My formative instruction on turkey calling was pretty scant. Most of what I learned at the get-go, was fanciful instructions from cassette tapes that came with various calls, and lessons from the woods didn’t necessarily mimic what I was hearing out of the marketing materials. Fast forward to today, and the same problem exists. There is a plethora of social content, video, and TV with hard charging birds that respond well to sharp cutting, excited yelps, and some sounds that I’ve never heard live hens ever make.
As my boys grow older, I find myself hunting earlier youth seasons at the front end of the turkey’s breeding phase. Hens and toms are often in larger groups, and calling like they do in the videos can really be detrimental to your success. That kind of talk can work early with isolated toms or bachelor groups, but get too competitive with a tight bunch of hens and their locked-down gobblers, and you’ve got birds that are far more willing to walk away than come closer.
Flock-talk, in contrast, is a 180-degree approach to the aggressive-all-the-time approach we so often see in todays filmed hunts. It’s less sexy for sure, and can often be ignored, but it’ll rarely lose you the game outright. Instead, it allows you to converse with birds, staying close until time, mood, weather, or any other number of factors swing in your favor. I find it to be the best approach, or at least the right start with most of the birds I work these days. You can always ramp up the aggression, but it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
Don’t get me wrong, I call and hunt more aggressively than most, sometimes to a fault. Plain and simple, when it works its flat-out more fun. That said, I’ve had to un-learn some bad habits to be more successful over time, and many of those old ways involve calling more quietly, while clucking and purring more than mixing in the fancy stuff.
In your average early season field set-up, good scouting and prime ground means you will likely see birds sometime throughout the day. Being able to see the bird visually that you are calling to is a real premium situation, and over the years, I have tried my best to be a real student in those scenarios. I’ve learned that soft clucks, purrs, and occasional yelps will pique what little curiosity a hen has, and make no mistake about it, when a big flock is moving across the field, you’re calling to the hens.
This time of year, hens run the show 24/7. Toms roost where they’re at, fly down and wait for them, then walk in their tracks until lead-hens are ready to breed. Subordinate males that hang around the edges can be prime targets for some hard calling, but many of those birds are leery of coming in too loud and proud while the big boys are nearby. If your play is on a large group of mixed birds, your best bet is to slow-play the entire flock.
Imitate the sounds of a foraging flock, and pretend you’re feeding more than interested in breeding. That could include some scratching, especially if in a blind sitting over decoys. Often, the last thing you want to do at the outset is to appear threatening. The good and bad of open-field setups is that you can readily see one another, meaning that live birds will often expect you to close at least some of the distance.
Your goal is to get the chatter going, and the animal world is similar to our very own human conversations. Pleasantries, introductions, and simple greetings are exchanged before conducting any kind of discussion, and you have to be a better listener at times than talker. Many groups are quiet and soft-spoken in nature, especially if pecking order is already settled and birds are in the heart of the breeding phase. These birds are the hardest to convince, and your only play can be simply to keep from offending any members of the group in the hopes that a flock-tom or satellite gobbler will eventually sashay close enough for a shot. Call too hard and too much, you may end the day before it even begins. I’ve gotten too harsh on literally hundreds of occasions, and have watched far too many hens take their toms in the opposite direction.
Other groups can be quite vocal, in which case, you are in luck. More than anything, you’re trying to keep them talking. Talkative hens will wander, especially the lead-hen. She’ll typically sound raspier or louder than the rest of the group as she scolds the young jennies and heads up the pack. She’s not always the lead bird, but she’ll stick out in most flocks that talk. Be only as aggressive as she is, and do your best to keep her headed your direction. If she veers, you may consider ramping up the discussion a bit and targeting her specifically. If you’re towards the end of your hunt, let it all hang out, but if it’s early yet you may wish to hang back. I’ve killed many birds over the years by letting them walk off, only to have another tom come from another direction, or have a bird on the edge of the flock re-consider and turn the whole group.
Point-being, calling too much like the all-stars of the TV programs can ruin your eventual run-ins with birds, especially early season. Don’t forget to make some small talk this year before you get into the heart of the conversation, you might be surprised at how well you can call in the whole flock.