Turkey hunters have been known to state falsehoods about turkey hunting. One falsehood is “You can’t call a turkey downhill.” We should probably follow the lead of “Snopes” and label that one “partly true,” because turkeys sometimes do what we say they’re not supposed to do.
Usually, turkeys are reluctant to go downhill to a call, even to the call of a real hen (although if they need to, they might). When two birds are calling to each other, it’s almost always the lower bird on the hillside that moves up. So, someone made the rule, “You can’t call a turkey downhill,” even though many hunters have proven the rule isn’t always true.
Have you wondered why turkeys are reluctant to go downhill to a call? Hunt turkeys for a few years and you’ll know turkey behavior often seems arbitrary, but this habit isn’t arbitrary. The reason turkeys are reluctant to be called downhill is simple.
Turkeys are nervous. They’re suspicious. They’re not especially smart, but they’re wary and we mistake wariness for intelligence. They’re conditioned to avoid danger, and to avoid anything they don’t understand. They don’t trust what they see. They’re not curious like a deer is, and they sure don’t stick around to find out what something is—because it probably wants to eat them.
Every woodland predator loves a turkey dinner, so the most predictable thing turkeys do is this—when they think something is dangerous, they avoid it like rain avoids falling up.
Airborne predators are a big threat. A turkey poult’s best defense against hawks is access to cover—long grass, ferns, and underbrush. Skunks, raccoons, and ’possums prey on nests. They all seem to prefer their eggs pre-poached and without bacon. The only defense turkey eggs have is the mother hen that laid them. It’s surprising that more nests don’t get raided.
Turkeys that have survived for a few months have many danger-avoidance instincts genetically coded into them. That’s why, when a turkey is nervous, it evacuates the premises. And when seeking the company of birds of their feather—when responding to a call of others they’ve been separated from—they usually go uphill.
The reason is simple. If a turkey is going uphill and runs into an ambush, its easiest escape route is to turn around and go downhill. That gives the turkey two advantages. First, downhill is a proven safe direction—they just came from downhill and didn’t get eaten. Second, going downhill is the easiest way to get enough air under their big wings to lift them to safety, above any danger and rapidly away from any threat.
This habit is not a learned behavior. It’s genetic conditioning. If a turkey is going downhill to search for another turkey, turning to go uphill is a bigger danger because that’s the slower route. Turning around to fly up the slope means they’re more vulnerable—they don’t get above the ground and out of the reach of a predator as quickly. So, over time, the propensity to go downhill has been weeded out. Any ancestors that had the habit of going downhill to meet other turkeys were, sooner or later, caught and eaten by an ambushing predator.
So, when you run into turkeys this fall, and you set up to call, find a place where the turkeys can come uphill to you. If you don’t, a scattered flock will meet up above you and you won’t get the shot you are trying to get.
If terrain and circumstances dictate that you must set up and call from downhill, give it a try. You have nothing to lose. But your best bet, whether you’re calling a hen, a gobbler, or a young one, is to get above the turkey because they’re most comfortable going uphill to a call. And you want the turkey to be comfortable because every turkey that has been called in and harvested was comfortable until its head took a load of shot. So, high success rates come when the hunter creates the most natural, trusting situation for the turkey. That’s why you call them uphill.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines and won the 2015, 2018, and 2023 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.