The first time I ever tried to use a diaphragm call, I gagged and spit it out. It was an involuntary reflex that triggered flashbacks to memories of my early years of Pee Wee football and my first attempt at putting a mouthpiece in. Once that reflex passed, the sound I mustered up then was equally as awful at what came out of that turkey call now.
For almost a decade before my first turkey hunt, my life revolved around deer hunting. I had my own ways of getting myself within range of an animal and not once had that ever required picking up a call which required skill and practice. I rarely even picked up a grunt tube. There was no encouragement for me in making noise, and there certainly wasn’t any good reason I could think of in making a sound that gave away my hiding spot.
My friends were no help either. The self-proclaimed “turkey gurus” couldn’t even point me in a specific direction for a good first call to use. All they would tell me was, “Get a slate!” But when I went to buy a slate, I found so many different kinds on the shelf it could’ve made Albert Einstein’s head spin. Some were actually made with slate, that was expected, but these ones over here were made of glass? This wall over there has some made out of aluminum? What’s the difference?! No one could really tell me much about them except that slates are supposedly the easiest to learn, and glass and aluminum keep working in wet conditions. When I cracked a joke about all these “die-hard” turkey guys not knowing much about calls they would say, “I just use a couple different cuts of mouth calls.” Well, that hasn’t worked out for me yet.
New Jersey’s season was getting closer but I wasn’t any closer to calling a turkey into gun range. I made the decision to go back into the sport shop and find me a darn good call. Looking through the prices, some were as cheap as 15 bucks, others as expensive as you can dream up. I looked around for one that wasn’t so cheap that it looked cheap, but also wasn’t very expensive because there was no way of knowing if I’d even like it. After letting my eyes wander around for a bit, they came to rest on a plastic bag with a label proudly announcing “Uncle Dickies Yelpers” with a handmade slate inside. This one was made just up the road and didn’t look like one of those factory-made calls. For 30 bucks, I figured, I’d give it a go.
When I got home and tried it, I almost couldn’t believe it – I actually liked it! I wasn’t good on my first attempts, but I figured I could build on it. And heck, from the start it sounded something like a turkey.
Finding turkeys on my own for the first time was a matter of blind luck. Driving home from work one March day I passed a set of cut cornfields and almost drove off the road looking at all the turkeys that were scratching them up! Some jakes, some hens, and plenty of big, long-bearded, beautiful gobblers. The best part of the entire place was the State Park signs that lined its boundaries. I could hunt there, and come hell or high water, a bird was going to go down there, too.
For weeks after that my mind dissected every inch of those fields. These birds were so close to the road there had be other hunters here after them, right? If I could beat the hunters, I could beat the birds.
Opening morning arrived and I jumped out of bed with an ease and excitement I hadn’t had since I was a young kid. And I beat the other hunters. There was no one as far as the eye could see. The hedgerow my eyes had scoured over and over on my drive to work was bigger once standing there. The birds seemed to favor one corner, a dip in the field that hid them from the onlooking eyes traveling the road. I looked for a big tree with natural cover, and there it was! Then came placing my decoy – not so close that a smart tom would look at it and see me, but not so far that if one circled to check it out he’d be out of range. The stage had been set.
As dawn broke the unnerving realization came over me – no gobbles. I couldn’t hear anything actually, except the sound of the freeway. Even if my calling was good, nothing would hear it. It was cold, I was cold, but the sun was just starting to rise. Leaning my back against the tree, looking up into the golden rays of the gray sky, I saw something flying. A turkey! A hen had just flown off her roost and glided into the other side of the cornfield.
At about that time came the muffled sound of a shot. Did the toms go to another field? Was that shot the end of my hunt? My past experiences wouldn’t allow me to believe it. I’d heard many close shots from a deer stand and still killed many deer afterwards.
Not a moment after that thought, in true morning thunder style, a gobble erupted not 10 yards behind me. My heart jumped out of my chest. The bird was on the other side of the hedgerow!
I was frozen. One wrong movement and my hunt was over. I saw his red head out of the corner of my eye. He saw the decoy. Two more steps, and one 20 yard snap-shot later it was over. He was mine.
The best advice ever given to me about turkey hunting was, “Woodsmanship will kill far more birds than being a good caller.” This was the first turkey I had killed on my own. And it was done without ever touching a call.