Imagine a perfect spring morning in the woods, just as dawn begins to cast light across the terrain. It is cool with a crisp bite to the air, the dark sky is turning a lighter blue by the minute and the woods are coming alive with the sounds of nature.
Songbirds sing, a crow caws and a distant woodpecker lays into a dead tree like a Gatlin gun.
Your ears are alert, taking it all in, all the while waiting on one particular sound. From scouting, you know turkeys are nearby so it should just be a matter of time.
Then, in the distance, an owl adds his hoot to the soundtrack, bringing the music you’ve awaited. A tom turkey answers with a mighty gobble that seems to shake the limbs around you.
He’s just a few hundred yards away, further in the woods, about where you expected. His gobble has opened the door, almost as if inviting you to the game, and it is your move.
You offer a light limb yelp, which he answers with another thunderous gobble. You have his attention. For the next few minutes, you keep his interest with the light tree yelps. He answers them, letting you know he’s interested.
As it lightens, it’s fly-down time and you give him the fly-down cackle, ending with a series of yelps. When he gobbles back, you throw in a few soft purrs to close the deal.
Suddenly, after a final gobble, he soars off his perch and you see him gliding through the trees toward you and he pitches down into an opening within gun range, and immediately pops into a full strut. It is his final pose as you pull the trigger ending the hunt and creating a memory, just as the sun rises over the horizon.
Hey, snap out of it. Few turkey hunts could go so smoothly and follow that ideal script. There are just too many variables, namely:
• Hens could be roosted close, even between you and the gobbler, and they could compete with your calling.
• Perhaps there is a subordinate gobbler, remaining silent and hoping to sneak in and steal a hen. He could walk into your setup and spoil the party.
• And, of course, there could be something in the pitch and timbre of your call that just doesn’t make muster with the gobbler.
Some variables a hunter may have little or no control over, but calling is something every hunter can and should conquer. With Mississippi’s spring season set to open on March 15 and youth season on March 8, let’s get a primer on calling from a couple of veteran hunters.
Start with the yelp, softly
“The yelp is perhaps the first call every hunter should master,” said Richard Latham, an avid turkey chaser and an official of the Mississippi Wild Turkey Federation. “There are many, many variations of the yelp, and the presentation is the key to making it successful. Dozens of calls can make a yelp, but a smart tom can pick out the true from the false by tone and presentation.”
Latham, who has turkey hunted for more than 30 years, always starts the morning softly and simply with limb yelps, the calls hens make before fly-down. These come from birds just waking up and are barely audible to the human ear but easily heard by nearby gobblers.
Latham describes the limb yelp as a soft, low call of 2-3 notes, made 30-45 minutes before daylight, performed 3 or 4 times over a 30-minute period. The second and third notes can be slightly louder than the first.
“Assuming a gobbler has been roosted the night before, and typically hens will not be roosted a long way off, my first yelp will be a limb yelp,” Latham said. “When he responds, I’ll give him another limb yelp and then a fly-down cackle.”
The fly-down cackle
Hens make a distinctive call when they leave the limb and drop to the ground, and they make it just once a day, at dawn. If chased back to the trees by humans or predators, hens won’t repeat the fly-down cackle when they return to the ground.
“The fly-down cackle is a series of staccato yelps, strung together to sound like a cackle,” Latham said. “I sometimes use a piece of a wing, beating it against my leg to make the sound of the hen’s wing beats. Don’t be tempted to do multiple fly-down cackles with the same call, as all hens do not sound the same. Hens will come off the roost pretty quickly once the fly-down starts.”
Once Latham’s make-believe hen (or hens) has hit the ground, his calling switches to a more-alluring sound.
“My yelps get softer, with my hands cupped around my mouth and pointed upward,” he said. “This is the hen telling the gobbler ‘I’m on the ground, and I want you.’ I’ll cup my hands around my mouth, like a megaphone and angle the mating yelp up toward the roosting gobbler. This 5- or 6-syllable call gets louder as it goes on. It needs to be as sexy as the caller can make it.”
This invitation or mating yelp should be made with a diaphragm call, Latham said. That allows you to have your gun on the knee, pointed toward the gobbler with your hands free. This is the smart move, since you’re hoping for one or two things, either the enticement was strong enough to bring the gobbler to you right off the limb, or he is on the ground and coming in your direction. In both situations, any movement can spoil the opportunity.
Hunters are competing with every hen in the woods, as well as many other creatures. That’s important to remember, if you lose track of the gobbler and feel the need to find him with a locator call.
“That can be a owl hoot, a woodpecker, a crow call, or any other noise,” Latham said. “This word of warning: Turkeys understand other bird calls. For instance, if you use a crow call, and attract a murder of crows to your setup, and spook them, they sound a danger alarm and your hunt could be shut down right then and there.”
The hunt could also end if real hens intercept the gobbler’s approach to you and lure him off in another direction. It is probably the No. 1 cause of a disappointing hunt, especially early in the season, and it can happen without your knowledge.
“This is a good place to talk about the putt versus the cluck-purr,” Latham said. “The cluck-purr is a putt with a tail. A putt is loud and determined, sharp on both ends, and is a call a hunter should never want to make. It means danger and will put the lockjaw on every bird within hearing, sometimes making other birds putt as well in response.”
A cluck is basically a softer, warmer short yelp, and when coupled with a purr will have just the opposite effect from the putt. A clock-purr is a calming and reassuring word to others in the flock that all is well.
Think of the two calls in human terms. ‘NO!’ is a putt. ‘Yes’ is a cluck-purr.
“In the afternoon, when the birds have scattered and are feeding, or later when the hens are nesting, the yelp-cluck is a good way to make a gobbler sound off,” Latham said. “The cluck-purr, or cluck-whine, made every 30-40 minutes will sound like a feeding hen. This is a good time to have a decoy or two set up in the edge of an old field.”
All the basic calls Latham has discussed are ones he feels all hunters should — and can — master, beginning with the yelp.
“The turkey hunter who masters the yelp is ahead of the game,” Latham said. “These calls should be instinctive, made without looking at the caller if you’re using a hand call. Practice is the key to proficiency. My wife will tell you, I drive her nuts with all my practice. But I know to go outside with it during her favorite TV programs.”
Jay Wadsworth of DeKalb has turkey hunted since 1986, and in that time has only been skunked one season, 1987. Hunting primarily in East-Central Mississippi, Wadsworth has experienced just about every possible scenario in the turkey woods, and used each to gain knowledge.
One lesson he gained was the importance of understanding the patterns and peculiarities of individual gobblers. It usually takes a lot of trips to get inside the head of a boss gobbler, but it is essential to success.
One thing Wadsworth said it can teach him is when he needs to be an aggressive caller, and when it’s best to tone it down.
“A lot of hunters call too loud and too often,” Wadsworth said, adding that a common mistake is putting too much emphasis on calling. “Turkey hunting is more about experience than calling. If it was just about the calling, every hunter that mastered a call would be successful 100-percent of the time.”
Yet, there are times when Wadsworth knows he needs to be aggressive, and that brings up two more calls all hunters should understand and learn, the cut and the gobble.
The cutting call
This is a call often necessary when your targeted gobbler is already under the spell of a hen and is most effective after the fly-down when the hens and gobbler are on the ground and moving.
It can be used to call the hen to you, hoping she brings the gobbler along. A mad hen has been the ruin of many a gobbler.
“When cutting, you’re calling to another hen,” Jay said. “You are saying you are better than she is and you can prove it. It is a louder, excited call, made to overlap (and answer) her calling.
“This will sometimes excite a gobbler, getting him to double- and triple-gobble. This may be the only time when loud and often to is the way to go.”
Wadsworth says a cut can also be effective by letting the gobbler know he has options, even if he is already in the company of a harem. The law of nature is to put dominant birds together for mating, so boss gobblers are naturally attracted to boss hens.
Another popular use of the cutting call is the “cut and run” tactic popularized by Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland of Mossy Oak Productions. If his dawn set up fails, Strickland will begin hunting gobblers by stopping every few hundred yards and using a tube call to blast an extremely loud cutting call. It produces results two ways: One, it is so loud that it gets a shock call, similar to that of a crow call. Two, it is an aggressive hen call gobblers are looking for during their daily walk-abouts.
If Strickland gets an answer he sets up, if not he moves on to another location.
Many hunters view the male-to-male call as a last resort, and some refuse to use it for safety reasons, knowing other hunters could be attracted to the gobbling sound.
But, there should be no doubt as to its effectiveness in the right situation.
“Using a gobble tube is not for everybody and definitely not for every setup,” Wadsworth said. “But, when a gobbler is hung up, or when several gobblers are sounding off at the same time, or when I’ve worked a bird for several hours and no progress seems to come from traditional calling, I’ll go to the gobble tube.
“I want to sound like I’m the biggest, meanest, most dominant gobbler in the woods. More often than not, this will end the stalemate, and get the other gobblers moving toward you.”
Over the last decade with the improvement of life-like and easy-to-deploy gobbler decoys, the gobble call has increased in popularity. One word of caution, other hunters may approach and begin to “work” you.
Wadsworth said on mornings when gobblers are quiet, a gobble will sometimes serve as a locator call as well.
Back to the basics
For new hunters, Wadsworth recommends a simple start.
“For the beginner, I recommend the Lynch 101 box call,” Wadsworth said. “It will make just about every call or sound a hunter needs to make. Once you have mastered it, then move on to more advanced calls such as slates, tubes and diaphragms.”
“There is no substitute for scouting,” Richard Latham said. “Walk in the woods, look for signs of scratching, turkey droppings, shed feathers, dusting locations; this means turkeys are in the area and come opening day, this is a good place to be setup.”
Latham likes to be in the woods long before daylight, listening for the gobblers. Once a gobbler sounds off, get as close as possible in the dark. Within 100 yards is good, 75 yards is better. Gobblers like to pitch out into an open place, such as a road, field, clearing or fire lane. Don’t overlook areas recently burned. Turkeys have a taste for roasted grasshoppers and other bugs. They will even flip over dried cow pies to get to the bugs underneath.
Yelps, and other calls can be made with mouth calls, box calls, slates and strikers, a wing-bone call or even a blade of grass.
The National Wild Turkey Federation website (nwtf.og) offers recordings of live turkeys making each of several common sounds. Call manufacturers also offer instructions, and in many cases DVD’s of sound-making techniques.
Attending a wildlife show or a calling competition are also ways to learn basic calling techniques. If at all possible, the best way to learn to call is to find a veteran turkey hunter willing to be a mentor.
Nothing beats experience.