Many, many years ago when my brother and I were bow hunting on the White River Refuge in Arkansas, we came upon a flock of wild turkeys foraging in the woods. We had grown up hunting ducks and doves and deer, but had no experience with these huge reptilian birds. We hunkered down and watched them scratching and pecking and meandering across the hillside. They seemed like mythical creatures: 20 pound birds with coppery feathers, long serpentine necks, able to fly like quail, run like racehorses, and see like eagles. We were pretty much transfixed.
We bought turkey calls and went back the following April with shotguns. On a dark logging road, we split up, having no idea where the birds might be. He went one way, I went the other. He sat down in one spot, scraped his box call a few times, and some minutes later a jake and gobbler walked up. He managed to shoot the jake. All I found was a pile of feathers where a bobcat or coyote had dined on a turkey. We went back the next morning, and he shot another one. Again, I saw nothing. As Jimmy Carter said, life is unfair.
I spent the next 20 years or so trying to kill a turkey. In my meek defense, work kept me from hunting more than a few days a year, some years none at all. And, more importantly, I spent too much time hunting places that had too many hunters and not enough turkeys. Anyway, I am well qualified to share with you all the mistakes I made along the way:
First of all, learn to use at least two different types of calls. For reasons known only to the birds, some days one will work better than another. When I set up, I like to have a diaphragm call in my mouth, and start calling with a slate call. If the slate doesn’t get a response, I try the diaphragm, then a box call. When a gob gets close, you can use the diaphragm without moving your hands.
Go to the source. There are lots of instructional tapes and websites with turkey sounds, but the best way to learn is to spend time around real birds. If at all possible, get out and find a flock of wild turkeys and get close enough to hear them well. Pay attention to the pitch and cadence of their sounds, not just vocal sounds, but all the noises they make: scratching leaves, wings flapping, all of it. If you can’t get among wild birds, find some tame turkeys and imitate their sounds.
Less is more. Call no more than absolutely necessary. Pretend that it’s costing you serious money every time you hit a lick on that call, and save them up. Some of the best turkey hunters I know seldom call at all, and will often kill smart old gobblers without a call. There is no substitute for knowing the terrain well. Figure out where the birds are and where they want to be, and put yourself where they will come to you. Which brings me to my next point…
Location, location, location. Ninety percent of hunting success is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This means scouting, studying maps, spending time near roosts at dawn and at dusk, and knowing the area you hunt as intimately as possible. It’s nearly impossible to make a wild bird go where he doesn’t want to go; it’s much easier for you to go where he does want to go.
Think of it this way: Wherever a gobbler is, there are probably only two or three other places where he might go from there. Your job is to figure out where those places might be, and get there and get hidden and set up to shoot before you try to call to him. If you know where a gob is and he won’t come to you, you need to move. Get on the other side of him and call from there, if possible. A successful turkey hunt usually boils down to strategic maneuvering, getting in just the right spot without revealing your presence to the birds. Don’t walk across open fields after daylight, and don’t get too close to roosting or feeding birds.
Variety is more than a spice, it’s a staple. Learn to make a lot of different turkey sounds. When you listen to a flock of real turkeys, you will realize they don’t yelp that much. A yelp means, “Yoo hoo! I’m over here. Where are you?” Once you’ve gotten a tom’s attention, it’s usually better to close the deal with soft clucks, whines, and purrs. These are the sounds of contentment he has been hearing since he was still in the egg.
Complete the illusion. You are trying to impersonate a lonely hen or hens. You will have to do more than make sounds on a turkey call. Rake dead leaves with your hand to imitate turkeys scratching, beat your hat against your leg while you cackle with a mouth call to imitate birds flapping wings, use two calls at once to imitate birds arguing.
Decoys are helpful sometimes. They probably work best in thick timber or brush. Sometimes decoys in a clearing or a field allow a gobbler to hang back out of range and scrutinize the situation until he realizes they are phony.
If a gob hangs up and you have a good idea where he is, move to another spot to call. Real hens aren’t nailed down in one spot. If you are hunting with a partner and a tom refuses to get close enough, let one hunter walk away making casual turkey sounds while the shooter stays put. This will often make a stalled gobbler come in mad and reckless. When hunting with a partner, set up facing opposite directions within whispering distance of each other.
Patience above all. This is my weakness. It’s hard to stay still when you don’t know where a gobbler is. Humans like to travel from point A to point B in a straight line, but turkeys like to meander all over creation. Give them plenty of time, then give them more time. Even if you work a bird all day and he never comes close enough for a shot, there’s always another day. You’ll be better next time.
Finally, remember when you are calling a gobbler, you are trying to make him do something he seldom needs to do. Usually when he gobbles or fans or struts, the hens just run right to him. A hen that won’t come in is suspicious. As one of my mentors told me, the turkeys usually win. That’s the sport of it. You just won’t kill a three or four year old gobbler unless he makes a mistake.
I’ve managed to kill a few, and I may never get another one, but I’ll be out there trying every chance I can.