By Judd Cooney
I’ve always maintained that it is much easier to overcall turkeys than it is to undercall them. Most hunters, and I include myself, call too much rather than just enough to bring a gobbler within shooting range. Subtle, selective calling requires patience, and it is more satisfying, if not more effective, to just flood the woods with sound. Fortunately for hunters, a hot spring gobbler is often forgiving of this overcalling, and, at times, what appears to be too much may even be the only effective tactic.
Todd Cleveland, one of my Iowa guides and a world-class caller who can imitate turkeys better with his mouth than most pro callers can with a diaphragm, slate or box—and I were hunting during the late season with our camp cook, Shirley, and her husband, Larry, both of whom had just taken up turkey hunting and been severely bitten by the bug.
A week earlier, on a lease we had not yet hunted that spring, Todd had called in and killed a 28-pound tom with massive beard and almost 2-inch spurs. He’d heard several other gobblers that morning, so we were back giving the same area a try.
It was high noon when we pulled to a stop on a ridge bisecting 150 acres of tall timber. Todd’s loud, insistent yelps brought a chorus of response from the valley below. We agreed the toms were likely along the upper edge of a cornfield in a cul-de-sac a quarter-mile or so above one of our food plots, which was situated in a smaller pocket surrounded on three sides by woods. We knew we could get there and set up quickly, and we did, first placing two hens and a jake decoy at the outer edge of the food plot, where they’d be visible to any gobbler from several hundred yards out.
Then we took positions back in the edge of the woods, between the cornfield and the much smaller food plot. Shirley sat at the base of an oak next to me where she’d have a clear shot at any tom moving along the edge of or out in the cornfield. Larry and Todd sat 20 yards back of us.
Once settled, Todd and I started calling and got an immediate response. Five minutes later, four longbeards appeared over a small knoll in the cornfield headed our way. Shirley had her 20 gauge up and ready. I quit calling and let Todd’s soft, subtle clucks and purrs bring the gobblers the last 50 yards. A sharp cutt from Todd brought the lead gobbler to a stop at 30 yards, and when his head went up, I whispered, “Take him!”
Shirley’s load of No. 4 knocked the tom tail over topknot. The bird immediately behind took to the air, and the trailing two ran off across the cornfield headed toward a creek bottom 200 yards below.
Todd started excitedly cutting and yelping, and I joined in a moment later. We were both using diaphragm calls with Todd adding to the racket with a slate call while I also made fast and loud use of a box call. The raucous racket got the birds’ attention, and at 100 yards, they stopped running, hesitated, and began milling nervously around.
We kept up the loud, intense calling, and when Shirley’s downed bird gave a couple of final flops, the movement added just the impetus the gobblers needed to head back our way. I hadn’t planned on shooting a bird that day but had brought a T/C Encore, just in case.
One of the returning longbeards appeared to be much lighter and redder than the other, and by the time they were at 40 yards, I’d set my sights on the off-colored gobbler. I leaned across Shirley’s shoulder to make sure the Encore’s short barrel was well in front of her, and when the tom stood almost on top of Shirley’s downed bird, a load of No. 5 ruined his day and made mine. The tom was a reddish bronze overall, a uniquely beautiful color phase I had not seen before.
Loud and raucous calling may be the only way to bring back gobblers after a shot, and in the right if somewhat rare situation, it can be the best way to start calling, long before any shot is taken.
Early on another fine spring day, a client and I’d settled into position under a multi-trunked oak just off a grassy roadway. We sat back in the predawn darkness, enjoying a morning serenade emanating from the woods in every direction around us. Numerous and boisterous barred owls were keeping the gobblers stimulated, and their booming responses were echoing down the timbered slopes. A gobbler just off the top of the ridge 100 yards down the roadway let loose with full-throated, booming responses to every gobble and owl hoot within hearing.
I’d set two hen decoys and a jake in the roadway, 20 yards out and a bit to the right front of my partner’s shooting position. He was left-handed, so this setup should give the greatest arc of barrel swing with the least effort. I’d put another hen decoy farther to the left, where it could be seen by any tom crossing or entering the open roadway from the other direction.
A perfect setup—almost.
The fly, or I should say the hen, in this ointment was a vocal biddy roosted on the slope across the road from the gobbler. I almost always prefer a soft and subtle start to early morning calling, but that aggressive hen changed the rules this day.
I switched from using a turkey wing or hat to make “fly-down” wing beats after a hunter I met in Texas showed me a flapper he had made out of camouflage cloth. It sounded better than anything else I’d heard, and it didn’t take me long to make one of my own.
My flapper consists of ripstop nylon (works rain or shine) approximately 10 inches wide by 15 inches long, with 3/4-inch dowel rods rolled and sewn into opposite ends to serve as handles. The camo flapper rolls up and fits unobtrusively in a turkey vest pocket.
Popping the cloth mimics turkey wing beats to near perfection, and it’s easy to vary the volume and intensity.
When working a close-up roosted gobbler, I typically use the flapper with one or two flydown cackles, just loud enough for the gobbler to hear. However, with that vocal hen for competition, I started imitating a flock of birds flying down before the first real bird left their trees. No doubt the gobbler heared me, as he gobbled every time I did a flydown, even when I didn’t cackle. I’d do a couple of flydowns sans cackle and then one with cackle, and I repeated this a dozen or more times, all the while matching that hen yelp for yelp, which was driving the gobbler crazy.
The hen was still in her tree when the gobbler appeared at the edge of the roadway 75 yards out. He’d glided soundlessly off the roost and landed in the brush just off the roadway.
He stood statuesque, staring at the three decoys.
Even though the decoys had the gobbler’s attention, I decided to push the envelope a bit. I don’t trust hen turkeys in general and Iowa hens in particular. I’ve watched too many of them fly down in front of approaching gobblers, shake their tail feathers, and turn a slam dunk into a missed opportunity.
I was slightly behind my hunter and knew the gobbler wouldn’t see any low movement, so I did another rapid flapping flydown along with more excited cutting. That did it. The gobbler started our way at a beard-swinging trot and didn’t slow down until he ran head-on into a load of No. 5 shot at 25 yards.
There are times when overkill trumps subtle, and that applies to decoys, as well as calling.
I’ve been using decoys since I first started hunting spring turkeys, my first being an ultra ugly hen that I mounted myself. Henrietta the First, as I now call her, seduced many a gobbler over the years. I’m now on Henrietta IV and wouldn’t be without the realism of a mountd decoy.
Over the years, I have narrowed my standard decoy setup to either a pair of hen decoys accompanied by a jake with bright breeding-colored head, or a single mounted hen or an equally realistic Widow Maker hen from Hardcore Decoys.
However, there are exceptions.
Last spring, I put my good friend Dave in a blind during the late season and set a single hen decoy out in front. The blind was situated on a fence corner at the lower end of a 500-acre CRP field surrounded by timbered slopes that are heavily used as a roosting area. I figured any gobbler in the treetops within 400 yards should be able to see that decoy, and over the years, we’d taken a number of trophy toms with that very setup. My buddy wasn’t an experienced turkey hunter, so I instructed him to only call sporadically, and when a gobbler headed his way, to quit calling and let the decoy finish the job.
When I picked him up that afternoon, he was ready to borrow my scoped AR-15 .223 and go back to the blind. He’d watched a half-dozen pairs of gobblers strutting and pirouetting around with live hens on every side, but not a one had shown the slightest interest in approaching the hen decoy.
The following morning, we left camp a half-hour earlier than usual. I’d decided to overload the area with decoys, to see if that might tip the balance.
I placed two Feather Flex hen decoys 40 yards out, below and behind the blind. On the slope 40 yards above and slightly to one side of the blind, I put a Widow Maker hen decoy. Twenty yards in front and on the slope slightly above the blind, I placed a Pretty Boy strutting gobbler decoy with Pretty Girl in front of it, and just to one side, I set my somewhat ruffled, oft-repaired and repainted mounted hen.
I am not a big fan of the Pretty Boy full strut decoy, as its magnum size can intimidate a lone gobbler. On several occasions, I’ve watched lone toms hang up out of range and leave when confronted by this large but otherwise very realistic decoy. However, Dave had reported pairs of gobblers working the hens the previous morning, and toms in pairs are not nearly as intimidated by Pretty Boy.
In this situation, I figured the magnum size would only make the decoy more visible, and the lifelike fluttering of the fanned tail would add a touch of realism to the decoy flock.
I wanted to stay to see what might happen, but I had another hunter in tow, so I left Dave with instructions to be a bit more aggressive with the calling until a gobbler or gobblers showed interest, and then to quit calling altogether and hope the flock of decoys intrigued them enough to bring them in range.
When I came back at noon, Dave was smiling from ear to ear. A heavily bearded, long-spurred tom lay in front of the blind. What a difference a day and that overabundance of decoys had made.
An hour after daylight, pair of longbeards had left a couple of live hens on the slope in front of Dave and come gobbling and strutting all the way.
At the same time, two more toms had come off the timbered slope behind the blind, doing the same. All four gobblers were within shotgun range when he took the largest at 40 yards. During the remainder of the morning, eight more gobblers came within shotgun range of the blind—without Dave making another sound.
I’m not ready to abandon the subtle approach to spring gobblers. It’s usually best. But in the right situation, aggressive calling, the use of a flydown flapper, and a spread with multiple decoys just might turn the trick. Sometimes, too much is really just right.