One of turkey hunting’s biggest draws is carrying on a conversation with a gobbler or old boss hen. Sure, you can call to all types of game, but turkey hunting is unique in that you can have a call-and-answer, one-on-one dialogue with a wild bird.
Much like with people, some talks with turkeys are easier than others. There are days when a longbeard will answer everything you throw at him, but others when gobbles are few and far between. It's not uncommon when even hens turn a deaf ear to your calls.
Come midseason, hunters can safely assume silent toms are either henned up or hunting pressure has taught them that too much gobbling gets one of their buddies killed. With those two factors in mind, here are a few pointers to help in conversation with pressured, tight-lipped toms.
When hunting pressured birds, some hunters turn to assertive run-and-gun tactics in an attempt to strike a willing tom. If you’ve got plenty of room to roam or you’re on private ground where you know hunting pressure has been slim to none, the aggressive route is a fine choice. In most other cases, however, it’s best to tread lightly and act like the youngest, most submissive hen in the woods.
This is my go-to approach for making first contact with pressured birds, and it’s a lesson I learned years ago from turkey killer Brian Lovett, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on turkey hunting. When dealing with pressured birds, Lovett advised me to start off with soft, clear yelps that ask for acceptance from both gobblers and hens in the area. He also said to shy away from raspy yelps or cutting when talking to pressured birds, as those calls indicate aggression.
This is the best and most effective advice I’ve ever received. In my experience, the soft and subtle approach has produced far more results than loud or aggressive tactics on public land.
When dealing with pressured birds or a breeding flock, soft and non-raspy calls can play on the curiosity of hens in the group. If the hens respond, it’s then much easier to keep the conversation going and work the hens, not the toms. If you talk to them long enough hen-to-hen, it’s likely they’ll swing by your setup for a look, dragging any toms in the group with them.
My vest is jam packed with calls of all kinds, including loud and raspy calls. But when I need to tread lightly, I always turn to pot calls with a slate surface and mouth calls that are higher pitched with clear, even tones. I feel these types of calls offer me enough control to gently tap turkeys on the shoulder.
For these sounds, I like a double-reed mouth call with no cuts in the latex. It’s easier to blow, meaning even average callers like me can make them sing softly and sound appealing to pressured birds.
Sound Like a Tom
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when it comes to calling pressured or call-wary birds is that even if a gobbler doesn’t respond, it’s still reacting in some way to your calls. If using hen calls isn’t producing desired results, though, throw them a curve ball and try sounding like a tom. That said, it’s important to learn and understand the difference between hen and gobbler calls, because when you’re dealing with tough turkeys, sounding like a tom can be gold.
Acting like another gobbler can play on the territorial instincts of turkeys, especially in more open terrain where birds are often scattered about the countryside. For example, while hunting Merriam’s turkeys out west, I’ve often turned to gobbler yelps as a locator call of sorts. If I get a response, I’ll reposition on the bird and then switch back to sweet, seductive hen yelps mixed in with soft, contented purr-and-cluck combos.
Remember, you don’t have to be a great caller to successfully call in a spring longbeard. The old saying that a real turkey wouldn’t win a turkey-calling competition rings true, so don’t be discouraged if your calls are not perfect.
Many hunters—both veterans and newbies, alike—try to immediately cover up a squeak, squawk, or some other slip by hammering away with loud, aggressive calls. That’s a mistake when talking to pressured birds. Real turkey voices crack, break, and gurgle quite often. But birds never clear their throats after making a mistake.
A mature response to a calling mishap is to resist the urge to cover up bad or abnormal calls. Instead, take time to regroup and rejoin the conversation like nothing happened. Have some patience with your calling abilities and remember that calling mistakes are normal for both turkeys and turkey hunters.
Use Nonverbal Communication
Turkeys are big animals. If you’ve never heard one swoop down off its roost or take off from the ground when it’s spooked, the sound is pretty incredible. In addition, any kind of animal that weighs north of 15 pounds is going to make noise as it roots around, scratching and feeding throughout the day.
Take advantage of the fact that turkeys are noisy creatures by adding nonverbal calls to your arsenal. Use your cap to imitate wing beats by slapping it against some brush or a tree. Take a stick and scratch at the dirt or kick leaves around. Using these nonverbal cues while softly running a hands-free call might just be what it takes to bring in a wary tom.
Know When to Hold ’Em
There are other times when it’s best to shut up and resist the urge to call. About 15 years ago I was on a hunt with legendary turkey caller Eddie Salter where five strutters hung up out of gun range across a clearing in the Ohio River Valley. All five mature longbeards were working hard to win the attraction of a single hen that seemed content to stand pat, picking at bugs in the clearing.
The birds were hot. As a thunderstorm brewed in the distance; they would gobble at every crack of thunder. Initially, Salter had them eating out of his hands. They’d double- and triple-gobble to cut off his pleading yelps, but once the lone hen in the group quit calling, Salter went silent too.
That morning we had a lone hen decoy placed in front of our setup, and after 45 minutes of Salter’s silence, curiosity got the best of two of the gobblers as they finally paraded into range. While we were taking pictures of the two big Easterns we killed that morning, I asked Salter why he didn’t call.
“That hen would have dragged all five of those toms in the opposite direction if I went after her too hard,” he said. “She wasn’t talking, so that told me she didn’t want to get in a war of words. Sometimes it’s best to just sit quiet and wait them out.”
While it’s hard to beat the heart-pounding action of a gobbler hammering its way to your setup, it’s important to remember that calling too much can often send pressured, henned-up, or otherwise disinterested birds in the opposite direction. Calling is important, and it’s true that great callers kill more birds than the average hunter. The trick is understanding when silence is more effective.
If you run into a situation where a gobbler hangs up and won’t commit, try the silent approach and play hard to get. See if curiosity wins him over. It takes some patience, but waiting a gobbler out to see if he breaks can be just as fun as calling him in.