The key to bowhunting turkeys is to get them as close as possible — ideally within 15 yards — to make an ethical shot. The “kill zone” on a turkey is a small target, due to the bird’s vitals location, and so a close shot is best. So how do you accomplish that? Phillip Vanderpool, owner and host of “The Virtue TV,” says calling is one of the most important skills for a bowhunter to learn. The right turkey calls are effective at locating birds and drawing them in to where they can then see and become fixated on a decoy set in a perfect shooting lane.
Vanderpool would know, too. He started hunting turkeys 41 years ago and has been bowhunting turkeys for 37 of those years. Two weeks ago (from this article’s publish date), he killed his 101st turkey with a bow and arrow. He started keeping track of his bow-killed birds because he felt that shooting a turkey with a bow was a big accomplishment — and it is. With that many birds to his credit, Vanderpool makes bowhunting turkeysseem easy, but he said he’s had his share of busts and mishaps.
Vanderpool relies heavily on calling. He encourages beginners to use and practice with various types of turkey calls, including box calls, slate (aka a pot-and-peg) calls and mouth calls. Vanderpool said you don’t have to be a perfect turkey caller, and once you learn how to call, you can use the following strategies to lure birds in to your setup.
Sometimes turkeys just don’t gobble much. But if you know birds are in your area — either from hearing them gobble there previously or from seeing fresh sign, like tracks, droppings or scratchings — you might just need to find the right call to coax them out of their silence.
“I can’t tell you how many times you might yelp with a box call, and he might not answer you. But then you try a slate or mouth call, and he jumps on it,” Vanderpool said. “A lot of times, it’s just a particular sound they distinguish and like. If you’re in a good turkey area but you’re not hearing gobbles, switch up calls.”
Vanderpool encourages beginners to get a variety of calls, including different strikers for slate calls, because each has a unique sound, any of which could pique an individual gobbler’s interest on a given day. Think about it like this: You wouldn’t go fishing with one lure. A fish might not react to a crankbait, but it might eagerly swallow a plastic worm. Likewise, a turkey might not care for a high-pitched cutt from a box call, but it might love a raspy yelp from a mouth call. “You can’t have too many calls,” Vanderpool said. Call every five to 10 minutes with a new call until you get a turkey to react.
Once the turkey gobbles at a particular call, or it cuts you off mid-call, you’ve likely found “the one.” You probably won’t have to change your calls again once you have an interested turkey. At that point, stay vocal enough to hold the turkey’s attention until it hopefully comes close enough to see your decoy.
“If a turkey likes what you’re throwing down, keep throwing that at him,” Vanderpool said. “If he’s gobbling, you don’t have to do anything else. As long as he’s coming, stick to what’s working and let him come.”
But if the turkey stops en route — many hunters call this getting hung up — try this next strategy.
Vanderpool said the best thing you can do if a turkey gets hung up is to work your magic and coax him in with your “turkey voice.” At this point, the type of call you use doesn’t matter as much as the tones and sounds you make with it. “Put feeling and emotion in your calls,” Vanderpool said. “That works really well for older gobblers who are smart and hesitant. Turkeys have different personalities. Some are more timid and need more coaxing.”
Vanderpool shared an analogy to drive home his point. If your mom was in the other room and she said,“Come over here,” in a calm, monotone voice, would you react right away? What if she sternly, loudly and between her teeth said, “Come. Over. Here!?” That might get you to jump out of your seat and run, right? Tone is important when humans talk. It has the same importance for turkeys. Sound happy and excited when you call, and you might lure the turkey closer to your setup.
Sometimes you need to catch the attention of distant turkeys. Vanderpool said you must use volume to your advantage. When you’re in open country, a box call can be best because it projects very well. As a turkey works its way to you, switching to a slate call is smart because it’s quieter and produces a very realistic sound. Then, when the turkey is within sight, switch to a mouth call to make faint sounds with little movement. Vanderpool said mouth calls are ideal for bowhunters because they’re hands-free. Each call has a different purpose and volume range, so you must use them accordingly.
Vanderpool said bowhunting for turkeys is a game of patience. He shared a final tip to help beginners call from a blind.
“If I haven’t heard anything in a while, I’ll take a risk and get up and out of my blind to make a 360-degree circle around the blind about 150 yards away,” he said. “As I do that, I call every five minutes and wait for a response. I’ll stop and go as I make a circle, then come back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve extended my call reach, gotten a turkey to gobble, and eventually coaxed him back to my blind.”