For some some, March Madness refers to basketball. For us sportsmen and women, it means turkey hunting. Just as young basketball players master a basic lay-up before attempting to execute a slam dunk or spend proportionally more time on free throws than three-pointers in their formative years, turkey hunters continually practice their calling skills. There is an order, however, to the difficulty of executing turkey calls. Follow these steps to work your way up for the big dance known as turkey hunting season.
While there is no such thing as a completely “easy” turkey call, using locator calls is the first and easiest skill set to learn. Start with the crow call and then add the owl call.
“I’ve handed 90 kids a crow call and within minutes seen even two year olds doing a good job with a crow call,” said Brenda Valentine, spokesperson for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Though I do think a really good owl call takes a deep flutter in your diaphragm, it’s like gargling backwards. It is far more than ‘who cooks for you.’” Use an owl call when you’re moving in under the darkness of night to confirm you’re in the right spot, or confirmation you need to keep moving in a certain direction. Only use an owl call during dark or perhaps 15 to 20 minutes into daylight at the latest. During the daytime, the crow call can tell you where the longbeards have moved off to. It is also a good idea to listen to other sounds, even a cow mooing or a big truck going by on the highway, as turkeys will often shock gobble at a strange sound.
There are also peacock and pileated woodpecker calls you can use as locator calls.
“I had a friend whose farm I hunted on had peacocks,” said Chris Pyle, an obsessed-with-turkey-hunting guide and hunter in Christian County, Kentucky. “Sure enough, when that peacock started off the turkeys responded with a shock gobble every time.”
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When it is time to call a turkey in, however, one moves to a push/pull box call, a friction call, a box call, or several types of mouth calls.
“The push-pull box call is definitely the easiest to learn to use of these calls,” said Brenda. “Any mouth call with a reed is by far the hardest and a friction call is easier.” That said, Valentine’s often go-to call is a simple coffee stir stick.
Valentine and Pyle offer the following four tips.
1. Less is more
For a novice caller, or really for all turkey hunters, less is more. Just sit still and maybe put decoys out and add a little call now and then.
“The more you’re calling is offering that turkey to realize that you are not really a turkey,” advised Brenda Valentine. “So get his interest up, but don’t give enough to reveal you’re not a turkey. Even the best of the best can tip off a turkey that they are not a turkey.”
2. Practice, practice, practice
It takes many hours of practice to master any call, and 10 times that to master a mouth call. Pick one or two calls and find as much practice time as you can. Both Valentine and Pyle advise practicing in your truck when driving.
“When I thought I was sounding pretty good, I’d record myself,” said Valentine about her early years. She found out it was kind of like karaoke singing.
“When I listened back it was startling how much I wasn’t good.” Pyle equated calling during an actual hunt like being on stage. “I would get so nervous when I was a young man and hunting with other guys who were good callers,” he said. It took him a long time to gain confidence to call during a hunt.
Don’t just listen to other callers, listen to real turkeys making their natural sounds.
“You can find those sounds online, or even better, go out and listen in the wild to the sounds a turkey makes,” said Pyle.
“Cadence is important, because every change means something and the inflections give it a totally different meaning,” added Valentine.
4. Adjust versus master
Is it possible to master turkey calling?
“You can master calling, you just can’t master the turkeys,” said Valentine with a laugh. “The rules change very day because the turkeys make the rules.”
Pyle agrees and doesn’t just hammer a call in the woods.
“My experience is [that] every hunt is different. If the turkeys are being very vocal and aggressive, I’ll be vocal and aggressive back. But if they are quiet, I am too. I try to mimic them,” he said. Knowing when to use what call is an important adjustment. “I only use my box call when it is very windy, because you can get way louder on a box call.”
It all comes with practice and experience. Valentine recommends finding a mentor.
“It helps to have someone with experience to know when to stay or when to move,” she said. “It takes a lifetime of learning to know that.”
The best thing to do is to hunt where there are a lot of turkeys around.
“If you just got one old gobbler he’ll be educated and you’re done,” said Valentine. More opportunities means more chances to get it right. “You can master the sound, you just can’t master the turkeys.”
One bit of advice from this lady legend is to call softly in a lot of situations.
“Most people blow too hard on their mouth calls,” she continued. However, mouth calls are not only for the accomplished. “Kids can pick it up faster, so start young.” Some people don’t get out because they don’t have someone to call for them. “Just hunt them more like deer. Sit and wait on them. It can be effective that way, too. People don’t have to be a skilled caller to be successful.”
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.