Try to get some kind of hunting lead from Steve Rinella and he’ll often object, “You really should talk to [so-and-so] about it. [He/she] he knows much better than me.
Call it humility or pragmatism, but the man knows enough to define the limits of his knowledge.
“Talk to Abernethy, man,” Steve told me when I asked him for a turkey tip for this article. “He has very strong opinions and a very distinctive style. He is very good at locating gobblers with these incredibly strong cuts that he makes on a box. He is just a phenomenal fucking turkey hunter.”
So, I called up Robert Abernethy, a retired biologist, longtime director of agency programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and former president of the Longleaf Alliance, who takes Steve to some booming South Carolina gobblers in MeatEater Season 10. , Part 2. He’s at the level of a hunter who painstakingly glues peacock feathers onto his turkey decoys to give them a facsimile sheen and sparkle. He is also even more humble than Steve.
“I don’t think I’m that good at calling, as far as reproducing the exact calls of the wild turkey, but I do a good job of figuring out what call to use at the appropriate times,” Robert told me. “And that could be a cashier call. It could be a whiteboard call. It might be a diaphragm call, or it might be a barred owl call when you’re trying to locate them.”
Each call on his vest has a specific purpose, he said. When he tries to locate turkeys, Robert starts with the owl hoot, but changes to a safe call if the birds are not vocalizing. Once he gets inside a football field or two and gets ready, he looks for the more nuanced purrs the slate can produce. Once a hot gobbler is on the way, it’s diaphragms for the end game.
But the real key to his great success in turkey hunting over the past 43 seasons, Robert said, is exploration: finding and learning about the birds and the country before people start shooting.
“I don’t really practice,” he said. “But I go out and spend the 30 days before the season, as much as possible, as many mornings as possible. If you only have an hour before work, you can sneak out and go out and listen and find those gobblers. If you can find them before the hunt starts, you’re looking at the maximum number of birds and they’re not scared and they’ll probably be pretty close to where you hear them.”
That may be a little less practical with migratory Merriams in parts of the West, Robert said, but in most of the United States, the birds are in the same places in March as they are in April.
“The week before the season, I’ll narrow it down to the four or five gobblers I want to try to catch and keep everyone else in my back pocket,” he said. “I make sure I get to the area early, early, early, early to hunt, you can always sleep in the woods, but you want to be the first person parked on public land so you can get to where your bird is, get to where your point of listen”.
Whether it’s a hilltop, a ridge, or just the general vicinity of where you know or think a gobbler might be, just get there early and shut up.
“And then about 25 minutes before legal sunrise, you’re going to do an owl hoot. It should be a low volume owl hoot, just two notes and try to gobble up a bird that is close to you. If no one responds, then you might want to go for a little more volume and four notes.”
A full barred owl song sequence is eight notes, Robert explained, but you don’t want to do it all because you probably won’t hear a quick gulp response above your own noise. Keep it short and increase your volume gradually.
“When the bird gobbles, you want to find out where it is and head in that direction and get a little closer. You might hoot as you get closer and get to where you want to settle,” usually about 200 yards from the bird, Robert said, as he kept an eye out for fences and other features that could dangle a bird. “And you don’t use your turkey call until you’re ready.”
Robert makes a point of never calling the turkey unless he is standing next to a thick tree. Turkeys almost seem to know when we’re not prepared and all too often they’ll come charging in if we’re not sitting up and hiding. Once he has his tree to lean on, firing lines identified, gun ready, only then will he want to start making soft chicken noises.
“You can start with some very weak, quiet tree calls, just very quiet howls,” Robert said. “And if he responds, then he heard you and that’s a really good thing. So he just waits until, maybe 10 minutes before sunrise, and then he might send out a couple of real tentative howls. And if he responds, then that’s really good. If he doesn’t respond, well, maybe you want to yell a little louder.”
You’ll be able to tell when the bird has flown and hit the ground by the volume and intensity of the swallows, Robert said. He prefers a pot call for this mid-range conversation, while keeping himself ready to switch to the hands-free diaphragm call.
“If he gobbles you up, I usually shut up right there and wait for him to gobble you up again. Then maybe wait for him to leave again. It’s really hard, but if he’s been talking to you and he’s walking in, it’s time to put your gun on your knees and wait.”
Robert often talks about making a tom “distressed”. What he means is to call just enough to let the bird know where you are and hold its interest, but not to respond to every bite. Make him work to get your attention.
“If he’s responding to you, he knows exactly where you are. And he’s trying to get you to go with him. And you’re not going to do that,” Robert warned. “You are going to stay still and quiet. And if everything works out perfectly, he’ll come to investigate why you didn’t approach him like you were supposed to. That’s what happens with the biology of birds: the hen goes to the devourer. You’re trying to turn that around.”
The ability and knowledge to use long, medium and short range calls effectively is highly beneficial, says Robert. Every situation is slightly different and you have to be able to adapt.
“I have heard chickens that sound more like a box call. And I’ve heard chickens that sound more like a diaphragm song and others that sound more like a slate song,” she said. “There is great variability in chickens. You need to be good with timing and when to use which call. Cadence is probably more important than just sounding exactly like a turkey.”
He recommends listening to recordings of real birds to broaden your knowledge. But above all, Robert says that he should not get too obsessed with calling alone. That advice seems to have hit home with at least one of his apprentices.
“I kill a lot of turkeys, but not necessarily for the song. There’s like six things going on, calling to be one of them. It’s like the whole package,” Steve concluded. “Strategy and shit, right? I’m not good at calling, but over the years, I know when to hold them back and when to pull them back.”
Clearly, Steve takes some advice on turkey hunting from Kenny Rogers and Robert Abernethy. And that might be the best advice he could give: He shuts his mouth and listens to the older hunters when they’re willing to share their hard-earned wisdom. You will be better for it.
You can go learn from Robert and Steve now on Netflix.