I didn’t always think that our four species of Turkeys in North America were really so different in their specific calling behaviors. In this article I give advice for those who have hunted one, but not the other. This is a short guide on what to do if you like to hunt on your own with no local guides. While there are hundreds of calling scenarios, my focus is the general difference between two species. It’s a difference that took me two years to realize before I bagged my first Eastern Tom after a nailing Merriam’s.
My first rule is: Always try to call up a gobbler the night before, regardless of breed. Rile him up with a gobble call. He will be in the same tree the next morning. The first time I ever tried it I had such a ball I called to that gobbler for about twenty minutes. He was so furious he just got louder and louder every time I gobbled to him. The next morning he was bagged before the sun came up.
I have only hunted two species of Turkey. I can tell you that Merriam’s turkeys can be found in the rolling prairie of Nebraska and South Dakota, and the rugged mountains of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. They also occupy parts of the Southwest interior, where the climate is quite different from Northern mountains. These birds are spread out and not over-hunted on most of their range. This requires the hunter to understand their behavior is different from an Eastern bird living in close quarters with people, traffic, farms, and dogs. Eastern birds also live in rugged sections of the Eastern US, almost any of the national forests, and can even be found in SW Washington state. For more locations, check out this map.
Calling a Merriam’s Turkey
Merriam’s have little to shy away from when sounding off. In their terrain, a nice hen may be over a mile away. If there is one thing a big Gobbler knows he needs to do, it is to find that hen. To do that, he is going to make a racket as soon as dawn comes on. The hen is in the same boat almost a mile away, she has to let him know, Hey, I hear ya and I’m probably going to eat some grubs over here for a while. “Rafters”, or flocks, of hens will communicate to each other in the same way, squawking over long distances to keep in touch or share the location of a mother-load of grubs.
I have walked miles hunting Oregon Merriam’s and I always hear groups of hens going off like rowdy football fans the first two weeks. After the pressure picks up a bit they quiet down some. This is also likely due to being grouped up by Toms, who now take the lead on being territorial. The Toms also quiet down a bit as they establish their order. Late season reveals a lot of desperate jakes that are totally new to the game. These can be a great bird to roast, but you know you want a tail-fan to show off. I’m going to send you in early this year, and with the right tools to get that big boy.
Stay on the move with these birds. They cover a lot of ground. Walk from one area to another, preferably up high. Don’t let the sun silhouette you to the valley or lowland below you. Call with a good pot or box so your sounds travel, and call off of both sides of a ridge. Work your way up from a moderate level of noise to a higher one in each spot. Don’t give up after a few calls in the spot you chose to stand. Give it two minutes at least, with thirty seconds between each call. Listen very hard. If you hear no response, try two hen calls in unison. Sit down, set a pot call on the ground and scratch it while working a box call in your lap with the other hand. These birds are used to hearing groups. One bird sounding off doesn’t often excite them. If you can also cram a mouth call into the mix, even better, I cannot. Make loud cackles with the box, and content clucks with the pot.
Ok, so you have a group of hens responding but don’t hear a Tom. That’s fine, maybe even great. Get close to the group of hens without spooking them. Find a place to set yourself up and sit for a bit. A wide tree, boulder, or other large shape is perfect. I prefer to be under an overhang or surround of branches, and have better success this way if a Tom comes from behind. Do not crush large branches, but I’m sure you know that part. If you crack a small branch or slip on some leaves, give out a short series of happy clucks. Now you are a hen scratching for food nearby, maybe from the group you just pretended to be.
What you need to find out is if there’s a Tom or two already in that group. If they are not gobbling the only way to find out is to get the rafter close. Now is the time to remember all those fancy calls you taught yourself this winter. You are calling to hens in this situation. Throw out something that says “Oh yeah, grub jackpot!” Something that is calm and soothing, because only a Tom likes an overly excited hen. If you move hens off by moving too much or messing up too many calls, the others will follow, and that Tom isn’t coming your way for just one bird. Again, use two calls and try to create a conversation about how awesome the scratching is.
This is a great place to be, not just to bag your trophy, but to learn how these gals are talking and try to fit in. Be very patient when besieged in your turkey chair (don’t sit on the ground, it is cold and will ruin your patience). You will find that ten minutes surrounded by hens will be a much better lesson than all of those calling CD’s back on the dash of your pickup. It gets much more complicated when they are close, but in my experience that’s the main difference between calling a Merriam’s Vs. an Eastern.
Calling an Eastern Turkey
As this is written for the do-it-yourself hunter, the Eastern bird can be a lot of fun to track as you explore without a guide. Do your homework here. Unlike a Merriam’s hunt, where days may be required to get where you are hunting, an Eastern hunt can involve a lot of preseason scouting close to home. I personally live within thirty minutes of some great public land options and scout them all year. I also have access to private lands loaded with birds, but that’s a bit too tame for my tastes.
Remember that these birds have a lot to compete with due to the population on this side of the U.S. However, they have a lot more to eat with all of the cow pastures, riparian zones, deer corn, and food plots, even in the mountains. They can be a lot more predictable, staying within a smaller range due to nearby highways, townships, and other man-made corridors. This does not make them easier to hunt. A bunch of hens and a few Toms can circle you all afternoon in one small section of woods. They are very wary, very aware, and shy to just call out and announce where they are. Most often you will hear two to four small clucks, and a minute later, a few clucks in response. A smart Tom will only gobble in the morning and very late into dusk. Only on large private land have I seen rafters of Eastern hens call out freely to crazed gobblers.
I mentioned homework. The best way to call an Eastern Tom is to do it the night before your hunt. While this is always true, it is the key to my success for Eastern birds. Right at dusk, be at the best spot you found while scouting, or near several areas you think are solid. Throw out a gobble call every 45 -90 seconds. I prefer the kind you shake with an accordion-like rubber end. If your season corresponds well with breeding, any nearby Tom should call back after a few of those. He’ll be in that spot at first light.
If you hear nothing, don’t go there in the morning unless it’s your only option. Chances are slim there is a territorial male there the next morning. There may be a Tom, but he probably won’t give a hoot about your calling. Since they are all in the trees at that time, this is a great way to locate and also assess breeding activity. A night-roosting Tom is not worried about coyotes up in the trees, but he will tell another gobbler to get lost…be that gobbler.
If you are unable to locate one the night before, don’t worry. Go to your best spot filled with fresh scratch. Try to find some clucking hens. Replicate everything I mentioned when tracking and calling to a rafter of Merriam’s, only quieter. Only use one call. No crazy cackles. Only make a few content clucks until you hear a gobble. Once you do, begin some short responses for about two minutes. Try to get a short conversation going. Then stop completely. This is very important. Because these birds don’t have to, or can’t move as much, they have specific strutting areas they bring hens to.
My goal at this point is to figure out if he is coming to me or stopped at a strutting area. These are fairly open areas, typically on a prominent geographic point like a hillside or bottom. It’s a place to be seen while spreading tail-fans. Mark them during your pre-season and know how to get to them first.
Scenario #1 – The Waiting Game
If he is stopped, then I may be out of luck. He is in the best place to see and be seen. He is likely going to wait there for the hen I am pretending to be. I don’t know anyone that can sneak up on a Turkey in the woods, so that’s not an option, but I have tried. I was watching several Toms strut for two hours in the same spot and had to do something. Instead, now is when you can use multiple excited calls on an Eastern bird. If you set-up on the edge of the woods, great. If you can sneak out a decoy or two with a belly-crawl, that’s even better. Stick with the calling, don’t move and you may get lucky here. Don’t give up until they leave their strutting area.
Scenario #2 – The Stalking Game
If he is continuing to move away, I will get up and follow him very carefully and try to turn him around for an intercept, or setup in a strut area. Keep cool, continue to use soft or calm calls, no cackles. If he does turn around, sit down, put on your face-mask and wait. Don’t call at this point. He knows exactly where you are by the last sound you made. I have seen Turkeys strut at the very tree I was under an hour later when I drive by to leave. They have three-dimensional hearing, meaning your call goes into a Turkey GPS and they have you pin-pointed. Again, stick with it, don’t move, and you may get lucky.
That’s my advice if you are new to one of these species. This should get you some close encounters this Turkey season. Good luck out there!