Turkey calling is a skill that hunters use to try to attract birds in the wild. But inside a ballroom at the Opryland Hotel, mimicking turkeys got competitive last weekend.
An estimated 50,000 people came to Nashville last week for the National Wild Turkey Federation’s annual convention. The centerpiece of it all was the calling contest.
The math behind this competition, sometimes casually referred to as “the Super Bowl of turkey calling,” is simple: The more contestants sound like a wild turkey, the higher they score. They often use hand-operated instruments that create friction and can imitate, say, a yelping hen.
Sounding realistic takes skill, says Shane Simpson, an avid turkey hunter and a competitive caller.
“The cadence of the bird, when it yelps — things like that. There are a lot of things going on,” he says.
At the youth competition Friday night — called “poults,” for the name of a young turkey — Simpson’s 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, was one of the competitors. She got involved with hunting and calling young, winning her first calling competition at age 3.
By now, Brooke is one of the top young turkey callers in the nation. She’s also one of the few girls who competes.
Boys, she says, do not intimidate her.
“I think I can be just as good as them,” she says. “Or better.”
The whole point of turkey calling is to be a more successful hunter, luring the skittish bird within shooting distance. Shane Simpson says usually fathers pass on this love of calling and hunting to their sons. But he says he didn’t have any qualms about taking his daughter out to the woods on her first hunt.
“For me, it was easy,” he says. “I don’t have any other kids except for a daughter.”
The National Wild Turkey Federation sees calling as one of the ways to get newcomers interested in the sport of hunting, which has been on the decline since the 1980s.
This includes kids, but also city-dwellers who want to find locally sourced meat or people who want a closer connection to nature. Hunting fees and taxes on ammunition help pay for wildlife conservation.
And another target audience: women.
“If you can teach a mom to hunt, mom will take her kids in the woods,” says Mandy Harling, the organization’s director of hunting heritage programs.
She knows this firsthand. She never hunted as a child, but she married someone who did. They went turkey hunting together, and she was hooked. She loved watching the woods wake up. She loved the strategy that went into the sport.
“It was kind of crazy, but it was so much fun, and there’s so much skill involved in it,” she says.
Harling now takes the whole family with her.
But being a female hunter has had its challenges. When she started, women’s gear was so bad that she had to hunt in her husband’s clothes. That was uncomfortable. And she says she didn’t enjoy having him as her teacher.
Part of her job now is overseeing programs where women teach other women how to hunt.
“To learn from another woman, and take all those expectations out of it, really helped me personally,” she says.
More women who hunt means more role models for girls like Brooke Simpson, who walked confidently into the spotlight with her turkey call instruments at the poults calling competition Friday night.
Brooke makes four calls, then walks offstage, looking relieved. At the end, the judges hand down their decisions.
Brooke takes third place — the best she’s ever done at the grand nationals.
And beating her, in second, is another girl.