Bagging a spring gobbler is about more than making noise
It's understandable enough.
You've got a turkey vest at home, and it's crammed with calls. There are box calls, mouth calls, slate calls, push-button calls, maybe even a gobble call.
You've been practicing with them for weeks.
With spring turkey season set to open — it runs May 2-30 statewide — you want to put them to use.
The only thing is that may not be the best way to kill a bird.
“I think, regardless of the time of season, people call way too much,” said John Hatcher of Uniontown, lead turkey hunting and fly fishing guide at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. “In the turkey's world, the hens are supposed to go to the gobbler. What we're trying to do as hunters is the opposite: call to make gobblers come to what they think is a hen. And I think some people overdo it.”
“Most people want to call loud and frequently instead of soft and occasionally. But you don't need to scream into their ears,” said Ron Toth of Donora, a pro staffer with Hunter's Specialties.
That's especially true early in the season.
The woods will be full of turkeys then, at least on a statewide basis. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the turkey population has been on the upswing. It was estimated at almost 235,000 birds last spring. That was much higher than the previous five-year average of 169,000.
Hunters took about 41,000.
There's no reason to believe things will be substantially different this year, commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena said.
She said there's been no evidence of winter-caused mortality, despite what was a tough few months of cold and snow. In fact, none of the 228 turkeys monitored via satellite transmitters over the past five years has died due to winter, she said.
But there will be a lot of hunters in the woods, about a quarter-million of them, according to commission estimates.
All that competition means turkeys hear a lot of calling in many places, Hatcher said. They are, if not technically smart, capable of telling “when something seems not quite right.” That's why subtlety can go a long way.
If he calls and a gobbler responds right away, and he calls again, and the bird responds again, that's often enough.
“You might as well put your call away and get your gun and be ready to shoot because he's on his way. If you keep calling, you're only going to slow him down. He already knows where you're at,” Hatcher said.
“You just have to be patient and wait it out.”
There are exceptions to the rule. He and Toth agreed that, at times, a successful tactic can be aggressively mimicking a hen.
Irritate her enough, and she might come your way, bringing any already-henned-up gobblers with her, Toth said.
But, for the most part, you want to call only enough to make a gobbler work for you, Toth said.
“A lot of people start out too loud, and then they can't take it down from there. It's easy to go up if you have to. It's harder to come down,” Toth said.
“If you call even just a little, that turkey already knows about where you are. You want to make him come and search for you a little bit.”
That's how turkeys often behave on their own early in the year, Casalena added. Young gobblers, or jakes, and the oldest ones are as likely to sneak in to a call as anything.
“Just because you're not hearing much gobbling doesn't mean they're not there, and hunters anywhere might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome of a hunt, even if there's not a lot of calling activity leading up to it,” Casalena said.
As much as calling, hunters need to pay attention to other details.
Proper use of terrain is critical, Hatcher said. That means setting up high on a ridge rather than low.
“If you let a turkey get above you, you're done. There's no incentive for him to come down to you if he can get up high where there's a good vantage point and look and see where you are or should be. Stay above the birds at all costs,” Hatcher said.
Toth also recommends taking along a good pair of binoculars to help use the landscape.
“I use them a lot, especially if I've heard a turkey call, and he's hung up. If I want to move to a better location, I'll use my optics to pre-plan my route so that I can move without being seen,” he said.
That can be important, especially locally, given that well drilling on some game lands has really altered the terrain, he said.
“There's way more to it than being a fantastic caller,” Hatcher said. “I never thought I was a very good caller, but I could always manage to get turkeys to come to me, and that's the end game, I guess.”