There are many theories about calling competition and calling live turkeys. Many say that turkeys would run away from competitive calling because it is not the same, while others swear that competitive callers are the best afield.
Turkey season will soon be here, so here are some points to consider:
There is a difference between stage calling and coaxing live birds. The sounds are basically the same, but there are differences that mean success or failure in either arena.
Chris Parrish, Rod Pettit and Alex Rutledge have all won national and world turkey calling titles and a truckload of awards for smaller competitions. All either guide or film turkey hunts, making them three of our nation’s best turkey callers. Here are their ideas on this important subject:
“Competition calling is a little more critical,” Parrish said. “Wild turkeys have differences in their voices that make them impossible to duplicate and no two turkeys have the same voice. But I think that the best callers learn from having conversations in the woods with actual hens. Callers in competition tend to be more perfect than actual wild turkeys. This perfect style of calling is not always successful on wild birds.”
Parrish believes that turkeys sound like they are making mistakes compared to skilled callers, but truthfully these unusual sounds are just part of their vocabulary.
“Beginning competitive callers make the mistake of imitating top callers instead of making sounds like true wild turkeys,” Parrish said. “That is what I look for when judging competitions, but not every judge does.”
Veteran callers believe that competitions should return back to the roots of making real turkey sounds instead of making perfect competition sounds that you likely won’t hear in the woods. But for now perfect sounds are winning competitions. This started with live bird sounds for most top professional callers.
“If you want to be a top competitive caller, start by listening and learning from live turkeys,” Parrish said. “Repeat every turkey sound you like. Turkeys are like singers, some you like and some you don’t. You will never imitate every turkey, but find those you are closest to in sound. Next watch the competitive callers and see how they are presenting calls, but never try to mock the callers. Develop your own style.”
Parish recommends listening through a pair of headphones to live turkey recordings, especially before calling in competition. Turkey voices are like a song. Listen every day and you will memorize the sounds like remembering a favorite song.
Pettit discovered that many of his friends took up competitive turkey calling to sound like a wild turkey and thus be better hunters.
“I learned what hens are saying means more than just idle noises or chatter,” Pettit said. “I don’t think it is humanly possible to completely match a turkey’s sounds, but you can get close with lots of practice. That will eventually make you better than the average hunter. I listen to hens make different noises and add it to my two-minute competitive calling routine. Competitive calling is different because it is more constant. Calling live turkeys mean sometimes long moments of silence between producing sounds. I sometimes pause 20 minutes between calls. We use brief pauses in competition that are considered dead spots if you pause too long.”
Beware of totally imitating live hen sounds in competitions, especially speed or cadence. Pettit has heard hens make cutting sounds faster than is humanly possible, but they still occasionally break up their cadence. Cackling too fast like wild turkeys occasionally do is another sound that is a mistake in competition. Competition cackling or cutting is slower and more deliberate without the pauses than live bird sounds.
“Experience is a big key for calling birds or contest calling,” Pettit said. “Chris Parrish has the ability to listen to a competitive caller and say, ‘That won’t score because it is over the judge’s heads, but that sound will score.’ So we try to stay in the area of what sounds are pleasing to the ear, the kind of sounds that generally score big. I think this is where the beginning caller has to be careful. There are some real turkey calling sounds that won’t work on stage.”
Pettit cautions not to make his mistake of trying competition after learning how to use a mouth call without outside help. He was above average as a hunter, but eventually veteran competition callers pointed out bad calling habits that were hard to break. He eventually started over and quickly became competitive as a contest caller.
“I think an individual will find competition calling more demanding than hunting live birds,” Pettit said. “This is how it has always been for me. I tend to let my nerves get the best of me on stage and that makes it harder to perform. Nerves make you over-blow your calls and speed up sounds. You can relax in the woods. I would probably have won a great deal more if I could call on stage like I do in the timber, where I am relaxed and sounding like a wild turkey.”
Rutledge discovered the need to worry about cadence and pitch in competition calling and especially not making mistakes. But in the real turkey woods, mistakes are not always bad and, in fact, better than perfect competition calling. The key is knowing the difference between the two arenas.
“You call with expression and emotion when calling birds,” Rutledge said. “Emotion in contest calling depends on what the judges ask for. This emotion is created by adding excitement, intensity, rhythm, speed and volume. I call this passionate calling because I am talking to the turkeys as opposed to talking at the turkeys.”
Rutledge discovered through years of hunting turkeys that when calling, take the cadence high and bring it down low. But in competition take the cadence from low to high and never drop back down. Emotion in the field allows you to work with cadence like a wild turkey, giving them more realistic sounds, but not the same sounds that would score high in a contest. However, he added that saying the wrong things to a turkey may quickly end your hunt.
“When you sit down and start talking to the turkey, everybody knows you start out soft and easy while checking your pitch,” Rutledge said. “The turkey may be 100 yards away but if he hears you calling louder, that tells him that the hen wants him more than he wants the hen. This is a key way to hang up a gobbler.”
Rutledge agrees that listening to real turkeys when beginning competitive calling is very important. Pay close attention to their rhythm and how they change from high pitch to raspy sounds. Add emotion on the stage and maintain a rhythm throughout your presentation with perfect sounds.
“To be a top competition caller, buy some turkeys and listen to them in the pen,” Rutledge said. “Then compare your sounds with them. Spend time in the woods and pay close attention to all turkey sounds. But beware of the emotions you will hear from live turkeys. A lot of judges will dock points for this live turkey enthusiasm.”
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.