Perplexing Turkey Questions Answered

Why do they hang up 10 yards out of range? How does a hunter call in a henned-up tom? Can they really see you blink? These questions and more, answered once and for all.

That tom was so hot in the wee dark hours that I could have belched and he still would've gobbled right back.

Turkeys rarely do what's expected. That's what makes a successful hunt so rewarding. But knowing why they do what they do can help you bag more toms.
Photo by Kyle Carlisle.

I made a perfect approach to my blind in the dark, not even snapping a twig on the way, and started with some soft yelps a half hour before sunrise. The tom answered instantly, sounding like he was about 200 yards away, slightly uphill, in the direction opposite the one I had come from.

It was the perfect setup, so I forced myself to be patient, uttering only a couple of soft yelps every five or 10 minutes. Every one was rewarded by the gobbler's response.

I started indulging myself in a fantasy of walking back to my car, bird in hand, before 7 a.m. and rewarding myself with a huge breakfast. By the time I heard the big bird fly down from the roost -- with the characteristic grace of a dropped bowling ball -- I had all but called in my order.

That's where the fantasy ended, however. I never saw the gobbler. For all I know, he never took a single step in my direction.

After 45 minutes, he was gone. Apparently, I'd found the only turkey on the planet that had taken a vow of chastity.

Examining some of turkeys' most common but perplexing behavior from the standpoint of their biology and social structures, hunters can help stack the odds in their favor. There's just one disclaimer: The opinions below are best guesses by people qualified to make them, but they'll be the first to tell you turkeys will forever leave hunters sitting in the woods scratching their heads.

JUST OUT OF RANGE
Q: Why do they always seem to hang up 10 yards out of range?

A: It may have taken a few minutes or an hour, but the gobbler has finally started coming right at you. Now it's a tossup as to which of you is more excited. Suddenly he's close, gobbling so loud you can feel it vibrating in your chest. But he never comes any closer, and no matter how you change up your calling, he just loses interest and drifts away.

Tom Blankinship, senior wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, has a theory.

"Turkeys, like any other bird, know they're vulnerable when they're displaying themselves," he said. "They're going to stay close to cover, and they're actually trying to get the female to come to them."

What may be happening is that the toms are getting to where they think the hens are, strutting and waiting for the girls to come take a look. When they don't show up, or if he can see your decoys and notices they aren't moving toward him, he either assumes they've lost interest or he just starts getting nervous about being out in the open so long. Either way, the situation just doesn't "feel right," which compels the bird to look for love elsewhere.

This scenario is more likely to develop with older and bigger birds than with jakes, which have practically run up into some hunters' laps.

So, if you really want to score a big bird, the best bet is to hunt with a buddy who can call from a position behind you, farther from the bird. That's likely to lure the bird closer to the gun.

Vary your calls if the birds aren't coming toward you.
Photo by Janet Romanelli.

If you're hunting solo, try calling away from the turkey instead of toward him. The idea is to give the impression the hen is moving away and entice the gobbler to give chase. Ideally, you can start this backward calling before your movement is likely to spook him, but that's easier said than done.

HENNED-UP HOPE?
Q: Is there any way to get a henned-up tom to leave his girls?

A: The common wisdom is that toms with hens aren't about to leave a sure thing in the hopes of getting lucky with a stranger, but that's only part of the story. Gobblers also feel safer with extra sets of eyes and ears on alert for danger. You can still get these birds. However, you have to abandon the notion of actually calling them to you. One suggestion is to stalk the gobbler.

"Just try to get as close to him as you can," said Robert Crawford of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a man who has probably killed more wild turkeys in the past 63 years than any other human.

"You have to be careful not to be seen, but you really have nothing to lose," he said. "If he sees you and runs, you're no worse off than if you had sat still trying to call him in -- it's an empty sack either way."

Something that might help in your stalk is to remember that turkeys feed in one direction. Watch which direction they're going and then try to pick a spot where they're going to show up. If you can get there first, without getting busted, you can wait in ambush. Just be prepared to agonize over whether you picked the right spot.

A similar tactic, but one with less guesswork, is patterning the birds. Blankinship said turkeys can be quite traditional: If you see them doing something one day and they aren't disturbed, it's likely they'll be doing the same thing at the same time the next day.

If you have the time to test this theory, you can pick a good spot and may bag a gobbler without even bringing a call into the woods.

For those who simply can't fathom not calling a bird in, you may still be able to get the tom to come to you by calling the dominant hen.

The technique is to simply wait for the hen to call, and then call back to her exactly the same way. Each time she calls, call back the same way. She'll start to get louder and madder. You should too, and start overlapping her calls with your own. Basically, you're trying to convince her another girl is making the moves on her man, and if you can get her mad enough to come over and look for a butt to kick, she'll likely have the gobbler i

n tow.

The other option is to use a gobbler call to make the tom think he has a challenger nearby. Give him visual proof with a jake decoy, and he may come at you in a rage. Just be very cautious with jake decoys, especially on public land where other hunters may be around; there's a much higher risk you could be accidentally shot.

Finally, if you're just short on time, concerned that relocating will just spook the birds, and willing to forego the big tom, that doesn't mean there aren't other rivals hanging around the periphery, afraid to challenge the boss but eager to attend to the needs of a solitary hen. This situation is common in almost all social orders during the mating season, so you still may get a chance at a bird. Just be prepared for him to come in quietly.

SNEAKY GOBBLERS
Q: Why do some gobblers sneak up on you without gobbling?

A: You've been calling for more than an hour with no action. Your keester is sore, your legs are cramping and nature's calling. You stand up and there on the edge of the brush is a nice tom, looking at you like you're a complete moron. He putt-putts and walks, runs or flails his way into the next quadrangle.

More than likely, you're dealing with a gobbler that has learned his place in the turkey society the hard way; turkeys are known to battle vigorously for dominance.

"My guess is that a quiet gobbler is one that has been recently pummeled by a bigger gobbler," Blankinship said. "He's just a little nervous about the situation and wants to check things out without getting thrashed."

If he's not going to give himself away by answering a hen call, that puts hunters in a tough place: You can never be sure you aren't being watched.

If you've simply got to move, you might try using a locator call before you stand up, something like a crow or owl call, rather than a coyote or other predator. That sound might just be enough to trigger a knee-jerk gobble and save your hunt.

PICKY GOBBLERS
Q: Why would a turkey gobble like crazy at one call, but completely ignore another?

A: According to the reference book, Wild Turkey Management and Biology, it's an accepted fact that turkeys can recognize one individual hen's call from another.

"Every hen sounds different," Crawford said. "A gobbler may know what he wants and is just waiting for that call."

Blankinship said hunters themselves might have conditioned the birds not to respond to certain calls.

"If a turkey has been called to and then shot at or spooked, they get tuned in to that particular call," he said. "At that point, you can call all you want, but they're on to you."

This is why the golden rule of turkey hunting is: "Always hunt with more than one call."

If you're getting no action from your mouth call, try a slate or a plunger. Just bear in mind that these are the three most popular kinds of calls, and if you're hunting public land, the turkeys have probably heard it all before. To really increase your odds, try a turkey wing call or a box call.

"The long box is the best way to get them to gobble if they are not gobbling," Crawford said, adding that hunters don't use it a lot because, like an instrument, it takes practice to learn how to use it well. But the volume and variance in sound you can make with a box call are well worth the effort, and it may give you a leg up on other hunters.

Finally, remember that "changing it up" also means using different calls differently. If you keep repeating a pattern of five yelps followed by a cluck, it sends the message that something's amiss. Throw some personality into your calling; mix up the pattern, change the volume, speed and slow up the cadence. Show that tom you're a party girl and he may just come running.

AFTERNOON GOBBLING?
Q: Why does the gobbling stop after morning?

A: It doesn't. Most hunters simply give up around noon and go home. They don't realize that turkeys are active all day.

It's true that turkeys are more vocal in the morning when they come down from the roost and toms start gathering their hens. By midmorning, the birds tend to take a break, but the action picks up again around 1 p.m.

Key advice: Hunt all day. A great number of turkeys are taken in the afternoon. Toms are also likely to travel a wider range later in the day (and season) as hens get scarce, and they'll be less risk averse if they're feeling lonely.

EXCELLENT EYESIGHT
Q: Just how good is their eyesight?

A: "If a gobbler could read, he could read a newspaper three football fields away," Crawford said. "His eyesight is 10 times better than yours or mine. They can see you blink, they can see you move, and they don't have to be looking at you to see you."

Gobblers also have an incredible range of vision, and they are excellent at detecting movement. When they're in gun or bow range, it's a safe bet to say they'll see any movement you make. Their vision is their best asset, but there are ways to beat it:

  • Rely on the natural world. As good as the turkey's vision is, it's not X-ray vision. Wait until he's behind a tree or a rock or some other obstacle that blocks his line of sight before you raise your gun or draw your bow.

  • Decoys are another good tool because they will be the turkey's focus of attention. Just try to set the decoys up so you aren't in the gobbler's direct line of sight as he's approaching. But remember, any sudden movements and it's over.

  • To really level the playing field, however, you can't beat a ground blind with "shoot through" windows. It's the closest thing to invisibility.

    SEASONAL ADJUSTMENTS
    Q: Why don't spring tactics work in fall?

    A: Fall hunting requires an entirely different approach because the turkeys aren't mating in fall. Hens typically have broods with them as well, so calling just isn't going to work.

    The exception is the kee-kee run call. Listen to an audio file of this useful call by visiting www.nwtf.org/ all_about_turkeys/sounds_of_turkeys.html. It's basically the turkey equivalent of the lost hunter firing three shots in the air, and it may lure a hen or a gobbler in.

    A more popular approach, or one used in concert with kee-kee run calling, is to actually flush out a flock of turkeys, wait where they flushed and call them back. If you've patterned them well, this can be very successful.

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