Work the Bird, Don't Let the Bird Work You

The bird hunts you as much as you hunt it!

The bird hunts you as much as you hunt it!

The title is a well-traveled phrase created by turkey legend David Hale of Knight and Hale Game Calls, which highlights so succinctly a common calling blunder in the turkey woods.  It’s a study in human nature, and mother-nature, all wrapped up in an often-repeated scenario that happens every spring.  Turkey hunter calls and gets a response from a gobbler.  With glee, turkey hunter pours on the calling, delighted with the response and more often, enthralled in the sound of his or her own yelps, clucks, and purrs.  The bird approaches, but more cautiously, as incessant yelping becomes both louder and prouder, thus pinpointing the location of said turkey hunter.  The gobbler, now quiet, finds the most open and visible spot to strut and display just out of range.  This lasts for only so long, and eventually the tom retreats to whatever it was he was doing before. 

To better understand the interaction, think in terms of turkey radar.  The tom is up on some ridge (a.k.a – his backyard) minding his own business, when a hen sounds off.  Immediately he responds with excitement, thinking the entire time, “Now where is she at – sounds like the corner of the field edge where I eat clover about 200 yards from here?”  While I doubt that toms understand yardage the way we do, I know from watching them approach so many times that they have a pre-determined spot in mind. 

This location could be the actual spot you’re calling from, or an area that they’re used to hearing from and intercepting hens, but one thing is for certain, the more you call, the more they KNOW where you’re at.  An old gobbler’s radar works like a series of rapidly closing concentric circles, with him tightening the noose each time he hears from you.  After your first series, he’s got you pinned down to a 50 yard area.  By the time your box call is smoking your you’ve got a blood blister on your striker hand, that bird knows you down to the tree.  That’s a blow-by-blow account on how the bird “works you.”

Now that we’ve identified the problem, here’s a heavy dose of solutions.  The first being to call more patiently, and more to attract him, rather than to scratch the natural itch we all have to plainly do anything it takes to hear him gobble one more time.  So often we call to elicit a gobble, rather than to punch a tag.  We grow nervous after not hearing from him in 5 minutes, so we “check-call” hoping to get an update on his progress as he makes his way nearby.  This check calling is effective and often required, especially if you’re in a bad setup, covering a large expanse, or otherwise exposed.  The trick is to do it quietly, rarely, and variably.

Speaking of varying your calls, this most often means steering the direction of your calling.  This can be tough with a box call, easier with a slate, and easiest of all with a mouth call.  With a diaphragm, you can throw the sound, and many times I’ve steered a tom around obstacles or more towards my position effectively by throwing my calls the direction I’d like him to come.  Don’t think you can get a tom to zig zag his way through the woods on command?  I didn’t see it captured in video form until Denny Gulvas did it on his DVD – “Challenging Pressured Gobblers,” where Denny demonstrates the technique quite well.  You can even turn around, pointing your calls the other direction, mimicking a hen that’s tired of the waiting game and is leaving town, ready or not.  This trick works best in a blind where you have free range of motion without being seen, and is a phenomenal way of breaking loose a hung-up tom.

Another trick is to call more quietly, or switch to non-verbals like leaf scratching.  While scratching can be easily pinpointed, a bird often needs to be within range to hear it well.  Just like it’s easy to find your buddy when he’s honking the horn on the truck, turkeys can more easily pinpoint your location when the sounds you’re making are loud.  Quiet down and match the tone and noise of the woods you’re hunting to more effectively get those birds to close.

In my mind, the best way to work a bird then is to keep him guessing, never letting him know your exact location.  Of course there’s always outliers.  I’ve spoken at length and hunted with guides and championship callers that never shut up.  They blow a call constantly and it only improves their success.  That said, they can sound like a flock of turkeys, yelping more convincingly than the real thing and projecting the symphony across a wide-range of vocalizations.  They do so with mouth calls and throw the sound around the woods.  If you can work a call to their level of proficiency, the more power to you.  For most of the rest of us however, fewer, well-placed calls that pique a tom’s curiosity into having them close the distance, leaves you more likely this spring to work the bird, rather than having him work you.