The highly effective turkey hunting tactic known as the turkey calling retreat
This article originally appeared in Woods & Waters April 2010 on Turkey Calling.
Turkey calling in high-pressured areas can be one of the most frustrating situations. Their weariness to come in response to turkey calls and their need for visual stimulus to feel safe in an approach can make successful calls nearly impossible. Like most things, I am a firm believer in thinking outside the box of traditional hunting. Due to my realistic restraints of being an urban hunter I do not have the opportunity to hunt land not littered with other hunters and educated birds. This has all given birth to what I call “the turkey retreat.”
The concept is rather simple. Turkeys will come within a certain distance and then do the dreadful hang up. That sometimes frustrating display they put on outside the distance you can shoot them is their way to stay safe. They want visual confirmation and stimulus; they are no stranger to turkey hunters and ground blinds. This trap has been presented more than once.
In the real world of turkeys you can note that birds tend to make large amounts of movements and displays. A simple turkey decoy standing still will arouse the suspicion of any tom presented with a deadbeat mating partner. Hunters will turn to extremes of real turkey mounts for lifelike appeals and even moving decoys. These methods can be costly and still ineffective to these high-pressured birds. So how do you close this gap when a bird will no longer respond to the trap you set up?
The turkey retreat is an adapted run and gun method that takes advantage of the “movement” stimulus without the use of turkey decoys. Turkey calling (sound) can be just as deadly if not more deadly to a turkey when on the move. The lack of visual confirmation for a bird will peak the curiosity of any urban street-smart tom. The process of creating a moving mate for a male turkey is rather simple.
What I do is place the shooter in the original location of where a turkey calls back and shows a willingness to participate in my turkey calling. This gives you time to set them up in the most ideal situation as I continue my calling. Then with the best cover possible I will retreat 15 yards and continue the calling. What turkeys are not used to is their potential mating partner walking away showing no interest in their game of hang up.
In fact, the game of hang up has not even occurred at this point. In a tom’s mind this hen might be hot and ready for a competing tom in the opposite direction. This can cause birds to move more aggressively and much more quickly.
I will work the bird slowly towards me and then again retreat another 15 yards. It is important to maintain this retreat movement when the turkey is still too far out to see you. Make sure to use as much cover as possible. There is no reason to even give the bird an opportunity to play the game of hang up.
Your methodology is to peak a tom’s desperation to mate. You are the unwilling partner that is driving him mad. The less interest you show by moving away from him the more he will want to get even just a glimpse of this alluring hen. Continue this process of retreat as long as it takes to put that bird in the red zone of your shooter.
I do not have any exceptional talent in turkey calling; I would consider myself only average in such skills. This method does not rely on competitive advanced calling skills. My call of choice is a basic double-sided slate and glass call. I will experiment with both sides while calling for a bird and see which the bird I am perusing prefers.
Urban turkey behavior is set slightly apart from rural turkey. Although a turkey may display a willingness to fight cars in the streets, once into the limits of legal shooting distance as defined by law they become very weary of human activity. They are not stupid or naive animals like some choose to believe. Their ability to adapt to the understanding of man’s tricks such as ground blinds and decoys shows that.
There are benefits to urban environments rather than rural settings. These urban settings can often limit a turkey’s approach to certain directions or make different avenues of travel more appealing. Urban obstacles like houses and roads allow you to plan a successful ambush with the shooter having to make little or no adjustments. This method of turkey calling can be adapted to any location and may involve the shooter having to readjust the ambush location as you retreat.
It is good to have faith in that hunter’s ability to make sound calls on movement as the hunt progresses. Being spotted by a searching bird can mean the end of a hunt quickly. It is imperative they are not spotted; sometimes letting the bird pass might be the only option available. Passing birds can lead to an ability to dram bow backs or make slight movements that may not have been possible with a searching tom early in the game.
This past spring this method paid off as I called a turkey in from a couple hundred yards away to my father. The irony of the hunt was that we suspected the bird to be on one side of the road rather than the other. The urban environment can often play tricks with sounds and cause you to believe locations of toms are different then they actually are.
As we went up the hill to set up I proceeded turkey calling only to look down the hill and see the tom putting on a nice display 10 yards from my truck on the wrong side of the road. At this point despite the great distance both the bird and I were committed to the challenge.
I retreated slowly up a power line turkey calling and had my father wait in a hedgerow in ambush.
The bird at first showed not much willingness to do anything but call back and maintain a great distance. The more I moved away from the bird turkey calling the more the bird showed interest in his potential mating partner. In his mind he thought his potential hen was moving out to bigger and better things and he was not going to let that happen.
I continued turkey calling and moving back 10 to 15 yards at a time. The bird was more and more hooked on the idea of seeing me the more I retreated from his advances. As the bird and I played this game of chase my father lay in wait, camouflaged by natural cover waiting for the bird to be guided by the urban lay of land right by him.
After a short 15 minute game between the bird and I, the chatter of turkey talk was silenced by the boom of a 12-gauge shotgun. He killed a nice impressive tom with a 10-inch beard and three-quarter-inch spurs. The aggressive nature and high-paced action of turkey hunting hooked my father. After a celebratory hug and quick recall of events he asked, “When are we going to do this again?”
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.