With just a few days to go before the turkey season opener, veteran turkey hunter Jerry McKinley, a native of Petal, was riding high. The mild winter and warm spring temperatures had the southern Mississippi landscape greening up nicely, and the word on the grapevine around his hunting camp on the edge of the DeSoto National Forest was that the turkeys were gobbling.

The only task left was to scout to find a turkey.

Putting some scouting time into the DeSoto National Forest was not as easy as it might have been a couple of years earlier. The woods were littered with downed trees from 2005's Hurricane Katrina, and 20 yards into most any patch of woods from the cleared paths was like walking in the jungle.

But after a couple of days, McKinley was confident he had an old gobbler pegged.

"He was roosting within sight of the camp over a branch of the river," McKinley said. "I was doing some work on my camper down by the river, and one morning I walked down the path a little ways, and I heard him fly across the river. My plan was to set up on him and call him straight down out of that tree on this side of the river."

Two days and one cold front later was the beginning of skunk season.

"That cold weather shut the turkeys down, way down," McKinley lamented.

After the first chilly weekend in the woods, the score was no gobbles, no turkey and one sighting of a bird slipping out across the railroad tracks without a sound - not a promising start to the season.

McKinley was about ready to resign himself to a tough turkey season when he read that Preston Pittman, local turkey hunting legend and world-champion caller, was giving a seminar in the banquet room at the Catfish Wagon, the local seafood house.

"Preston's from Petal too, and has been hunting this area for years. I figured if anybody had some good tips, it'd be him," McKinley said.

He was correct.

"I learned to hunt turkeys at Camp Shelby," Pittman said. "I learned my trade from Bud Meyers; he was a ghost in the woods, a piece of Nature herself."

Pittman explained that just sitting down and rattling off calls was what most unsuccessful hunters did; they didn't learn how to read the woods, how to know a turkey's mind and make decisions like a real turkey would on which way to go, which way to act.

"I'm going to tell you that if you can kill a turkey within 50 miles of where we're standing right now, you've done something," Pittman said from the stage, "because these turkeys have been hunted by some of the best turkey hunters in the world, and the ones who are still around are pretty wary."

Think like a gobbler

Standing on the stage in the concert hall at the Catfish Wagon, Pittman began spouting out turkey-isms to a standing-room-only crowd. Strutting around on the stage, Pittman even bore a striking resemblance to an old gobbler.

"Don't call to an old bird that doesn't have hens with him until he sets down on the ground," Pittman said.

Several hunters wriggled uncomfortably in their seats. So much for the idea of finding a lone bird and calling him down to the gun.

"Learn to see with your ears," he suggested. "Other animals in the woods will tell you what a turkey is doing - red birds, squirrels, jays and deer."

Part of Pittman's tutelage under Meyers was learning the woodsmanship of turkey hunting. It was how the old man knew what a gobbler was doing without the bird ever being in sight.

"Scout from the perspective of a hen," Pittman said. "Just like the human world, women do all the work."

Of all the duties of being a turkey, getting supper, planning for a family, taking care of the kids, the only responsibility of the tom is breeding. Most hunters have got the "hide in the woods and call like a seductive hen" part down pat, and most toms have heard it. Try laying up for a tom who's looking for a woman at the grocery store, not a floosie on the street corner, Pittman suggested.

"When it comes to hard-hunted areas, dominant birds will shut other birds down," he said. "Kill that bird, and other turkeys will start gobbling."

That dominant bird's Achilles heel is his dominance. Just like a buck, a dominant bird spends his time protecting his territory from other wannabes. This bird probably responds better to a gobbler call than a hen call.

"Having knowledge of the terrain will help you outsmart a bird that always runs the other way when he's called to," Pittman said. "Figure out where he's going. Change calls and get around in front of that bird."

Most hunters might be tempted to give up and go look for another bird. If a gobbler goes the other way and you know his territory and what terrain features will influence his direction of travel, getting in front of him and using a different call, even a different kind of call, can get that bird to respond. Even if he desn't respond, don't give up on him.

"Birds that cut to your call, unless they get screwed up by something else - another hunter, coyote or other predator - will come to your location sometime before the sun sets that day," Pittman said.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that gobbler is ignoring your calls. He may respond to your call while he has hens with him and then come back to investigate your call after they have left him.

It's for this reason that Pittman often has better success later in the day.

"I kill my best birds between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.," he said.

The adage that a bird has his agenda set for the morning is usually correct. The key is for the hunter to arrange a lunch meeting with that old gobbler who doesn't have plans after mid morning. That's the time of day that he's not so confident and starts to have second thoughts that he's in charge.

"A gobbler knows where he's going," Pittman said. "You can either follow him or get out in front of him."

Few old gobblers, the kind you want to kill, are going to respond well to a pushy hen that chases him through the woods calling her head off. It's better to intercept that old bird and make it a happenstance meeting, which is done by changing the tone, pitch and frequency of the call that's coming from in front of the bird.

On turkey calling

"Everyone knows everything they need to know about calling right now," Pittman said. "It's how you say it that counts."

Pittman relates a soft call to a whisper - pssst, hey. When soft calling for a bird that's close in and seems to be willing to work, Pittman can move a bird that's off to his right by calling out of the left side of his mouth. The same principal applies when a bird comes in on your off-hand side, and you can't change shooting hands in sight of the bird; steer him over to your strong side by calling with the opposite side of your mouth.

"Know where you're going to sit down every time you go to make a call," advises Pittman.

He gives this advice in the event you call after walking into the woods or you've walked into a new area, throw out a call, and he's right there. Getting to cover, or at least to a decent shooting position, could cost you that bird.

"You can make all kinds of mistakes calling," Pittman said. "Some of the worst callers in the woods are real hens - just be sure to end it on a good note. Put some emotion into the call. Aggressive calling works some of the time, emotional calling works almost all the time."

It doesn't take world-championship calling ability to get the attention of a wary bird. Calling to gobblers is not so much what you say as how you say it. There are times when you can power call that turkey in to the gun, but your odds are much better to start a dialogue with him, and up your odds by convincing him he wants to come in. That's much easier done with soft calls - purrs, putts and non-verbal calls like scratching.

"Real hens are all the time making some kind of sound - purrs, pops, clucks, putts, mostly soft stuff," Pittman said.

Most hunters have one or two hen sounds that they wear into the ground - the yelp and the cut. The next time you're set up in the turkey woods or in a deer stand in the fall and have a group of hens come by, do a little eavesdropping on their conversations. Unless she's spooked, a hen doesn't shut up. Learn to mimic that soft hen chatter, and watch how many gobblers come running in the spring.

Put it into practice

Within two weeks of attending the seminar, McKinley found himself in one of those "Preston Pitman moments." Running the logging roads and setting up on food plots wasn't paying the bill, and venturing off into the open woods was akin to running an obstacle course of downed trees and overgrown briars. The old gobbler he had located near the river hadn't been seen or heard from since opening day, but he'd gotten a good tip from an unlikely source.

"A buddy of mine floated the river on a fishing trip, and called me to let me know he had seen gobblers strutting on a couple of different sandbars," McKinley said. "I figured that was a good place to stake out one Saturday morning since nothing else was producing, and I had marked that opening-day bird near the river."

McKinley found a large sandbar in the bend of a large creek about a quarter of a mile off Highway 29, which cuts through DeSoto National Forest. He was instantly encouraged about hunting the sandbar as he found drag marks and scratching, sure signs that turkeys had been in the area.

McKinley decided to set up on a log near the edge of the bar figuring the water to his back would safeguard him from any sneaking birds. After setting out a hen decoy, he issued some periodic hen calls and began scanning the river bank.

"That's when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, behind me," he said.

In response to his calling, not one but three mature gobblers filed out onto the sandbar - the sandbar on the opposite bank.

"I was facing in the wrong direction, and there was a matter of running water between us," he said. "All three of the birds were over there struttin' away, so the first thing I had to do was get turned around."

It took McKinley more than five minutes working each muscle independently to get faced in the right direction.

"It was make or break time," he said. "I don't know if they could see my decoy or not, but I tried working them over with my call. When they strutted down the bar, I couldn't see them from where I was."

Softly calling when the birds were out of sight, McKinley was considering his options when the unthinkable happened, the birds walked up the slope he was set up on. They had flown across the creek, and were heading directly for him with the biggest bird in the lead.

"I remembered Preston's advice about not shooting him in the head - aim for the waddle," McKinley said. "The bird went down in a heap, and the other two lit out of there."

Thinking like a turkey had paid off.