Calling All Turkeys
On a recent evening at Archery Adventures, a bow-hunting store in an Aurora strip mall, Bob Cook was setting up his slide projector for a seminar on turkey calling. It was still a couple of weeks before the start of the spring turkey- hunting season, but that didn't matter: Bob is as likely to lose his gobble chops as Yo-Yo Ma would be to let his fingerboard calluses go soft.
Across the room, Bob spied a young man handling a mouth call, a vibrating reed that looks like a small orthodontic retainer. Naturally, Bob himself was chewing on his own call, a Pro Sports Split V3. In fact, anyone who didn't notice that Bob is all about turkeys just wasn't trying. His creased blue jeans were held high by a thick metal turkey belt buckle.
He ambled over, cupping his right hand close to his jaw, as if to amplify his voice. He looked at the other guy, smiling slightly, then suddenly let loose with his classic cutting call, a raucous blast of turkey talk that rises to a loud, fast crescendo before tailing off, like a furious turkey that has abruptly lost interest. Bob's lips vibrated, puckered and twisted. He stopped, shifted his hand a bit and then started all over again.
When he finished, he popped the call out of his mouth and looked at the man. The guy shook his head -- not gonna trade calls with Bob Cook today. In fact, "I'm not even going to try," he confirmed.
Bob grinned. He is one of those people who sound as if they have surgically implanted chaw in their cheeks. "Just takes a few weeks of practice," he says. "Nothin' to it. A turkey makes 28 calls. You only need to know a few of 'em to get one."
Bob understands the man's position because he's been there. Back in 1982, while giving a seminar at the Denver Sports Show, he was standing in front of the room preparing for his talk when in walked Dick Kirby.
If you're a turkey hunter, or even just a casual fan of competitive turkey calling, an introduction to Dick Kirby is insulting. If you're not, though, think of it like this: You've agreed to coach your kid's junior high basketball team and are just starting to give a lesson on how to shoot a jump shot when Larry Bird walks in to watch.
"I mean, Dick Kirby is the best caller you'll ever listen to," Bob says. "So when I saw him come in, I thought, 'Oh, great. He's gonna tell me how stupid I sound.'"
"After the seminar," Bob continues, "he stuck around waiting for everyone else to leave, and I was thinking, 'Yep, here comes the stupid part.' But it turned out he wanted to know if I'd join him for lunch." Dick Kirby was an admirer, and Bob soon found himself representing his company, Quaker Boy Calls. Later, Dick Kirby even taught Bob his secret to a good purr, a soft feeding call. "While you're blowing, you make a sound like you're going to hawk up a loogie, deep in your throat," Bob says.
Wild-turkey hunting, in which an armed, fully camouflaged person attempts to kill one of the stupidest animals in the woods, is more difficult than it sounds. The birds are skittish, and they are built to bolt. Their eyesight is ten times better than ours, their heads turn in a 260-degree radius, and they can run close to 35 miles per hour. If necessary, they can fly for nearly half a mile. A deer or elk hunter can rely on some degree of luck; many stumble onto an animal while wandering about in the woods. Sneaking up on a turkey, however, is out of the question. Thus the need to sound like one. (Colorado's spring turkey-hunting season began last Saturday and runs through May 24.)
Bob Cook is one of the best turkey callers in the state. "I've probably won everything you can win except the Grand Nationals and the Grand Championship [the World Cup and Olympics of turkey calling]," he says. In 1996, he finished third at the Grand Nationals. In an average year he takes home about $10,000 in prize money, and that's not including the money he gets indirectly from the exposure -- instructional videos, TV time and so on.
Like any great sportsman, he visualizes. "In a competition," he says, "you've got to think about what the birds are doing. Like for a fly-down cackle, I see him on the tree, leaning out. Then he flies down and hits the ground, and then starts walking. It helps me get the right rhythm and tones. Rhythm is more important than tones. All turkeys are different -- they have different sounds. But I don't care if you're calling turkeys, coyotes, geese, ducks; there's a rhythm to all of them."
"Then," he continues, "I'll use word association for the call itself. I talk to the reed. I say 'yelp,' or sometimes 'help,' for a yelp, a sort of 'took' for a cluck."
"In a competition," he cautions, "you got to remember that you're calling judges, not turkeys. When I'm hunting, I'll throw stuff in there, dress up the call -- maybe a yelp with a couple putts or a cut thrown in. I'll do everything I can to get that turkey to come to me. But in a contest you got to keep it short, to the point -- very little dress to the call. If you go on and on to the jury, put too much into it, you're gonna get marked down. And one mistake is all it takes."
At this level of turkey calling, there are no dilettantes. Bob has been discouraged from practicing his calls at his job as a truck router for a grocery-store chain. But each afternoon, when he steps out of the warehouse, he reaches into a pocket -- pants, shirt, jacket, it doesn't matter -- palms a reed and pops it into his mouth. Driving in his pickup, he pushes a cassette of turkey calls into the tape player. At home, he records his calls and then replays them, listening for false notes and impure rhythms.
He keeps most of his calls in a special room he is building in his Strasburg home for the purpose. There are several hundred slate and glass calls, box calls and mouth reeds. "If they make it, I got it," he says. He owns limited editions, collector's editions, hand-painted calls and antique calls worth thousands of dollars. In a pinch, he can make a serviceable call out of dried turkey bones. The best of the lot are stored in a lighted display case. Nearby are about fifty cassette tapes of turkey calls and approximately 250 videos on the subject.
At this spring's Colorado Open, at the RV, Boat and Sport Show, Bob came in third by a slim margin. The competition ended with an epic call-off, three rounds of nail-biting overtime. "Bob Cook," Jim Collins says graciously, "is a damn fine caller."
It was Jim's seventh victory at the show since 1991. He's also made it to the Grand Nationals several times; entrants must have won a state competition to be invited. But while Colorado boasts a decent amount of wild-turkey habitat and produces some fine callers, the state is hardly what you'd call turkey country, and Jim has walked away empty-handed each time.
"Those guys from Missouri and Kentucky, they grow up around turkeys, and they're pretty fluent at it," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, the sixtieth guy at the nationals is a pretty damned good caller. And the top guys, well, they sound better than turkeys."
"You definitely have to have some talent," he adds. "And you got to keep up with it and pay a lot of dues that you don't necessarily want to pay. You have to stick with the guys at the top or you're gonna fall by the wayside. I mean, some of these guys have turkeys penned up in their back yards so they can listen to them. It gets pretty precise."
Jim, who runs an outfitting company out of New Mexico each fall and lives in Colorado Springs the rest of the time, is a relative latecomer to top-level turkey calling. But he's no novice at making enticing animal sounds. Before turkeys, he had already honed the skill on elk calls, winning the world title twice.
And there will always be a personal connection to elk calling for Jim. "I first heard Audrey's elk bugle when she walked into my hunting camp one night," Jim recalls. "She was using an outside reed call. I said, 'I'd sure like to get you into a diaphragm call.'" One thing led to another, and they were married soon after that. Their son, Jim Jr., has won several elk-calling titles of his own.
"The elk are where my heart is," he says. "But turkey hunting is a close second."
Like Bob, Jim knows that the best formula to championship turkey-calling success is the cleanest and simplest one. "Say the judges want a cluck," he explains. "And you're clucking along, and then you throw a yelp into it. Well, you just earned yourself a couple bad points right there."
Jim, too, has an outsized collection of turkey-calling videos ("I got so many tapes in my basement it's pathetic") and calls ("five or six hundred -- I dunno, maybe more"). He spends most of his free time practicing, even when he's not really paying attention to himself.
"Like some guys when they walk outside, automatically put a cigarette in their mouth? I put in a turkey call," he says. "Everywhere I go, I got calls. I find them in the laundry, in the vacuum-cleaner hose, behind the console."
"I like practicing when I go to the grocery store," he adds. "I like what people do to react. One time, not too long ago, I went shopping, and there were a couple of old women looking at turkeys and gabbing: 'What do you think about this one, Matilda?' 'Oh, I think it weighs too much. What do you think?' Well, I was standing across the aisle from them, and I just reached down and picked one up and went 'Gobblegobblegobblegobble!' They just started screaming and carrying on. I like doing stuff like that."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.