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Speak the Language: The Art of Fall Turkey Calling

A box is one of the best and most versatile calls for fall birds.

By Bruce Ingram

Photos by Bruce Ingram

One of the most fascinating aspects of pursuing Virginia’s wild turkeys is that hunters may encounter four distinct types of flocks come fall: old gobbler ones, mature barren hens, a mother hen with jakes and jennies, and a breakaway jake flock. Winchester’s Jim Clay operates Perfection Turkey Calls and has hunted autumn birds for over 60 years. Here’s how he calls to these different gangs.

“The most important thing to determine when you find or bust a flock is what are the ages and sexes of the birds,” he said. “Because that will determine what you do next concerning how and when you call to them.”

For example, continues Clay, it’s imperative to scatter a flock of mature toms as these old, independent males aren’t very likely to respond to random calling. The best calls to utter after a dispersal?

“Generally, it’s best to reply with the same sounds they will make,” the Virginian said. “And that’s likely to be slow, deep, throaty yelps as in ‘yawwwwk, yawwwk, yawwwk.’ Old gobblers will also make slow, deep clucks and they’ll gobble, too. I gobble a lot when I’m working mature gobblers.

“The best kinds of calls for making gobbler clucks and yelps are aluminum pots or a box call with a ‘heavy’ lid. Last, don’t be surprised if three or four hours pass before a gobbler answers you. Sometimes they’ll answer 15 minutes after a bust, but don’t count on that,” Clay said.

An image of a man making turkey calling devices at a bench in his home

Jim Clay making diaphragms from the bench at his Winchester home.

Calling Mature Hens

Clay confirms that adult, barren hens are just as difficult to call in as their male counterparts. Forget making lost calls to these assemblages because, as Clay pointed out, they aren’t misplaced and they don’t care that a strange hen is. That’s why it’s imperative to scatter these birds, as is true with gobblers. Once he disperses hen gangs, the Virginian waits somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes before calling.

“I’ll start with some hollow sounding yelps—‘awk, awk, awk’ then mix in some slow, deep clucks. Keep in mind that these old hens are social – they do want to regroup with their gang, but they are definitely not frantic to do so. Two or three hours may pass before they answer.

The Mother Hen with Young

Fall hunters are most likely to encounter the standard flock of a mature hen with her young jakes and jennies. After this group is separated from each other, Clay said one strategy guides him more than any other does.

“Under no circumstances sit still when you hear the 12-note or so series of yelps that the mature hen gives to her lost young,” he says. “Because the next thing you’ll see is her jakes and jennies running right by you to get back to her. So when you hear the old hen, get up and run toward her and hopefully spook her out of the area.

“After running off the flock hen, go back to the scatter point and start making the ‘wee-wee-wee lost call of young hens and the wee-wee-wee-yawk-yawk sounds of jakes. Every flock seems to have its own preference of whether the lost call, yelps, or clucks will be the predominant sound. But, usually, you can’t go wrong with kee-kees.

Jake Flocks

Come autumn, at some point, some or all of the jakes may break away from the flock hen and form their own assemblage of rowdy, quarreling young males—many times continually fighting to achieve dominance. Clay says these juvenile males will often eagerly respond to jake gobbles, fighting purrs, yelps, clucks, and really just about any call.

“The jake gobble is an especially effective call,” Clay says. “A jake gobble sort of just falls apart at the end and is not as throaty as the gobble of a mature tom.”

Chasing the Old Dominion’s four kinds of fall flocks is one of the most pleasurable ways to spend an autumn day. Just remember to speak the language of the birds you are questing after.

An image of a man in camouflage with a gun and a dead turkey which he had shot

The author harvested this jake after scattering a flock this past December.

  • October 28, 2022