By Steve Sorensen
Peak spring gobbler action arrives when gobblers get lonely. Be there and you’re halfway to success. But more often, gobblers are “henned-up.” They won’t gobble much, they’ll go only where the hens go, and they’ll frustrate turkey hunters from novices to experts.
No hunter has a foolproof solution to dealing with competition from hens. Look at it as a challenge more than as a problem, and your odds go up even when hens have the gobbler’s attention. Here are three scenarios that taught me a lot about how to deal with hens when you’re trying to take a tom fresh off his roost.
I was reeling in a nice gobbler just after daylight. He had been roosted about 80 yards away. When he had almost halved the distance a hen dropped from a tree and landed smack in front of him. I thought he’d hang up there or she would take him away, but he walked right by her and continued his full strut approach. Then another hen touched down in front of him, this time at 35 yards. He walked by her, too! I met him at 30 yards with a load of Number 5.
Why would he bypass two hot, flesh-and-blood hens for a bird in the bush he couldn’t see? He probably wanted to round up all the hens, and I was right there with the others.
Scenario Two: A gobbler sounded off at 5:40 AM, about 60 yards away. I waited for him to gobble the second time and quickly answered with a couple of soft tree yelps. He gobbled right back and flew down. Then I heard a couple of hens as I called their suitor to shotgun range. One flew down from my left, walked by me at about 20 yards, and strolled into the field on my right. Then a second hen flew down 30 yards away, and the gobbler was at 45 yards and coming to my call. I worried that the hen would enter the field too quickly, and he would follow her before coming into range. So I sent a couple of clucks her way, and she stopped. “Perfect,” I thought. “If she doesn’t enter the field, neither will he!”
She became a live decoy, and the big boy kept coming. He fanned out, then stepped behind a tree. That second hen entered the field and I raised the gun. When he came out from behind that tree to follow her, that’s when it turned into a bad day for him.
A few years ago I was scouting a spot with almost three girls for every boy — 11 hens and four mature gobblers. I was expecting hen problems.
I got to the woods at 5:00 on opening day, found a tree to sit by, and settled in. The birds had to be somewhere close but I wasn’t sure where. As the sky lightened before daybreak I peered into the treetops and could see four turkeys. Gobblers? Nuisance hens? If they were gobblers, the hens couldn’t be far away.
At 5:35 a gobble shook the treetops and a hen whispered back with a tree yelp. Once again, it was shaping up to be a contest between real live hens and me. As soon as I heard his next gobble I answered with the exact same call the hen made. A minute went by and he gave another shout-out. I answered simultaneously with the hen.
I didn’t want to act too committed and make him wait to see hens under his tree where he could fly down to meet them, so I didn’t answer every gobble, but my invitations were good enough to get two gobblers to investigate this hypothetical hen already on the ground. They flew down from about 60 yards away and landed 22 yards from me. A few minutes later I zip-tied my tag to the leg of a mature gobbler.
Is it always this easy? No, especially not if a gobbler hits the ground and immediately hooks up with a hen or two. Good luck prying him away because he’ll follow the girls anywhere, even if they don’t let him breed. Calling is one way you mimic a hen, but when real hens are ready and willing, calling by itself may not be enough.
Two Ways to Be the Hen
The scenarios I’ve described have taught me a lesson about dealing with hens. Be the hen.
You ask, “Isn’t ‘being the hen’ the whole idea behind calling?” Yes, but calling isn’t enough. You need to convince him you’re the sweetheart he’s looking for, and you do that not just by calling, but also by being where he thinks his hens should be.
Those two factors, calling and positioning, are how you mimic a hen. If hens aren’t roosted in the same tree he is in, they usually won’t be far away. He knows that. So, you need to get close — 80 yards, 70 yards, 60 yards. Even 50 yards or less is sometimes possible. If you can get that close to a roosted gobbler, he will think you’re a hen not just because of the sounds you’re making, but because you’re right there with the others. To him, you’re a bird in the hand.
Getting close is not easy. Suppose the gobbler is roosting in a tree at the edge of a field you must cross, and the moon is full and bright. Good luck with that because the moon will put light on you and cast a strong shadow. Or suppose the path to the spot where you’d like to set up 60 yards from him is no path at all, but is littered with sticks and limbs. Being silent is impossible.
I have two pieces of advice to help you overcome these issues. First, get into the woods early. If you have to wait an hour to hear that first gobble, it’s worth it. Second, if you lightly snap a stick or two in the darkness, you probably don’t need to worry about it. Turkeys hear animals on the ground all night long. Deer and raccoons are plentiful in the turkey woods, and can make a lot of noise with their nighttime activity. Light tan coyotes and white-striped skunks are visible if a gobbler wants to pull his head from under his wing, but most times he sits on a limb relaxed and without fear, knowing he’s safe.
Back to Scenario Three. Before the game began I had slowly worked my way toward the spot where I thought the turkeys—hens and gobblers—were roosted. I broke a stick or two and moved through the ground litter lightly crinkling the dry leaves until I found a tree where I could set up. I waited and watched the treetops. If I played this game well and became a hen among hens, a gobbler would want me just as much as he would want a real one.
And I did play it well. I sounded like a hen, I was close enough for him to expect me to be a hen, and in his walnut-sized mind, I was a hen. That’s why his next roost was in my freezer.
If you can’t beat the hens, try joining them. But sometimes the gobblers are tight with the girls and you can’t weasel your way in. Sometimes they won’t even give you an occasional courtesy gobble. Sometimes your only choice is to wait them out. Around mid-morning the hens will leave the gobblers to go lay an egg, and the advantage turns to you. That gobbler might remember where you are, and he may come looking for you. Be ready.
Steve Sorensen is an outdoor writer, speaker, and educator from Warren, Pennsylvania. Steve’s work may be found at EverydayHunter.com