Calling Turkeys Like a Pro
April 20, 2016
Matt Morrett was 6 years old when he called in his first turkey. "I was sitting in my dad's lap, calling," Morrett recalls of that morning 40 springs ago. "I'll never forget that feeling when the gobbler answered."
Morrett's first experience wasn't simply luck. The young Pennsylvanian had a knack for calling turkeys. He won his first world turkey calling championship at 16, and has added five more world titles over the years. "Pretty much my whole career has been in turkey hunting," said Morrett, who lives in Marysville, Pa., just outside Harrisburg.
Morrett spent 24 years with Hunter's Specialties, and now is with Avian-X decoys and Zink Calls. He figures he's been behind the gun,bow or camera on successful turkey hunts in 35 states. "I've gotten to be in the spring woods in a whole lot of states and in different terrain and different conditions," he said. Those experiences have helped Morrett realize that focusing on a few, key turkey vocalizations can help all hunters — from beginners to veterans — call more gobblers within range.
Proper execution of those calls is particularly important for bowhunters, in order to get wary gobblers within the tight range of archery gear, Hearing a hunter such as Morrett give an in-person tutorial is probably the best way to learn the intricacies of those various calls. For hunters who can't make it to such seminars, the Internet is a great resource, too. "You can get on YouTube and get all the lessons you need," Morrett said.
The most important call in the turkey hunter's vocabulary, Morrett believes, is the yelp.
"There are hunters who like to go out there and throw the kitchen sink at turkeys," Morrett said. "But if you can yelp, which is the basis of all turkey calling, you can go coast to coast and call turkeys in." Mix in some cutting — an aggressive cluck that will be covered in more detail below — and it's possible to close the deal on plenty of gobblers without having to worry about other techniques.
"Ninety percent of the turkeys I've called in are because of yelping and cutting," Morrett said. It's important to understand that there are many approaches to yelping, and it's equally important to be fluent — or at least conversational — in those different approaches to be effective under different circumstances.
Soft "tree yelps" early in the morning can help hunters get a leg up on gobblers that haven't yet hit the ground. "At daybreak the best thing you can do is to tell that gobbler where you are," Morrett said. When a gobbler responds excitedly to a subtle tree yelp, some hunters can be tempted to get a little over active. While it can be exciting to talk back and forth to a still-roosted gobbler, Morrett suggests taking a conservative approach.
"You don't want to crank it up too much," he said. If the gobbler gets going a little too much, that can attract more actual hens. If he hits the ground and has a harem waiting for him, he is less likely to go exploring to find the source of a hunter's calling. Also, in areas with heavier hunting pressure, a fired up gobbler can attract the interest of other hunters.
"I'm going to let him know where I am, and then I am going to shut up," Morrett said. A critical element for success is to not set up too close to the roosted gobbler, where the bird might be able to spot the hunter as daylight arrives. Friction calls, such as pot calls and box calls, are ideal for yelping, because they so easily allow for variations in tone, rhythm and volume.
Again, those first yelps at daybreak should be soft and subtle. "A slate call is probably my favorite for tree calling," Morrett said. "Controlling the volume is easy. It's simply a pressure game." Once the gobbler is on the ground, it can be OK to crank up the volume and excitement. And to start adding some cutting — at least until the gobbler commits.
Cutting is an excited cluck, and can be deadly when paired with yelping. The combination can be just the ticket for getting even a hesitant gobbler to start moving a hunter's way. "A cutting hen is excited," Morrett said. "They're either excited about mating, or they're trying to show dominance over other hens. For good turkey hunters, it's a bread-and-butter call."
The call works for hunters in a couple of ways. A yelping and cutting sequence can really fire up a gobbler, which in all likelihood will have the company of real hens immediately upon hitting the ground.
"With our turkey populations, most gobblers are flying down into real hens," Morrett said. So it can be advantageous to a hunter to sound like a really excited hen. Even then, sometimes the best yelping and cutting sequence might not be alluring enough to pull a gobbler away from his harem. However, it might attract the attention of his hens.
"If the hens go to the call, the gobbler is going to be right there with them," Morrett said. Again, a box or pot call is ideal for yelping/cutting sequences. Once that gobbler commits and starts closing in, volume control becomes critical. "As the turkey closes in I like to soften it up a little," he said. Moving the thumb up the paddle on a box call can also control volume.
"The more you call to a gobbler that's on the way in, the better the chances that he's going to hang up out of range..."
Morrett said it's also important to not over call. "The more you call to a gobbler that's on the way in, the better the chances that he's going to hang up out of range," he said. While cutting can make a turkey commit first thing in the morning, Morrett also really likes the call later in the morning. By 8 or 9 a.m., hens often will have moved off to nests.
An aggressive cutting sequence can not only help a hunter locate a gobbler that is suddenly lonely, it can then help that hunter pull the bird in. "I'll use it to locate gobblers, and to call them in," Morrett said.
While yelps and cutting can help a hunter get the ball rolling with a gobbler, sometimes it takes a little more subtlety to close the deal. That's when flock talk — primarily clucking and purring — comes into play. "The cluck and purr are calls hens make all the time when they are feeding," Morrett said.
Clucking and purring can give the impression of calm, content hens. Being able to use a mouth call for clucking and purring can be a big advantage because those calls are often used for drawing a gobbler in over the last few critical yards, when it's critical for hunters to remain statue-still. The proliferation of pop-up blinds has given hunters an advantage in terms of calling-related movement, and allow for the use of friction calls. But for bowhunters who aren't using a blind, minimizing any and all movement is critical.
"The second you make a call when a turkey can see you, that turkey knows exactly where you are," Morrett cautioned. A type of non-vocal flock talk that can seal the deal is to scratch in the leaves to mimic feeding hens. "That can be absolutely deadly," Morrett said. As the birds make the final approach, the hunter's setup comes into play in terms of the type of calling a hunter can accomplish.
While it can be tempting to set up in open woods with a long line of sight, the longer an approaching gobbler is in view, the better the chances that the keen-eyed bird is going to bust the hunter. A ridgetop location, where a bird is within range as soon as it first comes into sight, is ideal. A pop-up blind can help a bowhunter draw or make final calls with a friction call without detection. Decoys can also help, providing just enough distraction to allow a hunter who is not in a blind to draw undetected.
Outside the Box
While yelping, cutting, clucking and purring can together take care of most of a spring gobbler hunter's needs, sometimes a wary bird needs to hear something a little unusual. For some hunters, that outside-the-box call is a turkey gobble. For Morrett, it's a jake yelp.
"Jakes want to gobble, but often it comes out as a yelp," he said. That yelp tends to be at a slower cadence than a hen yelp, and the tone is deeper. "You don't want to use a lot of yelps," Morrett said. With a pot call, sliding the striker more toward the center of the call will create that deeper tone. A triple reed mouth call can also help produce that raspier jake sound.
Morrett believes that bringing a jake into a setup, both from a vocal standpoint and in the form of a decoy set in addition to at least one hen, can tip the odds in a hunter's favor. Oftentimes, he believes, the gobblers that are responding to hunters are not the most dominant gobbler in the area, which can be difficult to attract because they are already with so many real hens.
Instead, the more huntable birds are satellite birds. Having been pushed away from hens by a dominant gobbler, they are eager to assert their dominance over jakes.
Hunters who hit such gobblers with a carefully executed array of the key turkey vocalizations can significantly increase their odds of punching a tag.