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Talking Turkey

By Russell A. Graves

Calling amorous toms is among the essentials of spring turkey hunting

My passion for turkey hunting started on an arrowhead-shaped wheat field along the red-rock breaks of the Pease River in northwest Texas. Surrounded by gnarled honey mesquite and rough-barked juniper, the field offers ample cover for wildlife to move up from the river bottom and feed along the edges of the field.

Rising tall against the shorter shrubbery that grows thick in this part of Texas, cottonwoods' leaves shimmer with each puff of the soft Panhandle wind. The cottonwoods are an important part of the turkey habitat puzzle. Turkeys spend most of their time as ground dwellers. Foraging and nesting take place terrestrially but, like domestic poultry, they roost up high and away from predators such as skunks, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons. Therefore, in areas where trees taller than 10 feet often are the exception, riparian areas that have a sufficient water table to help push trees like the cottonwood tall into the cobalt sky make excellent Rio Grande turkey country.

Turkey country is where I want to be when spring days warm.

I'm not alone in my love of spring turkey hunting. Nearly 88,000 Texans join me in the field each spring. With the ever-expanding range of the Rio Grande turkey and the successful reintroduction of the eastern wild turkey to its former ranges, spring turkey hunting is an exciting way to extend a year's hunting season a few more weeks.

Don't know how to get started? Follow this primer and you'll soon be on your way to planning and executing your own perfect spring turkey hunt.

Getting Started - The Essentials

Properly outfitting yourself for turkey hunting need not put a strain on your wallet. In fact, you may be surprised at how affordable the gear actually is. Like early season bowhunting, spring turkey hunting in Texas is, for the most part, a warm-weather activity. As such, the gear you'll need isn't all that exotic and is readily found at outdoor stores. See the sidebar, "Tale of the Tape," for details.

"Full camouflage is best," says Dick Davis, director of the Texas-Oklahoma office of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. "Turkeys have keen eyesight, so try to match your camo pattern to the terrain you'll be hunting." Davis, who also is the producer of an award-winning film on turkey hunting, recommends paying close attention to changes in vegetation that take place during the season. Since early spring offers less greenery than late spring, he suggests you alter your camo patterns accordingly.

Hunters often wear shirts and pants of the same camouflage pattern. With spring turkeys, since you will be hunting from the ground with the birds strutting mere yards away, a more sophisticated color scheme may pay dividends. Many turkey hunters lean against a tree for safety and to conceal their outline when calling turkeys. A tree-bark-pattern jacket, gloves, face mask and cap complemented by leaf-patterned pants might give you the edge you need to bring a bird into shotgun range.

First-time turkey hunters also might want to consider a turkey hunting vest to complete their clothing needs. A turkey vest has plenty of pockets for calls, shotgun shells, decoy stakes and other accessories as well as a built-in pad that flaps under you, making sitting for long stretches of time on the ground more comfortable. Being comfortable helps you sit still, which is very important in turkey hunting.

Tom Humphries, West Texas regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, claims that because a turkey's eyesight is so keen, camouflage should extend to your firearm. "The most important tool in the field is a fully camouflaged shotgun that the hunter has taken the time to pattern," Humphries says. (See "Improve Your Shotgunning Skills" in the February 2003 issue.)

Although rifles are a legal firearm with which to hunt spring Rio Grande turkeys, most hunters stick to shotguns or archery equipment as more challenging means of harvesting gobblers. Be aware, however, that for eastern wild turkeys, shotguns are the only legal firearms for taking the birds.

Two other pieces of equipment needed in every hunter's gear bag are a turkey call and decoys. Although numerous calls are on the market, Davis and Humphries agree that the box call is easiest for beginners to use. Box calls are rectangular wooden boxes. One style uses a plunger to scrape one piece of wood against another inside the box. Another common style has a paddle that is scratched across the edges of the box. By varying the way you use the striker against the edge of the lid of a box call, you can produce the yelps, clucks and purrs of a turkey hen and attract the males during courtship and mating season. Box calls are easy to master and work well under a variety of conditions. Wooden calls have two inherent shortcomings. One, the friction the calls rely on to mimic vocalizations is compromised during damp or rainy weather. Second, a keen-sighted gobbler may see you working the call and get spooked.

"I think the best call for all situations is the diaphragm call," Davis says. "It is somewhat difficult to master, but a skilled hunter with a diaphragm call can mimic all the vocalizations with little or no movement." Davis recommends turkey hunters start with a box call, then work their way up to a slate call and then a diaphragm call. Beginners can learn to talk turkey by listening to recordings.

Decoys also can be used to lure amorous toms within shotgun range. Humphries says that early in the breeding season, toms often do not respond well to decoys because of the high number of receptive hens. Later in the season, however, a couple of hen decoys with an accompanying jake may work well to lure angry toms to within shotgun range. He emphasizes that each hunting situation is different, and once hunters gain experience, they can gauge a decoy's relative effectiveness before heading afield.

The Game Plan

"Knowing the behavioral characteristics of the birds will probably be the biggest key to a successful turkey hunt," advises Humphries. He likes scouting before a hunt so that he knows where the birds are roosting, their likely strutting locations and feeding areas. "I like to go out in the last few hours of the day and locate birds. Usually I will try to get a visual, but in some cases, simply hearing the birds will be enough to help me locate them. However, I do not call them at that point. Instead, I remain a good distance away and let the turkeys do their own thing. The next morning before the sun comes up, I work my way close to their roost and call them as soon as they fly down in the morning."

Keep in mind, however, that locating turkeys isn't always automatic, and a great deal of time is sometimes needed to find the wary birds. Turkeys, like most game animals, vary their travel and breeding patterns according to the weather. When the day is rainy or foggy, turkeys will stay on the roost until it's light enough for them to see the ground. They call and move less frequently on windy days. Wind makes calling more difficult, too, since sound does not carry far into the wind, and it's harder to hear birds respond. When it's windy, crank up the volume.

When toms aren't calling, Davis suggests using a locator call. Locator calls imitate the sound of a crow, owl or coyote. Toms within earshot of a locator call may gobble in reaction. Once they give away their position, move closer, set out decoys and scratch soft yelps and purrs on a call until a lovesick tom struts in close.

Although morning and evening hunts allow you to key on turkeys' travel routes, try your luck during midday as well. A frenzied breeding season often will keep toms going all during the daylight hours, which creates opportunities for you throughout the day.

Avoiding Problems

Although spooking game and bad calling are part of the learning process in turkey hunting, a few simple tips can turn your first time afield into a memorable one.

Don't call too much. Seasoned turkey hunters know that over-calling is a no-no. Both Rio Grandes and easterns are extremely smart birds with the keenest of survival instincts. Over-calling is a surefire way to turn them off.

Once you know gobblers are close, call softly at about one- to two-minute intervals. Use clucks and yelps, saving the purrs for when you can see the gobblers approaching. Once the gobblers are in sight, call less frequently and more softly than before. The idea is get the tom interested so that it comes to your position to take a closer look. You don't want to call so loudly that the turkey knows which direction the sound is coming from.

Stay still. Incredibly, a turkey has a field of vision that wraps 300 degrees around its head. Except for a thin, wedge-shaped blind spot extending from the back of the head, they can see all around them. Armed with such a panoramic field of view, it is no wonder that turkeys are elusive. Although camouflage helps break up your human outline, it can't hide excessive movement. The bottom line is to stay as still as you can - especially when you see birds. Keep your shotgun on your lap so you can raise it into firing position with minimal movement once a gobbler steps within range.

Watch your back. Although hunting is one of the safest outdoor activities and accident rates are low, safety should be your first priority. Be especially careful when hunting on public land, where other hunters may be present without your knowledge. When hunting from the ground, put your back to a tree large enough to break up your profile and protect your torso. By protecting your back, you are much safer than sitting in the open. If, by accident, another hunter mistakes your calls or decoys for real birds, he likely will have to move into your field of view in order to fire. At that point you can warn him off. If he does fire from behind, your most vulnerable body parts will be protected.

Wear safe colors. While hunting, never wear any colors that are found on a turkey - particularly red, blue or white. Stick to brown, black, and green camo colors and avoid wearing colorful bandanas or other articles of clothing that someone could spot through the brush and mistake for a gobbler's head.

Turkey hunting is addictive. Each spring my thoughts turn toward that same arrow-shaped field along the Pease River. Somewhere, right now, a smart tom cruises the underbrush looking for a hen so that they can perpetuate a line of genetics that has endured in this part of Texas for decades. Once again this spring I am going to try to fool that gobbler long enough to lure it my way.

Turkey hunting is a passion that never fades.

My First Perfect Hunt

Sitting along the edge of the big green field under a low-growing mesquite, I can plainly see the river 100 yards to the north. A small creek is on the other side of the field and I know, from a brief scouting trip a week ago, that turkeys often walk up and down the draw in their daily forays.

Twenty minutes after settling in, I scratch on the turkey call, trying my best to sound like a lonely hen. Months of practice led up to this one instance. Can I call them in close, or will they hang out just close enough for my hunting partner and me to see them strut, yet far enough away to frustrate us?

After 10 minutes of soft yelping, four mature gobblers emerge 70 yards away with a single mission in mind: to find the amorous hen. Like a battalion of tanks, they move in steady-paced synchronicity across the low-growing wheat with their wingtips dragging the ground and tail feathers spread broadly across their backs.

About 20 yards out, the body language of the four birds becomes decidedly more aggressive as they jockey for position to be the first one to reach the trio of decoys in front of us. Two of the decoys are hens, but the one that provokes the most ire from the gobblers is a short-bearded jake. From their last-second posturing it is clear that the big males aren't going to allow a new kid to sweet talk the two faux hens.

Closing, the biggest gobbler separates itself from the pack. Size and bearing tell me this is the boss. The subordinate toms wait in the background while the big tom challenges the youngster. A slight degree of separation is all it takes to allow a clear head shot. With a report from a 12-gauge shotgun, the gobbler falls cleanly.

It's been the perfect turkey hunt, but the glory isn't all mine. My friend harvested the bird. All I did was set out the decoys and call the birds to us. But that hunt was special to me, because it was the first time I called a turkey for someone instead of someone calling for me. The passion that burns deep within me and consumes my thoughts is the urge to relive the scene over and over again.

Turkeyology 101

Every outdoor activity has its own unique vocabulary, and spring turkey hunting is no different. To get you started on the right track, here are some terms every turkey hunter needs to know.

Beard:
A turkey's beard is a tail-like appendage that hangs from its breast. The beard is a specialized feather that grows three to five inches a year. After a few years, the beard begins to drag the ground and is worn off at the end. Although primarily toms grow beards, hens will occasionally grow them as well.
Gobbler:
Male turkeys are called by various names, including gobbler, tom and longbeard.
Hen:
A hen is a full-grown female turkey. Hens generally are smaller than gobblers and appear brown, while gobblers look black.
Jake:
Jakes are immature males. Although similar in appearance to mature gobblers, jakes, when strutting, have middle tail feathers that are longer than the others in the tail fan.
Jenny:
An immature hen
Snood:
The snood is a fleshy appendage that is located at the upper base of the beak just in front of the eyes. On hens, the snood is less pronounced than on gobblers. When strutting, a tom's snood will elongate and hang to the side of the beak.
Spur:
Spurs are pointed projections on the backs of the legs. Although hens can have spurs, toms grow long, sharp spurs in order to help assert their dominance while sparring with other males during the mating season. Spurs grow about half an inch a year and become sharper with age.
Strut:
Strutting is the act of a gobbler puffing out its feathers to impress a hen. When strutting, a tom will take two or three quick steps while fanning its tail and dragging its wings. A gobbler also makes a low-pitched booming sound when strutting.
Wattles:
The colored bumps that extend down a tom's neck.

Tale of the Tape

The bulk of the expense for turkey hunting equipment comes from buying a shotgun. If you already have a shotgun, you can camouflage it using tape or a fabric camo sleeve. Without the cost of a shotgun, the turkey hunting start-up package can be had for only $195.83 - a true bargain for some of the most exciting hunting adventures you will ever experience.

  • Camo pants, long-sleeved shirt, gloves, facemask, cap: $72.95
  • Turkey hunting vest: $49.95
  • Box of 10 turkey loads: $$ 9.99
  • Camo shotgun: $550
  • Box call $19.95
  • Set of three decoys $42.99
  • Total $745.83

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