Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978




OZARK TURKEY TALK

Story and photography by Doug Sharp


The predawn light silhouetted the far bluff. Crickets chirped, meadowlarks called and in the distance a lone owl hooted to its mate. It was a lovely April morning about fifty-eight degrees with hardly any wind. We, along with John Earl Kays on the Gasconade River near Falcon, Missouri, were attempting to call up a gobbler to photograph during the turkey mating season. We stood rigidly by John Earl's truck listening for a far off bird to gobble just before he flew off his roost.

John Earl had told us that it is usually better to let the turkeys gobble first rather than to try to make them answer our call. We listened carefully, watching the Sky lighting up behind the hill. Suddenly there was a far off sound, probably half a mile away, that sounded something like a turkey, or at least I thought it did. John Earl said, "There's one, but he's across the river." And with that he carefully raised his turkey call against his stomach, making a cup with his hand and skillfully stroked the top part of the call across the lower slate to imitate the call of the hen. "K-e-l-p, kelp, kelp, kelp." A slight pause. "Putt, putt, putt, putt." And then from everywhere on the distant bluff came the coarse call, "Gobble-obble-obble."

"There must be fifteen of them," whispered John Earl. Full of excitement we waited to see what he would do next. We knew nothing about turkey hunting, but John Earl was an old veteran at it, having hunted for many years.

"We better try to get as close as we can before they fly off their roost," he told us. As we followed behind him in single file, I noticed how silently he could walk through the woods. The rest of us stepping on sticks, dry leaves and loose rocks sounded like a squadron of tanks. He stopped, "A turkey has such good hearing that it can hear your pants legs brush together at a hudred yards." After that we tried to walk quieter.

We followed John Earl, weaving in between trees and bushes, stopping periodically to listen and call to the turkeys. He said, "If you don't keep the gobbler interested with your call he'll just walk away." We had walked within three hundred yards of the turkeys when John Earl motioned to us to sit down. As it became lighter, I could see that we had stopped about fifteen feet from the edge of the river. There was brush and scattered trees all around us. Across the river on the bank were thick cedar trees that blocked our vision of a field and hill behind it.

Although John Earl kept calling to the group of turkeys, trying to bring them in closer, it seemed to be in vain.

gobblers would answer, but they never seemed to move any closer. After about ten or fifteen minutes of it, I began to wonder if they ever would.

Then suddenly the turkeys quit answering John Earl's call. I didn't know what had happened. I had become used to hearing the loud booming gobble of the turkeys, and now there was an almost eerie silence. John Earl continued calling, but not as loudly nor as frequently as before. Not knowing whether to sit still and continue watching for the turkeys, or to get up and stretch my aching legs which felt as if they were going to fall off, I slowly turned my head to see what John Earl was doing. He was sitting against a tall white oak tree, holding up seven fingers and pointing to the field across the river. Realizing what he was saying, I carefully turned my head back around and stared at the field trying to pick out the shape of a turkey. But for the life of me, I couldn't see anything. All I could see was just a few feet into the field, for though it was light now, the trees blocked my view.

Suddenly I saw something move. Again it moved, and as I looked closer, I could see a large gobbler strutting around at the edge of the field. He was a monster.

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His beard had to be at least a foot long and two inches thick. I mean, it looked like a horse's tail sticking out of his chest. His head was cocked back against his large fluffed back feathers. He strutted with all the magnetism and authority of the King of England. Behind him were three other gobblers and three hens, but compared to him all their strutting and gobbling seemed juvenile.

In my excitement I almost forgot why I was there. I slowly raised my camera, checking the light meter as quietly and as quickly as I could, for I knew that it wouldn't be long before the turkeys saw us. I brought the gobbler into focus through the thick fog and "click," he was mine.

THE WILD TURKEY

The American wild turkey with its great chestnut tail, black and white wing feathers, copper body tinted with greens, gold and a slight touch of red, makes it truly the king of all birds.

The male turkey is called the gobbler, or tom turkey. Being usually between fifteen and twenty pounds, it is considerably larger and heavier than the hen which usually weighs between six and twelve pounds. The head of a gobbler is larger than that of a hen, with less feathers varying in color from shades of white, blue and red. During mating season the head of a gobbler is most often a pale blue with a white crown. The wattle, the large section of loose skin on the neck of the gobbler, is much larger than that of a hen. The gobbler also has spurs on the back of his legs which are quite long. All these differences help distinguish a gobbler from the hen, but the best sign is almost always the beard--a large tuft of coarse hair that hangs abruptly out of his chest. Though some hens do have beards, about one out of a hundred, they are not as distinctive nor as long as a gobbler's, which grows anywhere from three to twelve inches in length.

Turkeys have a wide range of calls with each call having a different meaning. The putt and kelp of the hen are mating calls and used only in the spring. The cluck is a familiarity call. The putt is a warning or danger signal. The purr and whine are used to get the flock together. The kee kee is the call of young turkeys when they are lost.

The senses of the wild turkey are extremely keen, especially its hearing and seeing which are almost unbelievable. It is nearly impossible to describe how accurate their senses are unless you have hunted the wild turkey. Then your own experience convinces you of all the stories about a turkey's perception. When calling in the gobbler you might move your head slightly to one side to get a better view of the bird, but what you will see is him flying away warned by your almost imperceptible movement. You learn not to underestimate his hearing when he is within fifty yards. Since at this range it is time to get your shotgun ready, you so carefully pull back the hammer which gives an ever so faint "click." In a flash your gobbler is gone.

Combining these two keen senses with the bird's great flying ability makes it seem almost futile to try to entice one within shotgun range with a tiny call. Nevertheless thousands of hunters succeed every year, matching their wits against their prize bird.

The mating season of the turkey is usually in April. Wild turkeys are polygamists, with each gobbler having two or three hens under his observation. By the middle of April most of the hens have mated and are laying or incubating their eggs. Hens lay between nine and eighteen eggs with the average being about eleven. Eggs are a warm yellowish white, dotted over the entire surface by reddish brown. Hens hide their nests in tall dense weeds or tangled thickets to prevent not only foxes and other predators from finding them, but also the gobblers. If a gobbler were to find a nest, he would smash all the eggs.

Barely discernible in the brush and mist, a large gobbler in full strut came to the call one cool April morning.  (by Stephen Ludwig)

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There are very few feathers on the gobbler's head. They vary in shades of white, blue and red. A section of loose skin directly below the head is called a wattle. Its beard, (below) from three to twelve inches, protrudes from his chest.

A gobbler's wing feathers are black and white. The dark body feathers are tinted with greens, golds and reds. Its feet are quite large with longer spurs than the female. (both by Stephen Ludwig)

Incubation takes approximately four Weeks. For the next three weeks after hatching, young turkeys are easy prey for most predators, especially foxes, coyotes, bobcats and the great horned owl. The only defense the chicks have is their ability to hide. At about four weeks of age the young birds can fly short distances and soon begin roosting with the other turkeys in trees. After they begin flying, the young turkeys are fairly safe from all predators, except man.

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Young turkeys depend largely upon insects for food, but as they get older, they begin eating the normal diet of adult turkeys--acorns, dogwood berries, wild cherries and grapes.

After mating season is over, turkeys group together for the rest of the year in large flocks of ten to forty birds. They feed and roost together for protection until the next year's mating season when again they will break up into small groups of four or five to begin the cycle anew.

STOCKING TURKEYS IN MISSOURI

In the early 1800's Missouri was a forested region which had in abundance a variety of wildlife, including turkeys. As the years went by more and more timber products were needed for agricultural and industrial needs alike. In fact, fifty percent of Missouri's 31 million acres of virgin forest were cleared out. As the forest diminished, so did the population of the wild turkeys and other species. By 1935 turkeys were in only forty-five of Missouri's 114 counties, and by 1942 there were only 4,000 birds in thirty-one of Missouri's counties. But the reduction of timber was not the only reason for the setback of the turkeys. Since no hunting season existed, turkeys were hunted year round with young turkeys being killed before they had a chance to reproduce. As more hunting pressure was put on the turkeys, the birds went deeper and deeper in the forest. When the forests became scarce and provided less cover, the turkeys were easier to kill.

By 1952 the wild turkey population reached its lowest point ever. There were less than 2,500 birds left in Missouri, and these in the most inaccessible regions of the Ozarks. Turkeys had diminished by more than eighty-three percent from their original total in less than a 100 years.

It soon became obvious that something had to be done to try and restore the turkey population. The hunting season was closed and in 1925 the Missouri Conservation Comission began restocking game refuges and selected farms with game farm birds purchased from Pennsylvania. Most of these birds were bought at a young age, raised to ten to twelve weeks, and then released in areas known for their wild turkey population. This proved to be a very expensive failure. From 1925 to 1944 at a cost of $100,000, 14,B21 turkeys had been released on forty-four different game farm refuges, without increasing the population. It soon became obvious that this procedure was not the answer. In 1945 emphasis switched from stocking semi-domestic turkeys to catching native birds in populated areas and moving them to new locations. This program had a slow start since at first all the turkeys had to be caught in live deer traps. This did not work very well because only one could be caught in these traps at a time. In 1957, the conservationists began using the cannon trap to capture the turkeys. The trap consisted of a piece of thirty by fifty foot mesh net that was shot from cannons over a block of wild turkeys that were feeding on bait. The bait used was usually unthreshed oat straw and shell corn.This method worked well, rarely hurting a turkey. The catch was usually three or four birds with the most being twenty-eight. Trapping was usually done between October and March because the cool weather minimized loss of birds during transport.

A wild hen turkey came to my call one beautiful spring morning as I was calling in a gobbler. Hens often remain around a gobbler then investigate the mating call of another hen when the gobbler moves toward it.

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After catching the turkeys, workers carefully recorded the age, sex and weight of each. Then birds were banded with both leg and wing bands before being placed in individual crates. All the individual crates were especially built for hauling turkeys. The interior of the crates were lined with smooth masonite and covered with foam padding on the top and mesh wire on the bottom, leaving very little room to move about. Ail this precaution almost insured against any harm to the turkey. The turkeys were transported in these crates to lowly populated areas where they would have plenty of cover and food.

This method of trapping wild turkeys was extended to private, federal and state lands. The turkey population increased enough that in 1960, more than a quarter of a century after the season had been closed, the hunting season of the wild turkey was reopened in a few areas. By the spring of 1970, 1,421 birds had been restocked in Missouri. The restocking has been so successful that it is estimated that the program will be stopped in the next two to three years, since the population is able to replenish itself.

The average cost to trap, band, transport and release each turkey is about $300. Total restoration cost of the project when completed will be about $420,000. Although this was expensive, the revenue from the sale of permits has more than paid for the restocking program. The revenue in 1977 alone was $309,940.50. But even if hunting license funds did not pay for the restoration, who could say what the joy of watching a truly wild and majestic bird in its natural habitat is worth?

In nature there must be a balance in all things, especially the number of predators to the amount of game. If this balance is upset, as the balance between the hunter and the turkey in the early part of the twentieth century, one side is going to suffer. When the number of hunters increased with no limitations on their hunting and the amount of cover decreased, the turkey population soon diminished. But after the turkey population was restored and proper limits set, there is a need for the hunter as he plays a very important role in the total ecological scheme. He is needed to keep the turkey population at a desired number so that there is no danger of over-populating the habitat, thus causing the wild turkey to become a nuisance rather than an asset. Every spring right after the turkey's mating season, the spring turkey hunting season opens. At present the season, restricted to certain areas, is only two weeks long and each hunter is allowed only one bird a week. Huntress are allowed to kill only the gobblers and not the hens, as the hens are usually either laying or incubating their eggs. Quotas and other restrictions are changed yearly depending on the population so that the hunters harvest only the surplus of gobblers.

MISSOURI TURKEY HARVEST
 Year No. of  Turkeys Bagged  No. of  Hunters Percent Hunting  Success  Days No. of Counties Opened
1960 94 698 12 3 14
1964 369 2,961 12 4 22
1967 1,191 6,702 17 7 32
1971 2,864 12,313 22 11 45
1974 5,286 25,354 19 13 67
1975 5,583 27,383 19 14 74
1977 9,966 - - 14 86

The Missouri Conservation Commission keeps records for the purpose of maintaining a proper balance of wild turkeys in their natural environment. This is necessary for preserving wild turkeys for future generations.

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HUNTING THE WILD TURKEY

In hunting the wild turkey you must never underestimate the extraordinary sight and hearing of the bird. Many old-time hunters say that a turkey can see you blink your eye at a hundred yards.

The best way to overcome the turkey's excellent sight is by camouflage which breaks up your outline so you blend into the foliage. Camouflaging can be achieved in many different ways. Perhaps the best is a camouflage suit consisting of a pair of pants, shirt and a hat, if desired, all dyed different shades of green. For the face you can use either a camouflage head netting or a black face paint or cream that can be washed off with soap and water. A pair of black jersey gloves are very good to cover the hands. Also there is camouflage tape for your shotgun if it has any parts that might reflect light.

If a camouflage suit is not available, a camouflage shirt made of netting is fine. Since a certain amount of light goes through the netting, wear a dark shirt underneath it.

Once you have the camouflaging so the turkey doesn't see you, the next thing you need is your gun. Missouri turkey laws state that only a shotgun may be used, not a rifle, even though a rifle is permitted in several other states. This is because the chance of missing or only wounding your turkey with a shotgun is considerably less.

Most hunters use the .12 gauge shotgun for hunting turkeys, but many use the more powerful .10 gauge. The shotgun should have a fairly long barrel--30 to 34 inches--or a barrel with a full choke on it. The main purpose of the longer barrel is to put as many shots as possible in the smallest area.

Shell type and sizes vary to suit the hunters' preference. Depending on the shotgun, hunters can choose from 2-3/4 inch regular shells, 2-3/4 inch magnum or 3 inch magnum. The magnum shells contain a greater amount of powder and shot than regular shells.

Once you have the camouflage, shotgun and shells, the only thing left is the call. Calls are designed to imitate the hen turkey during mating season. When a gobbler hears these calls, he will go to the hen, or at least this is what the hunter hopes will happen. The hunter goes into turkey country, conceals himself and begins calling to a gobbler, hopefully enticing him within shotgun range.

There are too many different types of turkey calls to mention, so only the three major types of calls commonly used in the Ozark region will be described.

BOX CALLS -- Probably the easiest call for beginners to learn to use is the box call. It consists of a wooden rectangular box with no top. The thin inside edges of the two long sides are sloped outward. The lid of the box call has a handle at the opposite end that is hinged at one end. Two rubber bands go over the center of the lid, which are fastened on the side of the box. This enables the lid to swing freely from side to side yet making it always stop in the center of the box.

The box calls are pre-tuned at the factory so that a long stroke of the handle across the top of the box gives the "yelp" while a shorter stroke produces a "cluck." Many variations of these two calls can be made on the box, along with the "gobble" of a tom, but the "putt" of the hen is very hard to make, due to the design of the box call. A soft chalk should be rubbed on the edge of the box before each series of calls.

The box call is a very effective call that is easily mastered. Several calls can be made with it including the "gobble" of the male turkey.

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The main limitation of the box call is that it is large and awkward to carry, sometimes squeaking in your pocket as you walk. They are also not as effective a call at close range as they have greater volume than most calls. Its major advantage is that it gives a good clear call which is easy for the beginner to learn.

SLATE CALLS -- Slate calls are fairly small, about half the size of a box call. Almost all slate calls are in two parts--the slate, or a hollow sound box with slate on top, and the peg, usually a rounded piece of wood. The slate is roughened with fine sandpaper before each series of calls. The big advantage of the slate call is that it is compact and can produce very low and soft calls, both clucks and yelps.

The slate call is fairly easy to learn. To make the yelp of the hen, the peg is rubbed slowly across the top of the slate, followed by several shorter ones. The "cluck" or "putt" is made by pushing the peg against the slate top and letting it jump over a slight bit. Make only one putt at a time with each one clear and separate from the next.

John Earl Kays has two home-made calls that are take-offs from the slate call. One is made from a piece of wood and an old whet rock. The block of wood has a one inch hole drilled through its length and three holes drilled side by side on one side that run into the first hole. On the same side of the block that has the three holes, there is a large eye screw sticking out about one half inch. The whet rock has been smoothed on one side and has two ruts in it, which the many years of calling on it have made.

A highly effective turkey call that John Earl Kays uses is made from a whet rock, a drilled piece of wood and an eye screw.

John Earl holds the whet rock in a box-like manner against his stomach with his left handy and gently strokes the metal peg across it with his right. This action makes an extremely loud "yelp," while a short stroke produces a "putt." The holes drilled in the wood block help amplify the calls. The tone of the calls can be changed with the angle of the wood block as it is stroked on the whet rock, and the loudness can be lessened by not applying as much pressure and speed to the stroke. John Earl says that it is an extremely good call as is evident from the notches on the wood block for each turkey he has claimed with it.

The other call that John Earl used, also handed down in his family, is made from a piece of walnut and an ordinary limestone river rock. The walnut has been dished out to the shape of a bowl. Then on the other side an old blacksmith's nail has been driven through it. This serves as the peg to rub the rock with.

John Earl holds the limestone rock in his hand forming a cup against his stomach. He holds the walnut cup with the other hand with all four fingers on top of the opening. By just moving his fingers farther apart or closer together he can raise or lower the tone of the call, as it is stroked across the limestone. This call gives a very clear "yelp" and an extremely soft "putt."

A variation of the homemade slate call is made from a piece of dished out walnut, a blacksmith nail and a limestone river rock.

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DIAPHRAGM CALL -- The diaphragm call is the newest of turkey calls. It consists of a small horseshoe shaped metal disc with a thin rubber vibrator in the center. It fits in the roof of the caller's mouth with the open end forward. The "yelp" is made by pressing the back part of the tongue against the back portion of the call and the tip of the tongue against the teeth, then by blowing air from deep in the chest over the vibrator.

An expert using this call can make extremely realistic calls. The diaphragm call offers many important advantages. First you can call without body movement. This advantage along with its ability to make soft calls is a great help when the gobbler is close. It also leaves your hands free to keep your gun in a ready position. But the call also has some disadvantages. It is not capable of loud calls which are often necessary to locate birds. It is also very difficult for the beginner to master.

With your equipment ready you need to be in the area of woods you intend to hunt at least a half hour before first light. At this time there is a lot less chance of disturbing the roosting turkeys than later when they begin to move. Choose an area to wait in that is fairly open and offers a good view and sit against a fairly large tree. This tree serves two important purposes--first to break up your body's outline and second to have something to lean against. Leaning against the tree rests your back and legs and enables you to sit quietly for long periods of time. It is also a good idea to brush the leaves away from the spot where you are going to sit, thus preventing a lot of noise from rustling leaves later on. Sit down in as comfortable position as possible with your shotgun lying across your lap and your call in your hand. Sit quietly, moving as little as possible, listening all the time for the first gobble of the roosting turkeys. When at last you do hear a gobbler, don't be surprised whether it sounds like he is right on top of you or a long way away. If it is close, sit quietly, try not to get excited and remember to try and make that first call to the gobbler as well as you can. It will be all you can do to keep that big tom interested in your call and then to make him come to it.

Shown above are two of the many variations of the popular slate calls on the market today. Slate calls consist of a piece of slate fastened to a sound box, and a peg.

The diaphragm call is the newest and one of the most realistic calls today. It is placed in the roof of the mouth.

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If the gobbler is a long way away, call to him, get him interested. Then get up and go closer to him, walking as carefully as possible, not brushing limbs or walking through open areas where he could see you. Call ever so often to keep him interested. Above all, keep him answering your call. When you have gotten as close as you can without him seeing you--about one hundred and fifty to two hundred yards--sit down again against a tree, or behind a fallen stump, making sure you have a wide, clear view of the surrounding area. Also if your turkey sounds as if he is on a ridge, you'll have to circle him to get on the same level because a gobbler is very reluctant to walk up a hill.

Continue calling to your gobbler, trying to bring him in closer with every call. Many times a turkey will lose interest in your call, or a hen will come to your gobbler while you are trying to get him to come to you. In the turkey's mating season the hen goes to the gobbler, not the other way around. This practice makes it doubly hard to call a gobbler in because that gobbler is used to having the hen come to him, not him having to go to her.

When the gobbler is in to within about forty yards you need to be very careful not to do anything to alarm him, because at that distance the gobbler is able to see and hear everything that either moves or makes a sound. Having the gobbler within thirty yards is close enough to make a clean kill. Watch his every move, and when he looks the other way, or goes behind a tree or bush or turns around during his strutting routine, raise your shotgun to your shoulder and flip off the safety. When the gobbler moves into a clear area where no limbs will slow down the shot, take careful aim right at his head. Make sure it is going to be a clean shot. Then when everything is just right, squeeze the trigger. Hopefully the turkey will drop. The second he does get to him as quickly as you can to make sure he is dead because a lot of times the shot may just stun him. He may recover and run away and all of your trouble might just have been in vain.

But if he is dead, and if he is as big as he looked in your dreams, all the many hours of practice and preparation have paid off in getting your "prize gobbler."

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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