Back To The Basics Of Turkey Hunting

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 4, 2019

When it all began for me in the turkey woods, things were different than they are now. Everything from guns to chokes and loads, the equipment available and even the methods of killing a gobbler seems like it’s now changed.

The very first day I ventured into the woods with the goal of killing a turkey, in terms of knowledge and gear, well, the cupboard was pretty bare. I had a single-shot shotgun with me and a pocket full of shells. I had never seen or heard of a turkey vest, so the other pockets held the only three calls to my name. I walked to some heavy sign the afternoon of my first day in the turkey woods and pulled up next to a massive mountain oak. It was there that I somehow managed to pull in my first bird and kill him. I wish I had paid more attention at the time as to how I was able to do it.

Time passed and the turkey hunting world I started out in grew into an explosive competition of marketing and commercialism. I got caught up in it pretty heavily. Some things that I learned about in the following years were great improvements to the sport, while others seem to be gimmicks. I, along with thousands of other turkey hunters, had to decide which was what.

Before I ever really committed to becoming a turkey hunter, I remember a few things I learned about how turkeys were killed. 

One such thing that really stuck out to me was how the old timers were successful in the art of killing turkeys. I know men who used just one old call and how it was more apt to sit idle beside them than it was to be worn out while trying to get a bird to show up in a much shorter range of the gun than we do today.

Turkey hunters who started hunting before me or a little after me have seen the changes. Some will tell you that it is better now in terms of what we have at our disposal, while others will go so far as to argue that turkey hunting is nowhere near what it used to be. When I began hunting turkeys, the choices were limited. Now we are flooded with them.

Turkey Guns: I remember a man telling me once that his granddaddy used to turkey hunt. At the time this would have put his granddaddy killing turkeys way back in the 1950s or so. I asked him what kind of gun he used, and he said, “A shotgun with about a 3-foot barrel.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, but I do know long-barreled turkey guns were normal way back when. So were old paper shells and a single bead. Today’s guns are way more tailored for turkeys. Shorter, more compact shotguns with screw-in chokes are par for the course for most, and the loads we send through them are unbelievable. We have gone from lead to copper-plated lead to heavy shot to the now ever-popular TSS. The latter has made turkey guns out of every gauge, even all the way down to the little .410. And they are turkey killing machines. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when the 10 gauge was the gun of choice. It has seemingly faded into oblivion now.

Tube calls (above) and wingbone calls (below) are some old school calls that not many turkey hunters use in the woods today.

Fiber-optic sights and scopes are common atop turkey guns today, as well. I used to despise the thought of ever having to put one on my gun, but I will be dadgum if I’m going to be able to continue to kill turkeys while the bead at the end of my barrel gets fuzzier by the year.

Custom turkey chokes have made our guns do incredible things at longer distances. We can kill turkeys at farther distances than our forefathers, and I’m good with that as long as we aren’t losing sight of what turkey hunting is meant to be, but some have begun to use the distance of the kill as the measuring stick of success. For me, it’s still about calling the bird in.

Calls: We could go on for days about the different calls. A lot of the turkey hunters from long ago were likely to own a single call or two. Maybe a box of some sort, a wingbone, maybe some type of slate. Now there are varieties of just about every type call imaginable. So many types of materials in boxes and pot calls along with a multitude of diaphragms with different cuts and reeds have produced new, and in some cases, more realistic calls than ever before. Everyone has their own preference, but the calling industry has come an awful long way since the day I walked into the woods with just those three calls in my pocket. 

I remember one diaphragm I bought early on had a lead frame in it. Probably not a good idea.

The Transition: The first bird I ever killed was as close to the old-school method as I ever was. It was a combination of hearing ol’ timer tales of calling very little and being afraid of calling too much for fear of messing up. I called very few times that breezy afternoon and only once after I heard him gobble. He was very dead when the hunt was over, but I didn’t pay enough attention as to why. It has taken me years on top of years to learn that the old way of thinking in the turkey woods still works.

I went from very little calling and using as much patience as I could come up with to hammering every bird I struck and running across a lot of acres to try and make it happen in a short amount of time. That worked sometimes, but none of the hunters of way back when would have agreed with my methods. 

I also got hung up in the newest and latest of about everything concerning turkey hunting. I had a new gun by year two, and my stockpile of calls began to climb dramatically. I went from double reed diaphragms to multiple reeds with extravagant cuts, from a slate pot to pot calls made with all kinds of surfaces. 

Three turkey calls and a single-shot shotgun was all the author needed to kill his first bird. Sometimes getting back to the basics will kill turkeys versus keeping up with all the latest gadgets and gizmos.

Somewhere along the way, I found myself searching for some classic way of killing a turkey. Maybe I was reaching for yesteryear, or maybe I just wanted to rekindle an appreciation for the old calls. Whatever the case, I went into the woods one day a few years ago with a few of the classics.

I was set up at the base of a big old virgin pine one morning, waiting for daylight. I knew there were birds roosted fairly close, and I had made up my mind to work the birds from the area I was in, and I planned to send some calls from some vintage stuff. 

The first call I touched that morning was a scratch box. It produces some of the finest tree yelps available from anything this side of the real thing and will flat out grab the attention of a gobbler. The first call I made that morning got a hard gobble in response, and he soon began firing off on his own. It wasn’t long before several birds were sounding off, and the minute I heard one on the ground, I switched to a tube call and hit him with a flydown cackle. A gobbling frenzy erupted from the roost area, and I just knew it would be over soon.

I was wrong, and I sat for the next couple of hours waiting for the birds to get back in the area after making a route that took them completely out of hearing. I had heard way back in the early days of my turkey hunting that if you will just hang around and give them time, sometimes a gobbler will come back. This turned out to be one of those times.

Around 9, a bird gobbled at the scratch box again, and by 9:45, he was flopping 20 yards away after I lined up a hot load of 7 shot with the bird’s head. He was a 4-year-old limbhanger, and I couldn’t have been happier with him, especially since the majority of the stuff I used on him came from some old-school calls. It has brought yet another level of satisfaction to the harvest every time I bust a bird that I have called up with one of these type calls. 

I would have to say that the biggest reason that hunters today don’t use as many of the old school calls is because of the lack of familiarity with them and the lack of practice needed to become proficient and confident with them. They are still killers.

The Wingbone: This call has been dated back several thousand years. It is the oldest type known and was mastered early on by native American Indians. It was the go-to call for generations until more modern calls were developed in the 1960s. This is a tough call to master but produces a beautiful turkey vocabulary with practice.

The Trumpet: The trumpet call is another call that has been around a while. It, like the wingbone, is a suction call that requires a lot of practice to reach a confident level with. It is also a super realistic and persuasive call. I recently talked with good friend Mark Prudhomme, a 17 time Grand National calling champion, about the trumpet. He is a master of the trumpet call and builds one of the finest anywhere. I recently bought one of his trumpets and told him that I wasn’t too proficient with one. 

“Not a whole lot of people are,” he said. “And it’s because it takes a lot of practice to master it. Most people give up on it too soon. Work on it, and take that call and kill a bird with it.”

I intend to do just that.

The Snuff Can: This call has been around a long time and produces great turkey talk. I have used one off and on for years, and I primarily use it for locating and for fly-down cackles. It is great for cutting and gobbling as well. It’s another tough one to master but is a great addition to anyone’s arsenal. It is a fun one to make, too, and can be made from snuff cans to pill bottles and 35mm film canisters. I called in five gobblers with a tube call in a three-day stretch one season. 

The Scratch Box: This is another call that goes way back. Originating in the 1700s, it is still as deadly today as it was intended to be. It was the predecessor to the modern day box call we all know today, and there were several variations of it. It is said to be originally made from a wooden match box. Many turkey hunters today have no idea what a scratch box is. It fell to the wayside when the easier, modern style box came along. It is not a difficult call to learn to use, and due to it’s two-piece design, it won’t work if you aren’t doing it right. I fell in love with this one several years ago. It always goes with me to the turkey woods and the number of birds that have lost their head because of it is piling up.

This & That: So what is worth going back to in the turkey woods of yesterday and what is better in a modern world? I believe it is all a matter of preference. I have some friends who have recently dedicated themselves to getting the job done by reverting to older guns and older loads. Some have become masters of a single, old-style call, and they flat refuse to use anything else.

The methods vary as well. Many turkey hunters of the past would tell you to yelp three to five times and set the call down for at least 45 minutes before you touch it again. That’s a tough one.

I suppose I find myself evolving every year into the turkey hunter I need to be. It is a combination of past practices combined with a modernization of sorts. I love a mouth call still, but I have really fallen in love with the stuff that has always been around, too. 

I still shoot a 12-gauge pump gun that has been around for 30 years, and I just can’t seem to leave it at home no matter what they come up with.

TSS has made nearly every turkey gun a capable turkey killer, but for now, the 12 suits me fine. I like a vest as opposed to none and a seat is better than the ground at this stage of life. Again, it is all about personal preference. If you are happy trying to crawl up on a bird behind a fan, or you would prefer to shoot a bird at a 60 yards instead of calling one in, then so be it.

I think I’m just going to continue on somewhere in the middle of it all and enjoy the ride.

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