Up High vs. Down Low

Pursuers of Louisiana turkeys face very different terrain — and very different birds — depending on where they hunt.

Show me another state with as much diversity north to south as Louisiana has, and I’ll eat my hat.In North Louisiana, from Alexandria to the Arkansas line, folks are called a variety of names, with “redneck” no doubt being the predominant moniker to which we answer. We’re a land of rolling hills, pine forests and lazy streams coursing through beeches and oaks. There are a lot of Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians up this way.

South of Alexandria, things are noticeably different. With few exceptions, the terrain lies flat; rice fields and swamps make up a sizeable portion of the landscape. The principal religion is Roman Catholic. Most folks refer to the fun-living folks down this way as “Cajuns” — that is, unless you happen to overhear Nick Saban telling jokes about them.

Of interest to those whose springtime passion is turkey hunting, both regions of the state are home to flocks of wild turkeys. Hunters in North Louisiana don’t have to rework all their calls to give them a redneck twang, and neither do hunters south of Alexandria have to add a touch of South Louisiana’s rich accent to their slates and boxes.

They’re basically the same bird, no matter which half of the state they call home, but the way you hunt them differs, not because of the bird but because of the difference in habitat.

Earl Norwood of Ruston is an avid turkey hunter who does most of his hunting among the pines of North Louisiana.

On the other hand, Paul Cagnolatti of Gonzales pulls on rubber boots and loads a pirogue in his truck to hunt South Louisiana gobblers.

Here’s how these two successful turkey hunters go about accomplishing the same thing, but using different methods.

Norwood, a retired wildlife biologist for Ducks Unlimited, spent a career specializing in working with waterfowl. Today, wild turkeys are just as important to him as were ducks and geese when he toiled on their behalf.

One of the early influences on Norwood becoming interested in wild turkeys was James Earl Kennamer, currently a high ranking official with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“While I was attending graduate school at Mississippi State University, I met James Earl, who was also there in graduate school. He talked to me about hunting turkeys and he gave me my first turkey call, a home-made diaphragm call he had made out of lead, latex and adhesive tape,” Norwood explained.

“After that, I was invited by friends on turkey hunts, and the first few years, I was totally unsuccessful. I was living in Mississippi at the time, and once they started having a season in the county where I lived, I decided to get serious about learning how to hunt turkeys.

“I killed my first gobbler a couple of seasons after I began hunting, considering myself as an ‘apprentice’ turkey hunter, learning as I went. I learned lots of things to do and unfortunately, lots of things not to do. I’d love to be able to go back and hunt some of those birds I totally messed up on back then.”

Although Norwood’s first turkey call was the crude mouth call given him by Kennamer, this type of call is not his favorite.

“After hunting for more than three decades and taking over 100 gobblers, I still get excited when I know one is coming in, and frankly, the mouth call is hard to use when I’m hyperventilating,” he with a chuckle.

The story of Norwood’s first gobbler is not a spine-tingling tale of adventure and intrigue. He didn’t even call it in.

“One morning, I had heard several turkeys where I was sitting but none came to my calls,” he said. “I stood up to leave, and three jakes saw me and took off. I saw where they went, and slipped into the area, surprising them. They flushed like a covey of quail, I picked one out and shot it on the wing.

“That certainly wasn’t your typical spring turkey hunt, but it got the fire burning inside me for turkey hunting.

“The first one I actually called up was an old bird I’d fooled with several mornings, ran him off or shut him up. Then one morning, I heard him with a hen. I called, and the hen came to me and walked on past me while the gobbler was sounding off just over a ridge. After she’d walked on by, I got my gun up, he stuck his head up, and I popped him.”

After having about 10 years of turkey hunting under his belt, Norwood moved from Mississippi to Louisiana in 1982. Even so, he had to drive back to Mississippi and Alabama to turkey hunt since North Louisiana didn’t have a turkey season across the area until some 10 years later.

“My first turkey hunting in Louisiana was the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge,” he said. “Today, I have a hunting lease in Union Parish, a lease that I put together before turkey season opened there. I wanted to be ready when it opened.

“I’ve been fortunate to get my Louisiana limit most years and then move on to other states to hunt.”

Regarding the “how to,” Norwood feels he hunts somewhat differently than most turkey hunters.

“I’m basically a solitary hunter,” he said. “I don’t mind taking a novice hunter and teaching him what I know, but my favorite way to hunt is to be alone, just me and a crafty old gobbler. When I do take another experienced hunter, I prefer for him to go one direction, me the other.

“However, there are some distinct advantages of team hunting. When I team hunt with another hunter, I like to position him in the spot where he’s more likely to get the shot while I’ll back off and call from behind him. I’ve been on several successful hunts doing it this way.

“The key to successful turkey hunting for me is to become intimately familiar with the habitat where I’m hunting. I not only want to know the ‘lay of the land,’ I want to know the habits of the birds in that area and how they use the habitat.

“You can pattern birds and unless they’re pressured, they’ll usually roost and strut in the same general area each spring.

“In addition to pine trees in North Louisiana, we have sloughs with hardwood bottoms and water obstruction. It is quite helpful before the season to do a thorough job of scouting to learn where the obstructions are, the ridges they usually travel, roost and strutting areas. If the habitat doesn’t change, such as undergoing a major logging operation, birds will work the same habitat year after year.”

While he is fortunate to be able to hunt turkeys on his private hunting lease, he has logged enough hours hunting public lands to become successful.

“To hunt turkeys successfully on lands that are open to the public, you have to be willing to walk farther and to go deeper into the woods than the average hunter is willing to go,” he said. “On Tensas, there are areas you can walk a mile and a half to, and you’ll find birds that have not been pressured.”

Having established that Norwood is a successful turkey hunter, we asked him to describe how he would set up to hunt a roosted bird.

“Again, scouting and being observant is of supreme importance,” he said. “I’ll set up where I know a gobbler went the last couple of days. I’ll pattern every bird on our hunting club to determine what they do and where they go after fly-down.

“Normally, I don’t call to a bird until he flies down. I might do a light cluck or tree yelp with a box or friction call, and then I’ll shut up. If you call to him too much, he’ll stay on the roost and gobble, expecting a hen to show up. If you only cluck lightly and tree yelp softly, he knows where you are and likely, curiosity will get the best of him, and he’ll come and investigate.

“However, if he has hens, you have to jump in there and mix it up with them, hopefully calling the hens to you with the gobbler in tow. To me, one of the most satisfying things is to be surrounded by hens with eyes on you, and still bag the gobbler.

“I’m basically a conservative caller, but there are times I’ll get aggressive when I hear two or three gobblers, and they’re competing with each other. They’ll often come in on a run, trying to beat the others to the hen.”

We asked Norwood to name the most important things a turkey hunter can learn to improve his success in the woods.

“To be successful, there are four basic things you have to master — patience, persistence, confidence and woodsmanship,” he said.

With his success rate, the Norwood formula would be an excellent one to follow to increase your turkey hunting success.

As conservative and cautious as Norwood is in his approach to calling turkeys, Paul Cagnolatti is a dynamo. The account of his first gobbler gives a hint about his method of operation.

“I learned to hunt from my dad, who had my brother and me watch hunting videos, then he took us to the woods and turned us loose to learn on our on,” Cagnolatti said. “I heard a gobbler and tried to sneak closer, and in the process, had to cross the same creek three times, go through a briar patch and finally came to a pipeline. I looked down the line and saw four turkeys running for dear life. I sneaked back into the brush, made a couple of calls, and they ran right by me. I killed a big one with an 11-inch beard, and was feeling smug until I looked up and there stood a coyote. It wasn’t my calling; it was the coyote that chased the birds by me.

“However, the next day, I heard a gobbler on the roost, set up on him and called him to me. That’s when I really got fired up about turkey hunting.

“I hunt both public and private lands, and the first 15 years I hunted, I bagged 57 gobblers. My success, I believe, has to do with the fact that I’m willing to walk farther and stay longer. When you hunt a lot of swamp gobblers, you have to stay with them.”

This successful turkey hunter has learned quite a bit about hunting these birds of the dank, dark swamp. Although they’re the same gobblers Norwood goes after in North Louisiana, they behave somewhat differently because of the habitat they call home.

“Swamp gobblers are mean,” he said. “I mean, they can wear you out and make you cuss. One of the best public areas to hunt swamp gobblers is on the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, which is mostly a thick South Louisiana swamp. I’ve gone after them in a boat. I’ve gotten lost, wet, muddy, scratched-up and frustrated, but I love it.

“Water barriers are always a concern when you’re going after swamp birds. One of my most memorable hunts involved an old gobbler I called across 60 yards of shallow water. He strutted and drummed and gobbled — and waded — the whole way. It was funny to watch him try to spit and drum. He was ‘sloshing and drumming.’

“In the swamp, you want to look for any terrain higher than surrounding land. That’s where they’ll usually go. When water rises, which it does regularly in South Louisiana, turkeys will move with the water. When it falls, they follow the water back. They’ll sometimes roost 150 yards out over water. At flydown time, they’ll either glide to a ridge or if it’s too far, they’ll fly from tree to tree until they get to the higher ground.

“I’ve found that you need to be more aggressive with swamp birds than those in the hills. These birds will gobble more often during the day. If you hear a gobbler at 1 p.m. in the hills, you have a good chance to kill that bird because his hens have probably left him and he’s looking for company.

In the swamp, a gobble in the early afternoon probably doesn’t mean a lot because they gobble all day. You’ll also hear owls hooting all day, so the best locator call is a crow call.

“Scouting the area before season is the best way to kill a swamp gobbler. If I’m going to hunt on places I’ve hunted before, I start going out 2 to 3 weeks before the season opens. I don’t take a call, not even a locator call.

“Gobblers will usually start sounding off a couple of weeks before the season opens. I listen for 15 minutes in one spot, take notes of what I heard, and move to another area. I don’t drive my truck or a 4-wheeler when I’m scouting; I use a bicycle. It’s quieter and it sure beats walking.

“If I plan to hunt an area with which I’m not familiar, I’ll start scouting during deer season. In spring, with all the foliage on the trees, you can’t see very far. In the fall while I’m deer hunting, I can see through the woods and note any ridges or potential traveling areas the birds might use in spring.

“When I’m cutting and running, trying to locate a gobbler, I’ve found that a crystal slate with a roughed up carbon peg is a good device to get a shock gobble out of a bird. I’ll really come down hard on the call, trying to bury the peg in the slate. If it hurts your ears, then you’re doing it right. Sometimes, a high-pitched box call will do the same thing. The object is to give him something he hasn’t heard before, and he’ll shock gobble at the sound.

“As far as types of calls, I use them all. Hunters are wrong to limit themselves to just one or two calls. I run the gamut from mouth call to slate to box to wing bone to tube. The object is to find something that interests him and makes him give his position away.”

In Louisiana, you have two choices. You can do like Earl Norwood, head for the piney woods and try to entice a gobbler to come your way. On the other hand, you might prefer to follow Paul Cagnolatti to the South Louisiana swamps to try for a gobbler in Cajun country.

It’s a can’t-lose proposition either way.

About Glynn Harris 508 Articles
Glynn Harris is a long-time outdoor writer from Ruston. He writes weekly outdoor columns for several north Louisiana newspapers, has magazine credits in a number of state and national magazines and broadcasts four outdoor radio broadcasts each week. He has won more than 50 writing and broadcasting awards during his 47 year career.