By Jim Casada
Perhaps no aspect of turkey hunting garners more attention than calling. All of us love to hear the sound of our own voices as we practice, calling contests have become a big deal on the sporting scene and there are enough calls on the market to give a patent specialist an acute migraine.
In the final analysis, though, calling means dealing with judges which sleep in trees, not those hidden behind curtains on a stage. Moreover, never mind the fact that woodsmanship looms larger in the overall scheme of things, calling skills and savvy often make the difference between filled tags and flat-out frustration.
With those thoughts in mind, what follow are some tips on the fine art of talking turkey. While you read them, keep in mind the opinion of the great turkey hunter Archibald Rutledge, expressed in a piece describing his 339th gobbler. He reckoned it was just possible, by that point in his career, that he had achieved the kindergarten level in the sport. Like him, you can always improve and learn more.
Biologists tell us that the wild turkey’s vocabulary includes somewhere north of 30 sounds. For hunting purposes, reasonable mastery of just two—the cluck and yelp—is essential. Other useful sounds include purrs, fighting purrs, cutts (just a series of fast-paced clucks), fly-down cackles, kee-kees and gobbles. Use the latter with caution around other hunters, especially on public land, although I would note that a new tube-type gobble call just introduced from Down N Dirty Outdoors, The Haint, transcends anything I’ve ever heard when it comes to gobbling. Get your clucks and yelps down pat—the rest is merely lace on the bride’s pajamas.
Silence Is Somewhat Golden
In my studied opinion, one shared by a lot of experienced turkey hunters with whom I have been fortunate enough to spend time afield, there is a pronounced tendency among turkey hunters, especially relative newcomers to the sport, to call too loud, long and often. Think about live turkey conversation you hear in the woods. Wild turkeys don’t blunder around gossiping like the weekly ladies auxiliary meeting. For the most part they go about their business quietly, knowing every sound can send a message to critters anxious to eat them.
Accordingly, call sparingly and softly. It will serve you well, and many an old-timer toted his fair share of birds from the woods using nothing but an occasional cluck. Some advice proffered by my mentor in the sport, grand old master Parker Whedon, is worth sharing: “Get his attention and lay a heavy dose of silence on him.”
Rest assured that once a gobbler responds to your call, he knows where you are, and from that point on patience will weigh heavily in your favor.
Versatility Is A Virtue
Turkeys are capricious creatures. One day a gobbler gives voice so frequently you wonder if his gobble mechanism might wear out. The next day he’s silent as a tomb. Similarly, the type of call which trips a longbeard’s switch varies from one day to the next. The obvious message is: carry a number of calls and know how to use them.
That might mean several types of diaphragms with differing numbers of reeds and tones; at least two box calls (a standard one and a boat paddle); friction calls (a slate and a second surface of glass, aluminum or some other material) with a variety of strikers; a suction yelper (I prefer a wingbone’s pure tone but there are plenty of wooden yelpers with great sounds) and maybe a tube call or two. In the course of a day’s hunt, especially if little is happening, it is advisable to give different calls a try in hopes of finding the key to turkey treasure. Just remember to space the time between using one call then another at decent intervals. (I would suggest quarter-hour intervals.)
There's Turkey Talk, Then Calls Which Make Turkeys Talk
In addition to instruments of seduction known as turkey calls, a further layer of calls which should be a part of every hunter’s repertoire — locators. Locator calls serve the basic purpose of pinpointing a gobbler, and in addition to evoking “shock” responses, they can be useful when you decide to reposition on a bird. Over the years I have maintained a log of sounds which elicited gobbles. They now exceed a hundred, but a few locator calls are really critical. Those which imitate owls, crows, hawks, coyotes and pileated woodpeckers come at the top of the list. You should carry two or three such locators or else be able to produce sounds of these critters with your natural voice.
Perfection Is Not Required
A common problem connected with calling is hunter concern about how he sounds. Practice is important, but rhythm is at least as important as pinpoint accuracy in producing turkey talk. After all, if you listen to real turkeys enough, realization begins to dawn that they have all kinds of voices. Some of the worst calling you’ll ever hear comes from live hens. With that in mind, work on the pitch and rhythm of your yelps, the clarity and crispness of your clucks and then expand to other sounds. The key is having a reasonable degree of confidence in sounds you make.
One hint in that regard might help — get out in the woods sometime during the off season and record your calling. Start a recorder, walk 50 yards away and run a series of yelps. Walk 50 more yards and repeat, continuing the process at 150 and 200 yards. Then walk back, rewind and listen. You may be pleasantly surprised at your calling.
Taking A Turkey's Temperature
Gobblers vary greatly in terms of responsiveness, and one of the hallmarks of a skilled, experienced hunter is rapid recognition of how to gauge a particular bird’s temperament – what is sometimes called “taking his temperature.” Some birds work best with soft, infrequent calling while others need to be wound up tight as an eight-day clock with louder, more frequent calling. The advice offered above on calling in a sparing fashion generally holds true, but if it becomes clear a particular bird requires more (or less) vocal interaction, it is to the hunter’s distinct advantage to adjust his calling accordingly.
As noted at the beginning of this article, calling is only part of it – maybe no more than 25 percent of the overall picture – but that opportunity for vocal interaction and a conversational battle of wits goes straight to the essence of turkey hunting’s appeal. Add to that the fact that calling is something you never totally master – there is no graduation day in the school of turkey hunting – and you have both the charm and the challenge of the rites of spring.
Jim Casada, www.JimCasadaOutdoors.com, is a widely traveled and published turkey hunter who has written three books and hundreds of articles on the subject.