Turkey Hunting's Tough Calls

New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.    Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.  

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

In the course of even a single season, turkeys will challenge your skills and make the most confident hunter into a wuthering pile of loathing and self-doubt.  Each day presents new scenarios, culminating into a number of “tipping-points” that we inevitably look back on with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight.  Here’s a number of those very situations, along with some advice on how I’ve learned to best handle them throughout the years. 

To Call or Not to Call? – You’ve just made a string of yelps and everything in the woods is white hot with excitement.  It’s one of those rare days where you can simply do no wrong, and they’re picking up every call you’re putting down.  Then the other boot drops and silence abounds for 10 minutes or more.  Do you call again?  If no, then how long to wait?  Well my experience has been that sudden pauses in calling are either really good, or really bad.  Birds have heard what they needed and are on a straight-line march to your location, soon to appear at any time.  Or, they’ve been spooked by another hunter or coyote, they’ve flown down and left the audible area with hens, or any other act of tom-foolery.  Birds that are still gobbling occasionally give you clues and cues to go off, and there are no general facts for when and when not to call.  That said, the closest thing to any hard or fast rule that I have is not to call to any bird that is closing the distance to your location.  If he’s coming, don’t call and screw it up!   

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – So often we’re presented with the choice to give chase to birds that are leaving the vicinity, or hold off and wait.  To answer that question, I’ll first think to what other options I have should I pursue and spook.  If you only have 40 acres of access for the season, it’s best not to get too aggressive.  I’ll also think to what other birds I heard in the roost, doing my best to identify how many potential toms heard my calling.  I try my best to wait out any play for 30 minutes after last call if I really got agressive, especially if birds are responding from out deep.  There’s a few exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, I’ll get to the point of almost standing up, then give it another 5 minutes. 

Edge of Range – Just writing it makes my skin crawl.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of birds that have skirted the edge of my weapon’s effective range over the years.  I can very precisely tell you the handful of times I’ve been tempted to push the limits, and let’s just say that it works only occasionally.  You can’t tempt the limit till you define one, so your early season patterning is more than just a fun time at the range, it’s crucial to drawing that line in the sand.  If I can’t put 100 pellets consistently into a 10” circle, then that range draws a distinct line for me to shoot within.  If that distance is 50 yards, 51 yards is flirting with disaster accounting for wind, brush, sore arms, and any number of variables that don’t play out in the field like they do on a lead-sled.  These birds deserve more than “occasionally” so I use a rangefinder where legal, and able, to demarcate a zone that I simply won’t shoot past.

When to Shoot? – The bird has finally crossed into the death zone, and you’re just waiting patiently for the best possible  - can’t mess it up – shot to present itself.  Don’t wait too long, or really at all.  My best advice has always been to take your first, best shot as soon as the bird is in range.  Of course a bird in the wide open with his head down slowly walking your way poses little threat of escape.  Add cover, other birds, partial views, and a tom that’s already nervous, and you’ll find how remarkably possible it is for a tom to sashay into range and out of it before you ever get to pull the trigger.  That’s why I’ve killed so many birds between 35-45 yards.  It’s not because I like pushing the limits of my equipment, but it’s because far too many toms have wandered into “sure thing” setups, only to find a wide tree, hen, or blocking fence-line to walk straight away and in line from, thus preventing any shot.  Fall back on your patterning, and take the very first, best-looking shot you’ve got while the bird is in range.

Brush Birds – See above, then take your best shot even if it involves a few twigs.  With a caveat.  Know that I’d never promote someone taking an unsafe shot (not being sure of target or what’s behind it) or a shot that would potentially maim a turkey (too much brush), but a swarm of pellets especially well inside of your effective range does wonders for peeling back a few sprigs of spring.  On the other hand, if you’re looking at a bird in the brush for which you cannot identify the beard or exact location of his head/neck area, then it’s far too thick to try.  My rule of thumb is to clearly identify the outline of the head and neck area and make sure you can see beard, then squeeze off a quality shot.  If you’re shooting at the outline of a turkey itself or at the edge of your effective range, you don’t have a prayer. 

When to Shut Up

The subject of calling at a wild turkey has been discussed extensively, and because it can be the most thrilling part of the hunt at times, I’m just as much a sucker for a different take on turkey calling as the next guy.  We obsess over different vocalizations, learning how to do everything from kee-kees to fly-down-cackles, while searching endlessly for a new sound or call that will make a tom turn on his heel and come running.  Through articles, TV, and video, we’ve been suckered into believing that the upcoming part of a conversation made between you, a fake hen, and him, a real tom, is more important than what you’ve said or haven’t said previously.  Forget about the crackling yelps or brash clucks you previously butchered, the thought is always, “Well what if I hit him next with a round of glorious cutting?”

The truth, I’ve learned the hard way over the years, is that calling in a turkey can be as much about what you don’t say, and when you don’t say it than any kind of fancy forlorn calling sequences.  Most close calls and successful hunts have a turning point; the part of the conversation where a bird comes near, but is still too far.  At that point, critical decisions are made that more often break the hunt than make it, and so often the offending party is your calling decisions.  Often they’re made too hastily, as a frantic last ditch effort that never had to be uttered. 

Ever hunted with a buddy as they’re questioning your calling?  “Hit him again” or “get on that box call” or “he’s walking away” are statements uttered as a matter of nervousness on the hunter’s part, more than they are as direct observations of what the turkey’s behavior is telling us. 

With a bird that’s out of sight, we rely primarily on our sense of hearing to inform us, making the waiting game that much more challenging.  Keep in mind that the bird often can’t see you either, and with each call he’s tightening your noose as a shrinking circle of certainty with which he has you pinned down.  When he knows exactly where you are audibly, he doesn’t need to confirm that fact visually, further strengthening my own personal rule of not calling to a bird that’s actively closing the distance.  So often, birds that “hang-up” are “hung-up” by hunters who call to a bird that’s walking right at them. 

For birds in field or other open situations, it gets even more difficult.  A traced path of any tom’s death march to the end of a gun barrel is full of jagged edges and zig-zags, especially if they’re strutting.  As they pirouette, gobble, and walk, toms rarely head straight to you, even with decoys clearly visible.  It gets almost too tempting to call at them when they’re spinning away from you, side-stepping, or otherwise not directly gobbling into your blind.  The trick here is to enjoy the show, and through time and some experience, learn to read key clues on when they’re actually coming or going. 

The double wing flip, observed as any turkey folds one wing back, and shortly thereafter another means one thing for certain, the bird will be taking a few steps.  Hasty double wing flips, followed by a sharp angle away from you is a harsh reaction to something, while that same body language in any direction quartering or directly at you is a really good thing.  Let the scene play-out, and realize that these birds may need some time to get comfortable with the thought of approaching.

If the best time to shut-up is when a bird is approaching, the next best time is when your calls continue to fall on deaf ears.  Birds that gobble actively, just not at you, are telling you something without saying a word.  They’re not liking something about your calling, whether it be cadence, tone, or frequency, or at the very least they don’t like the direction or area it’s coming from.  Try changing up your calls, your calling, or your location to see if you can’t elicit a better response.

Another great time to bite your mouth call, is when feeding birds are marching across an expanse with cool and calculated determination.  So often they’re heading to a hole in a fence or following a topographical feature like a natural drainage path.  This is valuable information too, and if you can sneak around and out of sight to the area they’re heading, you’ll be ahead of the game.  Even if you don’t get to their exact destination, the easiest turkey to call in is the one that already wants to be where you are.  You’ll be amazed at how much more receptive they can be when you’re nearby or just past their area of interest.

Of course, I don’t mean to take away the fun of calling, as it really is one of the joys of turkey hunting.  Learning to use it judiciously, and most importantly knowing when not to utter a sound, could be the best call you’ve got.     

Photo Credit - Ben Brettingen

Photo Credit - Ben Brettingen

Thoughts On a Ten

Scour any sporting-goods retail space for a 10-gauge shotgun, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with even a trace of an old ten.  Say you did find a used Browning or an old SP-10 goose-getter, good luck finding ammo.  Special order options exist, but for a very short list of manufacturers, both in the case of shotshells and the shotguns themselves, but is the 10-gauge turkey gun a thing of the past?  Is it just a piece of nostalgia from turkey hunts gone by?  I hope not.

My introduction to 10-gauge shotguns was in a primitive turkey video by today’s standards.  Back then, pioneers of the sport like Will Primos, Harold Knight and David Hale, and Ben Lee were some of the first to film their hunts and bring it to a greater audience.  Several of them sported some mean looking scatterguns, as there were no other options that put as many pellets or as much powder into a turkey load.  Then, the 10-gauge was the true equalizer, in an era where hardened, buffered lead shot were the major ballistic innovations of that day and age.  Back in time decades further, the 10-gauge enjoyed widespread popularity and a wide array of load options for all kinds of hunting. 

The first one I’d ever seen in person is still owned today by a good friend and turkey mentor who has harvested literally hundreds of birds with his, a 1970’s New Richland Arms double-barreled version.  That gun was hand-painted in grey tree-bark, mostly worn now from carrying, and perpetually stained by the blood and mud of its last hunt.  That gun has seen better days, and has even been known to fire both barrels on occasion, though in seeing its successes over the many years there’s no doubt that this firearm has stoked my fascination for 10 gauges in general. 

Over the years, I’ve owned several dedicated turkey shotguns, nearly all of them 12-gauges.  I remember the introduction of the 12-gauge 3.5” round, and the 835 Ulti-mag that left a bruising (and lasting) impression.  From there I went to a semi-auto gas-operated gun, also in 12-gauge that handles 3.5” loads, and it has been the best patterning gun I’ve ever tested.  It’s lighter than any 10, carries shorter, punches less, and hits birds just as hard.  From a spec-sheet perspective, it wins in all categories.

Over time, hevi-type loads that were denser than lead brought forth a revolution in turkey patterning.  Smaller, denser shot that carried just as lethal a payload downrange was able to do it with many more pellets.  These were pellets that did not deform with all of the pressures and heat of a gun discharge, such that they didn’t “frisbee” to the sides and negatively affect pattern density.  More pellets that pattern better, with no penalty in terms of energy, simply means more lethality in the kill-zone.  As Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) rolls onto the scene this year, promising to deliver the same advances that hevi-loads did in their time, people are increasingly turning to 20’s and even .410 shotguns. 

Not this guy.  Not full-time anyway, though I really am a huge fan of the smaller bores, hevi-loads, and what TSS will bring in terms of efficiency for a whole new era of turkey nuts.  Call me old-timey or just plain out-of-touch, but I’ve put every rig imaginable up against an old break-action 10 gauge, and seen them at-best simply match the performance.  TSS is a new beast altogether, and I’ve seen the handloads, viewed the patterns.  We’re talking a whole new league of shot.  There’s no doubt TSS will be incredible, but so is the performance of the “has-been” 10.  I’ve seen too many birds, year after year, fall to all kinds of 10-gauge guns from the several friends that carry them.    

I now own one myself, a similar Richland Arms double, which I can’t seem to pattern worth a darn.  Pellet counts are a fraction of what my other guns can achieve, and at first it shot a few feet, yes feet, low at 40 yards.  I fixed that with an aftermarket sight, but I can’t find the ammo I’d like to shoot in a 10-gauge round, and there’s no modern choke tube system to tighten patterns of the less-than-preferable stuff that I can find.  Instead I get one full-choke barrel, the other modified.  It took some serious tweaking to have the confidence needed just to carry it in the woods. 

When I did hike it around last spring, I’ll admit, it was mostly for novelty’s sake.  Until the hunt unfolded.  I was tight on a roost group that sported a few toms and more hens than I’d like.  The toms flew down early within 100 yards and really gobbled hard as the hens awoke all around them.  When the hens did fly down, I had a hard time convincing them that I was good for the group, and they cut across the face of my position, further than I’d prefer to shoot a gun that didn’t throw the fiercest pattern.  When the last of 3 toms made his way at 47 yards, I repositioned that wagon-tongue of a gun, and squeezed the first of its two triggers.  It was still relatively un-lit under the dense maple canopy, so that gun threw sparks and tried jumping out of my hands on account of how I was braced shoulder-to-the-tree.  That tom didn’t flop for the first few minutes, and the load had really done its job.

I walked up to the old bird, a true limb-hanger that sported some serious spurs, and as I took a knee beside him, I was satisfied.  I thought about all the toms that gun’s brethren had taken over the last 50 years and beyond, with staying power and consistency we’ve not seen in many technologies we hunt with today.  It’s not an indictment against new arms and ammo, or even a preference for the 10 overall, but it’s somewhat comforting to know how well an old dog can still work.

Demand, or lack thereof, may continue to push it towards obsolescence, and I’ll probably carry it only rarely, as I understand the benefits of faster, smaller, and lighter.  Still, rather than push it aside for the latest and greatest, I’ll continue to celebrate it alongside our more modern advancements. 

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The Lost Art of Flock Talk

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. 

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Getting Ready for Turkey Season the Right Way

Getting Ready for Turkey Season the Right Way

Years ago, my turkey preparation regiment was well-defined and carefully executed, with one glaring error – I started way too soon.  That may seem a conflicting lead-in given that this is an article aimed at properly prepping you for the upcoming season, but my issue was that it drove me crazy.  I’d get to the point where I was more than ready to hunt birds, but there were piles of snow on the ground and it would be months before any seasons opened.  Still, those years of overzealous rituals and long nights waiting did a good job of laying the groundwork for successful seasons.  So much so, that I’ve been able to condense that prep-work into a few short steps.  Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Landowner Permission – Asking permission early is far easier than doing it later when warm-weather activities make you more of a pest than a partner.  90% or more of the upper Midwest turkey hunting is done on private land, so getting good at this aspect of your game is a very important part of your hunt.  Birds continually migrate throughout different parts of ridges and valleys, and also move through stages of the breeding cycle with regional irregularity.  Having 2 or more parcels with good bird activity ensures that if property “A” birds are in a funk and henned-up, the Property “B” birds may be willing to play.

Gear – Now is the time to figure out you need new gloves, not when you have to head-out bare-handed opening morning.  Gear junkies love heading into the woods with weighted down turkey vests, but focus first on fixing, replacing parts, or simply testing the critical gear, and then focus on getting a goodie or two that may increase your chances of success.  This part is the fun part, but beware the tendency to over-do it.  All the knick-knacks in the world won’t help if you can’t quietly slip down a logging road, cross a barbed-wire fence, or belly crawl under some pines.  Focus on a lightweight addition or two that stows nicely and try on your gear.

Calls – A good deal is written on calls and calling, but the most important part of it is first and foremost actually practicing, but a close second is claimed by practicing like you play.  It matters not if you can yelp like a live hen after you get warmed up for 15 minutes.  Progress your practice by starting small and just working on a few vocalizations, but eventually get to the point where you can pick up a call, and make concise noises, at the cadence of your choice, with few to no screw-ups.  After all, that’s what you need to do in the woods.

Remote Scouting – Drive backroads now and find the segregated gobbler groups, knowing that they will use natural cover and other landscape corridors to disperse.  Birds will become increasingly more active as days warm and the sun-angle increases melting on certain slopes.  Look for birds here that are picking at soybean stubble, corn stalks, and other grain waste. 

Sometimes, some Google Earth scouting, combined with simple gravel-travel in the area you hunt can give you clues and cues to some new and overlooked possibilities either for more ground, or different ways to hunt the ground you already have.  Recently, for Minnesota I’ve been using LiDAR elevation data, which offers a hyper-accurate accounting of the land’s surface here - http://arcgis.dnr.state.mn.us/maps/mntopo/

Gun – This continues to be one of the most overlooked parts of our turkey hunting experience.  Good, consistent patterns lead to more confident shots, and effective kills.  The only way to know how your gun performs is to shoot it at 40 yards, and count pellets in a 10” circle.  Somewhere in that 100 pellet range, provided there are no gaps and holes in your coverage, is where you want to be to cleanly kill at that same distance.  If you don’t have anything close to that, limit the ranges you shoot at birds to under that mark.  This year I’ll be trying the new TSS loads in my constant quest to put as many pellets in that kill zone as possible.  I’m a big fan of smaller shot sizes in general, provided they’ve got the down-range energy to perform.  Lastly, don’t ignore your sights either, as most shooters tend to shoot over the top of a turkey in an actual hunting situation when using just a plain bead. 

Journaling – Writing, studying, and ultimately re-living your turkey hunting experiences is not only fun, it’s incredibly effective at helping you to hit the ground running.  I start each season relatively green, forgetting the swing of things until I’m a few days in.  My journals offer keys to forgotten bits of my brain that inform current plans based on the experiences I’ve amassed.  Every turkey is different, but just like poker, you want to play the odds and make the move that gives you the best percentage of success each time you do it.  Few hunts are as decision-dependent as a turkey hunt, and using a journal as a playbook to storyboard each decision in the turkey woods, ensures that more often than not you’ll be in the right mindset to exploit behaviors of the past that play out in the future. 

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