What does the shock gobble mean and how do we use it in hunting?
I started hunting when I was about 13 years old. I can’t readily recall the first squirrel hunt I was successful on. I don’t remember the first time I popped a dove on the wing with a 20-gauge to my shoulder. I can’t look back at the time I hung my first solo tree-stand or the time I found my first shed antler. However, I can recall vividly two memories that have defined my pursuits in the woods: the first buck I ever shot, and the first time I heard the thunderous gobble of a wild turkey.
The first time I heard the thunder of a longbeard, it wasn’t a warm scenic spring morning in May. It wasn’t a booming gobble in the classic predawn tranquility of early April. It was on a cold evening in late February, with a few inches of crunchy old snow on the ground. It was almost dark and I had just turned 20 years old about a month prior. Turkey sightings were still relatively uncommon in my neck of the woods in 1999.
I’d been shed hunting most of the afternoon in some hilly terrain behind my best friend’s house when I accidentally ran into the first flock of wild turkeys I’d ever seen in my home state of Illinois. I was dumbfounded. I watched those birds pick about on an oak ridge on the fading edge of daylight, their black bodies contrasting heavily with the snow. I saw them fly up to their roost without much fanfare, maybe 10 or so birds in their modest winter flock. I stepped out of my hiding spot to hurry home to tell everyone what I’d seen.
At the edge of the field, near an old abandoned cattle lot not far away, a lone coyote greeted the coming night with a raspy shrillness that only those critters can manage. It was at this moment that one of those turkeys I had been spying on sounded off with a short throaty gobble. Excited, I knew I’d heard a gobbler talking in the wild but I really had no clue about birds. I was a deer hunter. I didn’t understand then, but the first gobble vocalization I heard with my own two ears was a shock gobble.
There seem to be a great number of theories on why a tom will shock gobble. One theory is that he will sound off to the vocals of a crow, barred owl, or coyote because they are natural enemies. Though true, this argument seems to hold little water considering a gobbler will sometimes shock gobble to whistling wood ducks and honking Canada geese. Or honking car horns. And why would a prey animal give away his location to a known enemy?
I feel like there is a social component to the likelihood of eliciting a shock gobble from a mature longbeard. Case in point: ever try to go out in early fall or late summer and try to shock a bird? Try the same trick in mid-April during peak breeding season and it seems much easier to get a response. There may also be a sexual component to the shock gobble response. As his testosterone begins to rise with breeding season, a tom may “automatically” gobble loud enough as a pre-programmed sexual response displaying the dominance to breed and his worthiness to his mates nearby.
In the same token, have you ever seen two mature gobblers vocalize instantly and simultaneously to the same noise stimulus? How can that be? The answer may lie in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) of both birds. The ANS is responsible for the control of “automatic” bodily processes like heart and respiratory rates, digestion and “fight or flight” reflexes. These are processes that require no conscious thought. In the tom’s world, sexual arousal is also on this list as a branch of the ANS called the parasympathetic nervous system. This may help explain the apparent “reflex” gobble when two mature gobblers vocalize at the same sound stimuli at the same time.
My brother, Matt, had an interesting take on the shock gobble. He said, “Have you ever been nervous or on edge and someone scares the crap out of you as a prank? Sometimes you just yell out in a frightened response. Then you cuss ’em.” This is a good point and in fact may be true. Spring gobblers are on edge and are super “breedy.” Ready to show their world of hens how macho they are as possible suitors and maybe a loud prevalent sound brings forth an almost automatic response gobble.
Over my last 20 years of observing turkeys, I’ve encountered a vast variety of sounds and noises at which a longbeard will shock gobble in response. I’ve used the classic calls like a barred owl, crow and coyote howler with varying levels of success. Likewise, goose flutes, wood duck whistles, peacock screamers, and woodpecker tubes all seem to work, as well. I’ve laughed at shock gobbles in response to squealing pigs in a hog lot, baying coon dogs on the trail and one shrieking donkey looking for his breakfast.
Other odd noises can create a shock response at times. I’ve witnessed birds sound off to rolling thunder, car horns, truck doors slamming, tornado sirens, jet plane sonic booms, chainsaw motors, train whistles, and the deep thud of rail cars hooking up. I’ve even seen a gobbler shock gobble to both distant and not-so-distant shotgun blasts. What do all these sounds have in common? Volume? Frequency? Intensity? All of the above, perhaps?
Whatever the case, there is considerable merit to using a shock gobble in a hunting scenario. It is simply the proof of life that the tom we are after is nearby! And my tactics on getting this shock gobble are always evolving. I love the rolling laugh of a barred owl from a walnut hoot tube in the pre-dawn hours. Crow calls seem to work fair on calm days mid-morning but don’t seem to pack the acoustic punch for cutting the wind like I can get out of a peacock or pileated woodpecker call. For late evening shock gobbles, I like to use a small canned air horn usually intended for marine use. A plain old PE coach whistle also has a place in my vest for similar purposes. This year, I plan on trying a Rocky Mountain elk bugle tube. Though I live in the Midwest, the elk bugle may have a potential in shocking a bird that thinks he has “heard it all.”
The whole point to this madness is to get a gobbler to tell you where he is, be it in the roost or strutting on the ground, without engaging the full “need to breed” response gobble. This gives ample time for setting up on the bird in question and laying out deceptive decoy spreads, or sitting back in the brush for an ambush once you start using hen vocals.
Last season, I’d been working a tom near the edge of our legal shooting time of 1 p.m. I had not seen nor heard a sound from him in about an hour. I figured he just had some real hens he was tending to and had left the area with them. As I was packing up my decoys, some kid on a “crotch rocket” motorcycle came revving up the highway about a half mile away from me. As the bike zoomed and whined to a crescendo, the longbeard I thought was long gone began shock gobbling his head off about 80 yards from my position in the brush. I just laughed it off and realized the more I think about it, the more I’m still just like that kid I was 20 years ago. I’m still learning things about the wild gobbler every time I go afield. And I hope it never stops.