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Simply Shocking Turkey Calls
Locator calls, used to trick a gobbler into betraying his position, could become your deadliest weapon yet in the spring turkey woods.
By John Higley
I remember the morning almost like it was yesterday. At least I remember the turkeys, although the name of the hunter I was guiding completely escapes my mind. It probably doesn't matter all that much because the incident, which took place 20 years ago or so, could happen and probably will happen, somewhere to someone this spring.
It was something I call the disappearing gobbler act, a problem a lot of hunters view, correctly, as common but frustrating. How that hunter - let's call him Jack - and I dealt with the situation is what made our hunt a unique and memorable experience for us.
Okay, let's back up for a minute. Jack and I were working by the book. We knew where a couple of gobblers were roosting and we were in position well before daybreak. Right on cue, as the first rays of sunlight outlined the ridges in the East, the toms began to gobble and announce their location to any comely hens within hearing.
"Good," I whispered to my companion. "The birds are right where we expected them to be. I'm going to call a bit with my box call and see if they'll fly down to us. Get ready."
Of course, the turkeys did fly down, and as soon as their feet touched the dirt they gobbled back at us a couple of times, which was exciting, but then they simply faded away. I didn't think they were with hens but for some reason apparently they weren't eager to find any, either. Regardless, since we'd heard no other toms that morning I wasn't going to give up easily on the only game in town.
Jack could hike, so when I suggested a quick walk to try and circle the birds, he was all for it. The only problem was the now complete silence of the turkeys, which did not respond to my sweetest diaphragm and box call hen yelps. I called softly. I called loud. I got nothing in return. After waiting a few minutes - a few minutes completely devoid of turkey sounds - it finally dawned on me that it might be a good idea to try something different.
Reaching into a shirt pocket, I retrieved a crow call that I used sometimes to elicit a response from a reluctant gobbler. Taking a deep breath, I blew a loud series of raspy caws, paused briefly to listen, and heard - nothing. I puffed into the call again, and a single gobble rang out. It wasn't much, but at least we knew the birds were on the hill above us, and moving steadily away.
Now comes the amazing (at least to me) part. For two hours we kept track of the gobblers with sporadic crow calling. Finally, when we topped one last hill, we spotted them feeding on the grassy flat perhaps 100 yards out. Incredibly, they didn't see us when we backed into a little swale and set up amongst a scattering of live oak trees. Once ready, I produced a couple of hen yelps and we were amazed when the birds puffed up and came right in!
"I had no idea you could follow turkeys that way," Jack grinned, as he admired his Rio Grande tom.
"Know what?" I said. "Neither did I!"
Just as a bass angler's tackle box contains a variety of lures to fool fish, a typical turkey hunter's vest is stuffed with different calls to trick gobblers. But, as it is with fishing, there's more to turkey hunting than merely and somewhat routinely calling in a bird.
One of the wrinkles of turkey hunting that is often left unexplored in any depth, is the use of calls that do not make turkey sounds or at least calls that make noises no self-respecting turkey would ever think of making on purpose. It's a widely recognized but little understood peculiarity of gobblers that during the spring breeding period, when they are lusty, they will often respond spontaneously to non-turkey sounds. Everything from the sound of a slammed truck door to howling coyotes to an abrasive crow cawing in the distance to the hoot of an owl can, for reasons known only to the gobblers themselves, elicit gobbles from tom turkeys.
Owl calls are often used to locate a gobbler in a tree before dawn or in the evening while putting a tom or two to bed on a scouting expedition. In the West great horned owl sounds are most often used for authenticity, while hunters east of the Rockies usually rely on the more vibrant barred owl call.
Nearly every experienced turkey hunter I know carries a crow and/or owl call all the time during spring turkey hunting. Some hunters add others, such as coyote, predator or pileated woodpecker calls. In short, anything goes that is capable of making a sharp sound that might shock a tom turkey into responding.
Many are the tales of toms that gobbled back to the slamming of car doors and thunder, and I assure you they will also answer to helicopters, sirens, peacock shrieks, horn honks, the occasional Banty rooster, coyotes and even geese in flight. In fact, when I hear any odd noise while I'm in the turkey woods, I stop everything and listen just in case a tom sounds off and lets me know where he is.
Tom turkeys, bless their little bird-sized brains, are susceptible to mood swings they probably aren't even aware of. Some days they'll gobble at practically anything and some days they might as well be rocks on the moon. Such was the case on a chilly day a few years ago when Ron Dube and I were hunting Merriam's turkeys in a mountainous region with a generous helping of fresh but melting snow.
Try as we might, we couldn't raise a turkey with anything we threw at them. That is, until Dube had a better idea and produced an elk bugle from his daypack. A well-done series of bull elk bugles echoing across the bleak landscape evoked several gobbles from toms in a snowy basin below a gravel road.
"I'll be darned," I said. "I never would have thought of that. Now let's see if we can call one of those guys in."
Well, we couldn't on that day, but finding those toms led to a successful hunt a couple of days later in which conventional turkey calls worked like a charm. To be truthful, I don't tote an elk bugle with me wherever I go turkey hunting these days, but on more than one occasion I have made elk sounds to my advantage with a typical diaphragm turkey call. (When I did that in Alabama, everyone I was with looked at me like I was insane.)
Here's the basic theory: The advantage of using a shock call is that when you get a tom to sound off because of some artificially triggered response, it let's you know a tom's approximate location without prompting him to move in your direction when you least expect it. For example, if he's in a roost tree, he'll stay there, relaxed; if he's on the ground, even with a bevy of hens or a few buddies, he won't react to the noise like he might an unexpected turkey call. In this way, a shock gobble or two allows you the opportunity to locate a tom that will continue going about his business as usual. True, you may not be able to work the bird effectively - some days turkeys just don't play fair - but at least you know where he lives and you can go back later and try again.
By contrast, if you are using a turkey call to locate a gobbler, there's a much greater chance that you'll bump a bird when you least expect it. For instance, a tom that's close and hears your calls might be in your lap before the echoes die away. Or a distant bird might start coming to your calls quietly while you move in his direction without a clue.
There are other scenarios, of course, but you get the basic idea. Whenever you attempt to locate a gobbler with a turkey call, look around first to pick out a potential calling position before you make any noise. You don't have to get all set up, but you should be ready in case a nearby bird gobbles practically in your ear when you least expect it.
One morning my son Mark and I were close to a small group trees sometimes used as roosts by a local flock of turkeys. Fortunately, we found them to be full of turkeys on this day. Just before fly-down time we called a little to the birds and at least five gobblers shouted back. They were hot! However, they also had girlfriends nearby, and when the feathered beauties flew down, the toms followed them over a hilltop and down the hill's backside. We called and they would gobble, but no matter what we did the toms kept moving away.
Recognizing what usually is a hopeless scenario, Mark and I backed off to look for a more willing, unattached tom. After two hours without any luck, we returned to the roost site. To find out if they were still within hearing, I produced a crow call and blasted the sounds down the backside of the hill. Gobble-obble-obble!
I smiled and mouthed the words, "They're still here."
I blew more crow call notes, which the toms answered, and in doing so gave us a solid fix on their position. With that knowledge we moved down the hill without being seen and got in close enough to take advantage of an impromptu power struggle that erupted between two of the males. We heard the skirmish and when one of the toms separated from the group I called and he came right to us. That longbeard Rio Grande gobbler may have been a subordinate male, but he was still anxious for company. We were glad to provide it, and took that bird home.
At times I use a shock call during evening scouting trips just to verify the presence of a gobbler or two in a place I plan to hunt the following morning. But the best use of a shock call, in my opinion, is to keep track of a distant vocal tom while moving into practical calling range.
One morning, hours after sunrise, I heard a tom sound off voluntarily several times from a hilltop on the far side of a brushy, steep-walled canyon. It sounded like he was actively searching for a hen and he seemed ready to come to a call. However, calling to him from so far away wasn't a realistic option, so I looked for a place where I could cross the canyon, a chore that would take nearly a half-hour to complete.
Once in his backyard, and assuming he was still vocal, I chose to locate the tom with a shock call rather than immediately turkey calling to him. Happily, I got a response to my first series of crow chatter, and after moving in I was able to set up within 100 yards of the bird. A few hen yelps and the round-tailed gobbler was practically at my feet.
As is the case with anything in this game of turkey hunting, shock calls are only part of the whole picture. They do not always work, of course, but they definitely help on certain occasions, and as such they are one more key to consistent success in the spring turkey woods. So pick out a shock call of your choice and take it with you on your next hunt. Someday you'll be mighty glad you did.
(Editor's Note: Autographed copies of John Higley's book, Hunting Wild Turkeys In The West, with 154 pages and 75 photos, are available for $16.95 postage paid. Order from: John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073.)
and have it delivered to your door!
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