By Tom Carpenter
It is mid-May. Midmorning. Hens on the South Dakota prairie are starting to sit on their nests. Gobblers should be out cruising, looking for some love.
My son Ethan and I are out cruising, too, working along a mostly wooded hillside a couple miles back from the Missouri River, trolling for an active tom and hoping for some action.
Before crossing one of the many grassy meadows interrupting the forest of green ash and cedar, I stop to belt out an excited cutting series on one of my favorite old box calls, a handmade beauty by Albert Paul.
It’s always both heartening and heart-stopping to get a response after sending so many unanswered inquiries into the warm spring air, and that’s exactly why a turkey hunter works so hard.
Garrobbble! A tom cuts me off before I can even get into the yelping part of my calling sequence.
Contact, the first of the “4 Cs” of calling in a turkey, was made. It was time to go to work and finish the job.
Four Calling Stages
To successfully work a wild gobbler, a spring hunter needs to always know where both of you are in the calling process.
What works for getting a bird to indicate some interest out of the blue is very different than talking to a tom that has pulled up and decided to lollygag and loiter at that pesky 60-yard mark. Likewise, reeling in a turkey that is fairly jogging in from hundreds of yards away is a totally different proposition than calling to a suspicious gobbler that’s lurking behind a tree at 30 paces.
That’s why it pays to break down turkey calling into four stages — contact, coax, convince, close — and understand the strategies, tools and turkey sounds specific to each stage. The goal is to move that bird to the next step of the sequence, culminating in one big and satisfying BOOM! that shatters the warm springtime air.
Contact is just that — getting a bird to listen and, more importantly, respond. If you don’t engage the bird, there’s no chance to call him in.
Making contact typically falls under one of three scenarios: you’re set up on a gobbler before first light; you’re set up and just waiting at a good turkey spot like a strut zone, feeding field or turkey travel corridor; or you’re running and gunning — moving along, calling, working to locate a gobbler that’s on the hunt for hens either by strutting or doing some trolling of his own.
Just as contact scenarios are different, so are the approaches for conquering each one. Get too excited and loud with a roosted gobbler, and the bird may get suspicious. Be too coy and demure, though, and you could lose the bird to real hens.
Start soft with little clucks, tree yelps and soft purrs. See what kind of response does or doesn’t come. Escalate calling volume and intensity only if the situation warrants, like when the gobbler doesn’t boom back at all or you start hearing pressure from real hens in the area. If those real hens get yammering, then it’s time to start yammering yourself. Try and compete.
When waiting in a blind or just passing time while sitting against a wide tree trunk, calling can bring in turkeys that might not otherwise wander your way. Call softly and occasionally to start. Running up a lot of noise isn’t natural in most turkey situations, especially during late-morning, afternoon or evening hunts. If nothing is happening, it’s OK calling out with some gusto now and again and seeing if you might get a passing gobbler to sound off and show interest.
Making contact is the whole focus of running and gunning. If you’re a hunter who is always on the move trying to locate birds, there is no other option than to call loudly. Try different approaches at various stops and see what happens. Loud yelping and cutting are the turkey sounds the trolling hunter makes. You need to generate excitement and be heard.
Roosted turkeys require soft tree yelps, light purrs and sleepy clucks to start. It wouldn’t hurt to add a fly-down cackle to your arsenal of turkey sounds, if you haven’t already. And make sure you have some cutts, cackles and yelps in your back pocket to attract the attention of a tom that’s threatening to wander off with some real girls.
When waiting it out, use simple calls that turkeys would make during the day, such as clucks and contented purrs. You can also mix in an occasional string of yelps to try and get an answer. Try a series of four to eight “lookin’ for love” yelps all the way to a long string of 12 to 16 “I’m lost” yelps.
Tools to make contact also vary depending on the situation. Any call you can work softly is good on a bird in the tree. Box calls and pots are excellent. A mouth call needs to be in your arsenal for the variety it provides.
Bring the kitchen sink when you’re set up! Why not? I’ll set out a big box call for yakking it up, a small box call for medium yelping, pots of both metal (loud) and slate (quiet), and, of course, a diaphragm in-cheek and at-the-ready.
A hunter on the move needs to travel light and simple while utilizing a caller that will carry into the distance. A box call fits the bill on all these counts. An aluminum pot call carries well, too, as does a diaphragm if you’re adept at yelping and cutting with it.
No matter what hunting approach you used to get in touch with a gobbler, the next step is coaxing him into action. With coaxing, the bird has indicated some interest and, when you employ the right strategy, should move your way.
There’s a good case to be made that this is the easiest stage of calling in a turkey, but making contact can be tough. So can convincing a bird to come all the way into range and closing the deal.
If the bird is constantly or even just occasionally answering with gobbles or yelps, keep up whatever you are doing. If the bird goes silent for too long, pick up the volume and intensity to try and re-engage or look hard for that tight-beaked bird that’s sneaking in from the side.
The best coaxing calls are yelps. Yelps are a wild turkey’s most basic mode of communication and the primary calls that hens use to indicate interest in breeding. A few cutts can work, as well, to keep the excitement level up.
Your coaxing approach can shift between subspecies. Gobblers from the Merriam’s and Rio clans are famous for liking a lot of calling as they venture in.
Eastern turkeys are less likely to fall for aggressive calling, but you still have to keep them coming. Many hunters lose Easterns by getting a little too coy and letting the tom wander off. True, this can be a fine line, but if yelping, even softly, makes you uncomfortable, get some clucks and purrs going.
While coaxing in a bird you still have the option of using hand-operated calls at this point. Pot-and-peg calls are a favorite of mine, especially slates. Mouth calls can work, too, because of their extreme realism.
If you’re lucky or good, this stage might not happen at all, but some convincing will most likely need to happen at that infamous 50- to 60-yard mark when the gobbler expects the hen to come to him and complete the rendezvous.
When a gobbler stalls out, it can be a time for action before he loses interest, but don’t panic and get overly aggressive. Go soft. That bird is not going to have any problem hearing you. In fact, loud calling could send him the other way because it’s not how turkeys act when finally meeting up.
Now is the time for sexy purrs along with some inviting and inquisitive little clucks. To really get the gobbler’s testosterone flowing, learn how to make the breeding whines that hens make. After exhausting other avenues, you might try a short-and-gnarly jake gobble to rile the tom up and get him to jealously charge in.
At this stage you need to keep your movement to a minimum, which means it’s the time for diaphragm calls. A slate call is okay if you can operate it out of sight, and the same goes for a little gobble shaker.
Three stages are complete — contacted, coaxed and convinced — and now the bird has broken that magical barrier and walked into decent gun range. However, there are times when you need to move a tom a few more yards or get him to step out from behind an obstruction so you can close the deal.
Soft is best now, with mouth calls only as any movement will ruin all the work you’ve put in up to this point. Your shotgun needs to be up and aimed, with finger at-the-ready on the safety. Use the softest of single clucks and the faintest of pretty little purrs and whines. Keep that bird guessing and looking, just moving a little bit, to bring his noggin into a clear shooting lane.
This stage is why you buy a half-dozen of your favorite mouth calls and wear some of them out practicing before and during the season. Train yourself to be automatic when it comes time to do this soft-and-subtle closing work. Keep things simple with a basic double-reed call, as now’s not the time to get fancy.
After contact had been made with our Dakota gobbler, it was time finish the job. Having been through such a drill together many times before, Ethan and I sprung into action.
Coaxing was easy, as we figured the bird must’ve been out doing some mid-morning strutting in a nearby meadow or was out trolling for hens on his own when we contacted him. Ethan set up below a cedar tree, and I backed down behind a small rise where the bird wouldn’t see me working the box call with which he’d fallen in love.
Another set of cutts got the bird gobbling again, and then I started yelping every minute or so. The tom liked the yelps and roared back each time. He was interested and moving toward us, albeit at a tangent.
But then he hung up. It was convince time.
Maybe I had called a little too much and the bird was expecting a hen to move his way. Ethan glanced back at me and then started crawling along to flank the bird, which was still over a rise, so I flanked Ethan from about 20 yards back. I saw him stop in his tracks and slink down next to a tiny oak. He must have spied the bird, and I was sure it was hung up.
Our repositioning must have helped, though, and a couple of bossy purrs from my slate brought back a thunderous gobble. Ethan inched the shotgun up to his shoulder, and even though I couldn’t see the bird, I knew the convincing was done. Time to close.
I whispered out two faint clucks and noticed Ethan shift his aim.
“He stuck his head right out from behind a cedar at those last two clucks,” Ethan laughed as we admired the especially handsome gobbler, which was certainly some eclectic mix of the Merriam’s, Rio and Eastern wild turkey blood that wanders the Missouri River breaks in southern South Dakota.
The hunt had gone off in fine fashion — contact, coax, convince and close — and concluded in a classic manner.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and a freelance writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and Upper Midwest. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.