This year we are having a late spring, which means that warm weather at the tail end of turkey season will offer hunters the best chance to bag a gobbler. Unfortunately, as the season develops, hunters need to take into consideration that most private and public lands have been hunted hard. Hunting turkeys “hard” often means walking every square foot of the property and yelping from practically all locations where a turkey may lurk.
Turkey hunting is growing in popularity, but not every hunter puts in the time to master the whole turkey vocabulary, and probably fewer have spouses that will allow him or her to practice their calling around the house on a daily basis. Adding to that the fact that the easiest turkey call to learn, whether on the box, slate, or diaphragm, is the hen yelp, many hunters head into the woods with a one dimensional approach: yelp here, yelp there, yelp everywhere. Yes, it is effective some of the time, but this technique is like trying to get a date by just saying, “Hello.” You need to have better game, or you will go home empty-handed.
As the season rolls along, gobblers become wary of what I like to call the “cut and run” technique. Turkey hunters use this technique either on foot, off of an ATV, or out of a vehicle. In this approach hunters often make a series of yelps, cuts, and cackles, while standing on a roadway, and if nothing answers they will travel 50-75 yards and repeat the process. I admit, at times I’m just as guilty as anyone, especially when I am exiting the woods to head home. By using the “cut and run” you can cover a lot of ground, and sometimes you can strike up a gobble, quickly set up, and call him into gun range. But what about the love-struck gobblers that silently arrive at your last location only to realize that the hot and ready hen has left the area? After getting stood up a few times, a gobbler won’t even flinch when he hears an aggressive yelp or cutting sequence, especially when it is coming from several different locations.
A hunter who has practiced the softer part of the turkey vocabulary can capitalize on this situation. Soft clucks, purrs, and an occasional key-key run can set you apart from all the hunters who have yelped and cut their way through the woods all season long.
Employing an expanded turkey vocabulary
Midway through this turkey season, I hunted a beautiful piece of property consisting mainly of hardwood bottoms and swamps. The owner told me that a few of his family members had been hunting it but could not close the deal on the mature toms residing in the area. Judging by the terrain and footprints in the mud, I figured the family had hunted mostly from the road and probably used the “cut and run” technique more than a few times.
I took to the woods early and set up next to a large food plot. As daylight peeked through the tree line, I could hear several birds gobbling all around me. With plenty of cover and low light on my side, I crept within about 70 yards of a gobbler who was answering every owl in the area. After setting up and sending him some great-sounding tree yelps and clucks, I got the feeling we were really getting to know each other as more than just friends. To my surprise, at daylight he hit the ground and did not answer me again. He did gobble twice but was heading in the opposite direction, possibly with a hen at his side. Or, having played this game so many times, he was off and looking for a live hen who would approach him and not play hard to get.
Feeling the need to be original to bag this bird, I moved deeper into the swamp and set up on a low-lying ridge. While walking to the high spot, I noticed a highway of gobbler tracks showing me exactly how he was able to slip away from his pursuers and head safely to his hangout spot. After getting comfortable, I let out some of the sweetest and softest clucks along with soft purrs. No yelps, no cuts, and no cackles.
Judging from all of the tracks, I knew turkeys were in the area, so I mentally pumped myself up, preparing for my legs and rump to go numb from lack of movement. I figured these call-shy toms were unlikely to announce their presence with gobbles but rather would slip in like ninjas to see if those sweet sounds were from a real hen or another phantom, sounding great but never patient enough to hang around for his arrival. I also knew that if the gobbling tom from daylight was with a hen, I could possibly have more eyes looking for my location.
Nothing happened, so I tried another sequence of clucks, combined with some puts and purrs, all soft. I waited 30 minutes and hit it again. In mid-sequence I noticed movement to my right. My heart rate drastically increased. I could see a red head slowly moving my way. As soon as he walked behind an oak tree, I tried to ease my body into position, which was made more difficult because I had lost feeling in my lower extremities–my legs were completely asleep, as if I had just received an epidural shot. I could hear the sound of another tom drumming, and movement to the right caught my attention again as I noticed another red head approaching. I had two gobblers closing in but not yet in shooting range.
After what felt like twenty minutes but was actually only about two, I figured they were going to hold out until their presumed lady friend approached them. Seeing that they were out of sight behind some thick cover, I let out another round of clucks but this time added a short yelp sequence combined with a key-key run. As I simulated the hurry hurry part of the key-key run, both toms sounded off. Each double gobbled at me then gobbled at each other, and the race was on to see who could get to the new hen on the courting block. It all ended with the announcement of my presence through my 12 gauge shotgun. It was an unbelievable ending of a great morning as I looked at a trophy tom with a 10-3/4 beard and 1-3/8 spurs laying seven steps from the barrel of my gun.
Speaking softly and calling smartly
Yelps, cackles, and cutting are important parts of the turkey language and can fire up every gobbler in the woods at one time or another. But when gobblers become call shy and won’t respond to these calls, you need speak the soft stuff and be original. Put out some extra effort and practice clucks, purrs, and key-keys, and set up off the beaten path. When you find your ambush spot, relax, get comfortable, and take your time. Even on the days when the toms aren’t gobbling, they are still in the woods searching for hens. A gobbler has great hearing and a good memory, and if he was with a hen early he will remember you and your location. After he takes care of business, he will likely head your way in search for another hen to hook up with.
I’m not saying you can’t have success as a one-dimensional turkey caller, but I do believe that learning the softer side of the language will greatly increase your chances. As more of our forests diminish and the hunting pressure continues to increase on public and private properties, hunters must separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Slow down and don’t sound so desperate. The desperate are that way for a reason!