Silence Of The Toms
September 28, 2010
Longbeards zip their beaks for a variety of reasons. Here's a variety of tactics to make your spring hunt a success. (April 2007)
Turkey call-maker Bruce Wurth of American Friction worked long and hard to get this fine gobbler during a time when the toms were quiet.
Photo by John Higley.
At that moment, things couldn't have been much better. Thanks to recent rain, my in-the-dark sneak was quiet. The tom turkey I'd roosted the previous evening was still exactly where I left him.
Using my small flashlight sparingly, I found a place to sit with my back against a stout pine tree. Zipping up my camo jacket to ward off the predawn chill, I settled in to wait.
The first gobble was a shock. Apparently I'd been catnapping, but the haunting sound instantly jolted me to attention.
"Gobble-obble-obble!" He went off again, announcing his presence to every hen within a half mile. If he's alone right now, I thought, this will be a slam-dunk.
Reaching into the side pocket of my hunting vest, I found a box of diaphragm calls and dug out a favorite. When the tom sounded off again, I directed a few soft yelps his way just to let him know he had company.
Then I sat back and awaited further developments. I fully expected to keep a one-sided date with the turkey as soon as he flew down from his perch.
Meanwhile, the big bird continued to gobble occasionally without any prompting from me. Then there was a commotion in the roost tree, which was only 75 yards away. From the following wingbeats, I knew that the tom was on the ground.
Another rousing gobble greeted my next yelps. I rested my shotgun on my knee, pointing it toward where I expected the turkey to show.
Well, so much for positive thinking! After making all that racket, the tom fell as silent as a Hannibal Lecter lamb going to slaughter. Despite my best calling efforts, he didn't make another peep that morning.
It was all very humbling, this silence of the tom. I wondered, briefly, if the bird had seen something he didn't like, or heard something that turned him off. But I knew better.
Even though I couldn't hear the ladies, I was sure the tom was roosting close to a bevy of hens -- and when he flew down, he'd been met by one or more of them.
Sure, he'd thundered that final gobble in my direction. But when the hen I was pretending to be didn't show up, he turned his attention to the feathered beauties he could see. Naturally, when those hens left their roost site, Mr. Big was close behind.
As I sat there, my ego deflated like a punctured balloon. Just how often, I wondered, had something like that happened to me in the last 35 years or so? My conclusion was dozens, if not hundreds of times.
And yes, it will happen again!
If you've hunted turkeys for long enough, this probably sounds very familiar. Some toms roosting close to hens gobble repeatedly, like the bird I just told you about. And in similar fashion, they go silent once they're on the ground. Others may gobble only once at fly-down time, and then keep their beaks closed the rest of the day.
Sometimes, of course, a tom with hens will continue to acknowledge your calls, at least for a time, when he's on the ground. But even though he shows an interest, it's most unusual for a tom to break away from his group and come to you.
Even a responsive tom will go silent, leaving you plenty of time in which to contemplate your next move.
ONE THING FOR CERTAIN: VARIABLES
Some hunters may credit silent toms with more intelligence and wariness than they actually have. Maybe, these hunters think, they called too much or too little and tipped off that old longbeard. Or maybe the smart old bird knew the difference between a box call or a diaphragm and the real thing?
Well, probably not. True, there are a lot of variables at work here, but it's unrealistic to give a turkey too much credit when it comes to analyzing a particular situation and adapting to it.
That's because turkeys can do only what turkeys are programmed to do. Their behavior consists of instinctive reactions to a variety of circumstances and needs that have to do with, among other things, food, water, breeding, the pecking order and self-preservation.
As we've seen, one reason that toms keep their mouths shut, especially during the middle of the spring breeding season, is because they're already with hens. Another reason is a sudden change in the weather, which triggers their need to feed, more than breed.
A few years ago, for example, on a day when a fast-moving storm was arriving, I called to three longbeard toms that I could see and watched their reactions. It was rather disconcerting. Despite my best efforts, they kept feeding and never even raised their heads.
Also, at any time during the spring season, some gobblers near the bottom of the pecking order are simply too intimidated by more aggressive toms to make much noise. Others may be quiet, at least for a time, because they were frightened by a predator -- two-legged, four-legged or winged. A turkey reacts in certain ways to predatory behavior, whether the predator is human or otherwise.
THREE PHASES OF SPRING
Despite all the variables, the spring season can be divided, perhaps not neatly, into three overlapping segments.
At the beginning of the season, there's usually a gobbling peak, as the toms challenge one another for dominance and go around looking for females. When gobblers are on the make, and before the pecking order is established, the chances of calling an old tom to the gun are very good.
As the season enters Phase Two, it's not unusual for gobbling activity to drop off dramatically for a variety of reasons, some of them covered above.
However, as the season enters Phase Three, and more and more hens start incubating their eggs full-time, another peak gobbling period is possible when suddenly lonely, still lustful toms go actively looking for females again. In theory, then, the tail end of the season is a great time to call gobblers.
Here are some tactics that might work on those tough, often frustratingly quiet gobblers, no matter when, or why, they're playing hard to
Consider the following scenario. You've done everything according to the book. You located turkeys the day before your hunt and got into position in the morning well before daylight. You listened patiently for a gobbler in any direction to announce his presence, and for all your trouble you were rewarded by -- you guessed it, silence. Now what?
First, look for sign. You should have been doing this all season long anyway, but it's never too late to start. If you see tracks, droppings, feathers or any other turkey signs, and if they appear fresh, there are bound to be turkeys in the area somewhere.
At the same time, try to figure out why the gobblers were quiet. Perhaps, they were simply roosting with or near hens -- which as we've seen, is not unusual, especially during midseason. Regardless, after a couple of early-morning hunts, during which only a gobble or two is heard, and all indications are that the toms and hens are together, it's probably time for a change in your approach.
THINK BANKERS' HOURS
For example, ease off on daybreak hunting and try bankers' hours instead. Here's the theory behind that notion: Later in the morning, the hens may leave the toms to lay eggs in their nests. When that happens, a suddenly jilted gobbler may very well be open to suggestions from you.
At the risk of sounding really old or lazy, or both, let me tell you about a late-morning hunt that took place a couple of years ago. I hate to admit it, but I didn't even leave home until after 8 a.m. That put me in turkey country around 9.
Earlier in the week, long before daylight, I'd been in the same place -- a small foothills ranch with a sparse turkey population. Weather-wise, it was a great morning, but I heard only two disinterested gobblers sound off a couple of times each.
Then, nothing. That's when I decided to come back another time and hunt them after they were well into their daily routine.
After parking my pickup and gathering my gear, I started hiking toward the back of the property, where I'd encountered turkeys many times. Moving slowly, I often paused to call softly, like a wandering hen might do. And what do you know? Shortly after 10 a.m. a flurry of gobbles reverberated through the woods.
Quickly, I found a place to set up and in less than 15 minutes, a two-year-old adult tom with an 8 1/2-inch beard came into view. Shortly after 11, I was back home.
Another time, I was in a spot where I knew the toms were henned up, for at least a few hours each morning. I didn't enter those woods until after noon. The minute I started walking, I heard a gobble, and 19 minutes later, that hefty boss tom was mine. When I got him, it was just after 1 p.m.
Providing it's legal where you are, late-afternoon hunting also works very well when the toms are otherwise tight-lipped. Try setting up near a known roost or travel route. Make a series of yelps every once in a while.
There are no guarantees, but this approach often attracts a traveling tom seeking company.
THREATEN IT, SHOCK IT
Sometimes you can use a variety of sounds and calling devices, to no avail. In such a situation, try to jump-start a tom with aggressive turkey talk like cutts, cackles or fighting purrs. Or you can try to shock a tom into gobbling by using some sort of locator call such as the ever-popular crow call.
If either of those tactics works, you can set up and try to tempt the bird with regular hen talk. Even if the tom won't come in right then, at least you'll know where he lives, so you can try him another day.
Persistence is, of course, a big part of turkey-hunting success, and so is intimate knowledge of the landscape where the turkeys are living. Even when the toms are mostly silent, you can sometimes put yourself in the right place at the right time -- if you know where the birds are apt to be on a daily basis.
A couple of years ago, I heard no turkey sounds at daybreak, so headed for a grassy bench where I knew, from past experience, that the turkeys traveled often. After placing a decoy where it could be seen from a distance in two directions, I sat down in a group of oak trees and made a few yelps with a favorite box call.
At first, all I heard was the sound of a nearby creek. But then there was something else, so faint at first that it seemed imaginary. Straining to listen, I heard the muffled sound again. It sounded like a car starting up far away -- but where I was, it couldn't be. Finally, the light bulb went off, and I came to full alert. Somewhere nearby, a gobbler was strutting without gobbling.
I put down my box call and picked up my shotgun, just in time to notice movement to my right. The tom was spitting and drumming, rapidly closing in on the decoy. He was only 10 paces away when I fired my 12-gauge pump shotgun and anchored him with a 3-inch magnum load of copper-plated No. 5 shot.
Why didn't the tom gobble at least a couple of times while coming to the imitation hen?
There are several possibilities -- the most likely being that it wasn't necessary. After all, the tom could see the decoy, and any real hen could have heard him strutting from 100 yards away.
Gobbling is what turkey hunters live for come spring. But in that case, the spit-and-drum sounds were the only turkey sounds I needed to hear.
Sometimes, an otherwise vocal tom will go silent because of something that happens unexpectedly, even while you're calling to him. Quite often, a hen intercepts the tom before he gets to you and leads him away from what she thinks is another hen, simply because she doesn't want competition.
However, you could be the culprit. If a tom sees you move ever so slightly or hears an odd sound, he might simply make a few alarm putts and depart in haste with his beak closed. The same is true if he encounters another type of predator, like a coyote or bobcat.
A PAUSE FOR A PREDATOR
A friend of mine once watched in awe as a mountain lion came between him and a tom, effectively shutting up both him and the gobbler.
Ten years ago, an eager tom I was working decided to depart, after a hefty black bear came between us. That turkey flew across a canyon and, as far as I know, it never came back.
The bear created an impossible situation -- for me, at least. But just because something spooks a tom into silence doesn't always mean that the hunt is over. A tom may dash for safety, but usually he won't go too far. He may very well open up again later that day.
Another time, my son Mark and I were working on a pair of gobbling toms together, when we accidentally jumped three deer. That trio ran right to
ward the turkeys and scared them away.
A half-hour later, we were still discussing the turn of events when one of the toms suddenly opened again, probably looking for his buddy. Mark made some hen yelps with his box call. The tom was glad to settle for a hen, which was unfortunate for him. A few minutes later, Mark was showing off the longbeard prize to me.
During every spring season, most of us will experience frustrating days when the toms gobble very little -- if at all. Sometimes it's indeed impossible to switch things in your favor.
However, there are also times when a slight adjustment in tactics will lead to success. The key, then, is to stick with the program and try to make something good happen.
One thing is certain. Sooner or later, a silent tom will gobble. But you'll never know it if you're not out there among them.