April 11, 2016
By Jeff Johnston
I barked to that bird a hundred times, and he must've answered me a hundred and fifty. He'd come close, and he'd gobble his head off, but no matter what I tried, he just wouldn't fly over that creek. This happened four days in a row.
I tried different times. I tried different calls. I set out a flock of hen decoys on my side of the creek. I tried everything until finally it dawned on me. I gathered my gobbler-getting accessories that were scattered about like paint on a palette and headed back to the truck. It was an impossible bird.
Knowing this would allow me to sleep easier, and for this I was thankful. So I smiled as I took a step toward the way I'd come, not in defeat, but in honorable concession. A boom from a shotgun so close it raised my cap came from the other side of the creek.
Evidently, that bird wasn't impossible after all.
The Fortress Bird
Every now and then you meet a gobbler that's not only paranoid, but also has positioned himself in a place where he has all the advantages.
Several years ago I heard a gobbler doing his thing early, so I snuck toward him silently to cut the distance. I crossed one fence immediately, as it's always a good idea to set up on the same side of the fence as a gobbling bird if possible. After a couple of hours of calling to him incessantly without results, I slipped forward and found out why.
There was a barnyard, complete with an old barn, a nearby stream, corrals, hog wire, horses, oats, hens, a delivery boy, and all the other things that a gobbler needs to not leave the henhouseâ€”ever.
He was strutting for his harem around the feed bin, just out of shotgun range of the corral fence. I couldn't cross the fence without him spying me. I couldn't go around because the property on the other side of the barnyard was privately owned. And I couldn't call him to the other side of the fence because he was smarter than that. So I used a combination of tactics to turn the odds.
First, I slithered down the stream bed to reach the point nearest to him, and then, after calling had piqued his interest, I waved a gobbler tail fan at him. This enraged him enough so that he walked out from the feed bin to take a look. When he did, I rose up and met that barnyard bird with No. 6s.
If he's camped every day on the other side of the creek and you have permission to hunt the other side, cross the creekâ€”even if you have to use a boatâ€”before you make your first call. If you don't have permission to hunt it, you have your hands full. Try to call him over or try to get permission to hunt it. If he's roosting over the creek, your best chance to call him to your side is at fly down.
Crawl within 100 yards before dawn, give a few subtle tree callsâ€”do not over-call while he's on the roost no matter the temptationâ€”and hope for the best. If he consistently flies to the wrong side, don't waste too much time on him. He's impossibleâ€¦for you.
Vast open fields present a different problem. Open-field toms make a habit of strutting in the exact middle of the field where they can use their vision to their advantage. If they see danger coming, they'll move to the other end of the field. If it keeps coming, they'll fly.
Two years ago Dodd Clifton of Realtree camo and I set up on an open-field bird every day, only to see him go the other way. After studying him, we noticed he was using two ditches to duck under the fence on his way in and out of the field.
Finally, we split up. Dodd circled around the field, and I went to the bird's escape path on the other side. Dodd gave me a few minutes before trying to crawl up to the bird. As usual the old gobbler saw Dodd and turned to make his escape. He would have gotten away with it had it not been for my 12 gauge. Our "turkey drive" worked.
If you know a gobbler is using a large field, try ambushing him where he usually enters it. But to do this, you must know where he's roosting. Get between the roost and the field. If, however, he flies down directly into the field, you might have to get creative.
For example, if you have the farmer's permission, dig a pit blind and wait for him. This is extreme and a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun when you bag this "impossible" bird. As a last resort, try a tactic to simply walk up on the bird to get within gun range. Folding turkey fans, like those from Montana Decoy, work wonders. Simply unfurl it, crouch/walk steadily toward the bird, and shoot as soon as you can. It works about 10 percent of the time. Just keep safety in mind.
The Henned-Up Tom
This is the big-talkin' bird that's just like your married buddy who didn't hunt with you at all this season because his wife wouldn't let him. He'll answer the phone and boast of his plans for a fishing trip, but then his sweetie walks in the room, points to the wood floor that needs restaining, and suddenly, in a hushed tone, he says he can't go. This is the guy who doesn't stray too far from his yard because his leash isn't too long. He's got a hen in hand, so why would he jeopardize what he's got going? It's the same with turkeys.
If a boss gobbler flies down and meets up with his real, live girlfriend, it's rare that he'll break off from the sure thing to go chase the unknown. As much as birds are auditory creatures that like to hear and make sweet love calls, they like to see pretty hens more. So, you should use a decoy, right? It's not that simple. Just like your buddy's wife, the last thing she wants to see is another pretty girl. So the hen will do all she can to steer Mr. Gobbler away from your calls.
There are two things that can motivate a henned-up gobbler, and they are loneliness and jealousy.
In the springtime, gobblers fly down from the roost and look for love. They eat a little and drink a little during the day, but mainly they try to breed. Then they go to bed and do it all over again the next day. Hens, on the other hand, fly down, get a snack, fluff their feathers, and then they might make a few calls to look for a mate. At midmorning, whether they've found a mate or not, they go off and do what females doâ€”they make nests.
Gobblers don't know this. They just know that while all was rosy at 8 a.m. and they were feeling good strutting around with their hen, now at 11 a.m. she has left him and he's lonely. This is when your door opens.
If you know that your boy is with hens early, here's what to do.
If you can come back to the area to hunt it again, hunt conservatively. After you realize the gobbler is henned-up and not going to come to your calls, shift tactics. Hang back, be quiet, and listen to determine the direction the birds go. The next day, be in that spot. Use a locater call to find them. Then try to get ahead of them because you now have a good guess where they're going. When he gets within 100 yards, call excitedly, then hold tight. There's a good chance he'll come running for love.
If, however, you can't hunt the spot again soon, you must get aggressive. You have two options. After you determine you can't call him in, keep up with the flock but just out of sight until you get an idea of where they are going to loaf. Then make a big circle to get around them and call from a totally different angle. Use a different call. Sometimes a different hen calling from a new direction can pique a gobbler's interest, especially if by this time his hen has begun to pay less attention to him as she goes to nest.
The second option is to move as tightly into the flock as you think you can without being detected, stake out a gobbler decoy, then gobble. It doesn't often work, but every once in a while, if the gobbler is the dominant tom, he'll come charging in, convinced a strange dude is strutting on his turf. Beware that if he does come in, he'll often do so quickly and silently. So if you gobble, be ready. If he still doesn't come in, try circling around and trying againâ€¦or admit the bird is impossible and go home for a hug from your wife.
Note: Gobbling should probably be avoided on public land and only used with extreme caution anywhere. Never sit too close to a gobbler decoy.
The Non-Gobbling Tom
This Type of bird is the absolute worst. It's simply unfair, and downright underhandedâ€”especially if he dwells in deep woods. Most times you don't even know he's not gobbling because you don't even know he's there. But he is. He's just not gobbling.
You know this because you've seen his sign. You've seen tracks, you've heard hen calls, and you may have even seen or heard him fly down. You've noticed scratchings; everything you've learned about turkey hunting tells you there should be a gobbler around. But you hear nothing day after day. If you get lucky and hear one gobble at any timeâ€”usually at dawn or duskâ€”you must trust your instincts. Hunt that old, cagey, no-good gobbler just like a deerâ€”and try to get his no-gobbling tail out of the gene pool.
But it's easier said than done if he won't gobble.
If you can't ambush this wretched bird as he goes to or from the roost, you must still-hunt, and use your binocular more than your call. When you do call, get fully set up first. Make your sets last longer than normalâ€”30 minutes to an hour between calling locationsâ€”and call softer and less than normal. The bird could be call-shy, and chances are good that he's already come in once but you didn't know it. Slow down, use your eyes and your hunting skills, and believe that he is there and going to come in.
Don't cross fields in the open, but use the woods or creeks to cover your movement. Before entering any terrain through which you can't see, give a hen call and a locator call first. If a gobbler is close, sometimes this will induce a shock gobble when a hen call won't. If he gives away his location, don't expect him to do it again. Mentally mark where you heard him, move around that location, then set up and call.
Be ready to shoot him as soon as you see him. A no-gobbling gobbler is like a ghost. They are scary, but they can be exorcised from the woods. It just takes woodcraft. When you do bag an impossible bird, place that feather proudly in your hatâ€¦and don't get too cocky.
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