October 13, 2005
Shellman-- Some people have started thinking about turkeys with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, but others think about turkeys year round.
Turkey hunting has become the fastest growing outdoor sport in the US, with twice the number of hunters than in 1973, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.
With all the popularity of turkey hunting, a man has spent years learning their language.
You wouldn't normally expect to find a language laboratory in a woodworking shop. "A really good place to make turkey calls," says Mike Matthews, as he sits at a work table with pieces of turkey calls in various stages of completion.
In a lean-to addition to an old barn, Mike tries to master a foreign language. " A turkey has 21 vocalization that they use," says Mike as he demonstrates one of the turkey's calls.
It sounds like some sort of Morse code to those not familiar with turkey talk. Mike learned the special codes from the experts. "Listening to wild turkeys is something I've been doing for years," says Mike, as he creates a yelping sound with one of his calls. "The plain yelp is three to five syllables. Pitch and volume the same," says Mike.
But, a stuffed turkey is the closest some hunters get to the animals, because hunters often become too conversational. Too frequent and quick cluck-like sounds can keep the gobbler away. "That gobbler thinks you're all excited and coming right to him. So, he just stands there and waits for you to come," says Mike.
A lot of people think a turkey is quite a dumb animal. But, a veteran hunter strongly disagrees with that description. "I've hunted all over the world and I still don't have a turkey," says Sharon Thomas of Albany. "I don't think the hunting of the turkey is what's so difficult. It's calling up the turkey."
Turkeys have natural advantages that many people don't realize. "A wild turkey is extremely smart. His eyesight is tremendous; probably 10 times that of what we have and his hearing is much, much better," says Mike. "You feel bad when he fools you, and that's more times than you fool him," says Mike, who estimates a hunter will have six hunting disappointments for each successful outing.
One reason, he speculates, is that a hunter tries to reverse biology, trying to entice the male turkey, known as a gobbler, to come to the hunter's sound, instead of the sound made by a female turkey, known as a hen. Many of Mike's calls are made from wood found in Randolph County near his home. He cuts the trees, a friend saws them into boards, and Mike dries the wood for at least six months. "I have enough lumber to pick out the wood to make a call," says Mike, who will use a relatively small piece of wood, about eight inches long and about two inches wide to make a call.
He started making turkey calls five years ago, one by one, spending hours on each one, getting so engrossed in making them that he loses track of time, finding it hard to stop. "Sawdust is good therapy," says Mike as he picks up a call with a sassafras box and a persimmon top.
Each turkey call has its own sound, some better than others. "This one sounds fair. It needs tuning," says Mike as he makes a couple of yelping sounds with it. A knife in the master's hand rescues the call from the trash can. "It doesn't take much," says Mike as a little sawdust appears on his knee. "Listen now. Hear that old raspy quality," asks Mike?
The untrained ear could hear a slight difference, but a turkey would have instantly known something wasn't quite right if it hadn't been tuned. "He'll come to you when he hears that," says Mike as he creates several more sounds with the new-sounding call.
And that's what Mike loves so much about making turkey calls, being in tune with the wild life.
Mike Matthews started hunting turkeys in the mid-70s, and now often takes friends to the woods and calls a turkey close to them for the joy of seeing one in the wild.
The National Wild Turkey Federation has an abundant supply of information about turkey hunting at their web site: http://www.nwtf.org/.