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"Eye On the Outdoors" Turkey Hunting Series

Handling the Hen Problem

By Ray Eye

Many years ago during the early days of the wild turkey restoration program in Missouri, it was not uncommon to hear a Gobbler sound off at very first light gobbling non-stop, fly down gobbling, then hit the ground walking and gobbling. That bird would march miles through the mountains gobbling looking for hens all day long. Sounds like a turkey hunters dream does it not, and without a doubt locating a gobbling bird today like that is pretty rare.

Yes, things have changed today, with the unbelievable success of wild turkey programs all across America, there are now wild turkeys in about every type of available habitat. Turkeys are thriving in areas that originally did not have turkeys. The Wild turkey expanded from the heavy timber of the Ozarks into open habitat, areas that biologist first thought turkeys could not survive in.

What does all this mean and how does it affect your turkey hunting? Large numbers of healthy turkeys, means more hens, more hens means more competition for the gobblers. Gobblers today do not have to travel to find hens; they usually wake up with them. With all the available girls, it’s less gobbling and more intense strutting and displaying.

With the turkey growth came the complaints. All across America’s turkey country hunters are saying, " gobblers aren’t responding," Why ain’t they gobbling," " I think we killed all the stupid ones," "They’re still with the hens." Or "their henned up." Basically, to many hens is a very common problem for today’s turkey hunters.

For one thing, in addition to more hens, spring seasons are set months or years in advance, a late spring will often find the tom courting the ladies that come running to him instead of going out to look for another party.

There are several signs that gobblers are with hens. Some are obvious: seeing them together in open fields or hearing the hens yelping and cutting around the gobbler on the roost. Other possible indications are toms that gobble well on the roost, but then go silent when they’ve gathered their hens soon after flying down.

Sometimes birds that respond but won’t come in may already be with hens. Many hunters blame their calling, but you can’t expect a gobbler to leave a warm feathered sure thing for a blind date in the bush, even if she does sound as if she has a great personality.

My first tactic for competing with the real thing for the love of a Tom, I forget about the tom and start working on his hens. Call in the hens he is strutting with, and you can usually count on the gobbler following them step for step. The first thing you must realize is that talking with a hen is quite different from talking to a gobbler. You’re sending completely different messages. While you’re promising love to the gobbler, you’re telling the hen that you’re a new girl and you’ve come to take her date. In addition, you are working with the pecking order of the hens. You are a new voice, a new turkey, you are upsetting the social order of that group of birds.

The key is, after a hens answers your calls, is to imitate whatever the hen does, only more aggressively with each conversation. If she yelps six times, you yelp eight times with just a little more feeling. If she starts cutting, you’re in business.

Many years ago an outdoor writer and I were well back into the Ozarks on a late-spring morning that had the gobblers surrounded by harems of willing hens. We’d failed to find a bird to work on the roost and our moving and calling hadn’t gone well either.

Around ten in the morning, I called on my mouth call with a series of aggressive cutting, I heard a single gobble. I called again and a hen answered from the same direction. That tom never gobbled or made another sound, and the hen uttered only an occasional yelp. I knew what I had to do, make those turkeys excited, and work them into a frenzy. I went right after that hen with very aggressive calling.

Finally the hen answered my challenge with excited cutting,
immediately three or four other hens joined in. A couple of gobblers in other locations entered into the shouting match.

The dominant hen finally made her move, running up the hill to our
right, cutting and putting with every step. The rest of the hens-seven in
all-were close behind.

My hunter did an excellent job of holding still and watching as the
hens ran right past where we sat. A few seconds later came the big
gobbler, strutting a few short steps, then hurrying to catch up. He never
caught up.

There is not a spring season that I don’t call and kill a tom
simply by challenging his hens. There’s no doubt in my mind that more
hunters could do the same if they’d just try it. Hold your ground, don’t be afraid to call aggressively and answer that hen with excitement and inflection in your calling.

I’ve killed a lot of gobblers that were with hens by relying on one of
the gobbler’s most predictable traits – a greed for sex. It’s often possible to
move in close to a bird that’s roosted with hens and call and kill him, even before all of his hens or off the roost.

Slip in quietly well before fly-down time. Get as close as possible, the closer the better. Your earlier scouting or several days of hunting a bird has you set up right in the middle of his fly down area.

The second you here drumming on the limb or the first soft hen yelping of the day, give a few soft tree yelps. When it is light enough to see about thirty yards, increase the intensity of your calls. If you’re set up where he gathers his hens, there’s a strong chance that the gobbler might just fly down to get things started early. That Tom is not only greedy, he likes to fly down early and begin his strutting ritual for the roosted hens.

Another tactic is to separate the gobbler from his hens, the odds should rapidly swing to your favor when the gobbler’s having the time of his life for days with hens and then suddenly finds himself a bachelor, that tom usually won’t waste any time trying to start romancing again.

During the afternoon, locate the gobbler and his harem, watch, follow , listen, and do whatever it takes to find their roost . After dark scatter them by running at them, clapping, barking like a dog. The key is to get close enough to force a good scatter. If the gobbler flies off with his hens you’re no better off than before. But make him spend the night alone on a limb and he’ll probably go berserk. The same scattering method works at sunrise or during midday in a field as well.

If you’ve scattered the birds the night before, move in and work the
tom from the limb the next morning. That gobbler should be more than ready to regroup with the girls. If you succeed with a dawn scatter, allow the woods settle for a few minutes, then call from a position between the gobbler and the hens-maybe even right at the roost. Be prepared for a bird that may literally run into your lap.

Another effective way to call gobblers with hens and take advantage of the pecking order is to duplicate the yelp of a Tom.

The gobbler yelp is one of my most productive calls , it is a male turkey sound that is easy to duplicate and very effective. In the right situation you can fool a bird that’s been snubbing your hen calls by hitting him with some gobbler talk. Let me tell you, it is an exciting and real experience to call a gobbler that comes in for a fight.

I remember many toms that refused to budge at a hen call running into my lap to whip a yelping Jake. If you pay attention and really listen in the woods you’ll hear both jakes and mature toms yelp, cut, purr, and make many of the same calls as hens. The difference is how they sound. There are exceptions, but most gobblers and jakes have a little slower rhythm; their calls have fewer notes and the individual yelps are more drawn out than hen talk. Gobbler talk also seems to be a little deeper in pitch and sometimes raspier than hens.

Gobblers talk tom-to-tom twelve months out of the year. I’ve
called hundreds of gobblers in with gobbler talk during spring , fall and winter for the past thirty something years.

Gobbler yelps work for the same reason calling hen-to-hen works.
The toms have a set pecking order, and if you try to squeeze into it
birds are going to get upset. Try using Jake yelps when the mature birds
are gobbling at each other and setting there pecking order.

Believe me, there are times when a hen yelp just won’t work, but
gobbler yelping and cutting will bring the woods to life. A few seasons
back a friend and I found ourselves working a tom that wouldn’t leave his
hens to cross a clearing to where were set up.

I begin calling slow and easy, eventually building into some of my
most aggressive hen cutting-but still no response. A few minutes later I
called with gobbler yelps , and a different bird opened up, with the same calls right back at us. I wasted little time coming back a little longer and louder.

With all of the gobbler talk the bird across the clearing went crazy.
Both toms broke, left the hens, and ran at us at full speed. One gobbled
every step and the other yelped as many as twenty times in a row with
some strings of seven or eight cuts mixed in. My hunter friend killed
the gobbling bird as he charged right at us.

As you can see, there are several ways to get around the gobbler-
with-hens problem. The main idea is to accept the challenge and try
something other than mating yelps.

And don’t make the mistake of giving up too early. All turkeys go
through the breeding cycle differently. While one tom may have a dozen
hens, there may be a sub-dominant one just over the next ridge that
doesn’t have any.

Additionally, it’s not at all uncommon for a tom to breed all of his
hens early in the morning, then go looking for more later in the morning
while the hens are on the nest.

If you work a bird at daybreak but can’t get him into gun range, go
back three or four hours later and give him a whirl. I’ve had a lot of these
birds run right in to my first set of calls the second time around.

To be a successful turkey hunter you must adapt to the situation and be willing to accept change. Utilize different tactics and calls depending on the terrain, weather, time of year, and the seasonality and life cycle of the turkeys. Watch listen and learn from the turkeys at the time you’re hunting them. The turkeys are trying to tell you something, the simplest and most effective way for you to take one of them home with you.

Copyright 2003 Eye on the Outdoors
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