April 24, 2020
By Paul Rackley
Even though turkeys have a brain about the size of a pea, they can still be hard to outwit. Turkeys just seem to have a knack for doing things that messes up a day's hunt.
What's worse, they do it all while screaming their location and even their plans. In the spring, turkeys use yelps, clucks, cutts, cackles and even gobbles to talk back and forth like text messages between love-struck teenagers. Just like hormone-riddled kids, turkeys respond enthusiastically before going into a sulk and breaking off all communication.
While this seems insane, both in the real world and the woods, all this communication actually means something to those involved. Turkeys use both language and silence to convey meaning, and hunters who learn to understand this meaning are much more successful in the spring.
Here are few common scenarios that hunters often find in the woods, along with what each most likely means and some tips on how to turn the situations into success.
THE GOING-QUIET GAME
One of the most common situations a hunter comes across is a tom gobbling strongly at first, but going quiet as it gets closer. This usually happens when the bird gets within 100 yards, often even closer. According to Josh Grossenbacher, champion caller and product manager for Zink Calls, this situation probably means one of three things has happened.
The first is that a hen has intercepted the gobbler, and he has lost interest. The second is that a predator has come in and spooked the bird away. The hunter's strategy, however, pretty much stays the same because of the third possibility—the gobbler is cautious, but he’s still trying to find the hen.
"When this happens, I will go silent and use my eyes to try and find him sneaking in quietly," said Grossenbacher. "And my ears listening for crunching in the leaves or him drumming."
Unless you see the offender, you’re best off using patience to sit still, while ramping down the calling. Only call sparingly and softly and give the tom time to sneak in.
Just as frustrating is when a bird is gobbling at everything you send at him, but continues to head the other way. In this situation, Troy Ruiz, Primos Game Calls videographer, says hunters shouldn’t think their calling is the problem; the bird has someplace it wants to be. This is where scouting becomes so important, according to Ruiz. If you can determine what he wants during that time of year, you can circle him and try to get there before he does. Both Ruiz and Grossenbacher use locator, rather than turkey calls, to keep up with birds. This keeps birds gobbling without telling them your location and making hens change direction or push toms harder. Get in front and then only call softly and sparingly.
If the toms are hanging around hens, another strategy is the pick a fight with the boss hen. Get aggressive and mimic every sound she makes. If you can make her mad enough, she'll walk over to deal with this intruder, bringing the gobbler with her. The challenge in this strategy is that the hen can bring a number of other turkeys with her, so there will be lots of eyes looking for danger. If they spot movement on your part, the hen can just take off with her boy.
SILENCE ON THE GROUND
Toms sure like to gobble from the trees before going completely quiet on the ground. Lots of folks have theories on this, but prevailing thought goes that toms sound off up high to be heard at longer distances by hens, which then walk in and settle below the tree. This is a pretty good sign of a mature bird, as it knows to wait until it can see a hen below. This typically means that breeding is still going, at least in the mornings. Breeding might be in the final phases toms stay high in the trees later; this means more hens have started nesting.
In either case, hunters have a few choices. They can find another bird; they can try to slip around and get where the turkeys are heading. Or, hunters can be patient. Despite their small brains, turkeys know their home areas and remember well where they heard hens. Consider making a few soft yelps and clucks periodically, along with some scratching, and wait for the hens to go to nest later in the morning. Many toms will hunt for "new" hens once the hens they started the day with go to the nest. And he’ll remember the hen calls you made. Stay still and keep your eyes open, as birds will often come looking quietly.
THE HARD STOP
It is amazing how often toms like to lock up just out of range. It happens a lot of places, but especially out in open areas. Toms do this because the natural order of things involves hens traveling to gobblers, rather than the other way around.
This is one of the toughest situations hunters run into, and is likely where reaping (moving toward a bird while holding a tail fan in front of yourself) got its start. Crawling toward a bird behind a fan can work. Even if the bird doesn't charge, it often stands and lets the intruder ease into range. In this strategy, hunters are trying to look like a challenging gobbler, so calling must be eliminated, and the hunter needs to make his movements as much like a turkey's movements as possible.
Other strategies include is slipping away while calling to make the gobbler think you’ve lost interest or are heading toward another tom—a strategy that really works well with a partner: the caller retreats and the shooter ambushes the tom as the bird advances.
EXCITED AND SCARED
No matter how hard we try to keep still and hidden, turkeys can easily become spooked and putt their fear away. In fact, often something else, such as a predator, comes through and sends them scurrying away. While a putt often means the hunt for that bird is over, you can continue the pursuit if you use patience.
Grossenbacher waits at least 30 to 45 minutes before trying out a few soft clucks and yelps. Many experts often recommend shifting location at least a little. Hunters can also consider the kee kee, making it seem as if the "hen" got spooked as well and is looking for some company to help calm down.
Occasionally, Grossenbacher will get aggressive to provoke a gobbler. He’s seen this work, but it isn’t his favorite strategy. Spooked birds can be difficult, but with patience and persistence, they can be killed.
COME AND GO
Since toms search for hens by gobbling, they often develop strutting zones up high to be better heard. These strut zones can range from 20 to 50 yards and more. When they do so, they can sound as if they are coming to the gun before heading in the other direction. This can also mean that a satellite bird is trying to pull a hen away from a dominant bird’s flock. The scenario determines the strategy.
A bird strutting in his zone can be hard to pull away, as he knows hens will likely head his way. Hunters can, however, get real aggressive with calling on the close side of the route to break the routine, carefully throwing in a gobble if yelps, cutts and clucks don't work.
Hunters can also try to time the strut to move in closer to pop the bubble or even get in range. For this, be sure to only move when the bird is heading away, stopping quickly the moment he sounds like he is coming back, or the bird might spot movement and flee.
Understanding turkeys takes years of experience, and even then some experts disagree on how to handle situations. This, of course, is part of the fun of turkey hunting—strategy discussions that lead to awesome stories of birds both taken and lost.
Reaping with Avian-X
The concept of reaping is quite controversial in the turkey hunting world. Some hunters have no problem with it, while others believe it is unsafe and unfair. However, there is no doubt that reaping can work in certain situations. Having a decoy in your pack that can be carried in front of a gun isn’t a bad idea, especially, if that decoy can double as a 2-D strutter. A good decoy of this sort is the Avian-X Trophy Tom. The Trophy Tom rig can be used to showcase a trophy by attaching a dried fan and beard, or carried in the woods via its mounting stake and handle. Just be careful about how and when to deploy this handy tool, whether reaping or setting: it does look like a turkey fan to other hunters as well as the birds. $79.99; avian-x.com