It was an unusually cold morning for mid April as Brad Harris and I made our way through the pre-dawn Kansas darkness. The cold didn’t seem to be bothering the turkeys, though, and we’d soon located gobbling birds on at least three different roosts. Brad picked the closest bunch and led us within a safe distance, selecting a narrow strip of woods between two fields as our set-up location. As soon as we settled into position, Brad began alternately working a box call and a diaphragm with some aggressive cutts and yelps. He and the three gobblers exchanged vocal volleys for nearly 30 minutes, but the birds never moved an inch closer. Eventually, the gobbling stopped, but not Brad’s calling. He continued for another 15 minutes without a response.
When the toms finally sounded off again, from the same location, Brad picked up the intensity of his calling. For the next 20 minutes, he conducted a symphony of nearly nonstop aggressive calling, switching from box to slate, slate to diaphragm. Eventually, the birds broke the standoff and began a slow march that ended amongst our decoys. It was the most aggressive turkey calling I’d ever witnessed, and it worked.
When it comes to turkey calling, one of the biggest questions facing hunters is: How much is enough? Too much and you might spook the birds, not enough and they’ll lose interest. That same quandary applies to elk and deer hunters as well. The key is finding the right level, but that still leaves the hunter to decide where that level lies. To answer that question, BOWHUNTING asked some of the top names in the game call industry. What follows are their thoughts on how to decide how much is enough.
With turkeys, deciding how aggressive your calling should be can depend on several variables such as the time of season, time of day, how hard the birds have been hunted, the individual temperament of the bird you’re calling to and, perhaps most important, their reaction.
Early season seems to be the time for aggressive calling. “In the early season, when I’ve done my scouting and know I have several birds located, I immediately go into aggressive mode,” says Harris. “I want to attack and call aggressively to fire up toms and make them think that I’m the hottest hen turkey in town.” Eddie Salter echoed those sentiments, in his own inimitable way. “I’m gonna call the feathers off a turkey during the first part of the season.”
Early season, however, can mean different things in different parts of the country. “The first thing I’m gonna do is figure out what transition the turkeys are in,” says David Hale. “If they’re in the first or second, you can do a lot of calling.” Mark Drury admits to being more vocal in the early season too “because you’re catching birds when they’re first splitting up, and there’s a lot of vocalizing going on. Dominance hasn’t been established among hens or gobblers, and it’s easy to be vocal and fit.”
A turkey’s individual temperament can also guide how aggressively you should call. “Like humans, they have exciting days as they’re getting into the mating season, and they have days when they don’t feel as good and are not as active,” says Will Primos. Drury agrees: “I think turkeys go through moods, more than even humans do. At certain times they’re very callable, and other times you are simply wasting your time.”
Harris, Primos and Ernie Calandrelli all used the phrase “taking a turkey’s temperature.” “If I call and he’s cutting me right off, I’m gonna keep pouring the coal to him, as long as he’s really interested and I know he’s getting closer,” says Calandrelli. Gary Sefton agrees, saying, “You have to let the gobbler dictate how aggressively you call. I want to try to get the gobbler excited and worked up by sounding like I’m excited. If I can get him foaming at the mouth, he will most likely be less cautious when approaching.” Once you get a bird responding well to aggressive calling, you should keep it up. Primos likens it to fishing. “If you let slack get in your line, you have a good chance of that fish throwing the lure.” Harris also cautions about easing up on a bird that responds well, particularly if there are a lot of hens around. And Salter observes, “Sometimes you get a bird who’ll gobble to everything you give him. Then after about 30 minutes he shuts up. What likely happened is you called so much you had the bird broadcasting, and another hen came in and picked him up.”
There are times when you need to tone it down, however. Harris says, “If I’m hunting an area where there’s only one gobbler in a certain drainage, and he has his own little group of hens or he has felt hunting pressure, then I’m gonna look more at positioning, coaxing and feeling out that bird in a softer manner. I don’t wanna blow him out of there; he’s the only game in town.” Primos recalls, “I’ve had situations where If I did anything but scratching leaves, I wasn’t gonna kill that turkey.”
Calandrelli, like the others, looks for a gobbler’s reaction. “If he’s quit gobbling and hasn’t come any clos
er, sometimes I’ll sit quietly for 45 minutes or an hour and listen for him drumming or rustling in the leaves.” Sefton adds, “My subtle approach involves three or four soft yelps at irregular intervals with some clucks and purrs thrown in now and then. I’m not really calling to the gobbler, I’m just letting him know there are some hens in the vicinity and if he wants any company he’ll have to come to me.”
Later in the season you also need to tone it down. “The greener it gets, the less vocal you can become,” says Drury. “When you get into full green, it’s time to slow down a little bit.” Hale also observes that in the later transitions gobblers are less apt to come to aggressive calling. Harris adds, “In the late season, many of the vocal, aggressive gobblers have been taken, and you are hunting the older or heavier-pressured birds. When I know that’s the situation, I’m gonna slow my pace down. I’m gonna become what I call a scared hen, calling very softly and sparingly.”
All of our experts agreed there are a lot of similarities between calling elk and turkeys. In fact, Eddie Salter likens it to “hunting a 900-pound turkey.” Thus, many of the same principles apply, like timing of the season. “You have to determine how far along the rut is to determine how much calling you can get away with,” says Hale. “The prime time, like the third transition on turkeys, is the peak of the rut, in the early part of the season. You probably won’t overcall then. As it gets later in the season, these bulls don’t want to hear all this foolishness.” Harris concurs, noting that in the early season, “If you happen to hit it right when the bulls are gathering the cows, there’s a lot of frenzied movement and calling going on. Then I want to get involved; I want to be aggressive and cover a lot of ground, do a lot of calling and draw attention to myself.”
Location is also important. Drury notes that elk on public ground “get the tar called to ‘em” before, during and after the season. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you can blow a diaphragm bugle and have bulls run over you,” he says. Elk density where you’re hunting should also be factored in. “I’ve gotten into herds where there’s six or seven bulls and 30 or 40 cows in one drainage,” says Harris. “The situation is frantic, with a tremendous amount of calling. I want to be very aggressive, and I find that it fires up elk and they respond well.” Whether on public or private ground, Wayne Carleton believes where you set up is important. Just like turkeys, “If you’re setting up right, you hardly have to call,” he says.
Just like a turkey, you have to take an elk’s temperature and see what he’s responding to. Calandrelli says, “If every time I cow call he’s bugling and getting closer, I’m gonna keep cow calling at him, keep him interested” Primos concurs, and says, “If the bull’s bugling and he keeps coming, don’t change what you’re doing.” Carleton offers slightly different advice. “Once they’re stimulated, you try to crank ‘em up. As soon as they turn to you and start coming, then you really want to back off on the calls.” Drury adds, “Try and locate from a distance with a bugle. When he gets in close, you better sound like a cow, and you better not overcall when you do your cow calling.” He also recommends adding other sounds to sound realistic, such as cracking in the brush and the little chirps and mews that the calves do.
Also, like turkeys, elk hang up. Primos observes, “When they get to within about 75 yards, they’re gonna stop and stand there because they’re scared they’re gonna get themselves into the fix of getting broadsided by another bull or getting into a fight.” This can be especially frustrating for bowhunters. Primos recommends soft mews to make them curios. Carleton’s answer is to scream as loud as you can on a diaphragm, “just bugling really high-pitched and really loud, but not deep and gnarly like a big bull.”
When it comes to calling, deer are quite different from elk and turkeys. One of the biggest differences is that in most cases you don’t know the animal is there until you see it. Still, many of the same general guidelines apply. Where you hunt is important, but when you hunt and how the animal reacts to your calling are probably the most important factors in determining how aggressively you should call.
For purposes of calling, the deer season can be divided into two segments: the rut and the pre- and post-rut periods. “I think you can do some calling any time of season and be successful,” says Drury. Tactics should vary by season. Early in the fall, when the bucks are in bachelor groups, Sefton uses nonaggressive “attention” grunts to stimulate the social curiosity of the bucks.
“These nonthreatening sounds prompt a more direct and less cautious response,” he says. Harris also recommends softer calling and a light tickling of the antlers, saying, “Try to work on their curiosity more than their rut-driven instincts.” Salter recommends using “minor doe calls, doe bleats” and, Primos adds, “it’s best to use the quivering shorter bleat” early in the season. Later, as the rut tapers off, deer become less active and less vocal. “I’m also tapering off my calling,” says Harris. “I’m backing off from aggressive modes to softer contact sounds.”
All of our experts agreed that as the rut begins, it’s time to step things up. “Bucks are roaming all hours of the day,” says Hale. “Now’s the time when you really get aggressive calling because you know there’s an opportunity for a deer to walk within your hearing at any time.” A common question among hun
ters is how much to call when you’re not seeing deer. Both Salter and Calandrelli recommend calling about every 15 minutes, whether you’re seeing deer or not. “As long as I’ve got a still morning, I’ll grunt five or six times then put the call up and see what happens,” says Calandrelli. Hale adds, “You’re not gonna overcall; you can sit there all day, but it’s not gonna do you much good unless the deer walks into hearing range.”
Once that happens, it’s time to take his temperature. “When I spot a deer, my first instinct is to get his attention,” says Harris. “Then I want to immediately reassure him with another grunt that yes, that is what you heard.” Then, you look for a reaction. “I want eye-to-eye contact,” says Hale. “If a deer’s interested at all, he’s gonna turn and look your way; if he’s not spooked, chances are the hair’s gonna stand up on his back.” Most of the callers agreed that if the deer starts coming your way, it’s time to quit calling.
How you respond to a negative reaction is also important. Harris says, “If he acts like he’s uninterested or I scared him, then I’m gonna back off that pressure.” Drury agrees, saying, “If they just aren’t giving me the body language that I like to see, I give up because I don’t want to burn that chip that day. I want to wait ’till I catch him in the right mood.” Salter doesn’t give up quite that easily. He explains, “It’s kind of like when I come home in the afternoon. My wife’s carrying on, and I don’t pay much attention to what she’s saying. All of a sudden she realizes it, and her voice changes; it gets high-pitched, and she’s saying, ‘You better get over here now.'”
Sefton prefers a more cautious approach. “I prefer to use doe sounds like estrous bleats, contact bleats and breeding bellows to try to initiate a mating anticipation response, which is the most profound response. Bucks looking for does respond in a more direct fashion and are less tentative and cautious when coming in.” Both he and Drury noted that bucks approaching a call often go downwind and scent-check the caller before committing. “I don’t call to deer nearly as much as I used to,” says Drury, “because I think you’re getting downwind-checked by so many animals that you never know are there.”