The Beat Of A Different Drum

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In the days before Google, the author had to learn the hard way what the spit and drum sounded like, but when he did, it was a game changer.

One day on a creek bottom, a long, long time ago, I was working a stubborn old bird on a stretch of public land. He had gobbled plenty and had me believing he was going to show up soon. I was green and was completely at the mercy of this bird, but I knew enough to not overdo it, and I kept telling myself to be patient and just let him come.

Finally, he went quiet on me, and again, being green in the turkey woods, I began to wonder if I was still in the game. Time drug on, and after a good 45 minutes, I gave up on him and laid my gun across my lap. I was frazzled. My nerves were shot, and I was actually relieved that it was over.

I had plenty to learn at the time, but I had managed to kill a few birds, so I figured I was right on schedule. The tough part about that mind set was that I was apt to end up learning more through trial and error than any other way. And so it was on that particular hunt.

I remember hearing something in the woods that day that was new to me. I couldn’t figure it out at first. But about the third time I heard it, I knew I was in trouble. I wasn’t real familiar with the drum of a wild turkey, but I was starting to believe that was what I was hearing. The bird suddenly strutted into view at 50 yards or so, and as he drug his wings in the leaves, I heard the drum again. Each time he scooted forward, he drummed, and I was glad to finally be able to connect the sound with the source. The only problem I had now was the fact that my gun was still in my lap. It was a rookie mistake, and it cost me. I was never able to get my gun up and kill the bird. I could only watch as he strutted and drummed back down into the creek bottom and out of sight

Still, it was a victory of sorts. I had received an up close and personal classroom lesson from The Master of the turkey woods on the drum of a wild turkey gobbler. It has been an invaluable piece of knowledge ever since, and it has been the downfall of many a gobbler for me.

If you aren’t sure what the drum is, or what it sounds like, I highly recommend that you look it up. You are more apt to hear it when a gobbler is strutting, and then he usually only does it as he moves in short bursts. It isn’t usually something he will do if he is just walking along strutting or if he is just standing still. It is a deep, baritone, guttural sound that starts deep and low in volume and increases as it goes. It is distinct, and once you get a handle on it, you will be able to recognize it from then on. It is an unmistakable sound that you can almost feel. Most of the time it will start with a “tick” or “ffttt” sound, commonly referred to as the “spit.” Thus the term, spit and drum.

I love the gobble of a wild turkey, but the drum is right up there with it for me. I am fortunate in that it is a sound that I can hear extremely well.

Once you become familiar with it, it’s important to know that when you hear it, the gobbler is interested, and usually he is close or soon will be. Of course, wind, humidity, rain and so forth will affect your ability to hear a gobbler drumming. He might not show up, but there is a good chance he will. He might show up quick, or it could take a while. Regardless, when you hear it, stay alert, and expect him to show up.

After The Gobble: Some gobblers will gobble off and on for a while, then go quiet, and the next thing you know, you hear it. The spit and drum. Then, in a matter of a minute or two, he appears, and sometimes he dies. When it happens like that, the drum is more of an icing on the cake.

Some birds simply gobble, break and come in quickly. Even then though, one drum can help you be sure of the direction the bird is approaching from, and that can be the difference in getting a shot or not.

A good while back I had a bird gobble a handful of times before he shut it off. It was nothing new, even for me who was just a few years in. The difference was that I had learned through trial and error to hang in there a while. I had learned to give a bird a chance to get there. I had learned that a bird that goes quiet after gobbling can be a good thing. And I had learned what a drum was.

Fifteen minutes after his last gobble, I heard the first drum. Had I not heard it and been able to identify it, I likely would not have been in position to shoot when he showed up. Because of the drum, I was able to turn a good 2 feet to my right and was in good shape when the bird arrived. A couple of drums later, there he was. He died.

The Pause: Sometimes gobblers will gobble plenty and then seem to disappear. Sometimes they might gobble very little and leave you guessing. It took me a while, when I was still new to it all, to understand that a silent bird doesn’t necessarily mean that he has gone on to different parts. I mentioned earlier when I learned what a drum sounded like. It was before Google; I didn’t have the luxury of looking it up to see what it was and what it sounded like. So, I learned about it the only way I could; live and in color. Then, I knew it. Knowing what that sound is consistently pays off every year for me.

A hunt this past spring with my friend Jonathan Barber provided a profound example of how the drum can be a huge advantage.

Jonathan and I had covered a lot of ground our first evening in camp. It was pretty warm but not unbearable, and the woods roads were covered with turkey sign. We had seen a hen or two along the way as we worked our way to an old unplanted food plot deep into the woods. When we got to within 150 yards of the opening, I called, and Jonathan said he thought he heard one gobble. I could only take his word for it since I didn’t hear it. He said the bird sounded a good bit past the old plot, so we decided to move to the plot and set up and see if we could work the bird in.

It was a pretty spot with huge live oaks and some nice, welcome shade. There were dust bowls around the edge, and it just had that old familiar, evening loafing spot look of a big old gobbler. If you’ve seen them, you know the kind of spot I’m talking about. We picked out one of the big oaks and set up to work the bird.

We settled in, and I gave a few yelps. No response—didn’t exactly fill us up with enthusiasm, but we were where we were going to be until dark, and we were prepared to hang tight. A while later a few hens made their way into the edge of the plot. Still no gobbler, though. When they eased out, I called again. Within minutes of my last call, I told Jonathan that I was hearing a drum. I could hear it off to my right but could not see him. This continued for a while, but the bird would not break.

More hens made their way in, but the bird remained out of sight in the pines to my right. Another 10 minutes passed, and the drumming started to fade as the gobbler began to ease off. I felt like we were losing him, and when the hens eased into the woods to our left, I swapped calls and gave a few soft yelps. Seconds later the drumming returned, and he was closer than he had been to this point. I was soon able to see him, way right and behind me. He kept walking away, and eventually got to about 100 yards away.

Jonathan spotted the bird as he stepped into the roadbed that lead into the opening. I called again, and he broke and trotted in. I shot him at 22 yards as he entered the old food plot.

I’ve been turkey hunting a long time, but I’d rank this bird in the top 5 in drumming that I have ever killed. He was an old stud, and had it not been for all that drumming, he would have lived another day. Never give up on a quiet bird, and always be listening for that drum.

Just Plain Drum: There will be times when you will run up on a bird that doesn’t gobble. It happens more than we could ever know. Think about that. How many times do we walk and call or sit in a spot for hours and never hear a bird? I know I have been saved by the drum time and time again. I can’t count the times I have thought there wasn’t a bird within 10 miles of me, only to have one give himself away with a drum. Sometimes you might only hear the spit, sometimes just the drum. Sometimes both. You just can’t afford to ever let yourself get into a state of mind where you think turkeys aren’t close by. I have pretty much trained myself to listen for the drum at all times after I have made a call.

I had a client not long ago that I was struggling to get a bird in front of. I couldn’t buy one, and after a couple of days, I decided to just go to an area I believed in and set up a while. We had put the effort in and covered a lot of ground. My client was worn out, and I was, too, and usually on the last day of the hunt, I will run until the sun goes down if my client has not scored.

This day was different, though. The birds had been in a bit of a lull, and I began to believe that we had as good a chance setting up in a usually productive spot as we did running all over the place trying to find a volunteer. So, the wait began. I started things off with a few basic yelps and decided to keep the calling low-key and sporadic. I could tell my client was feeling the pressure. I was, too, but I still believed it was going to happen. It was late morning, and we had committed to hunting straight through until dark if need be.

Two and a half hours in, and I was toying with the idea of moving to another location, but I fought the urge a few more minutes. It turned out to be a good decision, too, as I soon heard a spit and drum. I quickly grabbed the arm of my client, and told him, “Get your gun up.”

He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he trusted me. Less than 20 seconds later, a beautiful longbeard was flopping at 30 yards. Man, you talk about a celebration!

“How did you know?” he asked.

I told him that I heard him drum. He had no idea what I was talking about. I’m glad I knew. This bird was just doing what gobblers do. They don’t always gobble. They don’t always spit and drum either, but when they do, if you can hear it, it’s a dead giveaway.

Drum Before You Know: There is another drum scenario that comes to mind. It is the drum we hear before we are even aware that there is a gobbler in the neighborhood. It is a rare occurrence, mainly because we have conditioned ourselves to go about our business in the turkey woods listening for a gobble or a mouthy hen. We likely don’t pay enough attention to the other turkey sounds that could help us put more birds in range—sounds like scratching in the leaves, soft clucks, purrs… and the spit and drum.

I recall an early afternoon while hunting a creek bottom with friends Mike Moody and Nathan Mason. The birds weren’t talking much after an unbelievable morning. I had killed a bird at daylight and another one a couple hours later. Now we were trying to get something in front of Nathan. We were easing along the creek and had headed into a stretch of hardwoods when I heard it.

“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!” I whispered loudly.

Mike and Nathan had hunted with me enough to know that when I say I hear drumming, there’s a good chance it’s legit. We quickly backed out and found a clearing to set up on facing the direction the bird was in. When we got set up behind Nathan, I started calling. It only took about 10 minutes, but the drumming grew louder, and then they were there. Nathan shot two of the four gobblers that showed up, and the drum was responsible again.

The spit and drum is as synonymous with turkey hunting as the gobble or the yelp. It is valuable beyond measure. Make it a point to learn what it sounds like if you don’t know already. Listen for it in every setup and as you move about in the turkey woods. When you are approaching spots that you know gobblers like to frequent, treat the situation as if there is a bird already there, and take your time. If he’s there, he could be strutting for hens, and if he is, you just might hear him if you will just listen for the beat of a different drum.

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