Springtime isn’t all romance for wild turkeys. There’s a whole lot of violence, too. Every day, all through the season, gobblers, jakes, and even hens iron out the pecking order by chasing, flogging, and kicking the hell out of one another. When birds are grouped up, it’s rare for a half hour to pass without a scuffle, and at times the desire to fight, or at least watch a fight, can seem more intense than the desire to breed. In recent years, the best hunters have learned to turn that aggression to their advantage with confrontational calling and bold decoying tactics. You can, too. Here are a half dozen ways to make an angry bird get in your grill.
Battle Plan #1: Talk Like a Man
• Good callers spend hours trying to make their yelps sound sweeter or more seductive. But if you spend a little time also learning to sound less precious, you’ll call in a lot more toms, says five-time world calling champion Matt Morrett with decoy maker Avian-X (avian-x.com). “Jake and gobbler yelps are some of the most effective calls you can use in spring,” he says. And they’re not difficult to produce.
“Male turkey yelps are just deeper and slower in cadence,” Morrett says. On a slate call, you move the peg toward the middle of the pot, where the tone is lower, and scratch out six or seven notes at three-quarters to half the speed of typical hen yelps. Most box calls have a higher and a lower side; just use the lower side. On a mouth call, simply go lower and slower.
“I usually try to sound like a subdominant male or jake,” Morrett says. “When a jake is running around with a boss gobbler, he doesn’t want to make too much noise, so he’ll use a two-note yelp. Southern hunters call this jake calking. That’s one of my favorite calls.” You can also throw in a jake or gobbler cluck. “This is a deep, one-note call. A friend of mine says it sounds like an acorn falling from a tree and hitting a hollow log.”
Morrett likes to throw in jake yelps anytime he’s working a tom. “It gives that gobbler more reasons to come in, out of jealousy or rivalry.” He cranks up or tones down the guy talk depending on the situation. “If a tom hangs up or begins to fade off, I’ll hammer him with jake or gobbler yelps. But if he’s coming and just needs a little more convincing, I’ll wait for him to gobble, then I’ll hit him with that two-note jake yelp. It’s poison.”—D.H.
Battle Plan #2: Rob the Roost
• One of the surest ways to make a gobbler mad is to steal his hens first thing in the morning, says Doug Herman, a national champion caller and co-owner of Cottonwood Hunting Lodge (cottonwoodhuntinglodge.com) in Woodlake, Neb. “If I’ve got a tom roosted with hens,” he says, “one of my favorite tactics is to slip in right under his tree and stake out a half-strut jake decoy.”
In Nebraska, birds tend to roost in treelines or small groves of cottonwoods surrounded by open prairie or ag fields. So how does Herman approach the roost without getting busted? “I usually walk right in the open. The key is that you have to get there at least 40 minutes before the birds wake up”—which usually means at least an hour before first light. Herman stakes the jake decoy in the open just 20 yards from the roost, then sets up in the treeline. “I get so tight to those turkeys that I can hear their poop hitting the ground,” he says. Then he waits. “I don’t call. If these birds see a turkey in the field, but hear calling coming from somewhere else, they’re gone.”
When the hens fly down, they’ll go straight to the jake decoy, Herman says. “The females are always curious, and go as a group to check out the newcomer. And when they do, that tom will be on his way.”
Herman’s daughter Gracie—a junior national calling champ—killed a tom this way last spring. “The bird saw us staking the decoy and putted on the limb,” he says. But it was early, and the tom eventually calmed down and gobbled again. At first light, he flew down 40 yards to their right. “But then those hens dropped down and went straight to the jake, and there was no way he was going to put up with that. Gracie shot him at 6 yards.” —D.H.
FIGHTING MOVE: Head Him Off
Of course the fan on a strutter or half-strut decoy catches a gobbler’s eye, but so does the red-and-white head (same goes with the head of a non-strutting jake decoy). That’s why I position those decoys so that incoming toms will get a full-profile view, clearly showing off both the head and the fan. Once in the spread, gobblers will usually challenge the decoy head-on, and so that’s where I plan for my shot, especially if I’m bowhunting. —W.B.
Battle Plan #3: Fan the Flames
• Fanning is often lumped in with reaping. Though you can certainly sneak up on a field bird behind a fan, it works for subtler situations as well. I like to show a fan to turkeys that are hung up and probably not coming in otherwise. I simply hold the fan up, move it a little while calling, and then lower it.
Last season, during a youth hunt, two live hens did the fanning for me. We had a gobbler hung up on the next ridge over that I’d called to for a half hour. The hens came to the noise and saw my single hen decoy. At first the gobbler just stood and strutted—but then the hens blew up into full strut themselves (yes, hens will strut). Upon seeing those little fans, the gobbler suddenly ran the 80 yards right to us and got shot in the head for his trouble. —W.B.
Battle Plan #4: Play the Fight Song
• The fighting purr is a loud, rolling, aggressive purr, made by two or more turkeys at once during a fight. If there are other turkeys nearby when the purring begins, they’ll usually swarm to the scene. In winter, I have heard live turkeys carry on for 10 minutes or more, but usually, both the fight and the fighting sounds are over in about a minute. A single caller can replicate the sound with a pair of push-pull-style box calls, like the classic Knight & Hale Fighting Purr system. But it sounds even better with two callers making noise.
Realtree’s Tyler Jordan has used fighting purrs as his secret weapon on tough Georgia and Alabama gobblers during the past few springs.
“It’s my go-to call when a turkey is hung up just out of gun range,” he says. “I like to use a slate call, but some guys can make the sound on a mouth call. I’ll make it for 30 or 40 seconds at a time—but it often doesn’t take that long. I’ve watched gobblers come to it immediately. I’ve seen it work more than fail, but I have seen it spook birds, too. So I always use it as a last-ditch thing, like when a turkey can see my decoys but isn’t strutting or coming to them.”
Jordan recalls a bird that he and his dad struck one midmorning a few springs ago. “We knew he was in one of our food plots, and we decided to sneak in and set up on him. I was holding a Thunder Chicken decoy in front of me as we snuck down a logging road to get into place. I hadn’t planned on him seeing me, but as we were searching for good trees, I glanced up and he was standing there looking right at me. He dropped strut, and I sat down in the road with the decoy in front of me. I thought we’d blown it for sure.”
Bill Jordan was tucked into the brush 20 yards behind Tyler, and he immediately began fight-purring on a slate. Tyler staked the decoy and joined in with his own slate call. The gobbler came running. “He never checked up. Dad kept purring all the way until I pulled the trigger,” Jordan says. “The gobbler was just 10 steps away.” —W.B.
FIGHTING MOVE: Strike Early
Although full-strut gobbler decoys can work during any phase of spring, the early season is definitely the best. Winter flocks are busting up in most places, and a high concentration of 2-year-old birds are eager to mix it up at first. They’re usually more mouth than muscle, though; later in the year, after a few whippings, they can turn more timid (at least, those that haven’t already become turkey dinner centerpieces). Until then, these youngsters with bad attitudes are the easiest toms to goad into a fight. —W.B.
Battle Plan #5: Pick a Chick Fight
• A clear morning broke without our hearing a gobble on the final day of last season. My wife and I were sitting over a food plot with a single hen decoy staked in front of us. I made a few loud yelps, and a hen on the limb immediately answered from 60 yards behind us. For the next 15 minutes, she interrupted my every yelp with ever more aggressive yelping of her own. Finally, she sailed over the plot and hooked around to land by the decoy. I kept yelping, and she kept answering as she circled the fake, getting madder by the minute. Before long, we watched another turkey step into the other end of the plot. “Longbeard!” Michelle whispered.
Sure enough, a tom was coming right to us—from across the road. He walked to within 20 yards without ever making a sound. Unfortunately, he caught Michelle slightly out of position and she missed. Still, it reinforced one of the few rules of turkey calling that I follow 100 percent of the time. When a hen answers me, I mock her immediately. The more she calls, the louder and more obnoxiously I answer. Eventually, she’ll come in for a fight. There is no deadlier sound in the woods than two hens screaming at each other. I’ve literally seen it pull a gobbler across a blacktop road. —W.B.
Battle Plan #6: Reap Turkeys Like a Pro
• Last spring, I hunted with Jeremy “The Turkey Reaper” McCarty, the man who has made reaping an everyday term and a go-to tactic among hardcore open-country hunters. The basic technique is simple, and the quintessential angry-bird play. First, you spot a tom (or toms) in the open. Then you hide behind a full-strut gobbler decoy and charge right at him. When it works, he charges right back.
How well it works, however, depends on some subtleties. I asked McCarty to share his secrets for getting a fired-up gobbler to bum-rush you.
• Pick a Fighter: First you need to identify the right birds to reap, says McCarty. Here’s how he ranks them, in descending order, starting with the toms most apt to come a-running:  Multiple strutters with hens.  Multiple strutters without hens.  Single strutter with hens.  Single strutter without hens.  Multiple non-strutters.  Lone non-strutter.
• Get the Angle: Don’t rush a reap, McCarty says. Watch the turkeys for a bit to figure out what they are doing. “If they’re hanging in one spot, great. Move in. But if the hens are pulling the toms in a particular direction, swing out in front and get the angle before you move in. And always approach from over the crest of a hill if you can.”
• Bring Your Calls: “Some people won’t try reaping because they think it doesn’t involve calling,” says McCarty. “I actually call a lot.” He hen-calls to locate birds; he gobbles and cutts to get toms to initially see and stay focused on the decoy; he’ll even call toms out of the timber so he can reap them in the open.
• Be Real: The more real feathers you put on your decoy, the better. That starts with replacing the fabric fan that comes with most decoys with a real dried fan. But McCarty takes it a step further. “I also skin out and dry a piece from the back of a tom’s cape. Then I poke a hole in the leathery skin and use a zip tie to hang it off the chest of my decoy. It really catches a gobbler’s eye.”
• Make Him Mad: If you just want to reap a gobbler, move toward him with the decoy until he breaks and nears shotgun range; then stop and get ready to shoot. But if you want to see what it’s like to have an enraged gobbler right in your face, keep going. “Basically, the harder you charge a tom, the harder he’ll come back at you,” McCarty explains. “For the ultimate reap, go at him until either you’re 5 yards away or he attacks you—or both.” —D.H.
FIGHTING MOVE: Gobble Late
“I gobble a lot,” says Will Primos, founder of Primos Hunting (primos.com). “As long as you know it’ s safe, you should try it.” Especially in the afternoon, he explains. “In the morning, toms are extra wary and focused on hens. But after they’ve been strutting around all day, maybe had and lost a few hens, and all of a sudden another gobbler shows up, they’re ready to go.” This is doubly true if you set up on the bird’s home turf—in a favorite strutting area in the afternoon, or near his roost before fly-up. —D.H.