March/April 2018Offbeat Turkey Huntingby Jim Casada; photos by Nancy Lee
Talking turkey takes practice and patience. Stick to the fundamentals, but when that doesn't work, here are a few tips I learned in frustration.
Arguably the only absolute in turkey hunting is that there are no absolutes. It's a sport featuring miscues, misery, missteps, misses, and once in a blue moon, a moment of magic. South Carolina's incomparable sage of the Santee, Archibald Rutledge, knew the essence of turkey hunting's mesmerism and mystery, and managed to capture in print what so many devotees sense, but find difficult to express. He reckoned, at the point when he killed his 339th gobbler, that he might possibly have attained the "kindergarten stage" in his evolution as a turkey hunter. He also described, in a single sentence, the special nature of those who have lost a corner of their soul to lordly gobblers. "Some men are mere hunters; others are turkey hunters."
I'm a hopelessly lost and addicted member of the latter clan who has enough common sense to realize there is no final graduation day in the school of turkey hunting. Still, through the course of four decades of relentless pursuit of America's big game bird, hopefully I have garnered a few insights worth sharing. Also, I have been singularly blessed to have spent appreciable time afield with a number of the sport's old masters and some of its best-known personalities. Mind you, I don't pretend to be anything approaching a true authority on the sport, and anyone who gets to thinking he is a turkey-calling, turkey-killing machine invites trouble. Chances are excellent that in the near future a wary old gobbler will outsmart you, shame you and leave your whole outlook on hunting in shambles. That being said, my lifetime count of gobblers runs just north of three hundred birds, and possibly I'm now approaching promotion from preschool status into the turkey-hunting kindergarten Rutledge mentions. With that by way of background, what follows are some observations and ruminations on offbeat ways to deal with turkeys.
"Talking Turkey" Without Calling
Turkeys have hearing far more acute than that of humans, and they not only rely on it to detect danger, but for numerous other reasons. One involves keeping in touch with other turkeys, and that is something the patient, persistent hunter can use to good advantage. Incidentally, those two characteristics, patience and persistence, are the finest qualities a serious turkey hunter can cultivate.
When you set up to work a turkey, deal with leaves and other forest floor detritus immediately - scrape away an area which enables you to move your feet or slightly adjust your position noiselessly, but leave everything else in place. The tips of a turkey's wing (you can buy replicas, but why not use the real thing?) dragged gently across dry leaves sounds like a gobbler strutting, while using your hands or a stick to "scratch" mimics noises made by feeding birds. These sounds can be heard at a surprising distance and have real potential to attract a gobbler. Just remember that he'll likely show up silently, so stay on red alert.
"Lay a Heavy Dose of Silence on 'Em"
Turkey hunters of the modern era have a distinct inclination to call, as a savvy veteran once put it to me in pithy fashion, "too loud, too long and too often." There's much to recommend his thoughts on the subject, because overcalling is a fine recipe for feather soup. This is particularly true on hard-hunted public land or club property where toms hear calling - good, bad and indifferent - almost daily throughout the season. Too much of a good thing gives them lockjaw in a hurry.
Advice offered by a true master of the sport, who was my mentor, the late Parker Whedon, goes to the root of the matter. "Get his attention," he said, "then lay a heavy dose of silence on him." His view was that once a gobbler responded to calling, he knew precisely where you were, and he had acknowledged his interest in you. When the supposed hen failed to show up, he would be mightily inclined to investigate.
A corollary to the silent treatment is what Archibald Rutledge described as muted and minimal calling. "To call too much is fatal," he wrote. "You have to vamp him. What the gobbler gets stirred up over is an enchantress, a wildwood princess, shy and wonderful, hard to obtain, full of shadowy avoidance, and therefore greatly to be desired." In other words, once the conversation has been initiated, leave the subsequent steps to the gobbler, resisting the temptation to, in effect, shout out "here I am" through constant calling. Real hens seldom do that. Why should the hunter?
All the Instruments in the Band
While the previous section suggests silence can be golden, that should not be interpreted as a recommendation to eschew calling entirely. Instead, moderation in all things is a useful maxim, and certainly the versatile hunter wants to be a calling virtuoso. He needs to be able to "play" most instruments in the grand turkey band.
The temptation to become overly attached to a single type of call can be well-nigh irresistible. I'm guilty (in my case it's a wingbone) as are most other hunters. Yet for reasons beyond this human's ken, and I strongly suspect that of most humans, some days one type of call is just the ticket, only to be met with studied indifference the next day. A good approach is to become reasonably skillful on all the basic types of calls - the various types of boxes (regular box calls, scratch boxes and boat paddles), slates, diaphragms, tubes and suction yelpers - and use them. If it's a quiet day with little gobbling, especially if you have decided to stick to one set-up spot or, if circumstances dictate, a limited ability to roam, try all the calls you have mastered.
That doesn't mean switching calls (and calling) every five minutes. Instead, try one call, running a series of yelps interspersed with a cluck or two, and set it aside. Resist further calling as long as you can endure, then somehow wait five more minutes. At that point (ideally a quarter hour or more) try a different type of call. If you get a response, you can then take the gobbler's temperature and decide how often to call with the particular instrument that flipped his switch, but until that happens keep becoming the new girl in town by periodically singing a different siren's song.
The Watery Way
Turkeys love water. Creeks and rivers provide escape routes, pond dams are favored strutting grounds, and as an old-timer once said to me, "a turkey never spends a better night than when he hears his droppings hitting water." Waterways also are turkey highways in the sense that birds regularly traverse their banks.
There is another aspect of the water equation; access to little hunted turkeys. Taking a canoe or kayak down an otherwise unnavigable creek can put you into prime turkey territory, while boating along shorelines of larger reservoirs with a trolling motor is a fine way to listen for gobbling or do some pre-season scouting. Most of all though, the enterprising hunter will not only recognize the appeal of water; he will refuse to let it stymie him.
When a gobbler hangs up across a creek, it's time to consider some wading. Carry a pair of stocking foot waders in your vest for a quick creek crossing, or if the weather is warm, just consider the potential benefits of getting soaked. When the turkey won't come to you, just go to the turkey.
Decades ago, early in my plunge into turkey hunting's incurable addiction, I began maintaining a diary. It included various types of information, much of which dealt with (and still does) my seemingly endless myriad of mess-ups. However, one type of information soon struck me as being both useful and interesting. That was listing sounds which produced shock gobbles. Eventually the list topped one hundred such sounds, including screaming children playing in a distant yard, a commercial airplane in a holding pattern, warning back-up beeps from a truck at a landfill, and a buddy who intentionally screamed at daybreak like he was dying.
You might want to consider "testing" offbeat locators, and the perfect time to do so is in the pre-season. You aren't going to be calling birds in or giving them an advanced education. Instead, you might just discover a type of locator no one else uses, such as my buddy's scream. I'll leave it to your imagination while noting any sudden, loud noise has potential to evoke a gobble. Hearing a gobble gives you knowledge of a longbeard's whereabouts, and in turkey hunting, such knowledge is power.
Aggressiveness as Night Becomes Light
When turkeys gobble as the world awakens to another day, there's a brief period - ten to fifteen minutes - when it is easier for you to see a roosted turkey than it is for the bird to spot you on the ground. Accordingly, making a concerted effort to get as close to a bird on the roost as possible is not only feasible, it's wise. Pitching from the roost to where he thinks he heard a hen a hundred yards away poses no problem for a lordly longbeard.
On the other hand, covering a quarter of a mile from the roost is another proposition entirely. You'll occasionally "bust" a bird by trying to get too close, but even then, once things have an hour or so to settle down, you can be back in business. More often, you'll manage to get "tight and right" on a turkey gobbling on the roost without spooking him, and within the bounds of common sense skills in moving silently and with discretion, closer is invariably better.
Afternoon hunting doesn't fit the description of "offbeat" in the same sense as other techniques discussed here, but it is certainly worth mention. You likely won't hear as much gobbling, but turkeys are out and about. Also, the vast majority of hunting on both private and public land takes place in the morning, and for the turkey hunter, solitude is splendor. Select a comfortable spot where there's ample sign (dusting spots or strutting grounds are particularly recommended), call sparingly, and play the waiting game. If you actually get a bird fired up, the odds of coming to meaningful grips with him far exceed morning percentages.
There's one other special aspect of pursuit in the afternoon: if you stick it out to fly-up time, you may hear a gobbler go to or gobble on the roost. That's mighty useful information for the morrow.
Finally, mention of what might charitably be described as desperate measures is merited if not necessarily recommended. On occasion, such as when a gobbler is "hung up" in a strut zone, it can be better to crawl than call (never, ever attempt this on public land or indeed anywhere - except in circumstances where you know you are the only hunter in the area). Sometimes you can make enough difference in distance to get within range; more often you can at least bring a new geographical element into play.
If you experience frustration in an area where hens seem to intercede every time you think a gobbler is en route, try cutting the distance by half (or more) when a gobbler first responds. You'll "bust" the occasional bird, but you may also cut hens off at the pass, so to speak. Similarly, if a hen is approaching a responsive gobbler and you are suitably situated, chase her off by waving an arm, throwing a rock or otherwise scaring your competition.
A prolific writer, Jim Casada has penned many books in the outdoor genre. Among his best are two titles devoted to turkey hunting enthusiasts - The Literature of Turkey Hunting and Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting's Old Masters. You can order these books and, in fact, any of Casada's many works, including his free monthly e-newsletter, by visiting jimcasadaoutdoors.com.
Or, if it's the last afternoon of the last day of the season, and a bearded woods warrior has bested you multiple times, you might want to try the ultimate desperation tactic if he's visible. Gather yourself and charge in a manner worthy of a berserker from some far-flung outpost of the 19th century British Empire. Sometimes, though not always by any means, the shocked gobbler will squat in place rather than recalling he has urgent business in the adjacent county.
Don't stop until you are in gun range, because once the charge ends, the bird's hasty departure follows almost immediately. This is a last-day, last-chance scenario which is a truly desperate measure. For obvious safety considerations, I personally don't recommend it, but I've seen it succeed more than once, and it's a telling testament to the fact that dealing with turkeys can drive otherwise perfectly sane souls to acts that may appear inexplicable to those who don't hunt these grand birds. We turkey hunters are a strange breed, and sometimes desperation becomes our staunchest ally.