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5 Lessons On Calling Turkeys

Donald Devereaux Jarrett

turkey hunter calling

I guess we all would rather call plenty to a bird, to the point of excess, than to keep things to a minimum. I know I would. I love to hear one gobble and, when I’m the reason he is gobbling, I have to watch myself or I will get tangled up in spending more effort on that than I do in trying to get him to come in. And that doesn’t put nearly as many birds over your shoulder. By the early 90s, I had convinced myself that I was a good enough caller to break a bird if I called enough. And so began the lesson for me in standoffs between man and turkey.
 
The very bird that started the training on “how not to call a turkey” was one that ended up becoming a character bird in my neck of the woods. I believe I am the sole reason he never died because of a hunter; at least, not that I’m aware of. Everyone that tried him, after the morning this bird and I introduced ourselves, returned home, like me, with their tail tucked between their legs.

He was one of those obnoxious birds that gobbled at everything that first morning we met from owls, crows and geese to airplanes and trains. I started on him hot and heavy and he was eating it up. When he flew down he didn’t waste a lot of time closing the distance and, within 10 minutes I began hearing him drum, very loudly, off to my left and out of sight. I continued to pour it on and another ten minutes later, he was standing on a little rise in front of me, no more than 55 yards away. 

This is where I slowly came unraveled and the transformation began. It was a transformation that slowly developed over the next decade where it eventually sunk in that if I would back off the calling every now and then, I stood a better chance of killing a few more turkeys. I absolutely hammered that bird for a full 90 minutes. He strutted, drummed and I believe he nearly gobbled himself to death. I finally convinced myself he was close enough, without him ever taking a step inside 55 yards, and peppered him with a load of #4 shot. His name was Sergeant Pepper from this point forward. I believe that I learned more from this turkey over the course of time than I have from any one particular bird since. He was downright mean.

It was a hard lesson learned but one of great value. When you overcall a bird and watch him disappear because of it, you don’t easily forget it. Unfortunately, those lessons will likely repeat themselves in various forms. The sooner you are able to recognize them, the less frequently they will appear and the better off you will be.

Lesson #1: Overcalling  

gobbling turkey

This is one of the easiest traps to fall into in the heat of battle with a wild turkey gobbler. A typical tendency while engaged with a hot gobbling bird is to want to pour it on him. That is exactly what happened on the hunt above and when it was over, I knew exactly why he never walked into easy gun range. Sometimes it is ok to call a lot to a bird. The rule of thumb I use is if he is gobbling a lot, you can get away with more calling. That is unless he is standing in full view of you while you do it. It simply makes no sense to him to walk to the spot he expects to see a hen, if he can clearly see that she isn’t there. Sometimes he might gobble all the way to his demise. Other times, though, he might put the brakes on and lock it down out of range. It’s important to understand the message we are sending to a bird when we are constantly hitting him with the call.
 
It can be, and likely will be, interpreted by a gobbler that you are a hen that is extremely interested and willing to spend some time with him. It is also very possible that it will cause him to hang up. His reasoning, not that he is actually standing around mulling over the situation, is basically that he believes that if you are a hen that is that hot and excited, you are going to come to him. If you aren’t careful, though, he will eventually get tired of waiting on you to show up and one of three things will happen. The least likely of the three possibilities is that he will show up in gun range. The other two possibilities are that he will either get tired of waiting on you to show up and leave, or you will give up on him showing up and leave. There is simply no need to call to a gobbler that is already on the way. If he is getting closer and continuing to gobble here and there, let him come. If you can see him, and he is coming, let him come. We all love the sound of a gobble, but I’ll take fewer gobbles if it means more flopping turkeys.

Lesson #2: Out of Sight Calling

One of the hardest turkeys to kill is one that gobbles little or none at all. I know that there is a strong possibility that I have left a lot of birds in the woods that probably showed up at my setup after I had decided to pack it up and head to the house, because I didn’t believe they were going to show up. I simply didn’t give them time to get there, and I likely called so often that I slowed their time of arrival greatly.
 
It’s easier to make this mistake when he never gobbles after you locate him. I can sit for hours on a bird if he will occasionally gobble, but if he never opens his mouth, it can get pretty tough to stay long enough. You may have graduated to the point where you are able to back off on your calling if need be but it is still difficult to know when you should call if you can’t see a bird that might be coming. These are birds that you will possibly never know for sure if they were going to show up in range or not, if you are constantly calling. All it takes is one call at the wrong time to turn a hunt in the wrong direction. Again, if a bird is coming, you don’t need to call. But how do you know if he is coming or not when he isn’t talking or if you can’t see him?

That’s a good question and the answer is easy; you don’t. So, it is a better option to assume that he is coming in, than it is to assume that he isn’t. Give him time and leave the call alone. For me, it goes back to the old school way of turkey hunting in this situation. The turkey hunters of “way back when” believed in yelping three to five times and not calling again for 30 minutes to an hour. They killed too many turkeys to argue the point. Even if you strike a bird, and he never gobbles again over the course of the hunt and you can’t see him, you need to remember one thing; he still knows where you are. I honestly believe that every bird I strike is on the way until he convinces me otherwise. It has helped me close the deal countless times over the years.

Lesson #3: Pressured Bird Calling

two turkeys

Here is another bird that will test your restraint. The old battle-tested warriors. These birds have heard and seen a lot in their lifetime. Some have been stung, too, as was the aforementioned Sergeant Pepper. Many have tagged along with a buddy heading to a caller, only to watch him get his head obliterated or maybe they simply got an education when they slipped in on an unsuspecting hunter. Regardless of why, there are many reasons that can cause a turkey to live each spring of his life at the highest level of survival. Do these birds become call shy? Not necessarily, but I do believe they become somewhat reluctant to respond to calling and even more reluctant to go looking for its origin. Some of these types of birds will still respond but they prefer to hold their ground. Others might never open their mouth but might take forever and a day to show up. When hunting these types of birds, I treat them similarly. I still believe that they are going to eventually show up, but I have the mindset that it’s going to be a while. A good, long while. Your patience will be tested to the extreme with these boys. Let them know you’re there and settle in. Resisting the urge to call much is paramount here. If you don’t think you will be able to sit quietly and not call for long periods of time, you might need to take drastic measures to be sure you can. If you use a mouth call, spit it out. If it’s a box or a pot call, put it back in your vest. 

Lesson #4: Bad Calling

Let’s be honest here. We have all been in the infancy of turkey calling and maybe some of us still are. No matter, it is part of it. That isn’t a real problem. The problem is when we either fail to recognize it or refuse to admit it. Some will tell you that calling is a very low percentage of what it takes to kill a turkey. I’m not going to argue the percentage level but I will argue that sounding like a turkey will net you more dead turkeys than sounding like noise. I believe that the more realistic and natural you sound, the better off you will be. The bottom line here is, if you aren’t a decent caller, hold the calling to a minimum until you become one. 

Keep in mind, too, that being a decent caller isn’t all about how you sound either. It also has a ton to do with knowing what to say and when to say it. That’s part of being a good caller. I learned this lesson the hard way, which seems to be the norm for me, on an old mountain bird a long time ago. He loved aggressive calling and plenty of it. He wouldn’t answer the soft stuff at all. When I would go back to the heavy, aggressive style, he would eat it up. I killed him and was beside myself with the way the hunt had unfolded. The bird had gobbled around 50 times over the course of the hunt and had steadily closed the distance. I decided right then and there that I would call all future turkeys I encountered the same way - heavy aggressive stuff and plenty of it. Sergeant Pepper taught me the very next spring that every bird doesn’t trip over his beard to get to your calling.

I had become proficient in sounding like a turkey but I had no idea what I was saying half the time or when to say it. Work at both, sounding like the real thing and acting like one too, because one without the other is putting a limit on your chances for success.

I would wager that it is a rare thing to hear a hen hammering away at a gobbler for an hour, nonstop, until a gobbler shows up. Hens don’t go around running their mouths all day. They have a purpose for what they are saying.

calling turkey

Lesson #5: The Cat and Mouse

I have heard this one more than a few times. And yes, I have been caught up right in the middle of it before too. I had a friend tell me about a particular hunt one day that he had obviously lost some sleep over. I actually felt his pain as he explained in detail of how a particular turkey embarrassed him for a couple of hours, on public ground, and made a mockery of his attempt at being a successful turkey hunter that afternoon. The truth is, though, the turkey did nothing extraordinary on this hunt; he simply survived it by sticking to his instincts. My friend explained to me that he had struck the bird and settled into a good setup that allowed him a shot in several directions if the bird showed himself. The problem: this turkey was a gobbler in the truest form, hammering nearly every call my friend threw at him. With that being the case, he called an awful lot. After 45 minutes or so, he decided that he needed to move on the bird. So he backed out, made his way to another location and set up. The first call he made received an immediate answer from the gobbler that was now standing at my friend’s previous setup location. He called from his new setup for another half hour or so as the bird routinely hammered everything he had. He then went on to tell me how he changed calls and softened things up, but the bird held his ground. He moved yet again to another setup, almost on top of where the bird had been when he originally struck him. Thinking he was now in a spot the bird liked, he began to pour it on again. The bird answered precisely at the setup location he had just vacated. He stayed put, calling regularly for the next hour until the bird gobbled out. The last time he heard him, he was putting a lot of distance between himself and my friend.

He asked me what to make of it and I asked him one question. 

“How long did it take you to move from one setup location to another?” 

“About 30 minutes,” he said. 

“Did you call any while you were moving?” I asked. 

“No,” he said. 

I told him that was the reason the bird came in. My friend failed to recognize that while he was moving, and not calling, the bird got a little anxious, thinking the hen had left, perhaps, and that’s when he moved to the setup he had been in. Less calling, and in this case, no calling, caused the bird to come on in. The only problem was that my friend only stopped calling when he was on the move to a new setup and when the bird broke and eventually showed up, my friend was nowhere to be found. Had he stayed put and quit calling, that turkey would have likely died.

I believe that if we can stay focused, or at least try to, on calling according to the bird and situation, we stand a better chance of taking him home with us. The least amount of calling you can get away with is the best rule of thumb. Sometimes the least amount you can get away with might very well be a lot of calling. Turkeys will tell you how to work them if you pay attention to them. Of course, we can’t always interpret exactly what he is telling us, but erring on the side of caution will keep you in the game. And that is when less is more.

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