To Call or Not to Call

By Mark Goodwin | April 2, 2009
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2009

I wrapped a tag on my first spring gobbler in 1980. A high-school student of mine, from a long line of turkey hunters, and woods-wise far beyond his years, called in the 22-pound tom. That hunt spawned an obsession. Every year since I have hunted almost every day of both spring and fall seasons, until my tags were filled or the seasons came to a close. Even with only 45 minutes or so to hunt before work, I’d be in full camouflage somewhere, in hopes of luring in a longbeard.

I’ve chronicled every turkey hunt in a journal, recording both successes and failures. Failures predominated in my early hunts, but I made a point of learning from my errors. Over the years, I also made a point of listening when veteran turkey hunters talked turkey. I learned much.

Part of what I learned concerns calling. You don’t have to call like a competition caller to consistently fool turkeys, but you do have to know when and when not to call. Here’s a summary of what close to three decades has taught me concerning this facet of turkey hunting.

Don’t Call …

At first light when nothing gobbles. I will always remember the hunt when I learned this lesson. The morning broke clear with still winds, perfect for toms to sound off, but none gobbled. Having spent long hours gaining proficiency with turkey calls, I was eager to put my calling skills to practice. At first light, I made some light tree calls on my diaphragm caller—clucks and soft yelps. They sounded good to me! Minutes later, I increased the volume. Then I moved to my box call in an attempt to sound like two hens. At flydown time I cut a few times on my diaphragm, then made a fly-down cackle. I finished with a series of calls meant to sound as if the two hens were getting together on the ground. I thought I had produced a turkey-call symphony. What I had really done was wise up three gobblers roosted 50 yards behind me in large white oak. They had listened to every call—and watched me make them.

I first became aware of these toms when one sailed out and flew directly away from me. The other two soon followed. They learned well, because I failed to work any of them into shotgun range that season. They gobbled in the roost on other days, but they never answered my calls. I had educated them. To avoid this problem, when turkeys don’t gobble, don’t call until 30 minutes after fly-down time. This reduces the chance of unwittingly educating roosted turkeys to your calling.

At first light when real hens are roosted close around you and calling. In this situation, you have little to gain by calling. You have real hens around you. Gobblers in the area probably recognize their individual calls. Let the hens pull a gobbler to you. If you call, chances are good the hens will see you and exit the area when they fly down.

What you want are those hens sticking around you when they fly down from roost. Then you have live decoys. When they fly down, it may pay to call in an attempt to hold them in your area. Other than that, it’s best to keep quiet.

During the quiet time. Gobblers in spring are far from predictable. But they do have routines. Often, they gobble in the roost. When they fly down, they gobble some more to attract hens. With hens in their vicinity, they go quiet—little to no gobbling. This time usually extends for two to three hours in the morning. You can call to the gobblers during this time, but often it’s of no use. This quiet time in the morning is typically the time for a hunter to also be quiet. Sitting in one place and calling periodically at this time does not mimic what the turkeys are doing. The hens aren’t calling. The gobblers aren’t gobbling, so do as the turkeys are doing. Be quiet.

The quiet time is a good time to take a nap. If you have hunted hard for several days in a row, a nap will be welcome. What of walking and calling at this time to try and get a tom to gobble? Most likely toms are not going to gobble at your calls, and walking about you are likely to spook turkeys you never knew were there. Take your nap. At 9:30 a.m. or so, start calling again. If you have done your scouting, and you are in an area that you know turkeys are using, best results come from sitting and not moving.

After a gobbler has answered your calls. When a gobbler has answered your calls, you have done your work. You’ve convinced the tom you are a hen, and he is interested. Now, your next step: sit quietly and wait. Easy? Far from it. You want the tom to walk up within easy shotgun range—now. Seldom does it work this way.

Toms typically take their time coming into a call. It may not be all that long: maybe 30 minutes to an hour, but that seems a long time when you’re sitting there with a shotgun on your knee, expecting a gobbler to appear at any moment. When the tom doesn’t appear right away, the tendency is to call again. It’s as though a little gremlin materializes on your shoulder and whispers urgently in your ear: Call! That tom may be walking away. Come on, call! You need to determine where that gobbler is!

Ignore that gremlin. Often, more calling simply encourages the gobbler to stay put. He’ll wait for the hen he is hearing to come to him. You want the gobbler to come looking for the hen. To encourage this response, don’t call again. A 2-year-old tom will often gobble plenty while you make no calls. When he goes silent, it’s time to be alert. Often the gobbler is approaching.

Make Your Calls …

When a gobbler is gobbling from the roost at first light. Call once—and lightly. Within 60 to 150 yards from a roosted tom, you make one call to let the tom know you are there. Then go silent. If he doesn’t answer your call, no problem. Often, toms don’t. Your job now is to wait and not make a sound.

When a gobbler flies out of the roost. If you like making lots of calls, now is the time. Listen for the tom to fly down from the roost. As soon as you think his feet are on the ground, call to him with some short, snappy yelps. If he gobbles at that, give him some more. If he doesn’t, switch to another call. Maybe a box call or a slate will do the trick. The point is to get the tom excited and make him gobble—lots. Get him to the point where he gobbles several times without a break. Hunters call it double and triple gobbling. Then go silent. Again, your strategy here is to entice him to come looking for the hen he heard.

If a tom fails to answer your calls, there could be several explanations. Your calling might need improvement. Something could have spooked the gobbler. Or you are dealing with a gobbler that seldom answers calls. Some toms are like this. Often, they are older birds. They still might work in to calling, but often they do so silently, and it might take hours.

When you have competition with hens. This is a common problem for turkey hunters. A gobbler answers your calls eagerly, both in the roost and when he flies down, but hens quickly join him. A gobbler with three or four hens around him is tough to budge. His interests are satisfied. But there is a possible answer to this problem: try to call in the hens. If you call in the hens, the gobbler might follow.

Hen turkeys, like jakes and gobblers, have a pecking order—a sense of who is boss. If your calling functions to confront the dominant hen, she might come in to challenge the upstart, with the gobbler in tow. What calls work to prod a dominant hen? Loud, aggressive calls work best. If a hen answers back, cut off her calls—call before she is finished making hers. If she approaches, be ready. The tom might not be far behind.

To draw in another gobbler after the shot. Sometimes more than one gobbler comes into your calling. If you are hunting with a buddy, and two toms work into range at the same time, you both might walk out of the woods toting turkeys. But often, when two or more birds work in, one comes within range before the others. In this situation, directly after the shot, loud, aggressive calling might settle the other birds down and quickly draw them in. Turkeys typically don’t associate gunfire with humans. It’s simply a loud noise. Immediately after the shot, loud, aggressive calling, simulating a turkey fight, will sometimes draw another tom back into shooting range.

To stop a gobbler and make him stretch to look. When everything works as it should—a gobbler answers your calls and approaches to within good shotgun range—you need an ideal shooting opportunity. That’s a gobbler standing still, in the clear, looking with neck stretched. Shooting at a tom while it is walking is a bad idea. While tracking a walking turkey as you look down your shotgun’s barrel, it’s easy to overlook brush that might ruin a shot pattern. Moreover, as a turkey walks, it bobs its head, making that target far easier to miss. For the perfect shot, you look to where you want the turkey to stand before you squeeze the trigger. When the turkey arrives at that point, you make one last call—a loud putt or alarm call to stop him.

Every Hunt is Unique

The calling tips shared in this article are important turkey-hunting principles. Yet with turkey hunting, seldom does a principle always apply or prove infallible. Turkey hunting plays out with seemingly limitless variation in hunting situations. Through experience—time spent in the turkey woods—you learn to modify hunting strategies to accommodate these situations. It’s one reason why turkey hunting offers a lifetime of challenge and fascination.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler