its fullest.
Practice calling to make realistic and excited turkey sounds. Go ahead and talk turkey when you’re out there. And, Eye said, don’t worry about the alarm putt. After all, it’s really hard to do well.
Clucks. Putts. Cutting. Names influence beliefs. Provided you use turkey sounds to create a richer hunting experience, who cares what you call them?