Ever since my first turkey season 30 years ago, I've been listening to advice on how to hunt gobblers. Most of it has been worth just about what I paid for it.
One of those freebie nuggets was, "Don't ever yelp more than three times. That's the mating call. And if you mess up, you can kiss your turkey goodbye."
So I was tighter than a banjo's fifth string, afraid to call for fear I'd make a mistake. Then I started hearing real hens, some of which sounded like barn cats with their toes caught in a feed auger.
'Three times?" asked Nolan Hutcheson, an old-time Missouri turkey hunter from Houston who's killed more birds than most people even see. "You listen to hens. They call seven, eight times. There's no pattern."
To prove his point, Hutcheson scraped away at a lipped box call seven, eight, even 10 times. He did it every minute or so, and he called in the first gobbler I ever shot.
The best turkey hunter I know, Leroy Braungardt of Moscow Mills, may not remember this advice, but the first time I went with him, he actually timed his calling. He placed a watch beside him in the leaves and checked it so he would time his pattern just right.
Last time I went with him he called when it felt right. Both times gobblers came in as if he were the Playhen of the Month.
Further, Leroy devised a combination of calls that defies both logic and description, but it works. I was photographing three gobblers he'd called in using conventional techniques.
The birds spotted my camera and heard the click of the shutter. Alarmed, they began to trot away. They could see me and they could see the camera. A mature gobbler is wary enough when something he can't see bothers him, let alone a danger he can see.
Every hunter knows the sight of a spooked turkey and the certainty that you won't see the old boy again that day. Defying conventional wisdom, Leroy began a frantic, non-stop series of yelps, cackles and clucks. I don't know when he found time to breathe. To my amazement, the gobblers dutifully turned around and milled in ardent confusion well within camera and gun range.
He kept them chained to that incessant call until I ran out of film. Two of the three were gobblers with ground-dragging beards. The other was a jake. You can figure a jake being hormonally addled, but not a couple of veterans.
Leroy named his newfound call The Tantalizer.
"I figured I had to do something," he said. "They were gone anyway, so whatever I did wouldn't be wrong."
It turned out to be eminently right. What does a gobbler think? That a hen has gone crazy with lust behind him? That a whole bunch of hens has gone similarly goofy? Only a gobbler can answer, and in that case the gobblers answered by coming back as if Leroy had them on a tether.
The only good advice I've ever gotten is, "Don't move." More gobblers are spooked by motion then by bad calling or any other factor. Good hunters (Leroy has done it) can call gobblers in while wearing hunter orange clothing. Another hunter I know tested the color/spook theory by hiding in a bright orange tent.
Gobblers came right in, mainly because the tent wasn't swatting mosquitoes or trying to get comfortable or scratching chigger bites.
Gobblers see color, but they see color throughout the spring woods. Redbuds, crabapple and a host of wildflowers all are colorful. Once I hunted some woods that had been marked for a timber sale. Many trees were tied with blaze orange strips, very similar marking to the blaze orange sash that I wrapped around the tree where I was sitting.
If gobblers were to spook at the mere sight of blaze orange, the woods would have been full of panicky turkeys. Instead I shot a nice gobbler-right beneath a tree that had my blaze orange sash wrapped around the trunk.
There's no doubt that turkeys are alerted by color or by anything they aren't accustomed to seeing. But if that color doesn't move, doesn't manifest itself into a fear-trigger, turkeys ignore it. After all, a gobbler does not have the brain of a nuclear physicist. It cannot reason that the color it sees might be a hunter's warning band, so it doesn't automatically flee through the woods every time it sees something colorful.
Actually, a turkey doesn't think at all; it reacts. Having reacted, it gradually (sometimes quickly) calms down and forgets whatever frightened it. That's why a gobbler can be called back. I know a hunter who knocked a gobbler flat one morning only to see it run off. The next morning he called the same bird and killed it.
Once bitten, twice shy does not apply to turkeys.
So, I'm convinced that of all the turkey hunting advice I've heard for 30 years, three bits are genuine, the rest are questionable at best. Primary is to be motionless. Secondary is to call sparingly unless (remember Leroy) you have nothing to lose. It's great to learn putts and clucks and purrs, but a yelp will do the trick more often then not.
The third piece of advice might be the most valuable of all: Stick with it. Turkeys live in turkey habitat 24 hours a day, not just at sunrise. Every hunter knows that you can call to a gobbler with hens early and it probably won't respond, but it might come looking later in the morning. Just because birds are silent doesn't mean there are no more turkeys.
Once I called a gobbler into our woods before the season and killed it on opening day. I heard the bird gobbling in late afternoon nearly a mile away, across a huge pasture. I called at the fence and the bird answered. We talked for several minutes, then I went home for two days.
On opening day the gobbler was sounding off in our woods and I was waiting almost right under his roost tree. He seemed glad finally to find the elusive hen he'd been looking for the past two days. So glad that he pitched down, gobbled a few times, and appeared within 15 yards of my gun muzzle.
Hunters don't stay with the game long enough. Many have to go to work or they get tired or hungry or hot and give up at 9 a.m. or so. The Missouri half-day season is a blessing for hunters by providing an excuse to go home and take a nap, fish for spawning bluegills or hunt for morels.
It's also a blessing for gobblers that avoid becoming an entree because the hunters have gone home to take a nap just when the activity picks up. Mid-morning is when turkeys move out of the woods into the fields to feed and often to mate.
I confess to getting tailbone-weary and bored when nothing happens. I always have too many clothes by the time the spring sun is hanging high. I get restless and move several times, setting up in good hides where I can call. Yet, I know as I'm doing it that I don't stay long enough for turkeys to respond, that I'm on the move again far too soon. I'm a classic case of "Don't do as I do, do as I say."
If you're in a turkey woods where you heard gobblers at first light, believe that those birds are within calling range at 10 a.m. Rather than looking for them, stay put, stay alert, stay motionless and keep calling periodically.
I use flexible decoys which collapse and fold into my hunting vest. I put out a jake and a hen decoy. They pivot on a sharp stake driven into the ground and a good breeze gives them a lifelike swing.
On one hunt I set the decoys in an open field and picked a nice hide at the edge. I heard several gobblers early, but nothing appeared. So, I did what all turkeys hunters do when hunting is slow. I fell asleep. It was the best thing I could have done. I was motionless. When I blearily opened my eyes, there was one more decoy than there should have been.
I counted them off and realized the one on the right was a nice gobbler that had been there long enough to knock one decoy on its side as he tried to mount it. He had a puzzled look on his face as if he'd just taken a bite of wax fruit. It was as close to thought as a turkey gets.
As the gobbler stood sideways to me at 15 yards, each of us trying to get his wits together, I picked up my gun and killed him.
It worked because I ignored a lifetime of good advice and did it right.
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