The coming of spring means many things to many people. “April showers bring May flowers ...” so the saying goes. The warm rains of spring represent the renewal of life as the natural world wakes from its winter slumber. Usually a barely audible rumble slowly grows in intensity as it gets closer and closer until that sudden unexpected thunderclap.
For the hunter, however, the thunder of spring is the glorious gobble of the wild turkey. Once you have heard it, it’s seared into your soul. Experience it close up, and it will rattle you.
Wild turkeys are a very social and vocal flocking bird. All turkeys make a variety of sounds or “calls.” They sound much like any turkey you may have seen at the zoo or the farm. They cluck and yelp. They cut and purr. Each vocalization has a different meaning as their form of communication and language. Some are soft, some are loud, some are angry, and some are even sexy. Male turkeys also gobble to assert dominance and establish their territory.
Like with many bird species, the male is the flashier gender. His plumage is a radiant spectrum of black, brown, and copper with a gorgeous sheen in the sunlight. His bald head shape-shifts colors of red, blue, and white. A “gobbler” will fan his tail and strut for his potential mate until she breaks down and comes to him.
Turkeys roost in trees at night to avoid predators. Each morning in the spring the male turkey sends out a booming gobble to let the world know where he is and that he’s awake. This may be a one-time announcement, or he may continue to gobble dozens of times from his perch. The hen turkeys are much quieter, waking up slowly and making just enough noise so that the flock can locate each other in the early morning pre-dawn light. At some point one of the turkeys, usually an older hen, makes the decision to fly down for the day. Once one goes, they all go and it sounds like bowling balls falling through the trees. Now the game is on in earnest. The hens call to each other, trying to group up, and begin feeding. Once on the ground, the gobbler sounds off because he wants a lady to forget about her girlfriends and breakfast and come find him for a morning rendezvous. While the male can and will move, nature dictates that the hen responds to his gobbles and visual strutting display, and she comes to him if she finds him appealing. It is natural selection and high school all rolled into one.
Hunter Simulated Calls
The heritage of hunting dates back to the beginning of time. Most of the time, hiding in ambush for prey is the most successful tactic. However, several game animals, because of their vocalizations, can be “called in” to the hunter. Examples include ducks, geese, elk, and the wild turkey. Hunting takes on a whole new dimension of intensity and intimacy as the hunter tries to mimic the natural sounds and fool a wild animal into coming to the hunter’s location. It is the pinnacle of the hunting experience and achievement. Even with modern shotguns and bows, one must get the turkey to come in 40 yards or closer.
So just how do we fool a lovelorn wild turkey gobbler into breaking his natural instincts and come looking for love and into our trap? Primitive hunters certainly used their mouth to chirp and cluck with moderate success. I have called in turkeys with my mouth. I think I sound pretty good; most of my hunting buddies do not. Many tribesmen learned how to fashion a call from the hollow bones of the turkey themselves. By puckering and kissing into one end of a wingbone, one can learn to make a very realistic yelping sound.
Several other elements are important to successful calling, including volume, friction, and versatility. The wingbone call is effective and nostalgic, but it’s limited in the variety and volume of calls it can make. Many other calls have been designed over the years to maximize these needed characteristics. Remember how fingers on a chalkboard or other shrill sounds set your hairs on end? Something about that raspy vibration can really trigger an old Tom to sound off.
A peg box is a simple call with a peg and striker plate. Think of a small rectangular block of wood with a notch cut down one side. The wood peg can scratch along the groove to generate the sounds. Chalk is used to create additional friction, or a piece of slate or aluminum may be glued in the groove to help make noise.
A fancier version is the push-pull call, which takes a lot of guesswork out of the process and is a great option for new hunters.
The pot call, or slate call, is where versatility and creativity really come into play. A piece of slate, glass, or aluminum is housed in a palm-sized container or “pot.” With striker in one hand and slate in the other, the hunter can make a variety of calls at differing volumes. Even more versatility is garnered by changing the material on the striker itself. Wood, slate, aluminum, and graphite are all used to make strikers. More creative hunters have even been known to craft a call out of a small turtle shell, gluing a piece of slate across the open bottom.
When most folks think of turkey calls, they conjure up visions of the box call. The box call is a friction call with a lid that scratches horizontally across the lower unit in one or both directions. The box call can be made in unlimited sizes and types of wood. It has the advantage of being much louder than other calls when needed. More than perhaps any other call, the box call devices have become pieces of artwork featuring etched logos or custom monogramming.
While each of the above calls can fool a gobbler and bring him within range, each of these calls has one distinct disadvantage — movement. Game animals survive by sensing danger with sight, sound, and scent. Many game animals, like deer, live and die by their nose, but turkeys use their eyes and ears. Like most birds, they see in color and can focus far off, like an eagle, so full camouflage is a must.
If you have managed to locate a gobbling turkey that is coming towards you while you work your call, he’s locked into your exact location by the sound, and as he approaches, he’s frantically looking for the hen. And there you are, sitting with your back to a tree and your shotgun on your lap while you use one or both hands to manipulate the peg, slate, or box call. Busted. Calling a turkey and killing a turkey are two very different things.
Enter the diaphragm call. This odd-looking contraption seems like it belongs in a dentist’s office. By stretching latex across a C-shaped frame, it allows the hunter to use only his mouth to make a variety of hands-free calls. As with all calls, different shapes and sizes, as well as cuts in the latex, make for an infinite variety of sounds and volumes. It is similar to the reed on an instrument. By placing the call lightly on the roof of your mouth, you can use tongue pressure and wind from your throat and diaphragm to make sounds. It is extremely realistic and versatile, and it can be used with both hands holding the gun raised and in position even before the bird is sighted. Many advanced callers only use the diaphragm call, but I still like to carry at least one of each because the slate and box do give me the friction that is sometimes needed to light up a gobbler. I will always switch to the mouth call for close-in work. Some hunters even like to use two calls at once to sound like more than one turkey. I can simultaneously use the box call and the mouth call to sound like two hens competing for the gobbler’s attention.
One additional call is made by imitating the gobble itself. In the spring, as hormones surge for breeding rights, the male turkey’s gobbling intensifies. A tom gobbles to announce his presence. He gobbles to locate hens. He gobbles to tell other suitors that he’s the boss of this area. Where populations are good and conditions are right, it’s not uncommon to hear two or three gobblers or more all sounding off at first light. It’s the stuff of which hunting dreams are made. You not only have multiple potential targets but now also some level of competition. The term “pecking order” comes from turkeys. During breeding season they hate the presence of competition. They will fight, spur, and peck a lesser male to death to establish dominance and breeding rights. One thing a wary gobbler hates to hear is the sound of another tom heading for his girlfriend. I have many times used a gobbler call after using a box or slate hen call to make the gobbler think another tom or jake (juvenile male) is moving in.
WARNING: using a gobbler call can be dangerous! Other hunters are also listening intently for the gobble and may move in to hunt you. When, God forbid, a hunting accident occurs in the turkey woods, this is how it happens. Clearly identifying all of the bird before shooting is an ethical must. It’s not enough to think you see the brown and black of feathers; you must see the red, white, and blue of his head before taking the shot.
We humans are creatures of habit, and this can really affect our hunting success. We tend to hunt the same areas where we saw game in the past. By the same token, we tend to call in the same sequence and cadence day after day. We tend to begin to sound like our idea of a turkey and less like the actual bird. Turkeys have different moods. They can go silent for hours on end. They can call softly, and they can get angry. You can hear it in their tone.
If in our human relationships “it’s not what you say, but how you say it,” then so too with turkeys. The actual number of calls they make is somewhat limited, but how they are strung together and at what frequency and volume make all the difference. Turkey calling has become such an art form that contests are held just for showing off one’s skill. Trophies are given out to the best callers and never a shot is fired. I am a below-average caller at best, but I am fairly confident and successful when hunting. If I would give one piece of advice for the newer turkey hunter it would be to change it up. While the turkeys tend to roost in the same general areas, I take great pains to never call from the exact same location twice. I try to sneak into position walking different routes. I carry several calls so that I can sound, well, different. I never call unless I am in a good position to set up for the shot.
The only other piece of advice I can give the new turkey hunter is to shut up and listen. Most hunters overcall. They figure more is better, or that the turkeys can’t hear them, or that calling more will make the gobbler come in. While we all long to hear the thunder of the gobble, I am always amazed at how quietly the hens talk to each other when feeding. Remember that four-legged predators are listening for the calls as well, so while the life of the turkey is based on communication with the flock, many times turkeys talk quietly or not at all for safety. As long as they can see each other with that keen eyesight, even at some distance, they don’t have to make noise.
I have learned this lesson in spades twice. Many years ago in Missouri, a coyote ran across my feet, no doubt looking for that hen that was yelping her head off. More recently, I had an even more dramatic experience with predators cueing in to turkey vocalizations. It was a warm South Carolina morning around 10 a.m. After the early morning rush of gobbling, things tend to go quiet as the mating pairs go off to lay eggs and settle into a feeding pattern. Although it’s quiet, this can be a great time to find a lonely tom. Once the females are off laying eggs, he is left all alone again, and he doesn’t like it. The gobbler will often sound off midday or respond to a call. Knowing this and knowing where the turkeys had been roosting, I didn’t want to blunder in and spook the birds, so I set up several hundred yards away from the prime area to call “blind.” The idea is that the gobbler may hear you and sound off or just ease in quietly to take a look. It wasn’t long after making several soft clucks and purrs that I caught movement off to my right. I made another soft call and confirmed the movement, but to my surprise it was a bobcat! He was coming in for a turkey dinner. I switched off the safety and got ready for a little predator control when suddenly the bobcat looked behind him, freaked out, and took off like a shot. Puzzled, I kept staring to see what had spooked the cat when in loped three coyotes! They, too, had heard my calling and were on their way for an easy meal. A 3-year-old-turkey is an old turkey, and now I know why.
Turkey hunting is addictive in the best of ways. Don’t get me wrong — on many days I don’t hear or see any turkeys, and I am ready to give it all up. But when it works, nothing is like it in the world of sport. As the hunter, you can sneak into the woods and watch another morning unfold, only to hear the monarch of the mountain sound off with the thunder of spring that makes the hair stand on end. Then you take your part in a Shakespearean play of love and seduction, using your calls to entice a wild creature within range of an ethical harvest. Win or lose, this a game worth playing. The turkey call and the art of calling become central to the greatest chess match on earth. Each turkey call is a work of art that holds a special memory. I have a shelf full of old calls that no longer see the field, but I can’t bear to throw them out. If I hold them just right while sitting by a winter’s fire, they will conjure up the sweet memory of the thunder of spring, soon to come again.