The Right Turkey Call, For The Right Turkey Mood

Reading a gobbler’s mood will tell you when it’s time to yelp, cluck or break out the fighting-purr boxes.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 1, 2006

Donald Devereaux Jarrett took this Cedar Creek WMA bird in 2004. He said the gobbler was with a harem of hens. After getting rejected with aggressive cutting, Donald slowed his calling to soft clucks and purrs. The boss hen settled down and brought the whole flock into Donald’s lap.

Reading a gobbler’s mood and following it up with the right call can be a deadly combination this spring. The importance of this lesson was taught to me on opening day quite a few years ago in Hancock County.

My good friend Cal Marsh and I had struck out on opening morning. Right before lunch we gave a few calls from the edge of a small wheat field, but after 10 minutes of silence we headed toward camp. We had traveled less than 50 yards when a large gobbler crossed the road 60 yards ahead.

Was the bird deaf? I wondered.

We couldn’t understand why a bird that no doubt heard our calling didn’t gobble.

That afternoon we tried various methods to get a bird fired up, but we were struggling big time. We spent the last part of the afternoon slowly covering the property. We would stop, call and listen for 10 minutes before moving on. We finally came to an old logging road that provided a decent view of the small wheat field where we had been earlier in the day. After calling, we glassed the field and saw nothing. While standing there wondering what to do, a big gobbler, probably the one we saw at noon, appeared 80 yards in front of us. We froze and watched as the bird, in half strut, vanished.

Our calling efforts had been rejected again, however, we were confident the big tom had not seen us. We threw our face masks on and set up.

Cal and I both knew it was time to try a different tactic on this longbeard — he showed us twice that yelps and clucks weren’t going to get him into range. Instead of trying to entice the bird with sweet hen music, we shifted to a tactic we hadn’t tried on the bird. I suggested to Cal that he use his tube call to gobble while I cutt aggressively on a diaphragm and simultaneously worked a pair of fighting purr boxes.

The gobbler wasn’t deaf after all!

All that crazy, loud turkey calling got his attention. The big bird gobbled twice and was quickly right back in that logging road and coming to the gun at a dead run. He stopped when a load of No. 4s from my 1300 hit him upside his head.

Were we the “Ben Lees” of the turkey-hunting world? No, we had simply hit on what it was that got the old bird’ s motor running. In my younger days I would have assumed my “world-class” calling brought that Hancock County gobbler to the gun. What got him killed was the call of a fight among peers, something he did- n’ t want to miss out on.

Learning how to read a gobbler’s mood and then producing the right call means more fried turkey every spring, at least that’s been my experience.

To better understand a turkey’s mood or behavior we must understand a turkey’s vocabulary. The wild turkey possesses a wide range of sounds that includes around 29 different calls. All these sounds represent a particular mood, which is more proof how important it is to know what we are saying to a gobbler. A classic mistake I’ve seen among turkey hunters is the belief that perfect calling will bring even the toughest bird to the gun. Trust me — even the Benny Briggs and Joe Drakes of the world meet birds that simply won’t budge.

In the spring I now go out in search of a gobbler with a clear mental list of the moods I might encounter. When the time comes to determine which mood a particular bird is in, I go through the checklist.

Is he lonely, or is he perfectly content with the company he’s in? Is he a territorial old bird who can’t tolerate another gobbler in his neighborhood? Is he a satellite gobbler who’ s constantly looking for a way to slip in the back door and steal a hen from the boss? Is he henned-up?

Let’s look at a few ways that can help determine a bird’ s mood and the call that might put him in your sights.

Henned-up Gobblers: If a gobbler is in the company of a harem of hens it is not likely that even the most perfect of yelps will cause him to abandon his immediate company and come to you. If I am working a gobbler that has hens, I’ll assume that he is in a breeding mood and that he is likely to be con- tent on keeping up with the flock all day.

Knowing this I have certain methods and calls I like to consider when trying to kill a henned-up gobbler. First, I make an effort to get set-up on him before fly-down time. I’m going to try and convince him that I am the hen in charge. I might give him a series of assembly yelps as soon as his feet hit the ground. While a gobbler has no obligation to obey a hen, he knows that the boss hen is the one calling the shots with the other hens. If he is in the mood to breed he had better hang with the boss.

Just last spring I called in a gobbler that had roosted right in the middle of a large group of hens. I knew that if I was going to have a chance I’d have to get on him the minute he touched down. As soon as I heard him gobble from the ground, I gave a series of assembly yelps, which is nothing more than a string of yelps that starts a little slowly then climbs in rhythm and abruptly stops after about 10 or 12 yelps. The big tom showed up at 25 yards and was dead before a single one of those hens ever pitched down.

Hunts like this won’t happen every morning. Most times it seems that when the real boss hen hears my calling, she’ll become agitated and fly down in the opposite direction. When this happens, the gobbler is still in the mood to breed but he is more apt to breed the hen he can see heading the opposite direction. At that point, it’ s time to regroup. I might then try attacking the mood of the boss hen by challenging her with some excited cutts in hopes that her mood is angry and aggressive and that she will come in for a fight. If she does, she could perhaps bring the gobbler with her.

However, sometimes the hen won’ t put up with aggressive nonsense and will quickly take the gobbler in the opposite direction. The gobbler’ s mood is to stay with what he can see. At this point you better surrender to the hen. I’ll make an attempt to make up with her by reducing my calling only to contented clucks and purrs. I’ve had hunts where the hen has settled down enough that she’ s actually accepted my presence and came in to allow me to join her group. This is a situation where changing my calling presentation changed the mood of the hen.

Just last week I was fortunate enough to join an old friend for the Alabama season opener. As expected the gobblers were henned-up big time. Thursday morning we managed to get a bird fired up from the roost, but he began to gobble a lot less after he flew down. He had plenty of hens to keep him company and would only send out an occasional invitation to join his harem. We moved in, but after a few aggressive calls it became obvious that the hens were pulling him away. We repositioned ourselves and after testing the waters again, I realized that the hen was still in an ill mood. She cutt at my calls in disapproval until I slowed things down. I began calling softly using only clucks and soft yelps. It took another 45 minutes, but she eventually brought the entire flock close enough for the gobbler to come over and check us out. The 23- lb. butterball fell 17-yards away from our setup.

Lonely Gobblers: A gobbler is generally going to be in the mood to breed in the spring, but when he loses a few hens during the course of the day he’s going to get lonely.

Lonely birds are the ones that generally gobble on their own or at any hen note they hear. As a general rule, to determine that a gobbler is lonely, if you hear a bird gobble, or get a gobble from a locator call from 10 o’clock on up until about an hour before fly-up time, there’ s a good chance he’s a lonely tom.

Once I’ve assessed the bird is lonely, I’ll set up and start calling soft and conservatively. It’s important to note that just because a bird is alone doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in the mood to breed. I might start with a few clucks, and if that doesn’t bring a response after about 20 minutes, I’ll get into some soft yelping and graduate the volume. If the bird is lonely and he can hear you, that’s usu- ally about all the calling you need to do. Lonely birds, especially if they are at the upper end of the pecking order, don’t usually seem to take too long to work into range.

Territorial Gobblers: I believe that all dominant gobblers are territorial, and if you are frequently hunting an area where you are consistently hearing only one bird gobble, or only an occasional gobble from another bird, then you are dealing with a territorial bird. He has the other birds scared to death, so they seem to prefer keeping quiet over a beating. It may take a few hunts in the same area to determine that you’ re dealing with a territorial bird, but when you do you can play on his ego.

When I know I’m working a territorial bird I want to challenge him without intimidating him. I might get him to gobble at a hen call, but when he does I’m going to change things up and do some gobbler talk. I don’t try to sound like the meanest gobbler in the woods, but gobbler yelps, clucks or short gobbles, like a jake, will sometimes work nicely.

Fighting purrs can sometimes cause a territorial bird to come unglued. He doesn’t want any gobblers fighting over his hens and usually doesn’t mind reminding other birds who’ s in charge. This type gobbler will likely become hostile when challenged.

Satellite Gobblers: Sometimes when working an area that holds a territorial bird, you will encounter a sneaky, subordinate gobbler. He is referred to as a satellite gobbler and is recognized by his unwillingness to gobble much if any. The majority of these satellite gobblers seem to be 2-year-old birds that will catch you off-guard if you’re not ready. They generally roost near flocks of hens and other more dominant gob- blers but are far enough away to keep the boss happy.

A satellite bird might gobble well from the roost, but come fly-down time you might not hear him again. He is still a gobbler that is in the mood to breed but would rather be discreet about it. These birds will cover a lot of ground in the springtime and are opportunistic rascals who spend their days trying to slip around the boss to get to a receptive hen.

I took a bird on national-forest land one season that gobbled once from 125-yards away. He finally showed up an hour later. I have had success using a lost-hen call on these birds. I believe that if a satellite gobbler hears a lost hen, he’s more apt to assume she wants company and that the boss isn’t around.

I pulled in a satellite bird on Cedar Creek WMA once by walking an old logging road and clucking. I would cluck every 75 to 100 yards, listen a few minutes and move on. I had covered about a mile using this method when I decided to stop at a creek bottom. The next time I called a bird gobbled a couple hundred yards behind me on the logging road I had been walking. I sat down and called again. The bird answered again and had cut the distance in half. Five minutes later the 2-year-old satellite gobbler was over my shoulder.

Weather Gobblers: All turkeys go in and out of moods, and different circumstances will likely play a role in what their mood will be. Weather, for example, often gives the hunter a clue as to what to expect from a turkey even before we step foot out of the truck.

Once the breeding season is in, cold weather seems to have little effect on a gobbler’s mood. I’ve heard all kinds of hot gobbling with temperatures in the 30s.

However, a cold, windy day seems to put a gobbler in the frame of mind to simply survive, and breeding might never enter his thought process on that particular day. Birds in this mood are tough to bag, so getting around in front of these toms and using soft calls seems to be the best option.

Take that same bird the very next day and surround him with a calm, warm and sunny environment, and he might only need to hear the slightest cluck to bring him running. If you hear him gobble way off and the next time he gobbles on his own and has cut the distance in half, get ready, he’ll be there shortly.

Hot weather can, and most times will, have a negative affect on a turkey’s mood. I have found more gobblers loafing around in shaded areas and the cooler refuge of creek bottoms on hot days. They seem to gobble less on these days and spend more energy strutting. The hens are usually quieter, too. However, hot weather doesn’t seem to affect the breeding mood. It can affect how far they’ll go to pursue breeding a hen. During hot weather, get tight on a gobbler and hit him with some clucks and purrs. Doing this can sometimes get him hotter than the weather.

I watched a bird on a scorcher of a day for over an hour and a half and he never covered an area any bigger than a 10-foot circle. The surrounding cover helped me get in tight on the bird where I was able to help a client close the deal.

Sometimes rainy days tend to put turkeys in a mood of caution.

On a rainy day several years ago, I was hunting a particular bird that was hanging around in the field because he felt safer there than in the noisy wood- ed area. While he fed along in the field, he seemed to have no interest in my calling. He would give an occasional glance in my direction, but that was it. I actually stuck with him long enough that I saw his mood change.

When the rain stopped and the sun popped out he turned into turkey Casanova. His wet, matted feathers made for some ugly pictures, but I was no less happy about taking him home with me.

I believe when the rain stopped and the sun came out he settled down a bit, relaxed and got back to the business of tending hens. The first call I made when the sun began to shine was answered by a volley of gobbles. This was a case of watching the bird’s mood change and taking advantage of it. A few yelps did the trick.

Gobblers are like people, they have different moods. What makes a good turkey hunter is the ability to read a gobbler’s mood and then selecting the right call that’ll bring him to the gun.

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  1. James Hulsey on March 24, 2023 at 11:35 pm

    Great article

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