Even the country’s best turkey callers face challenges and frustrating conditions. Here’s how they adapt to turn the tables on obstinate longbeards.
We love those days when a gobbler honors every series of yelps and races to us like we’re the hottest hen he’s ever heard.
And we loathe other days — probably more common — when a bird might respond halfheartedly, never moves and eventually shuts up and drifts away.
It happens, and it’s not just you. Even the country’s top turkey callers endure tough birds and difficult calling conditions. But thanks to experience and keen in-the-woods observation, they often overcome those barriers and convince longbeards they’re the real thing. Here, several NWTF Grand National [SD1] Calling Championship winners talk about their toughest field-calling challenges and discuss how to overcome them. Their advice can help you, too.
Matt Morrett, of Pennsylvania, the 1990 Grand Nationals Senior Division champion and five-time World Friction winner, said turkey hunters often sabotage their own efforts by calling — or not calling — at the wrong time.
“We’ve all stuck our foot in our mouth in general conversation,” he said. “I believe we also do this when calling to turkeys. Here’s what I live by: Call enough — excitedly — to get him cranked up with a lot of emotion. Keep his interest, get excited when you know you must give him a reason, and call just enough to let him know you’re still there. Build excitement and, more important, curiosity, so he comes to find you.”
The MVC Method
Matt Van Cise, of Pennsylvania, who has won a record six GNCC Senior Division titles, said henned-up gobblers typically present his toughest calling challenge. He uses a two-pronged approach to the problem.
“If you’re in a situation where you have to rely on calling, it’s best to try and somehow coax the hens to your setup first with any number of calling scenarios,” said Van Cise, who’s also won eight World titles and four GNCC Friction Division crowns. “You can start with soft feeding calls and hope to bring the hens in or try challenging them, but in most cases, that only pushes them away. Many times, it works best to challenge the gobblers with gobbler and jake yelps along with challenge purrs and a fight.”
2015 World champion and 2017 GNCC Head-to-Head winner Josh Grossenbacher, of Ohio, has chased longbeards throughout the country, and he pointed to a specific period that frustrates him the most.
“Typically early in the season, turkeys are still in decent-sized flocks, where the pecking order among mature gobblers has yet to be determined, leaving multiple gobblers grouped up with large groups of hens,” he said. “Usually, setting up and calling these groups is extremely challenging, as the hens always seem to head the opposite direction from where you’re calling from.”
To counter that, Grossenbacher tries to get tight with turkeys and make his presence known.
“I’ve had the best success with turkeys during this part of the season by getting close to them on the roost and calling aggressively right at flydown, trying to be that first turkey those gobblers hear when they hit the ground and spark their interest before all the other hens do,” he said. “If I have no luck at first light, I like to call very aggressively and get a hen in the group fired up, and have her bring the whole flock into the calling.”
Pat Strawser, of Pennsylvania, said his toughest turkeys are birds that have been called to unnaturally and aggressively.
“They seem to bank those types of encounters in their brains quicker than others,” said Strawser, who’s won three GNCC Friction titles and numerous callmaking awards. “The best option I’ve found after that happens is to go find another turkey [laughs] or go at them totally differently after a few days.”
Strawser especially emphasizes using various calling instruments when yelping at wary birds.
“A scratch box or a small soft-talker single slate are probably two of the most overlooked calls out there,” he said. “They can help you create a different, softer tone that’s crazy realistic and a little easier on an old gobbler’s ear. And I think hens can get call shy just as quickly as gobblers.”
That approach can be wise for hunting in general, not just with pressured turkeys, Strawser said. In fact, he encouraged hunters to take a hard look at their calling habits and consider small tweaks.
“Challenge yourself in your calling with these three things: First, call a little less. Second, call a little softer. Third, call more realistically. I think if a hunter is aware of those three things, his or her calling will automatically produce better results.”
Mark Prudhomme, of South Carolina, who’s won a record 17 GNCC titles, said pressured turkeys also represent his biggest challenge. However, he said that’s often a self-perpetuating problem.
“Even when I was guiding a lot, the hardest thing that I ever had to do was hunt behind myself,” he said. “A lot of people talk about birds being pressured by other hunters, but they don’t realize that they pressure birds they have to hunt again, like when I work a bird I don’t get.”
In such situations, Prudhomme will often change his approach and present something new to the turkey, hoping to avoid repeating the bird’s previous experience
“It’s always been my thought that turkeys are not geniuses, but they recognize situations they’ve been in before that were unpleasant experiences,” he said. “I think we can use that to kind of change up things a little bit. And those are the easy things to fix. If I have to hunt behind myself, I know the history. If you’re hunting behind other people, you don’t know what happened or where the bird had a bad experience.”
Prudhomme mentioned a situation years ago, when a hunter he was guiding missed a gobbler. As expected, the bird became extremely wary. Prudhomme returned to the area the next week but changed his approach, using a different call and setting up at another spot. He killed the turkey.
“For me, that’s where being able to use different types of calls and being able to sound like more than one turkey on a call is very important,” he said. “I mostly hunt with a trumpet, but if I encounter a bird I’ve dealt with before, I might change to a different trumpet. I might change the way I call to try to sound like a different hen. And I also might, depending on the situation, try to sound like a gobbler. I might do some gobbler yelps or jake yelps. I think the main thing is to change it up.”
ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE
You don’t have to be a GNCC champ to try these tactics on tough birds this season. Call as realistically as possible, and present convincing scenarios to wary birds. Chances are you’ll get high scores from the judges that wear feathers — and perhaps even sling one over your shoulder.