A few minutes later, the gobbler pitched out of the tree and landed a mere 7 to 8 yards away. Before the gobbler had a chance to make another move, McPhail's shotgun roared and another Eastern gobbler met its maker.
Though that trip was the shortest hunt of his turkey career, it illustrates his love for the sport and his knowledge of his adversary. Without a thorough understanding of the wild turkey and its habits, the lay of the land and his scouting abilities, McPhail would never have been able to experience such a short yet magnificent hunt.
McPhail, of Collinsville, got his first taste of turkey hunting at 18 while on a hunting trip with Jimmy Gressett, a noted turkey hunting expert. The weather was horrific with high winds, and not a gobble was heard. It would be three years before he went again, but this time things were different and McPhail was smitten by turkey fever, which has never subsided. Forty years later, and after a lifetime of hunting and harvesting an untold number of wise old birds around the country, McPhail is still pursuing his passion.
"I just deer hunt to pass the time, but I live for turkey season," he said.
The accomplished woodsman is known far and wide among turkey aficionados for his love of turkeys, turkey hunting and his hobby of collecting turkey calls. Early in his career, McPhail was fascinated with finding handmade calls and using them to call up wild gobblers. Almost everywhere he traveled, McPhail kept an eye out for unusual or different calls. In the process he not only found many unique and special turkey calls that sometimes gave him an edge with local call-shy gobblers, but he also met a lot of great people. Many of these country craftsmen were unique to say the least, and McPhail made many new friendships and hunted with people from around the country. Harvesting a Royal Slam, including all four major subspecies of gobblers in the U. S. and the Gould's from Mexico, was just icing on the cake.
"The first call I ever bought was a handmade cedar box call made by Glade Hamburg from Stonewall, and I paid $3 for it," McPhail said.
Back in those days, collecting calls was the last thing on his mind; calling turkeys was the first order of business.
"The first morning I hunted with the call, it got wet and I couldn't yelp on it so I just clucked," he said.
McPhail located the gobbler on the roost about a mile and a quarter away. After moving closer and setting up, he did the only thing he knew to do.
"I sat down and just clucked," McPhail said. "The next thing I heard after clucking was a whoop, whoop, whoop sound of the turkey as he flew down. He came right in, and I killed him."
From the time that he heard the bird on the roost until the kill was 45 minutes, a relatively short hunt even by today's standards.
With over 1,440 calls now in his collection, McPhail can choose from a variety of options when tangling with call-shy gobblers, but he has a core group of calls that he relies on, and the rest are left on the shelf for display.
"During the year, I'll usually use two to three new calls and experiment with them and then add them to my sack if they're really good," said McPhail.
Though many hunters prefer using one call, or maybe two or three when they hunt, McPhail carries a "call sack" to the woods on every hunt.
"I like to carry about a dozen calls with me, and I'll try a different one until the bird hears one he likes," said McPhail. "If he doesn't respond, I'll just try another call until I find the right one."
The hunt and set up
As a turkey hunter, it almost goes without saying that you must learn the lay of the land before any other factor, if at all possible. If you know the lay of the land, then you'll be ahead of the game when that bird gobbles in a different place. If he moves anywhere, you'll know the terrain and how to respond to him. If you go to a new place with no knowledge of the terrain, there may be numerous obstacles between you and the bird, which may prevent him from reaching your position easily. If there's a thick briar patch, blow down or a creek between you, the hunt could be over.
"Sometimes all it takes is a slight move to make that gobbler think the hen's leaving, and he'll come on in," McPhail said. "I usually roost 10 to 12 gobblers a year, and the best time to kill one is in the early morning after you've roosted him the night before."
Roosting a bird gives him a chance to get set up really close and puts him ahead of the game. However, if you don't have the luxury of locating and putting the gobbler to bed the night before, you'll have to start from scratch.
"We don't have a lot of owls in the area that I hunt, so I'll let the gobblers gobble on their own at first light if they will," said McPhail. "If I don't hear anything, then I'll owl and see if that will make them gobble.
"Once I determine their location, I'll try to get on the same ridge as they are and get set up in a good spot about 125 yards from them."
Although it's sometimes hard to get set up in the correct spot, McPhail tries to find a spot that will put the bird in range when he comes into view.
"I want to get in a position where the bird's already in range when you see him," said McPhail.
That usually prevents the dreaded hang up. And the closer you get to the bird, the better your chances of being the closest "hen," thus keeping the other hens a safe distance. And sometimes that gobbler will have 18 to 20 hens around him, all vying for his attention.
McPhail wants to find a large oak tree that's wider than his back for safety and comfort reasons. If the tree is larger than he is, it prevents someone from sneaking up from behind and accidentally shooting him thinking he's a turkey. A large tree also provides a wider, more comfortable back rest, which is also very important when you're sitting in one location for the long haul. "I want to be as comfortable as possible because I may sit right there for several hours," he said. "I'll ease in and start out with some light tree yelps. Then I'll move up to some light yelps and clucks. If that doesn't do it, I'll increase my excitement and volume a little."
If the gobbler responds and starts coming, he'll simply work him enough to keep him interested and coming on. On the other hand, if a hen gets with the gobbler, or gets in competition with him, McPhail changes modes and gets even more aggressive.
"I'm an aggressive caller, and I'll match a hen yelp for yelp. Sometimes that's the best way to call in an old gobbler," he said. "I'll call in the hen and kill the gobbler following her.
"The first call I'll use is a Ford Magnum trough call. Then I'll switch to one of three or four box calls until I find one that the bird likes."
And if that gobbler keeps coming in, McPhail will switch to his mouth call to coax him in the last 15 to 20 yards.
"Before I retired, I'd come back and hunt a bird in the afternoon if I didn't get him that morning, but now I'm really patient and will stay with one as long as it takes. It's nothing for me to stay until 2 p.m. with no lunch," said McPhail. "I like to hunt all day and I just love being in the woods this time of day during the spring with the flowers and woods blooming out.
"If I know that there are turkeys in an area, I'll just set up and call in one place. The majority of my birds come in silent, and I guess about seven out of every eight that I've killed have come in silent."
If McPhail doesn't locate a gobbler, or is working a new area, he'll move and cover a lot of ground until he shocks one into gobbling.
"I'll stay on the move and call from different spots," he continued. "I'll start out low and then cut, cackle, and yelp aggressively to try and get a shock gobble.
"If I don't get one started up I'll move about 200 yards and do it again. I'll stay on the move until I get one to gobble and then I'll set up and start working him."
One of McPhail's best birds came after a failed attempt at calling a wise old bird early one morning.
"I've had a lot of failures, but failures may lead to triumphs if you learn from them," McPhail said. "I heard one gobble on the roost early one morning, and he just whipped me."
Later on, the bird got out in the middle of a clear cut in his strutting zone and started gobbling. McPhail slipped into the clear cut with him and stopped just short of a rise overlooking his strutting area.
"I yelped, and the bird circled around me before I knew what was happening," he said. "The bird ran about 80 yards and came running toward me from behind and came into the logging road where I was standing."
McPhail heard something behind him and turned just in time to see the old gobbler come into the road.
"I swung around real slow and shot him in the middle of the old logging road," he said.
The battle-worn gobbler sported 1 and 13/16-inch spurs and had an 11-inch beard, a real trophy that fell to a wise old hunter that was ready for his moment of truth when it suddenly came.
Wise old owl turkey calls
After spending a lifetime hunting turkeys and collecting calls, McPhail now makes a few of his own.
"Once I retired I started into call making," McPhail said. "It's strictly done to meet people and trade with other call makers.
"Anybody who wants to trade or sell some old calls, I collect them and we might work out a deal, you never know. I probably give away more than I sell, but if I can't be hunting turkeys, it gives me a chance to talk turkey and meet a lot of good people."
McPhail makes about six different types of scratch boxes, a couple of trough boxes and a slate box.
"Every turkey and hen sounds different, and most people like different sounds and different tones, and most of them will call a turkey," McPhail said. "The sound of the call is only about 20 percent of the equation."
These days the accomplished hunter is more into passing on his hunting heritage and carrying youngster's turkey hunting.
"I'm not in it for the kill any longer. I just like to call the birds and I'll give them respect," he said. "When you've killed enough, you can call for somebody else, as a lot of hunters do, or just let them walk off.
"These days, I call for a lot of kids and enjoy passing my turkey hunting heritage on."
If you're interested in learning more about McPhail's turkey call collecting, or just interested in talking turkey, give him a call at 601-626-7072 or 601-938-5357.
Mark McPhail's: Tale of the tape
Years turkey hunting: 40
Species harvested include: Eastern, Merriam's, Rio Grande, Osceola and Gould
Favorite turkey call: Ford Mangum Trough Call
Number of calls in his collection: 1,440
Longest spur: 1 and 13/16
Longest beard: 13½
Heaviest bird: 26 pounds
Oldest bird weight: 14 pounds
States hunted: 10
Hardest to hunt: Eastern
Ford Mangum Trough Call
Woods Wise Owl Call
Marlin Watkins Trumpet Call
Mike Langley's HeadCrusher Prima Dona mouth call
Albert Paul Box Call
Irving Whitt Box Call
Joe Mayeaux Slate Call