Being a champion turkey caller is not a prerequisite for being a good turkey hunter.
The short answer is, yes. But as my cousin Todd and I found out one warm April morning while competing for the attention of a tom with a rival hunter, it depends.
We found ourselves trading verbal jabs while vying for the heart of a lovesick tom in a deep draw below us. I was at the head of the draw looking down. The other hunter was completely out of sight, hundreds of yards away in another finger of the draw. The loud, long, and rhythmic slapping of a paddle across a cheap box call was unmistakable from the moment it began. Surprisingly, the tom took a liking to this racket and worked his way closer to the other hunter’s position.
You don’t need to be a great caller, or even a good caller, to kill toms consistently.
We were hunting different parcels of private property, each calling to the same gobbler, and smoking-box-call-guy was winning the battle. Every time I’d get fancy, cluck or yelp longingly, our rival would crank away frantically on his box call like his job was to drown out all sounds of the morning. I shut up, yelping quietly over my shoulder sparingly, just waiting for the BOOM of the other hunter’s gun. Thirty minutes later, it was my cousin’s gun that sounded, as the tom snuck in silently to our position while the other guy was still sawing away.
Good calling won that day, but the moral of the story is that it shouldn’t have. The other caller was in a better position, closer to the tom, and that bird was picking up everything he was throwing down. Had I not been there, I’m pretty sure this tom would’ve sashayed to his most-certain death at the hands of the mystery box call madman. The bird at some point was inside of 100 yards from him, gobbling aggressively, and most likely hoping that the hen would show herself. When she didn’t, our tom made a quiet beeline for the hunter that played hard to get.
You don’t need to be a great caller, or even a good caller, to kill toms consistently. In fact, most people in my neck of the woods take turkeys the way they hunt deer. Woodsmanship and staying put in a blind or other stationary position yields dividends that increase exponentially with use. Understand the terrain and turkeys well enough, and you might not have to sit long at all to take your tom.
Scouting makes a difference. If you’re not leaning on your calling, you’ll need to focus more heavily on patterning birds from afar. The best advice I can give is to observe birds as often as possible, but specifically during mornings and evenings, both coming from and going to their turkey roost. Knowing where the birds sleep gives you a logical fighting chance of figuring a natural pattern of movement.
Typically, a tom will spend his day with a set routine: fly-down shortly followed by some hook-up and strutting time with the ladies in an opening of some sort. Birds will often follow groups of feeding hens to favorite mid-morning crop-fields or other food sources. From there, as the midday sun picks up, birds will often retreat to the woods to loaf on oak flats with mast to scratch and fresh green shoots to snag. Of course there are strong variances to this program from time to time, but once you’ve got some roost locations pinpointed, it’s your job to fill in the gaps.
Still, an average turkey caller can call more effectively by calling sparingly. It’s the number one piece of advice you’ll hear or read everywhere in general, though overcalling is really only a problem if you don’t sound much like a hen. That point was driven home for me a few springs ago when I had the privilege of calling to some Minnesota birds with three-time NWTF Grand National Calling Champ Billy Yargus. Rarely have I heard someone call so long or loud in the turkey woods. Hens were vocal that day, and he fit in with the general banter of live birds. But it showed me just how much someone good at calling can get away with.
Someone sounding predictably non-turkey-like doesn’t get the same wiggle room as Billy, however. If you can’t make turkey vocalizations, it’s likely better to lay low by sticking to soft yelps and clucks every 15-20 minutes or so. That said, you can focus on other turkey noises like leaf scratching or flapping a baseball cap during fly-down time to simulate live turkey sounds which don’t require a call. All of these little tricks help play into your favor, especially if you’re not a calling champ.
Don’t underestimate the value of practice. Listening to live hens talk has no substitute, which is why spending more time in the woods is always at a premium. Re-create their noises, cadence, and volume, and you’ll be well on your way to improving. It’s also worth noting that there’s always an odd hen that sounds horrible to our ears, yet great to a tom’s. Hunt long enough and you’ll encounter many situations where a live bird sounds poor but fits right in with the flock.
Let that thought give you some comfort as you practice away the long weeks and months before turkey season.
Joel Nelson is a well-known turkey-hunting personality in the Midwest, working for several hunting product manufacturers and call companies in the past 20 years. Joel has taken birds in more than a dozen states, killing himself or guiding hunters to hundreds of birds in the process. In his travels, he's competed and hunted with everyone from local turkey guides to NWTF Grand National Calling Champions. He shares his experience in the pages of Outdoor News, several online outdoors publications, and on his own blog site Joel Nelson Outdoors, where he invites folks to “Ask Me Anything.”