Turkey Linguistics

Prominently placed on the wall of his den is a photograph of a man carrying a black powder rifle. The man is Bob Fitch, he was a hunter, wildlife photographer and best friend. Bob left us just about a year ago now. When Bill Hollister talks about his friend his voice fills with respect and trust, the sort that comes with life long friendship.

Like hunters all over the area, Bill Hollister will rise around 4:30 tomorrow morning to be in the woods before daylight, silently seated, waiting. Tomorrow is opening day of spring turkey season. In the world of hunting, turkey and elk are two of the toughest creatures to hunt, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bill Hollister has hunted since he was a kid. Tagging along with a buddy, he signed up for the chance to attend a conservation camp; Bill was chosen and his love of the outdoors blossomed. Born in Pittsfield, he joined a local sportsmen’s club at fourteen, started hunting at fifteen. His father was not a hunter; he was an engineer and wanted Bill to follow in his footsteps. Bill tried his best to please his father, going to RPI on a scholarship, but hated it. He had to follow his own heart, so he transferred to U-Mass earning a degree in Wildlife Management.

Massachusetts paid poorly at the time, so Bill sought work in New York. In Poughkeepsie he was told there was nothing available, but wrangled his way into an interview. Now, Bill had worked two summers on the railroad in New York. Turned out the fella interviewing him was a railroad buff, they hit it off and Bill got a job. For thirty-three years Bill worked for the New York Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The last recorded sighting of a wild turkey in New York State was in 1844. In 1952 the state decided to change all that and developed a game farm program culminating in the release of 3,176 wild turkeys in 1959, Bill’s first year on the job. New York then helped supply and repopulate New England with wild turkeys. Last year the estimated statewide turkey population was 250,000.

In 1980 Massachusetts held its first turkey season. Bill’s family settled over there back in 1635, so he felt it altogether appropriate to bag the first turkey and he did, twelve minutes into that first season. He even wrote an article about it and that began a side career writing for Turkey Call, Field & Stream and dozens of other magazines and newspapers. He has also contributed hundreds of exquisite wildlife photographs to magazines, newspapers and books.

Bill has another talent he’ll put to good use tomorrow morning; he’s one of the best turkey callers around. Now, I mentioned earlier that turkeys were difficult to hunt. Why? Turkeys have extremely good vision, which means hunters must be camouflaged, head to toe, “You can spook ‘em at 70 or 80 yards.” Turkeys fly well and run extremely fast. Turkeys have acute hearing, so sitting quietly is of the utmost importance, “They know exactly where you are when you call.” Bill chuckles, “If turkeys had a good sense of smell, you’d never get one.”

There are lots of turkey calls on the market, slate calls, box calls, diaphragm calls, Bill also makes a turkey wing bone call the Indians once used. The language created is specific, like conjugating verbs. Calls vary greatly, hen yelp, clucks, purring, challenge or fighting purrs, (Tom turkeys love to fight) cackles and cutting, the sound of an excited hen.
I ask Bill to demonstrate some of his dozens of calls and what happens surprises me. When Bill picks up the wing bone call pictured here, his demeanor changes, much the way a good actor transforms into a character. He becomes motionless, relaxed, his posture alters, eyes calm, his breathing pattern slows. The sound that emanates startles me with its volume and its reality. I actually looked around expecting to see an angry Tom charging down the hall.

Bill slips a diaphragm call into his mouth, picks up the wing, flaps it against his leg and a different and subtle cackle fills my ears. “That’s the sound a hen makes when she flies to the ground from her roost first thing in the morning,” Bill’s wealth of knowledge flows effortlessly.

“It’s that specific?” I ask.

Bill nods, “There are a lot of tapes out there but the best way to learn is in the field.” Years in the field observing, listening to and studying the behavior of these amazing creatures is necessary to yield that sort of linguistic specificity.

“Elk and wild turkey are the most exciting because you communicate with them in their own language.” Bill smiles, “Knowing what to do, when, is the most difficult part, patience and persistence pays off and I can’t stress safety enough. Don’t stalk them, sit.” Good hunting, Bill.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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