Article Written by Othmar Vohringer
Anyone who has hunted North America’s most popular game bird for a season or two, had to learn to deal with the frustration of a big tom hanging up just outside the effective shooting range. The majority of these birds are the older wiser toms, the ones we hunters respectfully refer to as “Boss Gobblers”. They are masters at surviving and that makes them one of the most challenging game animals to hunt. In my opinion, shaped by my many years of observation and hunting turkeys, there are three main reasons why a tom hangs up and for each scenario there’s a solution. Let’s look at each and see how we can outsmart these Boss Gobblers.
1. The tom comes in but then doesn’t see what he expected to see
If a tom comes to your calling he naturally fully expects to see a hen. If he doesn’t he instantly knows that something is not quite right and he will hang up to check it out from a distance before advancing any further. A common mistake some hunters make is to set up where they can see for a long way. While it is nice to watch an approaching tom from a long distance it is worthwhile to remember that if the hunter can see that far then so can the gobbler. Turkeys know what to expect when they hear another turkey. Moreover, turkey ears can judge distance quite accurately and the location where the call is coming from. With that said the tom knows where and when he can expect so see what he came looking for. If he doesn’t he gets suspicious. Wouldn’t you if you heard someone calling you but didn’t see that person anywhere?
While decoys help to give a visual stimuli to an approaching bird and might even fool him into coming a little closer it also needs to be said that turkeys, especially older, smarter gobblers, have become quite wary of seeing other turkeys standing motionless around in the landscape. A much better approach is to set up in such a way that the tom has to walk within shooting range to see where the calling is coming from. There are always features within the landscape that let you choose a set up that will force the tom to come close.
One of my all times favourite features is a woodland or field corner. Also setting up just below a small crest or on the tip of a thicket will work just as well. Anywhere a turkey can’t see without approaching to within 30 to 40 yards to the decoys and your calling station is a good spot. A few years ago I guided a hunter and remember that he was not very happy when I placed him around the corner of an overgrown logging road that the turkeys used as a route from their roosting tree to an alfalfa field. “How am I supposed to see when a tom comes down the trail”? He complained. “Trust me”. I said, “You will see him when he is close enough to shoot”. Sure enough a half hour into my first calling session the hunter almost grabbed his heart when a big tom came walking around the corner looking for that hen he heard a half mile away. Had we set up where the client wanted the tom would have seen from several hundred yards away that there was nothing where he would expect to see a hen. He would have stopped in his tracks and waited for a while and then probably would have walked away. Toms know that turkey hens are not invisible or just sit around motionless.
Another tactic I often employ works very well with two hunters. One hunter is situated on the shooting set up and the second hunter who does the calling takes up position behind the first hunter about 20 yards inside the woodlot or similar cover. When the tom approaches the caller gets up and carefully walks in a straight line away from the approaching tom into the cover. Every few steps the caller stops and makes a few soft yelps and clucks, nothing too aggressive. Nothing frustrates a gobbler more then coming to a hen only to find that she is walking away from him. With this set up I had toms falling over themselves running after the hen that dared to walk away. By doing so they will run right in front of the gunner. Just make sure you have plenty of good cover available while employing this tactic otherwise the gobbler will detect you and the proverbial jig is up.
2. The gobbler is already in the company of hens
This is without a question the toughest situation. Coaxing a tom away from hens to follow another one is next to impossible. Since the gobbler already is in lovely company there is no plausible reason why he should risk loosing what he has by looking for another hen that might or might not be interested in him. You can produce the most enticing turkey love talk but the tom will not be swayed to leave his hens.
So what do you do? Well, one of several tactics that has proven to work well is rather than calling the gobbler, call the hens. Given the toms jealous nature he will follow the hens. For this tactic a good set up and proper camouflage are very important because now you have not just one set of turkey eyes looking for you but two or even three turkeys looking for you. One suspicious move on your part and the game is over before it begins. Turkeys have incredible eyesight and it often has been said that if a turkey in addition to his eyesight could smell as well as a deer it would become unhuntable. So how do we call hens? Forget all about normal love talk now it’s chitchat time. Listen to the hen, and if more than one is present then listen to the boss hen and then match her, yelp for yelp, cluck for cluck. To be successful it is important that you exactly repeat every “word” she says, right down to the tone and frequency. Play that answering back game for a minute or two until you get her attention. Once she is onto you don’t wait until the hen is done talking: instead, be rude and interrupt her every time she is starting to talk. Nothing gets a hen more fired up then another hen cutting her off in mid sentence. Hens will get so angry that quite often they will come running looking for that disrespectful intruder and the tom will waddle busily after her. The rest is up to you to make it count.
If you can’t bring the hens to you the next option is to ambush the gobbler. Put the calls away and observe in what direction the birds are travelling, using a good pair of binoculars if necessary. The turkeys, like all animals, have a natural tendency to follow the path of least resistance. Use this habit to your advantage and try to predict what route the birds are taking considering the terrain features. Carefully try to loop in a big arch around the birds and get ahead of them. Be fast but as quiet as you can and use every caution to stay undetected from the traveling turkeys. Set up an ambush that will take the turkeys past you and within shooting range.
Another tactic that can also work very well is to rush the birds and scatter the flock. This is a very common tactic used during the fall season but can work great on spring turkeys as well. If you can’t get any closer than 70 to 100 yards, charge the flock, or where legal, send a hunting dog to scatter the flock. The idea is to separate the tom from the hens. Watch where the tom is flying or running and then following him as soon he is out of sight. After a while the gobbler will try to reunite with the hens or go and look for new company. Set up near where the tom settled and start calling. Since he lost his hens he may be willing to pay attention to your calling now.
3. The access to your set up is blocked
Many hunters have witnessed turkeys behaving very strangely at times. For example, a turkey doesn’t really mind flying across a river or ravine, walking across a small shallow creek, a road or slipping under barbwire fences, or navigating through a thicket to find food and shelter. But no matter how desperate a tom is for female company he will rarely if ever cross an obstacle to follow hen calls. This has to do with the fact that male turkeys are male chauvinists. They will go only so far and then fully expect the female to come the rest of the way to them.
One time I watched a gobbler strutting back and forth along a field edge getting more and more agitated as his head turned from a purple red to a dark blue and back to fire red again. Each time I called he answered with more anger and frustration added to his thundering gobbles. But no matter how sweet my hen music must have sounded to his ears he would not come one step closer and kept pacing back and forth along that same path. About a half hour into that game and with no result I eventually got tired of it and had to find out what made that bird walk back and forth. There was a small shallow ditch he could have easily crossed but to the tom that was an obstacle he was not prepared to cross. Nobody knows why toms refuse to cross barriers, or even perceive such obstacles as barriers. By nature turkeys are good flyers and very agile on their feet. As mentioned before turkeys are used to flying and sometimes for great distances but not when they follow a hen call. Like I said, they are male chauvinists.
The best solution to this problem is to avoid having any sort of barriers between you and the turkeys. Good pre-season scouting helps you to pinpoint all possible barriers. When hunting on short notice on unfamiliar land, survey your surroundings before setting up to call. But no matter how careful you are, if you hunt turkeys long enough you’ll eventually get into a situation of facing the formidable task of trying to call a tom across a barrier. If the tom refuses to oblige despite your best calling, shut up. The tom will get either curious about the sudden silence and cross the barrier in a last ditch effort to get to a hen that, to his mind, has lost interest in him, or in most cases he looses interest and walks away. When this happens watch where he walks and then quickly and carefully move to a better place ahead of him and on his side of the barrier and then begin to call him again.
Hunting the wily turkey is a challenge at the best of times and as more hunters take to the woods each spring in pursuit of North America’s largest game bird it will become an even bigger challenge. Turkeys are smart and by nature also highly paranoid. This can mean only one thing – we will see more and more gobblers hanging up just outside the effective range of a shotgun. Yes, they seem to know exactly how far a shotgun can send a load of pellets, and so we have to come up with tactics that get us closer to the tom or him closer to us. I hope that some of the tactics I outlined here will help you as much as they have me.