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When Turkey Calling, Sometimes Less Is More

Five calling lessons learned the hard way.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 28, 2020

I guess we all would rather call plenty to a bird, to the point of excess, than to keep things to a minimum. I know I would. 

I love to hear one gobble, and when I’m the reason he is gobbling, I have to watch myself or I will get tangled up in spending more effort calling than I do in trying to get the bird to come in. In reality, this method of turkey hunting— calling a lot—doesn’t put nearly as many birds over your shoulder. 

By the early 90s, I had convinced myself that I was a good enough caller to break a bird if I called enough. This is what began the period in my career on standoffs between man and turkey. 

The very bird that started the training on “how not to call a turkey” was one that ended up becoming a character bird in my neck of the woods. I believe I am the sole reason he never died because of a hunter. Everyone who tried him, after the morning this bird and I introduced ourselves, returned home, like me, with their tail tucked between their legs.

He was one of those obnoxious birds that gobbled at everything from owls, crows and geese to airplanes and trains. I started on him hot and heavy, and he was eating it up. When he flew down, he didn’t waste a lot of time closing the distance, and within 10 minutes, I began hearing him drum very loudly off to my left and out of sight. I continued to pour it on, and another 10 minutes later, he was standing on a little rise in front of me just 55 yards away. 

This is when I slowly came unraveled and the transformation began. It was a transformation that slowly developed over the next decade where it eventually sunk in that if I would back off the calling every now and then, I stood a better chance of killing a few more turkeys. I absolutely hammered that bird for a full 90 minutes. He strutted, drummed and I believe nearly gobbled himself to death. I finally convinced myself he was close enough without him ever taking a step inside 55 yards. I peppered him with a load of No. 4 shot. His name became Sergeant Pepper from that point forward. I believe I learned more from this turkey over the course of time than I have from any one particular bird since. He was downright mean.

It was a hard lesson learned, but one of great value. When you overcall a bird and watch him disappear because of it, you don’t easily forget it. Unfortunately, those lessons will likely repeat themselves in various forms. The sooner you are able to recognize them, the less frequently they will appear and the better off you will be.

Below are five lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

Lesson #1: Overcalling

This is one of the easiest traps to fall into during the heat of battle with a gobbler. A typical tendency while engaged with a hot gobbling bird is to pour it on him. That is exactly what happened on the hunt above, and when it was over, I knew exactly why he never walked into easy gun range. 

Sometimes it is OK to call a lot to a bird. The rule of thumb I use is that if he is gobbling a lot, you can get away with more calling. That is unless he is standing in full view of you while you do it. It simply makes no sense to him to walk to the spot he expects to see a hen, if he can clearly see that she isn’t there. Sometimes he might gobble all the way to his demise, but other times he might put the brakes on and lock it down out of range. 

It’s important to understand the message we are sending to a bird when we are constantly hitting him with the call. It can be interpreted by a gobbler that you are a hen that is extremely interested and willing to spend some time with him. This can quite possibly make him hang up. Nature says that if you are a hot and excited hen, you are going to move to the gobbler.

However, if you aren’t careful, he can eventually get tired of waiting on you to show up, and one of three things will happen. The least likely of the three possibilities is that he will show up in gun range. The other two possibilities are that he will either get tired of waiting on you and leave, or you will give up on him and leave. 

Also, there is no need to call to a gobbler that is already on the way. If he is getting closer and continuing to gobble some, let him come. If you can see him, and he is coming, let him come. We all love the sound of a gobble, but I’ll take fewer gobbles if it means more flopping turkeys.

Here’s a high-pressured bird the author killed that gobbled only twice over the course of a couple of hours before he drummed into view and gun range.

Lesson #2: Out Of Sight Calling

One of the hardest turkeys to kill is one that gobbles little or none at all. I’m sure I have left a lot of birds in the woods that probably showed up at my setup after I had decided to pack it up and head to the house. I simply didn’t give them time to get there, and I likely called so often that I slowed their time of arrival greatly.

It’s easier to make this mistake when he never gobbles after you locate him. I can sit for hours on a bird if he will occasionally gobble, but if he never opens his mouth, it can get pretty tough to stay long enough. 

It is difficult to know when you should call if you can’t see a bird that might be coming. So how do you know if he is coming or not when he isn’t talking or if you can’t see him? The answer is easy; you don’t. 

The best option in this case is to just assume the gobbler is on his way. Give him time and leave the call alone. For me, it goes back to the old school guys who believed in yelping three to five times and not calling again for 30 minutes to an hour. They killed too many turkeys to argue the point. 

Even if you strike a bird and he never gobbles again over the course of the hunt and you can’t see him, you need to remember that he still knows where you are. I honestly believe that every bird I strike is on the way until he convinces me otherwise. It has helped me close the deal countless times over the years.

Lesson #3: Pressured Bird Calling

Pressured birds have heard and seen a lot in their lifetime. Some have been stung, too, as was the aforementioned Sergeant Pepper. Many have tagged along with a buddy, heading to a caller, only to watch him get his head taken off, or maybe they simply got an education when they slipped in on an unsuspecting hunter. 

Regardless of why, there are many reasons that can cause a turkey to live each spring in a pressured state. Do these birds become call shy? Not necessarily, but I do believe they become somewhat reluctant to respond to calling and even more reluctant to go looking for its origin.

Some of these types of birds will still respond, but they prefer to hold their ground. Others might never open their mouth but might take forever and a day to show up. 

When hunting these types of birds, I treat them similarly. I still believe that they are going to eventually show up, but I have the mind set that it’s going to be a while. A good, long while. Your patience will be tested to the extreme with these boys. Let them know you’re there and settle in. Resisting the urge to call much is paramount here. 

If you struggle to sit quietly and not call for long periods of time, you might need to either look for another bird and make whatever changes you need to in order to sit a while. For example, if you use a mouth call, spit it out. If it’s a box or a pot call, put it back in your vest. This will keep you from being tempted.

Here’s the mountain tom that had Donald convinced that he could be loud and aggressive with every gobbler in the future. The next spring, Donald met ‘Sergeant Pepper’ and began to get his introduction into the fact that many times less is more when it comes to turkey calling.

Lesson #4: Bad Calling

Some will tell you that calling is a very low percentage of what it takes to kill a turkey. I’m not going to argue the percentage level, but I will argue that sounding like a turkey will net you more dead turkeys than sounding like a squawking noise. I believe that the more realistic and natural you sound, the better off you will be. 

So, if you aren’t a decent caller, holding your calling to a minimum until you become one is a good move. Keep in mind, too, that being a decent caller isn’t all about how you sound either. It also has a ton to do with knowing what to say and when to say it. That’s part of being a good caller. I learned this lesson from an old mountain bird a long time ago. 

He loved aggressive calling and plenty of it. He wouldn’t answer the soft stuff at all. When I would go back to the heavy, aggressive style, he would eat it up. I killed him and was beside myself with the way the hunt had unfolded. The bird had gobbled around 50 times over the course of the hunt and had steadily closed the distance. I decided right then and there that I would call all future turkeys the same way. Sergeant Pepper taught me the very next spring that every bird doesn’t trip over his beard to get to your calling.

I had become fairly proficient in sounding like a turkey, but half the time I had no idea what I was saying or the best time to say it. Sounding like the real thing and acting like one must work together if you’re going to up your odds of killing a turkey.

I would wager that it is a rare thing to hear a hen hammering away at a gobbler in one spot for an hour until a gobbler shows up. Hens don’t go around running their mouths all day. They have a purpose for what they are saying.

Lesson #5: The Cat & Mouse

I had a friend tell me about a particular hunt one day that he had obviously lost some sleep over. I actually felt his pain as he explained in detail of how a particular turkey embarrassed him for a couple of hours on public ground, making a mockery of his attempt at being a successful turkey hunter that afternoon. Actually the turkey did nothing extraordinary on this hunt, but he simply survived by sticking to his instincts. 

My friend had struck the bird and settled into a good setup that allowed him a shot in several directions if the bird showed himself. The gobbler hammered nearly every call my friend threw at him. With that being the case, he called an awful lot. 

After 45 minutes or so, he decided that he needed to move on the bird. So he backed out, made his way to another location and set up. The first call he made received an immediate answer from the gobbler that was now standing at my friend’s previous setup location. He called from his new setup for another half hour or so as the bird routinely hammered everything he had. 

He then changed calls and softened things up, but the bird held his ground. He moved yet again to another setup, almost on top of where the bird had been when he originally struck the him. Thinking he was now in a spot the bird liked, he began to pour it on again. The bird answered precisely at the setup location he had just vacated. He stayed put, calling regularly for the next hour until the bird gobbled out. The last time he heard him, he was putting a lot of distance between himself and my friend.

I asked him how long did it took him to move from one setup location to another? 

“About 30 minutes,” he said. 

“Did you call any while you were moving?” I asked. 

“No,” he said. 

I told him that was the reason the bird came in. While he was moving and not calling, the bird got a little anxious, thinking the hen had left. That’s when he moved to the setup he had been in. 

Less calling, and in this case no calling, caused the bird to come on in. The only problem was my friend only stopped calling when he was on the move to a new setup, and when the bird broke and eventually showed up, my friend was nowhere to be found. Had he stayed put and quit calling, that turkey would have likely died.

I believe that if we can stay focused on calling according to the bird and the situation, we stand a better chance of taking him home with us. The least amount of calling you can get away with is the best rule of thumb. Sometimes the least amount you can get away with might very well be a lot of calling. Turkeys will tell you how to work them if you pay attention to them. Of course we can’t always interpret exactly what he is telling us, but leaning on the side of caution will keep you in the game. 

And that is when less is more.

The author called very little to this bird. Some slight scratching in the leaves finally convinced the gobbler to come in and check things out.

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