Obsession is a good word to describe the allure of turkey hunting. Wild turkeys have innate characteristics that challenge hunters, pushing the boundary of their turkey hunting skillset to be consistently successful.
Keys to success include woodsmanship, patience, knowing the land you hunt and even having the time to hunt frequently. But the dominant reason many hunters are so passionate about turkey hunting is calling. Engaging in a conversation with a gobbler to override the natural inclination of having a hen approach him upgrades turkey hunting from sport to obsession.
Top hunters go to great lengths to master various calling techniques because they understand it’s fundamental to success.
Steve Cobb of Union said many hunters undervalue the importance of superior calling skills.
“Elite calling techniques, honed by practice and mastering a diverse array of calls, dramatically elevates the ability to call turkeys,” Cobb said. “It’s particularly true on older gobblers that have been hunted a lot. When I encounter a gobbler not wanting to approach, the ability to manipulate that bird using calls is one of the greatest accomplishments of a successful turkey hunt.
“But the over-riding factor is producing sounds turkeys need to hear, when they need to hear them,” he said.
Cobb’s turkey-calling resume includes seven state calling championships and five S.C. Open calling championships, plus 35 years hunting turkeys, the last 18 as a member of the pro staff for Hunter Specialties.
Cobb said calling skills can be described as simply as good, bad and ugly calling.
“Ugly calling is simply bad calling that’s actually way too loud,” he said. “It can ruin a hunt and make a gobbler turn on a dime and go. And it doesn’t even have to be your calling that’s ugly. I’ve been looking at a gobbler I called and ready to pull the trigger when someone 400 yards away ran a poor sounding, loud cutt, and my gobbler folded his wings and faded into a thicket.”
Cobb said the connotation of bad calling is sometimes that sounds are not bad, just not good enough. It may not run a gobbler off, but it won’t help. In his world, that equates to bad calling.
Good calling, in his perspective, is calling that makes a gobbler come to hen sounds.
Nationally known call-maker John Tanner of Hemingway agrees with that assessment. He said getting the right notes and hitting them properly are indeed what separates elite turkey callers from hunters who call at turkeys.
“One of the reasons I enjoy call-making is to create the exact sounds I hear turkeys make,” Tanner said. “It’s essential.”
Tanner (843-373-8434) said that realism is so important that he records turkey sounds, even during deer season, and listens to them as he tones his custom calls.
“Some of my best soft and subtle calls from my trough calls have been formulated while deer hunting,” Tanner said. “By listening to turkeys cluck, purr and low yelp while content and feeding have motivated me to bring realism to my calls and to my own calling.. By understanding and implementing these subtle, realistic sounds, my hunting success has improved. Every sound a turkey makes can be useful to a hunter, but every call must be used in the right perspective to get a positive response from a gobbler.”
Tanner said he practices his calls on turkeys in the offseason.
“Learning to make realistic calls is an on-going process, but one that can be fast-tracked by paying keen attention in the woods and focusing on the sounds turkeys make,” he said. “I pay attention to volume, cadence and changes in pitch or tone live turkeys make. I’ve heard some awful sounding live hens, but they always have the correct cadence and tone. I hate to compete with a live hen, even one that sounds awful to me. They’ve got something a gobbler likes to hear, they’re saying the right thing in the right way at the right time and that’s what we must tap into.”
Cobb said learning the mechanics of operating a turkey call is essential, but realism is the goal if you want to kill more turkeys.
“Every sound I make, I do it to entice a turkey,” he said. “Sometimes I need to sweet-talk a gobbler to approach, but sometimes I have to pick a fight with a live hen so she’ll come looking for a quarrel with gobbler in tow. In calling competitions, competitors call to judges to demonstrate a skill level. In real-world hunting situations, hunters call to a turkey in their natural, home environment. The audience is different, but quality calling is essential.”
Cobb said every call must make a statement to turkeys.
“It’s important to understand what you’re saying when you call,” he said. “More than making good-sounding calls, producing realistic sounds is necessary. Saying the wrong thing in the right way isn’t going to work.”
Cobb said a good foundation of understanding what different calls mean is essential.
The first calls turkeys typically make are tree calls; Cobb said these first calls set the stage for the rest of the morning.
“Tree calls are simple sounds and must be used that way,” he said. “They are usually a two-note monosyllable sound that conveys they are ready to begin the day. I don’t tree call much, but when I do, I prefer for it to be light enough for a hen to be on the ground. That’s the realism factor, and an old gobbler will know the hen is on the ground when you call. Overcall to a gobbler in a tree, and he may not budge. That scenario usually doesn’t end well for a hunter.”
Cobb said the cluck is a great call anytime, especially when in doubt, because it’s a simple ‘Where are you?’ call.
“A cluck is clear and crisp but without urgency,” he said. “But a ‘putt’ is a sharp version of a cluck and implies something is not right. Aggressive clucks can be received as ‘putts’ by turkeys, it’s a fine line.
“Purrs are typically low, soft calls that calm a turkey and often compliment clucks,” he said. “Purrs tell a gobbler all is well in turkey city, so come on over. I often use it as a finishing call, getting him to come those last few critical yards.”
“A call for an already located gobbler is a short, low-volume three- to five-note yelp,” he said. “This is a subtle sound, but is one they can hear a surprisingly long distance. It is a great call.”
Cobb said a louder yelp often signals a hen looking for a gobbler for breeding purposes so making the call louder certainly plays a key role in turkey calling.
“When looking for first contact with a gobbler, a louder version of a yelp is appropriate,” he said. “In these cases, I’ll use up to an eight-note call with some volume, but not excessive. This call is a prime example of adding realism because in nature I usually hear a live hen finish this call with a quicker pace. I increase the cadence and put a pleading inflection for the last three or four notes.”
The cutt is an often over-used call but it does play a major role in calling turkeys.
“When cutting, my goal is to sound like a hen urgently wanting to locate a gobbler,” Cobb said. “This is an ideal call for the 10 o’clock to 4 o’clock time period when a lonely hen is still seeking a gobbler and a gobbler may now be without hens. It can generate a quick response by a gobbler. Even if the gobbler doesn’t approach, I know I still have work to do, but now I have his address.”
Cobb said pairing calls also enhances realism.
“I often hear two totally different sounding hens in a group,” he said. “I use HS calls, of course, and I’ll pair a high-pitched mouth call with a pot call like the Smokin’ Gun that makes great clucks and purrs, for example. Many potential pairings exist, but use calls with distinctive sounds.”
Tanner said times for aggressive calling exist because that is a natural sound.
“Turkeys employ aggressive calling, but hunters must use it in the right situation,” Tanner said. “It’s not a ‘go-to’ call for me; it’s a ‘fall-back’ tactic. You’re much less likely to alarm a turkey by starting start soft and subtle and work up to aggressive. But once the aggressive sound is out there, you can’t undo. I begin with my purring block call first.”
Tanner said one situation when aggressive calling can be effective is when he encounters hung-up or henned gobblers.
“If hens are involved, I feel I’m calling the hens as much as the gobbler,” he said. “If the trough-type calls don’t produce, I use a raspy box call and make a few yelps. I employ moderate loudness at first and work up. If I entice a gobble, I return to the trough call for intermittent purrs and clucks. I believe excessive, aggressive calling can make hens suspicious, and they’ll move the gobbler away. If a gobbler is hung-up, this technique will often cause him to maneuver over or around the obstacle.
“If this doesn’t work, aggressive calling on gobblers that won’t approach or about to wander away are worthwhile,” he said. “You must weigh the impact of the call on other gobblers within hearing range. After this, I’ll wait a while to see if any gobbler, from any direction, decides to approach silently. Then, I resume the search.”
Cobb said experience has no substitute when reading a specific gobbler and knowing what to say.
“A hunter needs to replicate what he hears,” he said. “If in doubt, start soft and err on that side, but be willing to ramp up the volume to get a turkey to gobble as part of the process. Calling turkeys is a learning game you never fully win, but you can get a lot better and more consistent by listening to what’s going on around you and using that knowledge.”
Cobb and Tanner agree that by enhancing calling skills and keeping sounds realistic and true to the natural environment, your calling can become your greatest asset this season.