Practical Calling Tips for Turkeys That Play Hardball

by Darron McDougal

Here’s a look at some practical calling tips for turkeys that need an attitude adjustment.

The wise old tom gobbled continually. Though I couldn’t see him, I knew he’d hung up over there waiting for the “hen” to come to him. I instantly recognized that I needed to do something. I’d been working him with a mouth call, but I quickly incorporated my slate call to mock two hens purring and fighting. It worked.

His head soon craned above a hump as he irritably eyeballed my strutting jake decoy. Believing two hens were fighting in the woods beyond the decoy, the tom worked up the logging road toward my feathery phony. A swarm of No. 4s from my grandpa’s 10-gauge H&R summersaulted the bird into a lifeless heap.

darron-shotgun-turkey
This limb-hanger bird was silent on the roost, and McDougal was spotted as he approached because he didn’t know the tom was there. McDougal waited until the gobbler flew down and settled down to begin calling. The ploy fooled the sage old gobbler.

In roughly 15 years of hunting turkeys – primarily with archery tackle – I’ve dealt with many difficult or hung-up birds. Most of these toms were strutting and gobbling, but simply wouldn’t commit to a final approach. I’ve carefully chiseled my strategy over the past eight years, and now have fewer hang ups and more success stories than ever.

Let’s review some practical tips that’ve helped me fool many wise toms into shooting range.

Champion Status Optional

Many turkey hunters misconceive that the better they call, the more readily birds will dash their way. This isn’t necessarily true. Remember that live hens can sound vastly different from one another. In fact, more than once I’ve heard hens that were so far off tune, I thought they were hunters.

On the other hand, downright terrible callers probably won’t evoke a bird’s curiosity. One example is when my brother, Joe McDougal, and I were hunting a public tract in Wisconsin. We set up in a clearing where I’d seen a tom several days earlier and began calling. Soon after, we heard a mix of scraping and muddled hen calls. The scraping noises where unmistakably from a box call. It’s possible unpressured birds might respond a little to such poor calling, but on public lands, this simply won’t cut it. If we could tell it was a hunter, you’d better believe wise toms weren’t buying it, either.

Now, as long as you don’t make foreign noises – like slate- or box-call scrapes – you stand a solid chance of pulling birds into range, even if basic cuts and yelps are the extent of your turkey vocabulary. Pros can provide good calling advice, but the ultimate way to learn turkey language is to simply listen in the woods when live hens are talking. Try to mimic them as closely as possible, and you’ll do just fine. Some of the world’s most successful turkey hunters don’t claim to be expert callers. They simply gain a feel for how birds respond by studying turkey behavior over a long period of time. Nothing beats or replaces experience.

To Locate or Not to Locate

Locator calls were the rage when I began turkey hunting 15 years ago. Back then, I relied heavily on them, even if I already knew toms were roosted in the area. Funny enough, I killed far fewer birds back then.

Today, I rarely use or even carry locator calls. Toms usually gobble on their own in the mornings and evenings, so I typically just sit and listen for them to sound off. I believe the more you futz with birds on the roost, the less likely they’ll respond once they fly down.

Now, there are mornings when toms are tight-lipped for one reason or another. If you’re not hearing any gobbling but suspect a tom is roosted nearby, go ahead and blow an owl hooter as a last-ditch effort to determine his whereabouts. But, when birds are gobbling on their own, let them do the talking as you quietly close in and set up.

Spotted from the Roost

 Every turkey hunter, regardless of how careful we are, is eventually seen while setting up on a roosted tom. And when this happens, your antics can determine the outcome. This was the case two springs ago in Wisconsin. I’d seen a bird strutting under an ancient maple tree one morning prior, and as I quietly traced my way across the field in the pre-dawn darkness that next morning, he remained silent. In fact, I wondered if he’d vacated the area.

I’d nearly reached my predetermined setup when I heard putting about 80 yards away. I fluidly melted behind a small elm tree beside me, then didn’t twitch a muscle as the gobbler continued putting for 10 minutes. He’d obviously seen me, but because I didn’t move or call, I knew I had a chance to kill him.

He flew down away from me into the field, landing about 200 yards away below me. He started gobbling aggressively. I gave him a little more time to relax, then started calling. You guessed it; he started responding. He worked east to a fence line, then north to investigate. He disappeared at the base of the hill, and I quickly ran out 10 yards and planted a decoy on the hill, then retreated to my elm-tree setup.

I planned that he’d approach on the ridge in full view, but he uncannily hugged the slope beneath it. His gobbles and spit-n-drum sequences told me he was close, and his head soon craned above the crest. He saw me as I swayed the barrel toward him, and he briskly started walking away, his head disappearing behind the crest as quickly as it had appeared. Instinctively, I stood and shouldered my Benelli in one fluid motion, led the running bird by several inches, and ripped loose a 3 ½-inch Federal. The bird toppled on the spot.

If I had tried calling when he’d spotted me from the roost, he would’ve smelled fish and fled the scene. Because I let him calm down and then fire up on his own, I was able to call in and bust the old limb hanger.

practical calling tips for turkeys - turkey-hunter-slate-call
Learn to read the situation — a skill which comes through experience — and you’ll become a more effective caller.

Cool Your Jets

Inevitably, a gobbler that hangs up will often go the other way. Once he’s obviously leaving, don’t call desperately. This often does more harm than good.

While hunting with renowned turkey hunter Jeff Budz last spring, he explained that clients often ask him to “work his magic” when a distant bird is walking or running away. “Callwise, there’s nothing anyone can do to change a bird’s mind once he’s been spooked or just doesn’t like the situation,” Budz said. “You’re better off to let him go, give him some time to settle down, then circle around him and try again.”

Supplement Your Calling with Decoys

In settings with sparse cover, even exceptional calling doesn’t always cut it. Toms often hang up because they can’t see the bird they know should be within view. This is where decoys become game changers. Understand, not all decoys are created equal. El cheapo models sold at department stores aren’t the ticket. Believe me, I’ve used them, and my success was lower than ever. I’ve even had fired-up toms go cold once they see them.

Buy decoys with realistic colors and lifelike contours, even down to shiny eyeballs. I purchased three Dave Smith Decoys – a jake, feeding hen and upright hen – about eight years ago, and my success has since soared. The difference realistic decoys make is monumental, particularly while hunting pressured birds.

Decoy placement must be relative to your calling location and the direction(s) from which you anticipate birds will approach. On field edges, I place them in the most visible location in the field within 30 yards if shotgun hunting, and within 20 yards if bowhunting.

Now, if I’m bowhunting in the timber, I’ll actually place the decoys so an approaching gobbler must walk past me to reach the decoys. My hope is that he will be fanned out as he passes me, affording the chance to draw my bow undetected as he nears the decoys. More than anything, one should never place decoys at their weapon’s maximum range. Placing decoys closer gets birds in slam-dunk range, and if they hang up shy of the decoy(s) – this happens often – chances are they’ll still be within effective range.

practical calling tips for turkeys darron-with-turkey-decoy
The author rarely hunts turkeys without decoys, especially when hunting fields or clearings where visibility is great. Often, gobblers will hang up out of range if they can’t see a turkey near your calling location.

When to Gobble

 I’m honestly not a strong advocate for gobble calls, but I’ve seen them produce results. One example was when a flock of two toms and half a dozen hens cruised past our blind while I was filming brother Joe’s Wisconsin hunt nine years ago. Our decoys were in plain view, and when the toms didn’t respond to them, Joe called, hoping to incite a response. But, the toms intently followed the hens with no apparent interest in Joe’s calling or decoys.

As a last resort, Joe pulled a shaker gobble call from his pack and ripped out a challenge. Both toms soon turned and rumbled right toward our decoys. Joe drew his bow, and the strutter reached the decoys at 9 yards before realizing the setup was phony. It was too late, for Joe’s arrow launched immediately. The big gobbler weighed a smidge over 25 pounds, a true thumper.

Since then, I’ve used gobble calls only as locators or a last resort when hen talk isn’t raising responses. I see no reason to use them right off the bat when a tom will more likely approach hen cuts, yelps and purrs.

Spit a Tom Within Range

Two times while fanning gobblers for youth hunters, toms have been interested in my strutting decoy, but held out at 60 yards. Instincts kicked in both times, and knowing a hen yelp was out of context, I produced the “spit” noise of a spit-n-drum sequence using my mouth. Both toms were claimed as they strutted right into easy range. In fact, the second tom was at 11 yards and still running at us when my sister dumped him. What a riot!

 Closing Thoughts

With turkey hunting, there are no hard, fast rules. I don’t always make the right decisions, but as you’ve read my success anecdotes, you’ll understand that I’ve gained a feel for particular scenarios and how to handle them for the best results by paying close attention to past experiences. Follow my advice and gain your own feel for situations through experience, and you’ll call in and kill more gobblers.  

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