The Fanatic

You think you like to hunt turkeys? Meet Frank Berry.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Frank Berry went bad early on and never quite recovered. As happens to many promising boys denied the advantages of a concrete-rich environment, Frank fell prey to the great scourge of rural youth-hunting. He started on squirrels and rabbits in the hills of his native Bath County, Virginia.

These "gateway" animals quickly led to more serious hunting: turkeys and deer. By the time he was in high school, the boy had declined to the point that he was waking at the crack of dawn to do his chores, hustling off to school, then picking up as many odd jobs as he could to earn money to hunt.

Eventually, he got into the hard stuff, raising his own hounds to run after coons and bears.

Then a strange thing happened. "I'd be sittin' on stand during deer season and I couldn't concentrate because I'd be thinking of all the contracting work I was s'posed to be doing," he says. Same thing happened chasing coons, even bears. Frank was showing signs of overcoming his ailment.

The "Incurable" Bird
But there was one animal he couldn't shake. "Turkeys," he says with a rueful smile. "Been huntin' them 26 years now. And when I'm out there, I still can't think of anything but turkeys. Only thing in the woods that talks back at you. Maybe that's why I can't leave 'em alone."

Frank lives on the farm his grandfather owned, where he runs a few cows, raises hay, and does whatever's needed in the way of general contracting from an outhouse to a new house. But the jobs are just cover; Frank was put on this earth to chase turkeys.

When we first met, I asked him how many days of spring gobbler season he hunts. "Sixty," he said. "Frank," I said, "the season's only 35 days." He shook his head. "You got 35 calendar days in Virginia, but four of those are Sundays. So it ain't but 31 days. Then I also scout birds every morning for a month before the season opens."

By opening day this year, for example, he'd tabulated 90 gobblers in the notebook he keeps in his truck. I ask him how many of that number are the same bird he heard twice. "Probably no more than 25 or 30," he answers. "I make it a point not to go back to the same area twice, but you gotta figure turkeys move." (Frank, who can go through a set of treads in a year on these mountain roads, even times his purchase of tires around the turkey season. He gets new ones just before the opener, so he'll have maximum traction in the spring mud.)

Mountain turkeys, he insists, are different. "I've done all my huntin' right here, but I've guided guys from all over the country. They say if you can kill one of these mountain gobblers, you can hunt turkeys anywhere. They're just a superwary bird. They don't make many mistakes."

Take Notes, Bring Tape
I ask about the notebook. For the last three years, Frank has actually done what most everybody else only talks about-kept a record of each day's scouting or hunt: weather conditions, birds heard, birds called to, birds responding to those calls, birds actually called into sight, and birds killed. He says the results point to one solid conclusion: "There's no patterning turkeys. I don't care what anybody says. If there was, I'd have figgered it by now."

The single most important thing to have during the preseason is fresh electrical tape. Frank uses reeded calls: gobble, crow, owl, and woodpecker. "Even the ones that don't look like they'd be adjustable? Like a gobble tube? Once you take 'em apart, you see they are. I spend a lot of mornings playing with the birds. I sneak in as close as I dare and start throwing different reed settings at them until I hit that nerve. As soon as I find the one that sets them off, I tape the reed in that position." And he doesn't just listen for turkeys to tell him the right settings. With his crow call, for example, he finds the one tone that most enrages the other crows and locks that one in. y call yourself when you can have a whole bunch of riled-up crows doing your locating for you?

He doesn't like the who-cooks-for-you of the barred owl because so many hunters already use it. That teaches the turkeys to be leery of an otherwise natural sound. Instead he favors the quavery, descending whistles of the screech owl. He also likes to mock turkey hens to see if he can get them talking back. "I've gotten to where that's as much fun as hunting," he says. "If you could just get whitetails to grunt back at you, you'd have the conversation going spring and fall. That'd be ideal." That same rueful smile plays across his face as he ponders the possibility. "Course, I'd probably end up in the poor house."

Frank relates his latest turkey encounter. It's the first week of May. Right now, he says, the first birds are sounding off anywhere between 6:45 and 6:50. Tuesday he heard a gobble at 6:50 on the dot across the draft. (This is the local term for a hollow that's wider than a normal hollow.)

"Sounded like a young bird. He had the first part of the gobble down, but he hadn't figured out how to finish. There were two guys who immediately started hammerin' back at him from two different directions." Frank says it was way too early for that much calling and these fellows were calling too loud. "It shut him down. The birds have learned by this late that gobbling can be hazardous to their health. Lotta people think that unless the birds gobble, you can't hunt 'em, which is nonsense. They're still there; they just don't tell you when they're comin' in. On this bird, I moved in to about 150 yards on a flat below him and just waited until it was time for him to fly down. Gave him a couple soft clucks on my Chatterbox. He came right in. Only had a 6-inch beard, so I waved him off. I wised him up enough to survive this year, and by next year he'll have a 9- or 10-inch beard."

The Mistakes We Make
Frank guides enough to have strong opinions about what most turkey hunters are doing wrong.

  • ** Never call without setting up first.** "In this kind of country-and everywhere else, I suppose-you've got to be set up when you call. That's half the battle. There are turkeys all over, including places you think there aren't any. Sometimes they'll gobble like crazy and won't come in. Sometimes they don't even peep and come in running."

  • **Be wary of calling too aggressively. **"I think some guys are so proud of mastering a new call, they just can't bear not to show it off. They've been watching too many videos or something. Calling turkeys in the woods ain't a bit like a cash-money calling contest. You got to remember that a turkey comin' to the hen is an unnatural act. You're trying to convince a gobbler to break the rules, since the way it works in nature is for the hens to go to the gobbler. Call just enough to keep him interested. Patience kills more turkeys than anything else."

  • ** Forget your pride: Get yourself a push-button call. **"Lotta guys won't use a push button. Call 'em sissy boxes 'cause they're so easy to use. I tell you what: Nothing makes that soft chatter sound like a push box. You can't get it on a slate. Nothing except a diaphragm moves less in your hands. And nothing coaches a bird in those last yards like a push box. If I had to limit myself to two calls, they'd be a diaphragm and the Chatterbox." Frank customizes his. First he cuts off the longer, "pull" part of the spindle, since he never uses the pull part and the call fits better in his vest without it. Second, he makes a "safety" by drilling a hole for a toothpick through the wall of the call above the cedar rectangle that slides across the knob of the striker. Then he drills a similar-size hole in the rectangle itself. He glues the short toothpick through the wall of the call. When the box is in use, the toothpick is out of the way above the rectangle. When he wants to carry the call noiselessly, he flips the cedar rectangle up off the striker and locks it in place by inserting the toothpick.

  • Take your first good shot. "Sometimes you'll have a guy set up, and he'll be watching the turkey instead of shooting. When the bird takes off, he'll say, ¿¿¿How'd he see me? I never moved a muscle!' Thing is, you don't have to move to spook 'em. You're in that bird's living room. If someone put a strange armchair in the middle of your living room, you'd know it as soon as you walked in. Same with turkeys."

The next morning, Frank and I are standing in a clearing on top of a small hill near the Cowpasture River, listening. It's now 6:55 a.m., past time for the birds to sound off. The faintest gobble wafts toward us from a distant ridge. Frank's eyes widen, and he starts breathing fast. He blows five notes on the screech-owl call and listens. The gobble comes again. "Let's get movin'," he whispers. We double-time it a half mile up a ridge, pausing to call every 100 yards. The bird hammers back. "It's two of 'em," Frank says. When he gets within 200 yards, he slows to a crawl. We move forward another 50. "Can't chance it any closer," he whispers, pointing to a tree for me to set up at. "They'd bust us sure as day if we top that little hummock."

He sets up a hen decoy and starts calling on the push box, just the faintest yelps and purrs. The two gobblers hammer back and move toward us. They hang up just over the hummock, not 25 yards away. They gobble at least once a minute for the next two hours. Frank goes through every call in his vest to no effect except more gobbling. We don't dare move. Finally, the birds drift on up the mountain.

We go to look. They've been strutting up and down the same 10-yard path for so long it looks as if someone's been at it with a hoe. We can even make out lines in the duff where their wings scuffed the forest floor. "It ain't over yet," Frank vows. He waits, then cutts and yelps on his mouth call. A gobble sounds atop the ridge and off to the right.

"We get up on top, we might bring 'em back in." We hoof it fast up to the ridge crest, an overgrown clear-cut where the going suddenly thickens. Another yelp elicits another gobble, still a ways down the ridge. We start making tracks toward the sound, hearts racing. "Ten yards up there's a clearing that's just big enough to set up in," he whispers. We're testing each footstep before committing weight to it, getting ready to close the deal.

Five yards short of our goal, a large brown shape flaps up from the ground just ahead and sails off down the mountain. An involuntary grunt escapes Frank's mouth, and he throws his cap on the ground and is about to stomp on it. But it's a new cap, a good one. He lets it live. When he finally turns around, he's grinning at me. "I shoulda known he'en he wants to carry the call noiselessly, he flips the cedar rectangle up off the striker and locks it in place by inserting the toothpick.

  • Take your first good shot. "Sometimes you'll have a guy set up, and he'll be watching the turkey instead of shooting. When the bird takes off, he'll say, ¿¿¿How'd he see me? I never moved a muscle!' Thing is, you don't have to move to spook 'em. You're in that bird's living room. If someone put a strange armchair in the middle of your living room, you'd know it as soon as you walked in. Same with turkeys."

The next morning, Frank and I are standing in a clearing on top of a small hill near the Cowpasture River, listening. It's now 6:55 a.m., past time for the birds to sound off. The faintest gobble wafts toward us from a distant ridge. Frank's eyes widen, and he starts breathing fast. He blows five notes on the screech-owl call and listens. The gobble comes again. "Let's get movin'," he whispers. We double-time it a half mile up a ridge, pausing to call every 100 yards. The bird hammers back. "It's two of 'em," Frank says. When he gets within 200 yards, he slows to a crawl. We move forward another 50. "Can't chance it any closer," he whispers, pointing to a tree for me to set up at. "They'd bust us sure as day if we top that little hummock."

He sets up a hen decoy and starts calling on the push box, just the faintest yelps and purrs. The two gobblers hammer back and move toward us. They hang up just over the hummock, not 25 yards away. They gobble at least once a minute for the next two hours. Frank goes through every call in his vest to no effect except more gobbling. We don't dare move. Finally, the birds drift on up the mountain.

We go to look. They've been strutting up and down the same 10-yard path for so long it looks as if someone's been at it with a hoe. We can even make out lines in the duff where their wings scuffed the forest floor. "It ain't over yet," Frank vows. He waits, then cutts and yelps on his mouth call. A gobble sounds atop the ridge and off to the right.

"We get up on top, we might bring 'em back in." We hoof it fast up to the ridge crest, an overgrown clear-cut where the going suddenly thickens. Another yelp elicits another gobble, still a ways down the ridge. We start making tracks toward the sound, hearts racing. "Ten yards up there's a clearing that's just big enough to set up in," he whispers. We're testing each footstep before committing weight to it, getting ready to close the deal.

Five yards short of our goal, a large brown shape flaps up from the ground just ahead and sails off down the mountain. An involuntary grunt escapes Frank's mouth, and he throws his cap on the ground and is about to stomp on it. But it's a new cap, a good one. He lets it live. When he finally turns around, he's grinning at me. "I shoulda known he'