By Scott Ellis
Each spring Florida hunters take to the woods with visions of longbeards running into their setup. Taking into consideration the basics of nature, it’s not rocket science why birds commonly stay out of gun range. Wild turkeys have their own agenda, plus a formidable array of senses. The wary Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and notoriously tight-lipped Florida subspecies (M. gallopavo osceola) leave hunters scratching their heads season after season. You’re bound to run into it: a gobbler that halts his forward progression. It’s almost as if he has some type of invisible shield blocking him from your position.
Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for the “hang up,” and possible solutions for bagging those tough birds.
One spring morning several years back I was dropped off on a piece of property with no geographical knowledge of the land. The only information I was given was the area the birds would generally roost in. At first light I called in a gobbler to about 65 yards. For about two hours he stayed nearly stationary, maybe moving 15 yards from left to right. I used everything in my repertoire, from gobbling, to the silent treatment, to bombarding him with cutting and excited yelping. Never made visual contact. I opted not to move on him because he was very close the entire hunt and I was not familiar with the terrain and what options and cover I had to permit me to reposition. Let’s just say my book of tricks was exhausted.
After the long confrontation was over and the bird moved off, I decided to investigate and see if I could determine why he would not close the deal. After locating where the bird was stationary, I found a small open area in the hardwoods. Undoubtedly I happened upon a bird that was consistent in his routine. He had flown down and commenced to strutting and gobbling in his strut zone. It appeared every morning he would follow the same ritual and that was his method for gathering hens. Strut marks and hen tracks covered the area, indicating the rendezvous with his harem. The next morning I put a very simple plan in motion. I set up on his strut zone, gave minimal calling and by 7:30 a.m. he was riding in the back of my turkey vest.
Ultimately the bird’s final destination was my setup location, so the calling in this situation was obviously secondary. The lesson is, whenever possible, scout the land you are hunting and pattern the turkeys that inhabit the property. It will give you an advantage knowing where they roost, travel routes and their routine after they fly down.
Fences, ditches, creeks, hedgerows and roads often stop short an otherwise interested gobbler. Here again, learn the lay of the land you are hunting. If you can’t rely on firsthand knowledge, at least ask someone familiar with the area.
If you’re reasonably certain there’s a physical barrier between you and the bird, I recommend backing out and repositioning on the same side of the obstacle with the bird. Give yourself plenty of room when you make your move. Ensure you have a generous buffer between you and your gobbler. Spooking him when he is hung up at 50 or 60 yards is definitely a possibility.
After you’ve moved and set up again, pick up where you left off. Initiate the conversation with a series of yelps and regain his attention. Many times, simply changing your angle of attack will entice him to investigate and move into gun range. More food for thought: Change your call after you reposition. You’re giving the illusion you are an entirely different hen. Accessibility is key to your success. Put yourself in the gobbler’s path of least resistance.
One caveat here: On public lands, especially, it’s advisable to don a blaze orange safety vest if you’re repositioning. Always operate under the presumption that another hunter may be near. You don’t want to be mistaken for a bird. Which is why rule number one, for the most part, is to situate yourself with your back to a broad tree.
Whether hunting public or private land there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a gobbler that has been called in and spooked. He may even have been shot at. Either situation will generally create a bad scenario. Sometimes later in the season, the gobbler submits to his breeding urge and lets his guard down. Other times he is virtually impossible to take. The best advice I can give is to run the gamut of your strategies. Start calling softly and see how he reacts. Long moments of silence in between calling sequences can be effective. Soft yelps consisting of three or four notes may be the medicine he needs. If he gobbles after your series of calls, shut it down completely for about 15 minutes. See if this subtle, coy calling will lure him in. If this fails, slowly start to get more aggressive with him. Include some cutting with excited yelps. Again, give a generous silent spell after each sequence. Overcalling at this point is definitely a factor.
If all else fails, you may have to put a still-hunt plan together. Basically, pattern the bird you’re trying to harvest. Find out where he is roosting, his usual fly-down time and position yourself on his established travel route. Take note of the times he is frequenting certain areas and establish if there are any consistencies. Base your strategies on the notes you’ve made. It should consist of setting up in one of these areas, playing the waiting game until he presents a shot. Not as exciting as calling in a bird, sure, but sometimes you have to do what it takes to get the job done.
HANGING WITH THE LADIES
Sometimes the allure of a female can be just too overwhelming. Often the bird that is hung up on you simply had hens, perhaps was even in the process of breeding the hens. You may not have heard them vocalizing, but they were there.
Best advice I can give is to just stay with the bird. If he is gobbling, remaining stationary and then goes quiet, wait him out. If at some point he starts to gobble again, keep the communication lines open. Continue to call, with some cutting and yelping, giving the impression you’re still interested, but do not over call him. If he slowly starts moving away from you while continuing to answer, follow along. Be mindful of your distance from the gobbler. You do not want to spook him as you are trailing him.
An afterthought is that you may eventually strike a nerve with the boss hen and she may lead the whole flock to you. Or, the hens might continue leading the gobbler in the opposite direction. Either way, put yourself in the turkeys’ path and wait for them to stroll by. Calling at this point becomes somewhat futile.
If hen calling fails to lure him into range, you can also try simulating a fight between two gobblers or even gobbling. This may pique his interest or infuriate him to the point of confrontation.
Lastly, the flock may have been on a food source and were staying in one particular area feeding. The hens were content to just feed along, with an old gobbler keeping a close watch on his lady friends. Key to success here is to know where they are heading. Set up in their path and wait them out.
There is always going to be the possibility that your bird is not the dominant gobbler in that area. If this is the case your bird may hang out of gun range for fear of being confronted by the boss gobbler.
Many people do not realize that the majority of long beards that will work to a call are the lesser toms. They do not have a harem and are on the prowl looking for any hens not claimed by the old monarch. Depending on which phase of the breeding cycle the birds in your area are in, you can call the dominant gobbler into your set up, but normally this only occurs when all his hens are not receptive to breeding. You will know when the time is right as the hens will often socialize with the gobbler for a short period of time after the birds have flown down. They then head off to sit their nest leaving the gobbler lonely and looking for any available hens.
If you encounter a bird that gobbles on the roost and then stops gobbling or either gobbles noticeably less, you could be dealing with a subordinate gobbler. If you are able to make visual contact with him, watch his body language. Is he strutting constantly or acting like he is fearful of going into a full strut? If the latter is true there is a good chance he is the lesser gobbler in the area. In this situation I would just stay with him as long as he gives away his location by gobbling. If he then goes silent keep your eyes peeled. He may have decided to investigate the sexy hen he’s been hearing and is slipping in quietly.
Also bear in mind he still may strut, along with spitting and drumming. Chances are he will refrain from gobbling, so he will not attract attention to himself. Often times I’ve had mature a tom gobble on the roost, cease gobbling when he hit the ground and eventually come into gun range clucking. An obvious sign he did not desire to alert the alpha gobbler to his presence.
The number one factor which causes a bird to halt his forward progression? My strong suspicion is that it’s overcalling. You got carried away and bombarded the tom with too much calling. Be subtle; pay attention to the cues. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman March 2012