The Trouble With Tom
September 28, 2010
A veteran longbeard with a few seasons under his feathers can be hard to handle, but the right problem-solving strategies can enable you to punch your tag when the hunting gets tough this spring.
Establishing practical solutions ahead of time for common in-the-field problems can make tagging a wary longbeard a more likely prospect. Photo courtesy of Travis Faulkner.
Solution 2: Float And Call
If the gobbler decides to stay glued to the roost, it's time to switch gears and change strategies. Beating your hat against your chest and hitting the longbeard with a loud fly-down cackle should really get his attention. Your next move should be to walk directly away from the roost while contently yelping and clucking. Now, the gobbler will start to feel a little insecure and anxious when it appears his hen is leaving him behind in the tree. With this strategy, the gobbler will typically hit the ground running and gobbling every few steps in an attempt to catch up with the hen. Once the longbeard is out of the tree, it's safe to set up and start calling with some soft yelps and purrs. This dirty little trick has allowed me to connect with several tough toms in the past.
Just when you think you've seen everything in the spring woods, some joker with a paintbrush-thick beard and super-sharp spurs will hit you with a curveball.
Anyone who has ever thrown on a turkey vest and rubbed a striker against a slate call has undoubtedly encountered a tom that has jerked their blood pressure up a notch or two. These are the bad boys who are responsible for making all of us look foolish by skirting around our setups or walking off in the opposite direction gobbling every breath.
Unfortunately, these tough birds are the ones that we can't get rid of and will haunt our memories for a lifetime. It's really easy to forget about a loud-mouthed 2-year-old that basically jumped into your lap on opening day, but a hardheaded bird that gives you fits all season will be keeping you up late at night.
On the other hand, the one positive thing about tangling with a tough tom that has evolved into a master escape artist is being able to face a challenge. There is no sweeter feeling in the spring woods than connecting with a longbeard that played hard to get and was anything but easy to tag. On that note, let's take a detailed look at some problems you may encounter with difficult birds this spring and learn what high-impact strategies you can use to close the deal when things get rough and tough. These deadly tactics and techniques will enable you to consistently tag and bag "bad news birds" all across the country.
PROBLEM: STUCK ON THE ROOST
Have you ever bumped into a longbeard that likes to stay on the roost way after daylight and gobbles at anything and everything? These birds can absolutely drive a hunter crazy -- and for good reason. Every echoing gobble increases the chances of the longbeard attracting either hens or another hunter. This is definitely not what you want to be hearing, especially on a tract of public land that receives intense outside hunting pressure. However, there are a couple of things you can do to get jabber jaws on the ground and headed your way.
Solution 1: Make The Right Call
Let's face it: It can be really easy to let a loud-mouthed longbeard work you instead of you working him. All of us love to listen to those ground-shaking gobbles, but calling to a longbeard on the roost can lead to disastrous results. When hunting a gobbler off the roost it's important to set up as close as possible. Remember, making it easy on the tom to get to you after fly-down can make all the difference in the world. Next, make contact just before daylight with some soft, sleepy tree yelps and then go completely silent after the gobbler answers your calls. It's tough not to call back to the longbeard when he starts gobbling every breath, but you need to get him off the roost as quickly as you can. Being patient and waiting for the gobbler to hit the ground before working him can dramatically increase your success.
PROBLEM: HENNED-UP TOMS
During the opening days of season, it's not uncommon to find longbeards traveling with large groups of hens, which can be very aggravating to say the least. In my opinion, there is nothing tougher in the spring than attempting to call in a lovesick gobbler that has his beak stuck up a hen's tail feathers. Trying to break away a longbeard from hens with your calling just doesn't make too much sense. Why would a gobbler leave what he already has to go check out one hen?
In most cases, a tom is not going to abandon the hens, but he will gobble at all of your calling while walking away. For good reason, that is the way things are supposed to work in the turkey woods. A longbeard gobbles to attract and gather up hens that are willing to mate. As hunters, we try to reverse this process by calling and pulling an anxious longbeard to our setup. However, when gobblers are already with hens, conventional calling and ordinary setups are just not going to get things done. If you want to drop the hammer on a henned-up gobbler, you better be willing to push the envelope and think outside the box.
Solution 1: Fire Up The Hen
Jealousy and anger are two powerful emotions that are not exclusive to human beings. A lead hen that has a longbeard glued to her backside can easily be provoked with the right setup and calling. The key is to close the distance and set up dangerously close to the group before trying to work the birds. Another good pointer that will add to your overall success is to make sure you set up ahead of where the turkeys are traveling. It can be difficult to pull turkeys in the opposite direction of how the birds are already moving through the woods.
After properly setting up, I like to turn up the volume and get aggressive with my calling. This goes against traditional wisdom that says soft and subtle is the trick to tagging tough birds. In most cases, softer calling is exactly what is needed to coax a wary longbeard into gun range, but this isn't one of those times. I want to get loud and try to fire-up the lead hen by initiating a heated conversation. Interrupting the hen with a series of agitated cutts and assertive yelps can generate a jealous rage that will bring her and the gobbler right past you.
Solution 2: Try The Spring Break-Up
With fall turkey hunting, breaking up the flock by scattering the birds off the roost or busting them on the ground is a highly effective technique. This strategy is often overlooked during the spring, but it can be lethal when longbeards are covered up with hens. After locating potential roosting areas, sneak in close right at dark and scatter the birds off the roost by making a lot of noise. Next, find a good setup near the roosting area and try tree calling just before daylight. A series of soft tree yelps and gentle clucks should get the busted birds talking. At first light, hit the tom with an emotional fly-down ca
ckle and utilize calling sequences that consist of aggressive yelping and cutting. The gobbler and hens will try to regroup quickly and this type of calling can help bring an anxious longbeard up close and personal.
PROBLEM: UNRESPONSIVE GOBBLERS
As a turkey hunter, it has always amazed me how one morning the longbeards will gobble their heads off and the very next day everything goes deathly quiet. Even when the weather conditions and all other factors are identical, the birds still won't cooperate for whatever reason. During these non-vocal periods, it can be tough to trigger a gobble from a stubborn longbeard. Every one of us has experienced days when we couldn't even buy a gobble and hunting seemed impossible. These extreme conditions can be tough, but it's still possible to bust a longbeard in silent mode with the right strategies.
Solution 1: Lock Down Your Setup
There are two good ways to handle unresponsive gobblers during the spring season. The first is to locate a high-traffic area, such as a food source or field, and lock down your setup. Turkeys can be patterned just like a whitetail deer and often exhibit daily routines that can be exploited by hunters. Finding an area that birds routinely visit and sticking with it can be all it takes to connect with a non-vocal gobbler. I like to throw out a few hen decoys along with a strutting tom with these setups and stay put as long as possible. Occasionally, hitting the birds with some soft yelps, purrs, and clucks will add realism to the setup and potentially could grab the attention of a nearby longbeard. The key to success is having the discipline to stay locked down with one setup throughout the day (or during legal shooting hours).
Solution 2: Run And Gun
The second strategy is completely opposite from the first and requires a hunter to burn some boot leather. Covering a lot of ground and trying to find a hot bird can help keep things interesting if you don't like sitting still for long periods of time. Sneaking through the woods, glassing open areas, and frequently calling is commonly referred to as running and gunning. The trick is to keep moving and utilize aggressive cutting and yelping to make a longbeard come unraveled. However, it's extremely important to be able to set up quickly and effectively after you call. In many cases, the tom will gobble dangerously close and will be on top of you before you know it.
PROBLEM: DEALING WITH HANG-UPS
Without question, having a longbeard hang up just out of gun range can be a real headache in the woods. Sitting back and watching a gobbler pace back and forth in full strut is enough to drive anyone crazy. It's mind-boggling how a creature that can fly, jump, walk and run can become glued to one spot and refuse to move. Sometimes all it takes is a creek, thicket, blowdown, fence, or any other type of obstacle to cause a fired-up gobbler to throw on the brakes. What is really frustrating is the fact that the tom will answer every call with a booming gobble, but refuses to move any closer. There are several sneaky strategies you can use to talk that gobbler into riding in the back of your truck.
Solution 1: Try Switch-Hitting
Consequently, one of the easiest ways to break a hang-up is to simply switch calls and hit the bird with a new sound. Changing over from a whiny high-pitched mouth call to a raspy slate could be just enough to get that gobbler moving. In the past, I have also used a combination of calls to mimic several hens to convince a wary longbeard to come a little closer. An often-overlooked strategy is to go silent and test the patience of the gobbler. Even the toughest and smartest bird can't handle a hen that has seemingly lost interest in him. With this strategy, the longbeard will often gobble frantically before moving and sometimes begin spitting and drumming as he approaches.
Solution 2: Change Setups
Another high-impact strategy is to simply move calling locations to mix things up a little. One of the golden rules of turkey hunting is to set up where that longbeard wants to be and make it easy for him to come to you. Surprisingly, circling around and setting up above, below, or on the other side of a gobbler can be exactly what is needed to shake things loose. I strongly feel that the setup is far more important than calling when it comes to tagging longbeards. The easiest way to avoid a hang-up is to set up where the gobbler will already be in gun range when you can see him. Trying to call a smart old gobbler across wide-open areas that offer high visibility can be very difficult, because he will expect to see the hen. A tom will often stop and strut in an open area to draw the hen to him.
PROBLEM: HIGHLY PRESSURED LONGBEARDS
I once heard a guy at a turkey-hunting seminar tell the audience that turkeys don't get call-shy or harder to hunt because of outside hunting pressure. Well, I would like this old boy to come hunt with me on about the second weekend of season on some of the public land that I hunt in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. It doesn't take a lot of overcalling, bumping birds and missing shots to completely change the nature of the game. Intense outside hunting pressure can undoubtedly create an extremely challenging environment, and you better have a plan if you want to beat all of the competition.
Solution 1: Use The Backdoor Approach
When the heat is turned up and hunters have flooded the woods, you have to separate yourself from the competition. Simply staying away from easy access areas will help place some distance between you and all of the other hunters. Sneaking in the back door will give you access to birds that have been called to death by everyone else. In the past, I have utilized a small boat and electric trolling motor to ease up and down creeks or rivers in areas that receive intense outside hunting pressure. A lot of hunters don't hunt very far from the roads these days and using their laziness as an advantage can pay off big when hunting tough public-land gobblers.
Solution 2: Call Softly And Shoot Often
As mentioned earlier, longbeards that have heard all of the local calling talent can be hard to handle. This is especially true during the mid to late part of the season when most of the big-mouthed birds have already been shot. When hunting call-shy or pressured birds, it's usually better to tone down your calling and focus more on your setup. Using soft yelps, purrs, and sometimes just scratching in the leaves can be all you need to coax a gun-shy gobbler into range. Setting up in high-traffic areas that are covered in fresh sign like field edges, open hardwood ridges or old logging roads will be your best bet. Longbeards will often cruise these locations during the midmorning hours.
Things can get a little hectic when the turkeys aren't acting the way they should. This season, when that tom throws everything at you but the kitchen sink, be sure to try these fail-proof strategies and make something happen. These tactics will allow you to consistently punch your tags no matter how hard things get in your neck of the woods.