When calling, less is better many times

Frank Piper, founder of Penns Woods Calls and one of the great gobbler hunters of our time, told me back in 1987 that “We are seeing the trend from constant gobbling down to silentsville today.”

Wow! I can’t imagine what Piper would have to say if he were here to set out on a gobbler hunt this spring. Sadly, he passed away quite a few years ago.

Until I met my buddy Joanie Haidle and began using her calls, I used Penns Woods calls almost exclusively, especially a little box call called the “Lucky clucker.” This sweetheart call was operated by one finger and produced authentic sounding clucks. I wore mine out, and today this call is mighty hard to find. If you have one tucked away in a drawer somewhere, get it out for this season.

Piper invented this call in response to what he thought was gobblers’ predilection to stop gobbling so much. He believed, as did many other hunters of that day, that the most effective call to use to persuade a reluctant gobbler to approach you was the soft, simple cluck.

I consider that really wise advice. When we face the really quiet birds today, whether it’s a gobbler that comes toward you just so far then goes quiet, or a bird that sounds off heartily from the roost then gets lockjaw when he flies off the roost, our instincts urge us to pour on the calling.

But, even back in the mid-80s, when that happened to Piper, he simply switched to offering the quiet gobbler a soft, sexy cluck or two and then waiting. The rule of thumb here might be that when the gobbler backs off, you back off.

Gobblers get quiet for specific reasons, usually. They have met up with their hens and their party is getting on. Or there is a more dominant gobbler around, and this bird is afraid of getting drubbed if he is too vocal. Or – and I believe this to be the usual reason – he has been spooked before; perhaps shot at or just spooked by preseason scouters and he is going to check things out slowly and quietly before he commits himself any further.

Piper knew about the turkeys’ penchant to go quiet when they got pushed around. “We are seeing the trend from constant gobbling when spring season began in 1968 until now, 20 years later, gobblers are very reluctant to gobble at all,” Piper told me.

“Biologists tell us turkeys have retention capabilities,” Piper said in 1987. “Turkeys get conditioned to hearing calls from the same spots, the same trails and the same sounds, the same calling sequences. After turkeys have been live-trapped and handled at a certain site, they’ll shy away from that site from then on. It’s a survival instinct. Gobblers have smartened up due to hunting pressure.

“I believe hunters make a big mistake by doing a lot of unnecessary calling in the woods. It has always been my experience that a quiet approach pays off. Any time I am working a gobbler that seems wary, I’ll call very sparingly and make him look for me.”

In the 50-plus years that I have been pursuing gobblers, I have come to subscribe to Piper’s theory. He was ahead of his time in wising up to the folly of spraying calls around the woods like machine gun bullets. When you go out into the woods before season starts and educate the gobblers to the fact that the enemy has invaded their space and is speaking their language, you are setting yourself up for difficult hunts with recalcitrant gobblers.

How many gobblers have I had to restrain myself from calling to when every fiber of my being cried out to let them hear my wonderful cackle or yelps just once more? I can’t number them, but I am today a firm believer in not overcalling, in letting a gobbler look for you. Today’s gobblers are indeed far quieter than they were 20, even 40 years ago. And the only response that seems to work consistently is a muted, understated one.

Coyotes have had a huge influence on gobbling, in my opinion. Turkeys learned long ago that to stand around shrieking their lust into the air is to invite a coyote to zero in on them.

Today’s hunters can make great clucks on box calls, wingbones, diaphragms, friction calls. Last season I bagged a six-bearded gobbler that never made one call as it approached me. Had I not seen it and another gobbler with it, coming from afar off I would never have known it was in the area for there had been little calling or gobbling all morning.

Grouse news

In April and May 2015, Lisa Williams, grouse biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, will be seeking location information for all grouse nests observed in Pennsylvania. A small number of wild-collected eggs (from just three-five nests) are needed to begin a study of Grouse and West Nile Virus.

If you’re spending time in the woods this spring, please be on the lookout for grouse nests. Whether you are working in the woods, bird watching, running your dogs, scouting for spring gobblers, trout fishing or just enjoying a day in the woods, you might find a nest. If so, please immediately report GPS location to Lisa via email (liswilliam@pa.gov).

Please do not disturb nests, and do not collect eggs. Collecting eggs is a violation of the Pennsylvania Game Code. Simply report GPS location.