Try to get any sort of hunting tip out of Steve Rinella and he’ll often demur: “You should really talk to [so-and-so] about that. [He/she] knows it way better than me.”
Call it humility or pragmatism, but the man knows enough to define the boundaries of his knowledge.
“Talk to Abernethy, man,” Steve told me when I asked for a turkey tip for this article. “He’s got very strong opinions and a very distinctive style. He’s very good at getting locate gobbles with these insanely loud cuts he does on a box. He's just a phenomenal frickin’ turkey hunter.”
So, I called up Robert Abernethy—retired biologist, long-time director of agency programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and former president of the Longleaf Alliance—who leads Steve into some booming South Carolina gobblers in MeatEater Season 10, Part 2. He’s the level of hunter who painstakingly glues real turkey feathers onto his turkey decoys to give them a facsimile sheen and flash. He’s also even more humble than Steve.
“I don't think I'm that great a caller, as far as reproducing the exact calls of wild turkey, but I do a pretty good job of figuring out what call to use at the appropriate times,” Robert told me. “And that might be a box call. It might be a slatecall. It might be a diaphragm call, or it might be a barred owl call when you're trying to locate 'em.”
Each call in his vest has a specific purpose, he said. When trying to locate turkeys, Robert starts with the owl hoot but will switch to a loud box call if the birds aren’t being vocal. Once he gets within a football field or two and sets up, he’s scraping a pot call for the more nuanced purrs slate can produce. Once a hot gobbler is on his way in, it’s diaphragms for the end game.
But the real key to his great turkey hunting success over the last 43 seasons, Robert said, is scouting—finding and getting to know the birds and the country before people start shooting.
“I don't really practice,” he said. “But I do get out and spend the 30 days before the season, as much as possible as many mornings as possible. If you've only got an hour before work, you can slip away and get out there and listen and find those gobblers. If you can find them before the hunt starts, you're looking at the maximum amount of birds and they're not spooked and they're probably going to be pretty close to where you hear them.”
That may be slightly less practical with migratory Merriam’s in parts of the West, Robert said, but across most of the United States, the birds are in the same places in March as they'll be in April.
“The week before the season, I’ll narrow it down to the four or five gobblers I want to try to hunt and I’ll keep all those others in my back pocket,” he said. “I make sure I get into the area early, early, early, early to hunt—you can always sleep in the woods—but you want to be the first person parked on public land so you can get into where your bird is, get in to where your listening point is.”
Whether that’s a hilltop, ridgeline, or just the general vicinity of where you know or think a gobbler might be, just get in early and shut up.
“And then about 25 minutes before legal sunrise, you’ll make an owl hoot. It should be a low volume owl hoot, just two notes and try to get a bird to gobble that’s close to you. If nobody answers, then you want to go for a little more volume and four notes.”
A full barred owl call sequence is eight notes, Robert explained, but you don’t want to do the whole thing because you’d likely not hear a quick shock gobble response over your own noise. Keep it short and increase your volume incrementally.
“When the bird gobbles, you want to figure out where he is and head in that direction and get a little closer. You might owl hoot as you get closer and get to where you want to set up,” usually around 200 yards of the bird, Robert said, while paying attention to fences and other features that might hang a bird up. “And you do not use your turkey call until you're set up.”
Robert tries hard to never turkey call unless he’s standing next to a thick tree. Turkeys almost seem to know when we’re unprepared and all too often will come charging in if we aren’t sitting and hidden. Once you have your tree to lean on, shooting lanes identified, weapon at the ready, only then do you want to start making soft hen noises.
“You may start off with some really faint, quiet tree calls, just real quiet yelps,” Robert said. “And if he responds, then he heard you and that's a really good thing. So, then you just kinda wait until, maybe 10 minutes before sunrise, and then you might send out a couple of real tentative yelps. And if he responds, then that's really good. If he doesn't respond, well, maybe you want to do a little louder yelp.”
You’ll be able to tell when the bird has flown the roost and hit the ground from the volume and intensity of the gobbles, Robert said. He prefers a pot call for this mid-range conversation, while staying ready to switch to the hands-free diaphragm call.
“If he gobbles back at you, I generally shut up right there and wait for him to gobble again. Then maybe wait for him to go again. It's really hard, but if he’s been talking to you and he’s coming in, it's time to get your gun up on your knees and wait.”
Robert often talks about making a tom “angsty.” What he means is calling only enough to let the bird know where you are and keep his interest, but not responding to every gobble. Make him work for your attention instead.
“If he's responding to you, he knows exactly where you are. And he is trying to get you to go to him. And you're not gonna do that,” Robert warned. “You're going to sit tight and be quiet. And if it all works perfectly, he'll come investigate why you didn’t walk over to him like you’re supposed to. That’s what happens with the biology of the birds is the hen goes to the gobbler. You’re trying to turn that on its head.”
The ability and knowledge to use long-range, mid-range, and short-range calls effectively is highly beneficial, Robert claims. Each situation is slightly different and you have to be able to adapt.
“I've heard hens that sound more like a box call. And I've heard hens that sound more like a diaphragm call and ones that sound more like slate call,” he said. “There's a great deal of variability in the hens. You need to get good with the cadence and when to use what call. The cadence is probably more important than just sounding exactly like a turkey.”
He recommends listening to recordings of real birds to further your knowledge. But above all, Robert says not to get too hung up on calling alone. That advice appears to have hit home with at least one of his mentees.
“I kill a lot of turkeys, but it's not necessarily because of calling. There’s like six things going on, calling being one of them. It's just like the whole package,” Steve concluded. “Strategy and shit, right? I'm not a good caller, but over the years, I just kind of know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
Clearly Steve takes some turkey hunting advice from Kenny Rogers as well as Robert Abernethy. And that might be the best tip he could give: Shut your mouth and listen to older hunters when they’re willing to share their hard-won wisdom. You’ll be better for it.
You can go learn from Robert and Steve now on Netflix.