Talk Softly To A Lone Gobbler

Keith Byers says minimal calling will pull a lone tom in.

Keith Byers | March 19, 2005

I was proud to feel a little nip of coolness in the air as I put on my turkey vest and loaded my shotgun. Normally, I do not like cool temperatures during turkey season, especially if I am going to have to wade sloughs filled with water. This morning, however, it was a welcome change. The cool air kept those hordes of Ocmulgee River swamp mosquitoes somewhat at bay; at least until the morning temperature began to rise.

As I walked down the woods road toward the swamp, I began to think about the three prior mornings I had hunted this gobbler. My first encounter with this bird had not been a good one. He had gobbled on the roost just like he was suppose to do, however he was roosted out over a large slough. This slough was full and overflowing because the Ocmulgee River was what south Georgians call “on a hoss.” (On a hoss is a south Georgia term meaning the river had overflowed its banks and water was out in the river swamp.)

I moved in as close as I could, but I knew from experience hunting birds in the river swamp that I was in the wrong place to set up. The only way to get to the right place was a very cold swim across the deep slough.

The author with an 18-lb. Ocmulgee River swamp gobbler that he pulled in using his first-contact calling techniques.

Still, every now and then I am wrong, so I set up and gave it a try. This time I was not wrong, and the bird flew down on the other side of the slough, along with a few hens to keep him company. Morning No. 1 was over.

Morning No. 2 did not go much better. By the time I got a chance to hunt this bird again the waters of the Ocmulgee River had receded somewhat, and when I heard him gobble, I could tell he was roosted between two large sloughs. Because the river had receded, I was able to wade across the slough that had been impossible to get across the hunt before. Once across, I quickly made my way toward the still-gobbling bird. As I neared the gobbler, I found a good tree to lean back against, sat down and set up. Just as I got ready, the bird gobbled again.

This is where I made a rookie mistake. The bird had evidently turned on the limb and was facing away from me, causing his gobble to sound a little farther away than his previous one. I thought I had misjudged his distance. This encouraged me to move about 15 yards closer. After the move, the bird quit gobbling and moments later he did not pitch down. No, he went airborne and flew about 200 yards toward the hill. Got too close you think? Morning No. 2 was over.

On morning No. 3 he did not gobble, however I heard a faint gobble way out on the hill. This bird, come to find out, was on another piece of property that I did not have permission to hunt. Morning No. 3 was over.

Now on morning No. 4, and as I entered the Ocmulgee River swamp under the cover of darkness and I could tell things were looking up. The river had receded yet again, and there was a good possibility that I might not even have to get my feet wet depending on where the old gobbler had decided to roost.

I reached the point along the woods road that led into the swamp where I wanted to listen, leaned my shotgun up against a tree and waited for daybreak.

When I noticed the first hint of light that was the beginning of the new day, I took out my great blue heron call and sent the squawking sound of a heron echoing through the swamp. Immediately the gobbler sounded off, and to my surprise he was roosted approximately 200 yards from my location. I picked up my shotgun and quickly made my way toward the gobbler. He was roosted again between the two large sloughs. This time I did not have to wade, the river had receded enough that there were just pockets of water in places where I crossed the slough.

I cut my distance to about 100 yards from the gobbling bird, eased in a few yards closer, leaned up against a tree, with my face mask and diaphragm call in place. And I waited. When the bird gobbled again I knew I was close enough. I eased down in front of the tree I had been leaning against and set up, meaning I turned my thermo-cell on for the mosquitoes that I knew would come from the day’s rising temperatures, and put my gun on my knee. I then settled in for what might be a long wait.

After the bird gobbled a couple of more times, I decided it was time to let him hear a series of soft tree yelps. The tree yelps did not elicit a response from the gobbler. About 10 minutes passed, and he gobbled again. I drifted another series of tree yelps his way.

No response.

His lack of response did not overly concern me because in my many years of turkey hunting, I would say that more than half of the birds that I have set up on in a similar situation have acted the same way. It was time to sit back and wait until the gobbler made the next move.

During these sometime long waiting periods you have time to reminisce about past hunts, both successful and unsuccessful. As you might have guessed, this was one of these times. I began to recall the many hunts that began just as this morning had: Where I heard a bird gobble, eased in close, set up, and made those two series of soft tree yelps. You know what? On a large number of those hunts I came out of the woods carrying a turkey in my vest. Why? As a modern turkey hunter I began to analyze these hunts. What did they all have in common other than me bagging the turkey? One, most of the time the gobbler was roosted alone. Two, I set-up very close to the roosting gobbler. That is, close enough to hear his wingbeats when he pitched down. Three, I always began with the same calling sequence, one or two series of soft tree yelps. Four, and probably the most important, I did not make another call until I was sure the gobbler had pitched down and was on the ground.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is simple. For all of you turkey-hunting gurus out there, I too love to call all the time, and often it takes a lot of self-discipline and restraint.

Then there is the turkey hunter who loves to hear the bird gobble and actively tries to facilitate further gobbling by calling. This person usually counts every gobble. You will have to decide which you would rather do: count gobbles or go home with a bird.

This calling strategy of one or two series of soft tree yelps is by no means the only calling sequence that I use during any hunt. It is, however, the foundation which other calling sequences are built upon.

Every year, I hear turkey-hunting stories from other hunters about how the bird gobbled well in the tree, flew down and went away from the hunter answering his or her every call. Usually it is the opinion of the unsuccessful hunter that their calling was not up to par or the gobbler got with hens, and the list of possibilities goes on and on.

I cannot remember when I have had a gobbler that was roosted alone do this. At least not since I have been using the one or two series of soft tree yelps strategy. Why you might ask? Well, I am glad you asked that question. I have a theory on why this beginning strategy works. Being both a conservation ranger and a turkey hunter for many years, I have had the opportunity to observe many turkeys in the wild. Also, I have read many books on the subject of turkey hunting and turkey behavior. The reason a turkey gobbles is to call hens to his location for breeding. Many times I have been set up on a gobbler only to have a hen either walk or fly to the tree the gobbler was roosted in. The minute he sees her, he pitches down, gets with her and away they go. If you have turkey hunted any length of time you have seen this also. Usually this is where us hunters watch and feel helpless as she takes our trophy away.

Question? How much calling have you ever heard one of these hens do? Answer: Not much if any. So why would you want to call more than the real thing?

Back to my theory. I believe when a gobbler is on the roost and gobbling he is no doubt calling for any available hens in the area to come to his location. When he hears one calling back to him, he expects her to come to him. If the hen continues to call but does not show up, he either gets disinterested or thinks the hen is not interested. When he pitches down, he either hangs up immediately or goes the other way still trying to entice the hen to come to him just like it is supposed to happen.

With the tree-yelp strategy you are just letting him know that a hen is roosted in the area. This tells him she is close by, and that is all. When he pitches down, he is more likely to come looking for the hen or stay close to the area since you have not bombarded him with a bunch of calls while he is still in the tree.

Next question? What do you do when he pitches down? As I said before, the tree-yelp strategy is the foundation for other calling sequences. Depending on the gobbler and how much hunting pressure he has had, I may do some other things before he pitches down. None of them have anything to do with a turkey call. This is where I might bring out the turkey wing and use the wing to rub the feathers against a tree trunk to simulate a turkey stretching its wings on the roost in the morning.

Say what? Let me explain. When turkeys are on the roost and they start to wake up in the morning, most of them stretch, not unlike us humans do when we first get up. As they stretch their wings, often times they hit nearby limbs, twigs, and tree trunks causing faint scraping noises as their feathers rub across these objects. Don’t think a gobbler is not in tune to these subtle sounds. I also use the wing to simulate the flying down of a turkey from its roost by hitting the wing rapidly against my thigh. This tells the gobbler the turkey hen he heard nearby is on the ground. The sound of these wingbeats may elicit several reactions from your gobbler, from pitching down immediately, to turning him around on the tree limb, or him just gobbling at the sound. Anyway the least reaction you will get is silence. This, too, is not a bad thing.

OK, back to the initial question. What do you do when he pitches down?

Answer: If the gobbler has pitched in my direction and is just outside the zone — definition of the zone is the imaginary line the gobbler crosses when he enters the hunter’s kill zone — usually 40 yards and in from the hunter’s set-up position — I let him hear three soft-to-medium plain yelps. If he pitches away from my position, I will still use three plain yelps, only louder. Either way this is what I start the battle with. Depending on what reaction I get from the gobbler is what I base my next calling sequence on.

If the gobbler pitches down inside the zone, it is not time to panic. Remember to move your eyes instead of your head. If you have a clear shot and you are lucky enough to have your gun pointed in the right direction, take it. However, most of the time I find my gun is pointed in the wrong direction. If this happens, you must wait for the gobbler’s head to go behind something so he cannot see you make the adjustments that will hopefully lead to his demise. In this situation if a gobbler has pitched down behind something and all I need him to do is move just a little for me to get a clear shot, I cluck to him once or twice. Usually this is all it takes.

Question? How do I know if a gobbler has pitched down? Answer: I key on the sound of the wingbeats. This tells me a gobbler is on the ground, and it is time for me to go to work with my calling.

Another strategy I use is when I hear the sound of wingbeats is to immediately give a flydown cackle while the gobbler is in the air. This tactic excites the gobbler and lets him know that a hen has flown down with him. The reason I wait until he is airborne is I believe he may know which direction the sound came from, but while in the air I do not think he can pinpoint your exact location as he can do so well on the ground or from the roost. Remember you want him to come looking for the hen he just heard.

Gobblers that have had a lot of hunting pressure have heard every kind of call in the book. You know the ones that everybody on the hunting club or Wildlife Management Area has tried but failed to bring home. This bird knows every call a hunter blows, sucks, scratches, or scrapes by name brand and manufacturer. These are the birds that are call shy. You get the picture. These gobblers are the ones that have to be handled carefully. When going after one of these wary birds, us your head instead of your call. You do not want to make the same mistakes as your fellow hunters, meaning you do not want to follow in their footsteps. You, my friend, want to do something completely different. In dealing with one of these birds, I usually do not use a locator call to get the bird to shock gobble. I try to let him gobble on his own. Also, I try to make my approach to his roost from a direction most other hunters might not have taken. When I set up I usually sit and listen to him gobble for a while before I make my first series of soft tree yelps.

Depending on how much hunting pressure this gobbler has endured I might not call to him at all while he is in the tree. If I set up on a bird that I know for sure has been bombarded with a lot of calls, I will not make a call to him until I am sure he has put his feet on the ground. Again, I key on those wingbeats to give me this valuable information. However, depending on the situation I might let him hear those subtle wing-scraping sounds, some wingbeats, scratching in the leaves or all three before he has the opportunity to pitch down.

After the old bird has flown down, I usually cluck to him one or two times first. Before I do any more calling I try to get a read on the gobbler’s reaction. A lot of times this clucking is all it takes to bring him into the zone. If the clucks don’t work, I switch to plain yelps. I make them soft to medium in tone and in a two- or three-yelp series. Most of the time this does the trick.

Always remember one very important thing when calling to a turkey. After you make your first call to a gobbler and you know for sure he has heard it, you can bet that he can walk straight to you and sit in your lap if he wants. Over-calling to him will do nothing but either hang him up or send him the other way.

After your initial call you must have the confidence in your calling ability and the patience to let first-contact calling work for you. After you get a read on the gobbler’s reaction to the call, you then can move on to another call strategy if this is not working. Keep in mind that the hunters before you did not take this bird home by overdoing it on the calling.

With that said, the sound of wingbeats brought me back into the present on the fourth hunt for the Ocmulgee River swamp gobbler. My grip on my shotgun tightened as I watched the old bird sail down a little to my right and behind three trees located on the edge of the zone. I immediately adjusted my shotgun and let him hear a series of three plain yelps. The gobbler came from behind the trees walking to my left. He turned and entered the zone. My internal-excitement meter pegged out at about this point. He was getting closer. The problem was that every time I put my sights on his neck halfway between his head and body he would go behind another tree before I could pull the trigger.

Closer he came. Each time he went behind a tree I adjusted my shotgun. Finally, he went behind a tree, and when he emerged I settled the sight on his neck and pulled the trigger. He was 16 yards away. From the time he pitched down to the time I pulled the trigger he never made a sound. All it took to fool this Ocmulgee River swamp gobbler was two series of soft tree yelps and one series of three plain yelps.

Simple ain’t it?

The answer is yes, it can be. When you combine simple calling tactics, the right set-up position and patience. These three things interact with one another and make for what I believe is the most deadly strategy a turkey hunter can use. All it takes is the discipline to put yourself into the right mindset to try this strategy. Keep in mind these strategies mentioned here were used on gobblers that were roosted by themselves. If hens get involved, well that’s another article.

Remember when you are out in the woods getting ready to do battle with a gobbler that is still on the roost, get close, listen for wingbeats, and above all call intelligently.

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