Pay Day. The author with a bird called in for him by World Champion caller Kelly Cooper using the "float calling" technique.
It was a tough challenge my partner and I faced that spring day in New York's Catskill Mountains. Conflicting schedules allowed us just one morning to hunt together. The bird we located the evening before was roosted on public land. And it was situated where you could hear it gobble from a nearby road.
To be honest, I was a bit intimidated by the task that lay before us. But my partner, Kelly Cooper, exuded confidence. I guess that's what comes from being a World Champion caller — your turkey-talking skills make you feel you're up to any challenge.
The forest was a mixture of gray shadows and misty black shapes when the tom thundered loudly from a nearby hardwood ridge just before dawn that cold spring morning. Luckily, he hadn't changed positions during the night. Easing forward, I crossed a valley between us and set up as close to the tom as I dared, near a small clearing. I figured he might use that as his strutting ground.
While most of the experts I'd hunted with in the past would have set up against a tree behind me, I knew that wasn't Kelly's plan. Instead, he intended to move around as he called. He had explained the strategy the night before.
"No hen ever sits stationary in one spot for an hour, yet that's what a lot of hunters do and expect a gobbler to come in to them," he said. "By moving, I can duplicate the way a hen calls as she travels through the woods. Another advantage is that I can steer the tom to you. If he starts to move in the wrong direction for you to get a shot, I'll move and turn him towards you."
The technique proved its worth when this bird started my way, then drifted a bit too high to come past my position. Detecting that, Kelly moved the other way and steered the tom towards me. Soon I caught sight of a red head glowing in the dim gray woods. Two steps closer and I squeezed off. The Federal Premium 6's found their mark and the 20-pound, public-land gobbler went down cleanly at 35 yards.
If your tag is still unfilled and your go-to methods for spring gobblers have failed to produce, it may be time to shake things up a bit and get aggressive. Try something different. Break the rules and be innovative. After all, spring season only lasts a short while. Pretty soon, gobbler hunting will be history until next year.
Float calling is just one of a variety of push-the-envelope tactics you can use for difficult, call-jaded toms. One hunter sets up as close as possible to a gobbling bird while the second hunter stays back behind him but not in the usual sedentary way. This hunter moves like a real hen would, calling to the bird and changing his location as necessary to steer it towards the hunter up front.
Singling Out. If a gobbler is with hens, try to call to them, imitating what the oldest hen in the group sounds like.
The tactic can also be used by a single hunter. When you elicit a gobble, move parallel to the bird, stopping to call from different locations. When you can tell from the tom's calls that he's broken his position and is coming your way, hunker back against the nearest tree. Alternately, simply kneel or flatten on your belly if necessary and prepare to shoot.
Another tactic for tough conditions I often use is the cutt and run technique. Sometimes soft, sweet yelps and gentle clucks just won't do it. The birds have heard it over and over. Instead, turn to the aggressive cutt, fast, sharp-toned series of excited clucks, sometimes topped off with a few yelps at the end. This is often the best way to draw a response from a close-mouthed gobbler after the season's been open for a while.
Use this call in conjunction with a fast-paced coverage of ground in big country. Cutt loudly from a ridge and wait, and then cutt again. After a few minutes, move swiftly to another spot, covering lots of territory to locate that one bird that might be eager to come in. Public land is the perfect place to try this tactic — you have lots of habitat to roam and hunting pressure usually drops off dramatically after the first week in these areas.
You can also use shock calls to stir things up when gobbling activity is slow. Lots of hunters use fake owl calls at dawn, but few hunters use locators in late morning to incite an instinctive response from toms. Try crow, hawk or woodpecker calls blown loudly from ridges or in hollows. After you get a tom to reveal his location, move in tight and use hen calls.
What if you draw a response from cutting or shock calling, but the tom won't come in because he's accompanied by hens? I encountered this situation last year in Virginia. Instead of trying to rile up the gobbler, though, I switched tactics and called meekly to the hens.
By mimicking exactly what the oldest female in the group sounded like, I enticed her in — along with three other hens, two jakes, and taking up the rear — a 19-pound tom that fell to my load of 6's. This tactic has also worked many times for me in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska on Merriams turkeys and in Texas and Oklahoma on Rio Grandes. If the tom won't cooperate, call the hen. Chances are good he'll follow her in.
Last Resort Options
Getting aggressive can sometimes mean breaking the rules. Turkey hunting lore says not to try to call a bird down hill, but I've ignored this tradition on tough late season birds and had it work several times. It's a particularly good tactic in windy conditions when toms may want to move to low elevation areas to escape the worst breezes on the ridges.
Sometimes, when you feel it would be safe, using a gobble call can work wonders. The male mating call can incite jealousy in nearby toms or arouse territorial instincts. It works best on mature birds three years or older. Be careful with this call, though. Use it only if you are certain no other hunters are around, and wear or put out a big of blaze orange near your position.
The fighting purr is another good last-resort call. I've also had luck using the kee-kee run in spring, though it's generally considered a fall vocalization. This call appeals to a tom's macho instincts, enticing him to swagger in and beat up the young gobbler daring to open its mouth in his territory.
Patience and caution are the rules most hunters go by. And for most spring turkey hunting that's the best approach. But if things are getting tough and you can't seem to get within range of a mature tom, it may be time to get aggressive.
Flush A Bird
Here's an aggressive tactic two-time World Champion caller Eddie Salter told me about when I hunted with him in Alabama a while back. "Go out in the afternoon and listen for a gobbler flying up to roost with his hens. After he's in a tree, make him gobble, then sneak in slowly."
"Right at dark, flush him off the limb," Salter said. "He won't go far, but will land in another tree, separated from his hens. Set up the next morning early and call to him in his new environment. Chances are good he'll come right in."