Fine-Tune Your Calls
Your new call might run fine out of the box, but these three tips will improve your chances at the moment of truth.
The tone of a slate call can change depending on where you apply your striker. On any slate, you'll tend to get higher-pitched notes toward the perimeter. A real slate--one made of stone, not glass or aluminum--will vary in density across its surface. This results in random variances in tone. There may be spots that sound flat when plucked with a striker, but there will also be sweet spots. When you find one, notch the wooden rim adjacent to the spot so you can find it with your thumb.
Steve Hickoff, author of Turkey Calls & Calling (Stackpole, 2009) and a contributor to OL's Strut Zone blog (outdoorlife.com/blogs/strut-zone), sometimes trims the tape around his diaphragm calls for a better fit. "A little goes a long way here," he stresses. "If the mouth call you've purchased doesn't fit right in the roof of your mouth, take a small pair of scissors--I use the kind found in fly-tying shops--and start trimming. Take off a small amount and try calling with it. If it still doesn't fit, trim a bit more, but be careful--you can ruin a call this way, too."
Hickoff suggests cutting back the sides of the call first and then the back curve, trying for a fit that conforms to the roof of your mouth.
"Some companies provide smaller mouth calls, including youth models, to fit smaller palates, so be sure to research your options," says Hickoff.
There are a couple of things hunters should look for on their box calls, says Ray Eye, host of "Chasing Spring" (outdoorlife.com/chasing spring). "Screws can back out slightly or the calling edge can wear down just enough for the call to lose its tone," he says. "Center the lid on the apex of the calling edge. If the lid balances on the sidewall, you're good to go. If not, adjust the screw slightly to center both edges."
Use a black pen to mark the screw's starting position by drawing a straight line across the screw and onto the box lid. "Next turn the screw clockwise slightly, not even a quarter-inch. Try the call. If there is a worn spot or if the screw has loosened from use, this alteration should get you back into proper alignment. If not, turn the screw back the other way slightly past your mark." If neither works, Eye recommends you turn the screw back to its original (marked) spot and clean the call's edges with a very fine steel wool or sandpaper.
Those cliches about calling in a bird by creaking a rusty gate aren't too far off. Find a fired-up two-year-old, and even the greenest nimrod can call him to the gun. When calling becomes important, however, is at those times when how you respond to a gobbler means the difference between success and failure. The trick is to know what the right response is.
Turkey hunters sometimes refer to it as "taking a bird's temperature." A good doctor can look at his patient's symptoms, make a proper diagnosis and prescribe the appropriate remedy. An experienced caller should be able to do the same thing. Following are a few examples of afflictions and remedies. It's up to you to determine the right dosage. In each of these situations, assume you've heard a distant gobble, moved in a bit and started calling.
If you hear this: The bird gobbles back immediately. You call again, and the next time he gobbles, he's closer. As he closes inside 100 yards, however, he seems to be veering off slightly.
Do this: He's too close for loud calling, which might scare him off. You could go silent and hope he closes, but you might lose him. Switch to very soft calling--a few soft purrs and maybe some scratching in the leaves--to keep him interested and moving in the right direction.
If you hear this: The tom gobbles back immediately, then you hear yelping hens. The more you call, the more vocal and distant the hens get, taking the tom with them.
Do this: Discretion is the better part of valor. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but your best option right now is to back out and find a more cooperative bird, or head to town for breakfast.
As the morning progresses, the hens will gradually drop out of the flock and head off to their nesting duties. Eventually the gobbler will find himself alone and looking for love. When you return in two or three hours, you might find him much more receptive to your offerings.
If you hear this: The tom gobbles back and you get a similar, though more emphatic, response from the hens. One in particular seems especially vexed with your calling, and also seems to be moving your way.
Do this: You've pissed off the boss hen and she's coming over to kick your butt. Pour on the calling. Imitate everything she does. Cut her off and try to out-call her. The tom won't leave his hens, but if you can draw them to you, he will follow.
If you hear this: The tom at first seems to take interest in your calls; then it becomes obvious he's "free gobbling" every minute or so, whether you call or not. He also seems to be moving: first farther away, then closer, then farther away again.
Do this: The bird is in his strut zone: an open space where he'll linger for some time strutting back and forth, gobbling intermittently and trying to impress the ladies. You can attempt to call him out, but if that doesn't work, you need to close the distance.
Move up in short increments, timing your movements for when the bird is at the far end of its track. You might not have to get all the way into gun range. Sometimes, if you can get into his comfort zone, within about 75 yards, he'll break and come the rest of the way to your call.
Trick Your Trigger
Shotguns were originally designed for wingshooting, where you swing through a target and slap the trigger. Turkey guns require more precise aiming and squeezing of the trigger, much like a rifle.
Timney Triggers recently released a new Trigger Fix that will fit most Remington 870s. The kit includes a sear and three pull-weight springs, so you can choose from a light, medium or heavy spring, then fine-tune the pull weight with a hex wrench (included) for a precise setting. The end result is a much more accurate shot. Installation is easy with included instructions.
Preying on Emotions
During spring, a tom turkey's life is ruled by two emotions: lust and jealousy. Okay, turkeys don't really have emotions; but it's the easiest way to explain how to exploit the birds' tendencies at this time of year.
Jealousy is often a stronger emotion than lust. A tom might come to a hen decoy. Add a jake decoy, and the odds go up quickly. Position the hen decoy in a squatted, ready-to-breed posture, and the setup gets even hotter. Stick the jake just behind or on top of the hen, as if he is mounting her, and your spread becomes all but irresistible.
The Big Fan
The only thing that fires up a tom more than a precocious jake is a rival tom, which explains the increased popularity of full-body, full-strut tom decoys. They may occasionally intimidate younger, subordinate birds, but when conditions are right, older, more dominant birds will trip over their beards running in to trounce the perceived rival.
A Dose of Reality
As anyone who's used stuffers (actual mounted birds) as decoys will attest, realism is very effective when you're trying to entice gobblers into range. However, for those of us who can't afford $500 decoys, there are alternatives.
Flambeau started the trend of using taxidermy-quality heads on its Master Series foam-body decoys, and then improved it with "flocked" hard-body dekes. The latest advancement is Carry-Lite's Bob'n Tail HD turkey decoy ($60; carrylitedecoys.com), which features a head molded from a real freeze-dried turkey head. It has a poly-lycra "skin" printed with high-definition digital photography of an actual turkey's feathers, which conforms to the realistic contours of each decoy's body. The tail of the Bob'n Tail tom even moves in a natural, lifelike manner.
Motion Makes a Difference
When a turkey senses danger, it does one of two things: It flees the scene or it freezes. It should be no surprise, then, that motionless decoys sometimes spook turkeys. Conversely, decoy motion can often be a clinching factor in whether a gobbler comes within range or hangs up.
Most artificial decoys are designed so they'll move passively with the wind, which works okay when there's some wind, but not too much. Adding deliberate motion increases your odds of success. There are many devices available, but home-made contraptions are limited only by your own imagination. The key is to make the decoy move when and how much you want it to. The deadliest setup features a full-body, full-fan decoy that moves the same way a real strutter does.
Phases of the Turkey Rut
Spring is breeding season--the turkey rut, if you will. How you should call, use decoys and hunt in general depends on which stage of the rut you're hunting.
Pre-Rut Most turkey seasons are scheduled to begin after the majority of hens have been bred, so you typically won't experience early pre-rut stages during your season. Still, in a year when spring arrives late in the North, or on some early Southern hunts, you might.
Toms and hens, which have been apart all winter, begin reaquainting themselves and forming flocks. Toms gobble mostly from the roost, and spend much of the day strutting their stuff for large hen flocks.
As the days grow longer, competition heats up among the males and we experience what biologists sometimes refer to as the first gobbling peak. Toms gobble fervently for the first hour or so, trying to attract mates; then they spend much of the day displaying for and mating with those that show up. Subordinate males driven off by the boss tom might gobble more throughout the morning as they search for lonesome, unmated hens.
At the peak of the turkey rut, the boss gobbler has assembled his harem. He still gobbles from the roost, but typically shuts up once his feet hit the ground. The classic henned-up tom has what he wants and is nearly impossible to call. However, subordinate satellite birds begin searching in earnest for hens, and can be downright suicidal when coming to a call.
As the hens complete their clutches, they spend increasingly less time with the flock. Then one day the old boss tom wakes up and finds himself alone. He begins searching anew for any unmated hens. This signifies the second gobbling peak. He also might travel farther and wider in search of unbred hens, sometimes stumbling into unfamiliar territory.
Knight & Hale's "Turkey Hunting Gobbler Guide" is a handy reference book designed to help you determine which stage or transition period your turkeys are in. It's no longer in print, but there are copies available on eBay and Amazon.
Rig for Silent Running
You don't need calls to kill a turkey. Sometimes, in fact, you're better off without them. Gabe Jerome, a guide at Turkey Trot Acres in New York, is a master of the silent kill, and one of his specialties is the turkey hunter's bane, a henned-up tom. What's his secret?
"Scouting," says Jerome. "I'm looking for places where turkeys regularly come to a field-type setup." Next comes patience. "You've got to be able and willing to sit in one spot for a long time." And third is decoys--strutting decoys to be precise. "We use the Carry-Lite Peep'n Tom," says Jerome. But what really trips the turkey's trigger is a device of Jerome's own invention called the Sidewinder Motion Stake (sidewindermotionstakes.org), which allows him to control the movement of his tom decoy from his setup position.
"I scout late in the afternoon, looking for groups of birds with one or more adult toms," says Jerome. He watches to see which group leaves the field last and goes after that group the next morning. He tries to get within 100 yards of where he last saw them, placing a Motion-Stake tom and several hens 25 yards from his position. Then he goes silent.
"I know they like coming to the field, so there's no need to call," he says. "When you call to gobblers on roost, they'll answer. But instead of following their normal routine and coming to the field, the hens will take them away."
He waits silently until the birds come into sight, then puts his decoy to work. "With the Sidewinder, we can turn the decoy and challenge the dominant gobbler to a fight." Does it work? "More often than not, they break and don't stop until they're in gun range. If they do stop, we just move that decoy some more."
Spring turkey hunters are programmed from years of turkey-hunting lore to hen yelp to a gobbling tom inside the short time frame of the mating season.
To these conditioned hunters, hunting quality seems to be determined by an abundance of gobbling, a majority of hens on the nest and love-struck two-year-old toms running in to anything that sounds remotely like a female. Anything outside this "perfect world" has hunters all across America grumbling that something is wrong with the turkeys.
State wildlife agencies attempt to set spring turkey seasons during the time when a majority of the mating is completed and most hens are on the nest, but Mother Nature doesn't attend agency meetings, and more often than not, this window of opportunity is closed during the limited time many hunters have available.
Early-season hunting prior to mating--or even during mating--guarantees a ton of competition from hens for gobblers, making life miserable for turkey hunters who rely only on the basic hen yelp to fool lonely toms.
Hunters facing a late spring or a turkey season that begins prior to spring green-up will be familiar with big flocks of turkeys that have not yet broken up into smaller groups.
During this phase, with gobblers fighting for social status within the flock, hen yelps are not effective, so a hunter must be willing to change his status within the pecking order.
During this time frame, I use gobbler yelping, aggressive purring and gobbler cutting. I utilize my fall turkey hunting skills; I call tom-to-tom with gobbler talk. I've been killing gobblers all across America with this calling tactic for more than 30 years. A good friction call is an excellent choice for gobbler yelping; just lengthen your hen yelps. Gobblers know what it is.
The reaction from challenging toms is much the same as you'd get using strutting decoys. These decoys are very good when used in conjunction with gobbler yelping. It's also important to roost early-season birds, get in tight and call aggressively.
CALL THE HENS
Every early-season hunter has experienced gobblers that are covered up with hens, which lead the tom away the minute they hear a hen call.
There are several tactics to implement during this henned-up phase. The first is to use the pecking order again, but this time by challenging the ladies. Forget the gobbler; call to the hens. You want to answer their replies note for note, but respond with more feeling and emotion. Call in a yelping, irate hen, and the rest of the flock--including the gobbler--will follow.
The second tactic is to bust the flock, scattering the birds--either from the roost or later in the morning--then set up in the direction of the gobbler's escape and call with excitement. More often than not, the gobbler will return quickly to rejoin his hens.
The next phase of early spring is the actual mating process, a time when hunters hear little gobbling because toms are strutting for the girls. This window is all about the roost. Set up tight on the roost, be the first hen the tom hears at daylight, get him down and kill him before most of the hens are even off the limb.
Especially during this early show, hunters need to adapt to the situation at the moment and be willing to try something different to become consistent turkey killers.