Talking Turkey

Joe Kelly likes to use old-time tube calls, and he does it with great effectiveness.

When it comes to tactics to lure reluctant gobblers to spring hunters, nobody does it better than Joe and Rodney Kelly.

It’s turkey-talking time in the Palmetto State, and hunters are getting ready to hit the woods.

With the Lowcountry opener in mid-March and the rest of the state opening a couple weeks later, it’s time to finalize turkey hunting strategies for the 2007 season.

While every gobbler is unique in terms of what you’ll have to do to get that longbeard within shotgun range, some of South Carolina’s best turkey hunters are sharing their secrets to help you put more tags on gobblers this season.

One of the best gobbler getters anywhere is Joe Kelly of Mountville. Kelly has been hunting and harvesting gobblers for decades. Plus, he operates one of the most successful turkey and deer guiding business in the Southeast, right here in South Carolina.

Best of all, Kelly is always willing to share his secrets with others.

There’s no one secret to consistently calling in turkeys, whether early morning, mid-day or afternoon gobblers,” he said. “However, I’d have to say versatility is a real key to having the potential to be successful throughout the day. I’m talking about versatility in developing an all-day game plan for hunting. It’s also key to be proficient with a variety of calls.

“A hunter who will hunt throughout the day, working a good hunting strategy, will have a much higher percentage of putting a tag on a turkey’s leg.”

His oldest son, Rodney Kelly, also has developed into a talented turkey hunter and echoed his father’s sentiment.

“The first and only rule is to have no set rules when hunting long-bearded turkeys,” the junior Kelly said. “To consistently get in the game with these turkeys, you’ve got to react to situations with your gut instinct and work with a ’seat of your pants’ philosophy.”

“Rodney Kelly said while early morning hunts when the birds fly off the roost are the most exciting, they’re not necessarily the most productive times to harvest turkeys.

“One thing I’ve learned about hunting in South Carolina, and I hunt practically every day the season is open, is that many hunters leave the woods far too early in the morning,” he said. “Granted, working a gobbler off the roost, one that is gobbling his head off, is hard to beat for excitement.

“But for sheer numbers of harvested gobblers, I’ll take later in the day every time.

“If a hunter has strategies for later in the day, his odds for eventual success will be much greater.”

Joe Kelly said the first couple of days in the season are usually of higher probability for a successful early morning hunt. After that time, odds increase for later-in-the-day success.

“However, even very early in the season, the percentage of successful off-the-roost hunts is not that high,” he said. “I’ve always got a mid morning, mid-day and afternoon game plan.

“I’ve long maintained that by far the most effective time for calling in a bird for my clients is after the roost hunting is ended. Mid-morning hunting through mid-day is actually when we take most of our gobblers.

“They still sometimes come in gobbling, but sometimes they sneak in quietly. The two-year-old longbeards sometimes try to slip in while the dominate gobbler is busy with hens elsewhere.

“This can be a real effective strategy. But it requires patience and good calling.”

One of Joe Kelly’s favorite tactics is walking and calling to locate a gobbler, also known as “cutt-and-run.” But his technique is slightly more subdued than tactics employed by many hunters.

His pace is generally not quite as fast as a typical cutt- and-run scenario. The elder Kelly first ensures he’s in good turkey habitat then slips though the woods quietly, using old logging roads or trails along the ridges if available.

Often it’s necessary to cover a lot of ground before he can intercept a gobbler that has strayed off alone or has been abandoned by the hens. If a hunter is walking and calling, it often puts him within range of the birds’ hearing and they may come to him, literally on a dead run.

“The idea behind this ploy is to first get a gobbler’s attention,” Joe Kelly said.

Thus, soft seductive calls are not really the best to begin with, he said. Kelly uses loud, repeated aggressive calling to attract a distant gobblers attention.

The “lost” call of the hen, a long series of 15 to 25 or more yelps which first rise then fall in a pleading effort to get a response from another turkey is one of the most effective tactics.

“Also, a loud series of cutts will work well,” he said. “I walk a couple hundred yards or so between calls. But I don’t walk too far because I don’t want to be right on top of a gobbler when he responds.

“If too close, you’ll get spotted before you can set up. And trust me, a gobbler can get there in a real hurry when you’re calling him like this.”

The time to wait before moving on to another calling spot can vary, but typically Kelly advises hunters to wait long enough to give a gobbler a few moments to consider his options.

“Always keep listening for distant gobbles because many times I’ll hear a gobble shortly after I start walking again,” he said. “Maybe the bird took a minute before he responded or perhaps he’s approaching fast and was so far away I didn’t hear his initial gobble.

“You’ve got to be alert to hunt in this manner or you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a longbeard at 30 yards. I don’t know who is the most surprised, the gobbler or me when this happens, but you can bet he wins most of those staring contests. That’s why it’s essential to move quietly and listen for any turkey sound.”

Rodney Kelly said the basic response to a gobble in this case is to quickly sit down since the bird may literally come in fast. So it’s imperative to select a good calling site from which to make a “lost” call.

A hunter may have to set up in a hurry and not have time to check out a good vantage point.

“Once the gobbler is coming, I’ll give him whatever works best in terms of calls,” the younger Kelly said. “For example, if the turkey responds best to loud and aggressive calling, that’s what I’ll give him. If soft and subtle clucks and purrs keep him super-charged, then I’ll give him that.”

Another part of Joe Kelly’s versatility for all-day hunting is his calling. He and and his son are proficient with the major calls, including the mouth diaphragm, slate and box calls. They’re also well-versed with a unique call not used by a lot of hunters, the tube call.

They said the tube gives a distinct advantage over many other hunters when working gobblers throughout the day.

“The tube call can change your turkey-hunting life,” Joe Kelly said. “Turkeys can get accustomed to hearing the same pitch and sounds from box or mouth calls, so by giving them something different and unique, we can often get them to respond and work in, gobbling every breath, even during the middle of the day or late afternoon.

“If a hunter doesn’t use a tube call, I’d suggest learning if they want to take mid-day gobblers consistently. But the key is to be able to make calls different from what the turkeys have been bombarded with.”

An expert Lowcountry hunter, Paul Dickey, has some special words of wisdom when hunting those lowcountry dominant gobblers during post-roost hours.

“I believe a hunt for a boss gobbler in a Lowcountry swamp during the mid-day is one of the greatest challenges in turkey hunting,” he said. “This is where every aspect of what hunter does, including maintaining silence, holding still, calling well, and setting up in just the right place is much more important than it would be during a hunt for an aggressive, just off the roost bird at dawn.

“I approach mid-day turkey hunting with the overriding philosophy that gobblers are actively looking for a reason to break off the game.

“If the calling is too aggressive or maybe too subtle, it might turn him off. If the woods are too quiet or perhaps too noisy, if the setup position is too concealing, or perhaps too open … anything can be reason enough for an individual gobbler to break off his approach before coming into shotgun range.

“It’s not impossible to kill such a bird; it’s just that an almost paranoid attention to detail is in order.”

Dickey said subtle calling is overwhelmingly his favored tactic to use on these birds at first.

“They are the boss and thus are difficult to boss around, even by a lovelorn hen,” he said. “If the gobbler is hammering out gobbles on the roost, I can get aggressive and sometimes it works really well, really fast.

“But later in the day, I seem to have much more success by starting out cautious. I’ll often set up adjacent to a swamp or along a woods road and do some soft calling. When I get a gobbler to respond, I can adjust my calling if needed to accommodate him.

“If he’s really hot, I can always heat up the calling. But once you’ve overcalled, I’ve found it difficult to overcome, especially with a long-bearded gobbler.”

Another vastly-overlooked turkey tactic for mid day and the afternoon is to hunt feeding areas. Hunters far too often get locked into the “roosted” bird routine, and if they don’t bag a bird or get one they can work first thing in the a.m., they hunt aimlessly or most go home.

Scott Sanders of Lugoff, a pro staffer with Primos Game Calls, advised hunters to locate a feeding area. It can be a wheat field, chufa patch, a wooded area rich in hardwood mast with plenty of fresh scratchings or any number of other areas rich with turkey food.

“Turkeys don’t have to be on-site at the time you arrive, either,” Sanders said. “This tactic may require a bit more patience than many others, but it will produce turkeys. It’s extends your hunting day and makes it potentially productive.

“Occasionally I’ll use a few loud yelps to attract the attention of a distant bird. If that’s the case, as he approaches he’ll pick up on the softer clucks, purrs and feeding turkey sounds.

“Often the gobbler will walk right up on you without a gobble, since he’s really coming to a feeding area. Although a spring gobbler seems to always have mating on his mind, just the mere thought of other turkeys around seems to add an important security factor.”

Certainly don’t rule out the possibility of a bird coming in and gobbling every breath. However, many times their approach will be sans gobbling. It may be totally silent or with only a few soft clucks being the only sounds made.

To make this tactic work, the burden is on the hunter to remain quiet and still, except for movements required for calling.

This late-afternoon type setup is a favored tactic of Joe Kelly. He likes to set up a small blind that affords good visibility. Then he sits and calls intermittently.

He often uses two calls at the same time to imitate the sounds of contented, feeding turkeys. A mouth call and a slate work great in tandem as do a tube and push-pull box, with Kelly working each call one-handed.

The final mid-day tactic for the elder Kelly is one that may sound strange at first, but he said it’s a deadly tactic. Sometimes the only way to get a locked-up gobbler to approach a hunter’s position is to simply make him think the hen is leaving him high and dry. Walk away from him … but not too far.

“On some occasions gobblers get extremely wary about coming to any call,” Joe Kelly said. “These turkeys probably have had some close calls and seem to insist the hen come to them.”

He said turkeys may gobble a response to every call a hunter makes, but they simply won’t break and walk within shotgun range, staying interested but aloof even though a hunter may change calling locations and perform some of the tactics already described.

“I’ve had excellent success simply walking directly away from the bird, making yelps and clucks,” Joe said. “Even at that, I’ll cup my hands and pitch the sound away from the bird to make the sound even more distant.

“Sometimes, I follow the hen calls with a gobble from my tube call, one of the few times I’ll use a gobble call. This tactic works best when I’ve already had a 30-minute-to-one-hour calling clinic with a gobbler.

“Apparently, the bearded bird can’t let that hen walk away after investing that much time in her, particularly if he thinks another gobbler may be moving in. But the gobble is usually the last-resort effort.

“On some occasions I didn’t know if it was fighting or loving they had on their mind, but they came in on a dead run when confronted with a hen going away and another bird gobbling.”

Kelly said appearing to leave an area is a great two-man tactic, where one hunter remains at the original calling location and the other walks away while calling.

Or a lone hunter can slip back into a reasonable shooting location without being spotted and silently wait for a gobbler to give chase. It works often enough to be one of Kelly’s favored tough-tom tactics.

When early-morning calling to a roosted bird doesn’t produce a strutting gobbler, many hunters are out of luck and out of ideas. But the truth is that S.C. gobblers can be hunted successfully after the traditional early-morning efforts have failed to produce results.

“You’ve just got to be versatile and hunt smarter to tag that tough ol’ gobbler,” Kelly said.

About Terry Madewell 802 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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