Brain Versus Bird
How do you hunt wild turkeys in the spring? Far too many of us wander around in the woods using some kind of turkey call at intervals in the blind hope the gobbler of our dreams is going to present itself. As the majority of turkey hunters eventually find out, this annual triumph of hope over experience usually doesn't pan out.
Jerry Griffen of Ashland is an accomplished turkey hunter with a wealth of outdoor hobbies. Whether he is building a muzzle-loading rifle, tying diminutive trout flies, serving as president of a Trout Unlimited chapter that saves Missouri streams or shooting game birds over one of his hunting dogs, Griffen-a surgical nurse by trade-is a craftsman. When it comes to outwitting gobblers, he uses a hunter's most precious tool-his brain.
All those trees in the forest may look alike to many of us, but a trophy tom knows his woods like a street kid knows every crack in the neighborhood sidewalk. Like a good gumshoe, Griffen also finds the cracks, as well as the alleys, street corners and neighborhood bars. It's the bird's routine he's after.
"I like to scout the woods the two weekends before the spring season begins," Griffen says. "I want to know where the birds are roosting and where they go after they hit the ground." He says it is always easier to call a springtime turkey gobbler to you if you know where he is going ahead of time and can put yourself out in front of him.
He suggests looking for several roosts when scouting. A gobbler on one roost may have a troop of hens with him on opening morning and not respond to your calls. If you know where a second roost is, birds at that location may be more cooperative and find your calls alluring.
"Listen for gobbling in the morning when scouting," he says. "After you locate a roost and the birds have flown down, go in later in the day, when they are far away, and find the trees they were in. Look for droppings underneath the trees, and look for feathers."
He says that by knowing the location of roosts, even if the birds do not gobble in the morning, you still know there are birds in the area. "You can do a little blind calling and you may get a gobbler to come in. He will come quietly... but he may come in."
He warns against using a turkey call while scouting. "Don't go out there and play with them," he advises. "You don't want to scare the birds ahead of opening day, and you don't want them continually looking for a turkey that's not there. When the season opens, a bird may answer your call, but if he has heard that call before and been spooked, or searched and found nothing there, he's not going to be receptive to coming to you."
Griffen likes to be present the evening before the hunt and be within 100 or so yards of a roost when turkeys fly into it. "Around dusk," he says, "you will hear the birds fly up into the trees. Toms may even gobble when they fly up. You can count the number of turkeys by listening to their wing beats.
"Listen for a long series of wing beats when they fly up. If they are just moving from limb to limb it may be only a couple of flaps. If you hear only one bird fly up and it's a tom, he may be lonely and come running to your call in the morning. If you hear a lot of birds fly up, you know your work is cut out for you tomorrow."
In the morning, Griffen tries to tiptoe into a roost area in the dark and get between a tom and his hens, then do some effective and enticing calling. He says once the real hens gather around the gobbler, it will probably be later in the morning before the tom will respond to calling by a hunter.
Those two weekends of scouting pay off when the birds leave the roost-and leave you behind. "It's important to find feeding and dusting areas so if the birds are not cooperative at first daylight, you have an idea of where they are going. You will find feeding areas at the edge of cornfields or grassy areas. Look for tracks in the mud or feathers."
You also want to know where strutting areas-places where gobblers display for hens-are located. Griffen says a strutting area might be a grassy site right in the middle of a piece of timber or at the edge of a field. "You can find strutting areas by walking the edges of fields and looking ahead with binoculars. You'll see a big, old bird out there in full strut sometimes, especially in a wheat stubble field or a fallow corn field that hasn't been fall plowed, or a bean field. He'll be strutting, trying to get his hens gathered there in the field."
If a gobbler leaves his roosting area without giving Griffen a shot, his strategy is to move and get ahead of the bird. "It's really effective if you can set up for him in his strutting area. Put out your decoy and call to him. A lot of the time he will answer and then you just shut up and pretty soon there he comes, following his hens or looking for other hens."
Calls "Fill your pockets with turkey calls," Griffen says. He carries at least three different kinds of calls while hunting. He likes diaphragm (mouth) calls because they require no bird-scaring movement on his part and leave his hands free to raise and sight his gun when a gobbler comes into range. He thinks, though, that slate and box calls make more realistic sounds. He also thinks turkeys on popular public hunting areas are overexposed to mouth calls. He reminds hunters using friction calls to keep them roughed up with sandpaper or they will squeak at the worst possible moment.
Why carry three different kinds of calls? Griffen says one day the sweet tones of a slate call will get a gobbler "fired up like crazy," while on another day he might ignore a slate call but will answer a box call. "Box calls sound especially good for purrs, cutts and clucks," he says. He also uses crow and owl calls for locating turkey gobblers.
He also likes wing bone and suction calls, saying they make great tree yelps and clucks, but admits they are hard to learn to use. If you use a mouth call, he suggests carrying ones with double and triple reeds or splits. "Each one sounds a little bit different," he says, "and one may get a response when another one won't."
There are three sounds a turkey hunter should know how to make-a cluck, a purr and a four-note yelp. A hen may give soft tree yelps, then cutt when ready to come down to the ground. A cutt is a string of loud notes.
"Cackles and cutts," Griffen says, "are icing on the cake to get a bird excited, but you can overdo it and scare a bird off. Do a four-note yelp and cluck and purr in between-you'll kill a turkey doing that!
"You want to call just loud enough for a gobbler to hear you, and just often enough to keep him interested," he adds. He warns not to call too loudly or too often, saying that if you do, the bird may hang up on you. He'll stop 60 yards out and won't come any closer.
When he has a bird gobbling on the roost, Griffen says he will yelp a couple of times and then shut up. "If he doesn't have hens with him, he may drop off his tree limb and come right in," Griffen says. "You have to feel that bird out, listen and see what kind of mood he is in. If he is feeling his oats that morning he will be more receptive. If he gobbles only once or twice on the roost, he will probably be hard to call in. If he is gobbling his head off, he is more apt to come in to you."
Don't worry about sounding a sour note, he says. "You don't have to be a competition-quality turkey caller, and a bad note is not going to hurt anything, because some of the most terrible sounding turkeys are the real hens. Develop a rhythm and cadence in your calling and be consistent with it. That's what's really important."
If you need to learn how to call turkeys, find an accomplished hunter to teach you. If you can't do that, buy, rent or borrow a commercial tape or video and practice as much as possible.
Early Morning Scenarios Griffen suggests that when starting the morning near one of the roosts you have found, you set a decoy up about 20 yards away. If a tom on the roost begins to gobble, don't answer him immediately. When you do call, use some of what Griffen calls "tree talk"-soft, monotone yelps. You are trying to sound like a sleepy hen.
If the tom does answer instantly, give him a few moments to gobble again before trying a series of tree yelps one more time. Throw in some clucks, and he may gobble back at you again.
"Just before you think the birds are going to fly down, hit him with some real exciting yelps or cutting," Griffen says. "I like to call to him and cluck, and then take my gloved hands and beat them against my pant legs. That mimics the wing beats of the hen as she flies down, and then, if the ground is dry, I ruffle up the leaves like the bird's wings hitting the ground. Then I yelp and cluck like a hen that has just landed and is fired up and ready to go."
Does it work? "If that bird is receptive and it sounds like everything is going right, he will just gobble and pitch right down to you." Griffen adds, with a twinkle in his eye, "as if it was that easy."
More to the point, he suggests if the bird flies down and struts, he is not going to buy your early-morning ruse; he now expects you to come to him. What to do? Pour on the calling-yelp and cackle like crazy. If he responds with gobbling, call back even more frequently. Suddenly excited and aggressive, he may just throw that innate turkey paranoia to the wind and move into range of your gun.
If the bird is answering your calls but doesn't show, Griffen suggests that you find out which call he likes best. "You may yelp real loud and he won't answer you, but you cluck and he will answer. Keep clucking at him and that eventually will get him to come in. For some reason that just stimulates them a little more.
"Some birds get even more excited when they hear you cackling. It may take 45 minutes to an hour to get that bird to come in to you. He may stand off, or he may have a strutting area he wants to stick with and he expects you to come. Remember, the hens are supposed to come to the gobbler, not the gobbler to the hen."
If you can tell by the departing tones of his gobbles that the bird is leaving you behind, you have two choices. You can stick to the roosting area with the hope the gobbler will come back later in the morning when he has completed his patriarchal duties (he remembers hearing your calls there), or you can hustle off and try to circle around in front of him and cut him off. Griffen says that can work, but just as often you end up spooking the bird.
"If you stay in the roosting area the first two hours of the morning, call as often as every 5 or 10 minutes," Griffen says. "Later in the morning, cut it back to every 20 minutes. You may yelp quietly in case the bird is nearby. The next series, call a bit louder and maybe even cutt or cackle. When a hen comes off of her nest and she is ready to greet the gobbler again, she may make some clucks and maybe a long series of yelps."
In between these 20-minute calling sessions, Griffen suggests doing some quiet clucks and purrs-just in case a gobbler is sneaking in on you. That's the tough part of sitting until late in the morning; a bird can appear silently from any direction, and the slightest movement on your part may mean you just threw a whole morning's effort out the window-the only thing you are going home with is a great collection of seed ticks. "It's maddening when they come in silently like that," Griffen says. "You really need to keep your eyes peeled for any kind of movement out there."
Most hunters eventually tire of sitting and start moving around. A good tactic is to walk ridges and use a crow call or sound loud cutts on your box or slate call with the hope a gobbler will answer you. You may come upon a gobbler passing time in the middle of an old corn or bean field or intersect a bird that's just roaming the ridges with the hope of finding a hen-a blind date, of sorts.
Griffen has one tactic that's unique. If you can't call in a gobbler, he suggests you try calling in one of the hens with him. "Mimic the hen," he says. "Every call that she does to you, you want to turn around and do right back to her. That may be cutting, clucks, purrs... what you want to do is to get her to react to the idea another hen is moving in on her.
"She'll come looking for you. With luck, several hens will come toward you... with the gobbler following right along behind them."
Griffen limits his shots to 30 yards or less. He knows he is more likely to kill a bird that way, and he also knows it's safer. He suggests patterning your shotgun before hunting so you know right where it is shooting.
About one-third of Missouri's turkey hunters are successful each spring. Apply your gray matter to the subject like Griffen does and you may become one of them. In the meantime, keep reminding yourself you don't have to be the best turkey hunter in the woods-just one who knows the details of the neighborhood.