Talking With Turkeys
By Stu Bristol
A wise old southern turkey hunter once told me I would begin to learn about wild turkeys the first day out and it would take the rest of my life to try and learn the rest.
After nearly five decades of chasing wild turkeys and killing more than my share, it’s a simple task to lay out the important steps to becoming a successful turkey hunter. If turkey hunting were a three-legged stool, the first leg would be to learn as much as possible about the life, especially the sex life of wild turkeys. Where do they live, how they mate, what they eat, where they travel, what their enemies are and how they interact with other members of the flock.
The second leg would be hunting tactics. A wise old southern turkey hunter once told me I would begin to learn about wild turkeys the first day out and it would take the rest of my life to try and learn the rest. The third leg and by far the most important, I believe is to learn turkey vocalizations. That is, learn to talk turkey and to talk “with” turkeys.
On my first hunt with legend, Ben Lee of Alabama, we were sitting in the dark waiting for the first gobble of the day. He said, in his great southern accent, “Y’all will either get addicted to turkey hunting or y’all will take up golf or tennis.” It didn’t take long before I began tagging myself as a “turkeyholic.” Nearly half a century later, with six turkey hunting books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles under my belt, I joined my mentors in the National Wild Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame.
I’m not sure if I was the first person ever to equate hunting and fishing to play acting but I am certainly the most vocal in the past several decades. The many references in my hundreds of articles columns and books attest to my assurance that play acting is critical in all forms of hunting and fishing. Think about it, folks! When it comes to enticing a wild turkey gobbler to gun range, what do you do? The hunter will play on the gobbler’s sex drive or mating instincts. The hunter mimics the mating calls of a hen turkey, especially one that is playing “hard to get.”
It doesn’t end there. The most successful hunters must include the many play acting roles that deal with the entire hunting theater. This will oftentimes include playing the role of an owl, cow, young hen, old hen, scratching leaves to simulate feeding, and a whole basketful of other subtle tricks of the trade.
As a custom game call maker, I field dozens of questions each year on my website and on social media. One of the questions that keep showing up; “I’m a beginner, what type of call should I buy?” For the beginner and even what I would deem an intermediate level hunter, I suggest a box call and a slate or slate over glass pot style turkey call. I purposely shy away from recommending mouth diaphragms due to the choking hazard and bacteria. You will have plenty of time to experiment with other calling devices.
Cost and manufacturer are not critically important at this stage. I suggest not paying more than $40 for each call, a box and a slate pot call. The expensive calls are generally marketed for calling contests and those with years of experience. I’m approaching half a century of turkey calling and I have never entered nor do I judge calling contests. I hunt with my own calls that I build either on a lathe or drilled and chiseled out of single blocks of wood. My calling is judged by real turkeys, and, of course, I keep killing the judges.
For the first few years hunters need only to gain a basic understanding of the mating habits of wild turkeys and learn how to imitate simple vocalizations. Male turkeys leave the confines of a flock and travel mostly alone, roosting within earshot of several roosted hens. At dusk and again at daybreak the gobbler sounds off just before flying down for the day. He fully expects all hens ready for breeding to come and join him. Hunters need to get between the gobbler and his harem and mimic the mating calls of the hen that is playing hard to get. This causes the gobbler to come to the hunter.
That’s oversimplification as the next few dozen yards become the most difficult. The hunter must then offer other vocalizations such as the feeding purr, simple clucks and excited cutting. Too often the hunter overcalls and the gobbler becomes aware that something is not right and moves away and usually shuts up.
I suggest new hunter visit the National Wild Turkey Federation website, www.nwtf.org, and play their offering of turkey vocalizations. Then find a place outside so as not to offend other family members and try to match the calls.
Once the new hunter is ready to join the cadre of other hunters, a few unwritten rules must be adhered to. Most local hunters already have favorite woodlots, fields and other locations. Please don’t practice in popular areas then hunt in your private spots. Remember, all turkey hunters are brothers and sister who love the sport. We are not competition, nor are we the enemy.
Talking turkey and especially talking WITH turkeys is really fun. Too much calling inside the house will get you in as much if not more trouble than overcalling to live turkeys when legal hunting hours arrive.
Stu Bristol is recognized as a New England wild turkey hunting and restoration pioneer. As an outdoor writer, he has published hundreds of articles nationwide for more than 50 years, several books and in 2019 was inducted into the New England Wild turkey Hunting Hall of Fame. His game call website is www.deadlyimpostergamecalls.com.
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