Strategy For Wise Old Birds—Kill ’Em Softly

A subtle approach is often best for mature gobblers.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 3, 2017

A long time ago, while working a bird on the side of a steep hardwood hill, I fell into a rut that took me an entire season to climb out of. This old bird was partial to hard, aggressive hen talk, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess he gobbled 40 or 50 times before I finished him off at 17 yards. When I wrapped my hands around his scaly legs, I sat back down and thought about how the hunt had played out. I thought about how much he liked my calling and the aggressive style I had used. I decided that I would work every bird in the future the same way I had worked that old mountain bird. That’s when I fell in the ditch.

I wasted the next season hammering every bird I encountered while wondering why I didn’t kill a bird the whole season. Man, I ate plenty of pie of the humble variety that year. The turkeys gobbled plenty, so I thought every one of them would want to be beat over the head with loud, raucous hen talk. I had yet to learn one simple rule of thumb: Let the bird tell you what he wants.

Since then I have definitely killed more birds with the soft stuff than I have with high-volume aggression.

Starting Softly: I remember the first time I heard a hen make a tree call. I wasn’t real sure that’s what I had heard until she did it again. When she did it the third time, a gobbler 75 yards away gobbled once and flew down. I wondered how he had even heard her. Two gobbles later and the hen pitched, and they were gone.

I thought about that hunt for a long time and wondered how in the world a hen could steal a gobbler from me with such little effort. That hunt is what led me to changing the way I approached my hunts at daylight.

I used to simulate a tree call, let him answer and then do a fly-down cackle. Then I would attempt to fire him up by increasing the tempo and the volume. Most of the time, he would get pretty cranked up, but it wasn’t that often that I’d kill him. I have found that more hunts end favorably for me if I start softly. That doesn’t mean that I don’t turn up the heat when I need to, but high-volume aggression has become more of a method that I might resort to later in a hunt rather than something I will start with.

If I can get a gobbler to answer a soft tree call, that’s about all I do until he flies down. This has been far more productive for me than trying to blow one off the roost with a bunch of loud, aggressive talk.

Hens are great teachers. I finally quit trying to learn everything about turkeys from the gobblers and started trying to understand the hens and why they usually won out, aside from the fact that they are in plain view of the gobbler lots of times.

When I started giving the hens their due, I started killing more turkeys. They are a tremendous educational resource, and I realized that hens, for the most part, just aren’t walking around running their mouths all day. Sure, they have their moments when they won’t shut up, but they seem to speak louder when dealing with other hens, or us when we pretend to be one.

I learned over time that there are times when hens are just talking to talk. Think about the common vocalizations we hear a hen make each spring. Then think about who she is talking to. She starts with a tree call in the morning. It’s a basic alarm clock for anyone who will listen. Is she speaking to another turkey? Sometimes she is, and other times she is merely greeting the day. The gobbler might answer that tree call, but it is simply because he heard her, and he wants her to know he wants to date her. She might get excited and respond to him, or she might ignore him. I have heard some of the noisiest roosts you can imagine through the years, but I have also sat up on gobblers that I thought were all alone, only to have them covered up with hens once he hit the ground.

Fly-down cackles are loud, but here again, she is talking to no one in particular. It is loud, it is exciting, and it will often jerk a gobble out of a worked-up gobbler.

Assembly calls are another favorite of hens, and I use them plenty, but when a hen makes this noise, she is just rounding up the flock.

Loud hen talk between a hunter and a hen can get a hen aggravated enough to come to a hunter’s position, and sometimes, if she has company, a gobbler will drag in behind her. However keep in mind it could be the only reason you killed that gobbler is because the hen—not the gobbler—responded to that sort of loud calling.

A Softer Point Of View: So, with all the aforementioned loud talk that can certainly get a gobbler going, why worry about the soft stuff? Because no matter what time of day, or where I’m hunting in the country, there has been a common denominator in flopping turkeys: stay as natural as possible, and softer is generally the norm for most days.

Even though I love aggressive calling, I’d rather a gobbler barely speak and end up over my shoulder than to hear one gobble 100 GPH (gobbles per hour) and never show up.

I recall a bird I killed on WMA land one afternoon that will always stand out to me as the hunt that opened my eyes to soft calling. It made me realize the effectiveness it can have.

The season had worn on for nearly a month and a half, and I had begun to just go through the motions. I was hunting the same way nearly every trip to the woods. I had fallen into a rut that wasn’t producing and was thinking of a way to get out of it. I needed to shake things up a bit. The evenings generally consisted of covering tremendous amounts of ground and calling loud and often. This style worked a fair amount, but times had been rough of late, so I started thinking about why I was coming home alone so often and decided to go way against the grain of normalcy for me.

As I mentioned earlier, hens can get mouthy at times but they can also go about their business each day with little conversation at all. I believe if we put ourselves in the mindset of a turkey in a particular situation, we can create a better chance to kill a bird. For instance, if we are sitting in one spot and call every five minutes, I just don’t think that sounds very natural. A gobbler might slip in to investigate, but I believe he would be more apt to keep his distance. I have spent enough time sitting in one spot over the years calling way too much and have just not seen many birds that way.

Getting back to the WMA hunt… I decided to head to a favorite stomping ground one late April afternoon. It was going to be an experiment, but I had planned to tone things way down. I would have to fight the urge to keep from resorting to my usual method of more aggressive calling.

My plan was pretty simple. I planned to walk an old logging road that led to a particular river bottom where I had killed several birds over the years. Usually, I would call every 150 yards or so, yelping here and there. I would likely be cutting some after the first thousand yards, and by the time I reached the river bottom, I’d just be making a bunch of hen racket. I had killed birds doing just that, and in that area, too, but like I said earlier, I was not having any recent luck.

Today would be different, however. I decided to walk the logging road, only clucking and purring every 75 yards or so. Nothing loud, no yelping or cutting; just clucks and purrs. I envisioned an old hen moseying along, feeding as she made her way to the swamp. I managed to stick to my plan all the way to where I would drop off into the river bottom. When I had made it half way down the hill, I called again.  A bird hammered back up the logging road 200 yards or so away. As I began easing back up the hill, the bird hammered again, and he had closed the distance between us considerably, so I had to stop short of the hilltop. Within five minutes, the strutter broke the crest of the hill, and I dropped him there.

I replayed that hunt in my head all the way home. It was a lesson learned. I was happy to have that bird, but I was even happier to realize the need to change things up and to reap a reward for doing so. It was good to see another side of turkey hunting pay off, and it was a side that I hadn’t explored too often. To this day, I believe that the old bird had trailed along behind me, and when I dropped off into the river bottom, he panicked.

The hunt made me think about how many birds I had passed by over the years as I walked too quickly and called too often and with too much harsh aggression. A slower walk, a longer pause, a softer call might have, and likely would have, pulled a few of those birds into gun range.

I believe that soft calling works better on public ground than the heavy aggressive stuff. I also think that it is better later in the season, too. Again, listening to a turkey closely and checking his temperature is going to be your best approach. The general rule of thumb here is to use the amount of gobbling a bird does to determine the amount of calling you do. If he is pouring it on, you will be able to get away with more calling. If he’s lackadaisical, you’d be better off keeping the calling to a minimum.

Here is where it gets tricky. I’ve had hunters tell me that they called very little to a bird that was gobbling very little, and he still never showed up. I’ve also had hunters tell me they called a lot to a hard gobbling bird that never came in. My question in return has always been, “What kind of calling did you do?”

I often feel that people confuse the idea of aggressive calling only with the actual amount of physical calling. If you are only calling to a bird every 30 minutes, but you try to blow the leaves off the trees every time you call, you are being aggressive for some turkeys. Some birds just won’t respond to that loud, aggressive style of calling no matter how sporadically you call.

The same can be said for the bird that hammers every time you cutt or cackle aggressively. He might eat it up but stand his ground. Oftentimes with these birds you are sending a message that you want him just a little more than he wants you, and he’s content on letting you cover the distance.

Also, I have called to some birds and only used clucks and purrs. I’ve seen a lot of those do the death flop, too.

It took a long time to realize that calling a lot to a bird doesn’t always mean calling with hard, aggressive calls like cackles, cutts and fast yelps.

Call volume can be another hunt killer. I rarely use high volume anymore unless I have to. If it’s windy, the woods are all leafed out or if I’m just trying to strike a bird, I might stretch the reeds a little. However, if I’m engaged in conversation with a bird, I just want him to hear me, not fear me.

There are appropriate times for aggressive, hard calling and soft calling. Both can be extremely deadly and can turn a hunt in your favor. If I had to choose, I would go to the woods with the much softer cluck over the hard cutt. On average, a hen will cluck way more than she cutts on any given day.

It’s also important to remember that aggression doesn’t always have to be done in a harsh manner. It can simply mean throwing the first punch, setting the tone or just consistently portraying that you are a hen that has no intention of giving ground to a bunch of gobbling. It’s an aggression on his ego then, and I will always believe that gobblers are an egotistical, arrogant bunch. I have seen too many die because of it to convince me otherwise.

I remember a bird I called in one day that was red hot. He was hammering every call I gave him. The problem was that he wasn’t budging. So I backed off, not on my aggression, but on my volume and tone. I went from heavy cutting and aggressive yelps to giving him the old “whatever” attitude. When he gobbled, I clucked and purred. The hunt that had lasted upward of an hour turned quickly in my favor when I found the right button to push. From my first cluck to the last was about five minutes. He probably gobbled a dozen times and covered over 100 yards or so and let his arrogant nature get his head dusted off.

That hunt reminded me not only the importance of the entire turkey vocabulary in the woods, but also of the fact that a turkey’s hearing is superb. We are all taught about how keen the turkey’s eyesight is, but don’t forget they can zero in on sounds from a long way off.

Calling softly takes some practice and can be accomplished on about any call you can think of, but some are definitely easier to tone down than others. For instance, a slate is naturally mellow, and the soft stuff on there is hard to beat. Box calls are pretty simple to tone down just by lessening the pressure on the call. The most common question I get is how to tone down a mouth call. The main thing here is not to confuse tongue pressure with volume control. Tongue pressure controls high and low pitches, but air flow control the volume.

When I started turkey hunting it was taught to say the word “chick” or “chuck” or “keyauck” on your mouth calls. I never did like using words to call on a diaphragm. In fact, I don’t even use a “C” or “K” sound at all. The best I can describe it is a hiss like a cat. The air flow is from my diaphragm, and the volume is determined by the amount of air pressure I use. Practice on all your calls, and be as rounded as you can be.

The end result we all hope for in the turkey woods is to take the victory walk with a gobbler over our shoulder, and I personally have experienced a lot of those walks by killing them softly.

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