By Steve Sorensen
If you can’t beat the hens, here are three ways to join them.
It happens every season – too many hens for the gobblers to get lonely. Hunters complain year after year that gobblers are “henned-up” and won’t respond to a call.
That can be a problem, but it doesn’t need to be. Here are three scenarios that taught me a lot about how to deal with hens when you’re trying to take a tom fresh off his roost.
Scenario One: I was reeling in a nice gobbler just after daylight. He had been roosted about 80 yards away. When he had almost halved the distance a hen dropped from a tree and landed smack in front of him. “Nuts!” I thought. But he walked right by her and continued his full strut approach. Then another hen touched down in front of him, this time at 35 yards, and he walked by her, too. At 30 yards I introduced him to a load of Number 5.
Why would he bypass two hot, flesh-and-blood hens for a bird in the bush he couldn’t see? He probably wanted to round up all the hens, even the one he couldn’t see.
Scenario Two: A gobbler sounded off at 5:40 AM, about 60 yards away. I waited for him to gobble the second time and quickly answered with a couple of quiet tree yelps. He gobbled right back and flew down. Then I heard a couple of hens as I called their suitor to shotgun range. One flew down from my left, walked by me at about 20 yards, and strolled into the field on my right. Then a second hen flew down a little farther away. When she was at 30 yards the gobbler was at 45 yards and coming to my call. I worried that the hen would enter the field too quickly, and he would follow her before coming into range. So I sent a couple of clucks her way, and she stopped.
She became a live decoy, and the big boy kept coming. He fanned out, then stepped behind a tree. That second hen entered the field and I raised the gun. He came out from behind that tree to follow her, and that’s when it turned into a bad day for him.
Scenario Three: Last year I was scouting a spot with almost three girls for every boy – 11 hens and four mature gobblers. I was expecting hen problems.
I got to the woods at 5:00 on opening day, found a tree to sit by, and settled in. The birds had to be somewhere close. I peered into the treetops and could see four turkeys. Gobblers? Nuisance hens? If they were gobblers, the hens couldn’t be far away.
At 5:35 a gobble shook the treetops and a hen answered with a lurid tree yelp. Once again, it was shaping up to be a contest between real live hens and me. As soon as I heard his next gobble I answered with the exact same call the hen made. A minute went by and he gave another shout-out. I answered simultaneously with the hen. Next gobble, same thing.
I didn’t want to act too committed and make him wait for hens to arrive under his tree where he could fly down to meet them, so I didn’t answer every gobble, but my invitations were good enough to get two gobblers to investigate this hypothetical hen in the bush. They flew down from trees about 60 yards away and landed 22 yards from me. A few minutes later I zip-tied my tag to the leg of a mature gobbler.
Is it always this easy? No, especially not if a gobbler hits the ground and immediately hooks up with a hen or two. Good luck prying him away because he’ll follow the girls anywhere, even if they don’t let him breed. Calling is one way you mimic a hen, but when real hens are ready and willing, calling by itself may not be enough.
The three scenarios I’ve described have taught me a lesson about dealing with hens. Be the hen.
“Isn’t ‘being the hen’ the whole idea behind calling?” you ask. You hear about hunters calling gobblers in from 200 or even 300 yards. Yes, and I’ve done it. But don’t settle for that distance. With every step he takes, something can go wrong. And four out of five times something will go wrong. A bobcat comes between you and him. I’ve seen it happen. A silent hen intercepts him. He stops at a barrier he doesn’t want to cross, or arrives at a strutting area where he frequently gathers hens. He hangs up and you sit there frustrated.
So sounding like a hen is one way to be the hen, but it probably isn’t enough. You need to make him think you really are a hen. How do you do that?
Think about it. Calling is only the first way you mimic a hen. Position is the second. Hens might not be roosted in the same tree he is in, but they probably won’t be far away and he knows it. So, you need to get close. 80 yards. 70 yards. 60 yards. Even 50 yards or less is sometimes possible. If you can get that close to a roosted gobbler, he will think you’re a hen not just because of the sounds you’re making, but because you’re right there with the others. To him, you’re a bird in the hand.
Getting close is not easy. Suppose the gobbler is roosting in a tree at the edge of a field you must cross, and the moon is full and bright. Good luck with that because the moon will cast a strong shadow. Or suppose the path to the spot where you’d like to set up 60 yards from him is no path at all, but is littered with sticks and limbs and there’s no way you can be silent.
I have two pieces of advice to help you overcome these issues. First, get into the woods early. If you have to wait for an hour to hear that first gobble, it’s worth it. My second bit of advice is that if you lightly snap a stick or two in the darkness, you probably don’t need to worry about it. Turkeys hear animals on the ground all night long. Deer and raccoons can make a lot of noise with their nighttime activity. Light tan coyotes and white-striped skunks are visible if a gobbler wants to pull his head from under his wing, but most times they sit on a limb relaxed and without fear, knowing they’re safe.
Back to Scenario Three. Before the game began I had slowly worked my way toward the spot where I thought the turkeys—hens and gobblers—were roosted. I broke a stick or two and moved through the ground litter lightly crinkling the dry leaves until I found a tree where I could set up. I waited and watched the treetops. I became a hen among hens, and if I played this game well a gobbler would want me just as much as he would want a real one.
And I did play it well. I sounded like a hen, I was close enough for him to expect me to be a hen, and in his walnut-sized mind, I was a hen. That’s why he was headed for the freezer.
When hens and gobblers are on the ground together, the gobblers usually stay pretty tight with the girls. Sometimes they won’t even gobble, or just give you an occasional courtesy gobble. My only solution then is to wait them out. Around mid-morning the hens will escape the gobblers to go lay an egg. That’s when the advantage turns to you. The gobbler knows where you are, and he’ll probably come looking for you.
Steve Sorensen is the author of Growing Up With Guns, and The Everyday Hunter Handbook Series. He also writes an award-winning newspaper column called The Everyday Hunter®, and edits content in the Havalon Nation. He has published articles in top magazines across the USA, and won the 2015 “Pinnacle” Award for magazine writing. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.
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