How to Get Tardy Toms On the Move—and Into Range
Many years ago, the first long beard I ever shot had serious hang-ups. He started by gobbling his innards out on the way to my set-up, but at 60 metres he stopped in the open hardwoods to strut and display. An hour later he was still there. Being a novice at the time, I quit calling because I thought I might have stopped him with a sour note on my mouth call. Eventually, he walked away in search of another potential mate.
But I persisted. As I scrambled in a wide circle to get in front of the bird, I tracked his position by using my crow call to make him shock gobble. This time, my plan was to lure him in using my push-pin yelper, and once I was ahead of him I kept a little ridge between us to shield my set-up. He gobbled once after my first yelps, but dallied getting to me. Finally, I could hear his footsteps below the crest of the ridge. But there he stayed, out of sight—my best clucks, purrs and yelps on the push-pin caller wouldn’t budge him, or even make him gobble. Hung up again.
I thought he might come in for two hens, so I clucked on my mouth call. Instantly he gobbled and I saw his tail fan coming up over the rise. I shot when he broke strut, and my first-ever tom was flopping on the ground, free at last from all his hang-ups. But why the delays? I’ve since discovered five main reasons why toms hang up and what can be done to get them moving again—or better yet, avoid such problems in the first place.
1. He’s Waiting for His Hen
When a tom approaches the place he thinks he heard a hen call from, he fully expects to see her there, and looks for signs of responsiveness. If he doesn’t see the hen, he hangs up waiting for her to show herself. (Keep in mind, toms can be pokier than a snail with a limp—I don’t consider it a hang-up until he’s stayed in one spot for at least a half-hour.)
In the case of my first tom, he could see my location, but there was no hen. He clearly wasn’t spooked by me or my calling, or he wouldn’t have strutted for an hour just out of gun range. He simply wanted to see the hen make the next move. When that didn’t happen, he walked.
The Cure: Move Your Set-up
By total beginner’s luck, I did the right thing the day I shot my first tom—I set up on him again from a spot where he couldn’t see me until he stepped into range. The ridge blocked his line of sight to me so he had to crest it to see the hen (me) he heard calling. By then, he was in range and mine.
Keep your tom coming by choosing your set-up carefully. Use wrinkles in the terrain to find a spot he can’t see until he’s within your shooting range. If you set up poorly and he hangs up in sight, quit calling, let him walk and try again from a better location.
Decoys, when visible from a distance, may entice a jake or a hot two-year-old to come into range. An experienced long beard, however, will often hang up when he sees a decoy, expecting the hen to come the rest of the way to him. To keep your tom walking and talking, place the decoys in a spot he can’t see until he’s close enough for a shot. An added bonus of this tactic is that he will be focused on the dekes, not you, when it’s time to shoot.
In field situations or on level ground where you can’t use the terrain to hide, use a pop-up blind. And to help overcome a tom’s natural caution, use a jake or strutting tom decoy, along with hen decoys, to make him jealous and play on his need for dominance.
2. He’s Glued to His Strut Zone
Some loudmouth gobblers play by strict rules, only meeting hens that come to them in their strut zones. These toms die of old age because they don’t wander into ambushes while looking for hens. Instead, try to pattern their daily movements and intercept them en route to their strut zones, keeping in mind that a travelling tom will go at least a few steps out of his way to investigate hen calls.
Another option is to set up near his strut zone before he arrives. This can only be accomplished, however, if there’s a good place to sit out of sight until he steps into range. Even with the best camo, sitting out in the open near a strut zone will get you busted, and it may even spook your tom off the zone for days.
Gobblers know their strut zones like we know our bedrooms, and they’ll pick off anything that’s out of place. The exception here is a pop-up blind, making it a good option for setting up near a strut zone.
The Cure: Make Him Jealous
Last season on opening day, my hunting buddy and I marched over ridges and down trails for eight hours trying to raise a gobble without success. At 3 p.m., we plunked our tired butts on the ground between a strut zone and a dusting site, and cold-called for a half-hour. Finally, we got a gobble from the strut zone 150 metres away. My next call got a gobble from two different birds in the strut zone, but they were staying put.
After 20 minutes of back-and-forth calling, one bird started our way. When it came into range it was obviously a jake but we couldn’t see a beard, so we let it walk. Meanwhile, there was still a booming gobble coming from the strut zone, but its maker seemed to have stepped in superglue. And there was no way we could approach him without getting busted.
Clearly, he wouldn’t walk for hen talk because he was used to hens meeting him in his strut zone, so I put a wooden striker to my pot call and yelped low and slowly like a tom. His feet soon came unglued when he suspected another tom was with his girl. Within a minute we heard a booming gobble at close range, then we heard his feet on the leaves coming toward us. He came in directly behind a wide tree trunk, keeping him hidden until he stepped out on my side of the tree at 15 metres. Gobbler down.
Jealousy! That’s the ticket for strut zone toms. A tom’s instinct to defend breeding rights often overrides his instinct for caution. While a gobble call might also work to incite jealousy, it could scare off subordinate toms or jakes. The tom yelp is less intimidating but arouses the same level of jealousy.
3. He Doesn’t Like Your Call
Each gobbler is unique, with his own likes and dislikes, moods and temperaments. As such, one call doesn’t fit all. With my first-ever tom, for example, I was dead wrong when I thought he hung up because he didn’t like my mouth call. In fact, he preferred it over the push-pin yelper—as soon as I switched back to the mouth call at the second set-up, he gobbled hard and came in hot.
The Cure: Try Different Calls
For a finicky hung-up tom, experiment with a variety of calls. If a certain call gets a more excited response, stick with it and give the gobbler time to overcome his natural hesitance; let the tom tell you how to call to him. Don’t get into a rut with an otherwise tried-and-true call on a hung-up tom—find out what he likes and give it to him instead.
A change of pace in calling can also get a tom moving again. He may gobble lustily to your yelping sequence but you could be encouraging him to stay put because hens yelp on their way to toms. If you tone it down to give the impression the hen has lost interest in him, he’ll likely come looking for her.
You can also go silent altogether for a half-hour to see if he shows up. If he doesn’t, give one or two clucks. If he still gobbles from the same spot, move 30 to 40 metres away to his side and give a couple more clucks. This adds realism to your set-up, because hens never stand in one place for long. It may make him abandon his natural caution, or he could suspect the hen is leaving and decide to go looking for her.
4. He Won’t Cross a Barrier
Turkeys fly over roads, fences, rivers, ditches, hedges and brush every day. But for some reason, they don’t like to cross such barriers when coming in to a call. Instead, a tom will hang up and walk back and forth along the obstruction looking for a way through rather than fly over it. We may not understand this behaviour, but we have to accept it in order to call in wild turkeys.
The Cure: You Cross the Barrier
To avoid great barrier grief, cross the obstruction between you and the bird yourself. First, quit calling and let him walk away, then head quietly to the place where he hung up and call again. He’ll feel safe returning to a spot he just left, especially if he thinks there’s a hen calling from there.
Some barriers you may not be able to cross, however, because you don’t have permission to hunt on the other side, or you don’t feel like a swim in an icy creek. In such cases, it’s generally easier to look for another tom than try to get the one you hear gobbling on the other side to fly across to you.
But if the loudmouth is really getting to you, there’s still a chance you can get him to fly over. For starters, you can improve your chances by calling to him from a place where he can land safely. If he’s on the other side of a river, for example, call to him from a flood plain or clearing on your side where he can land without crashing into tree limbs. I’ve accidently busted turkeys off their roost and heard them crashing through the branches in their rush to escape; this must be dangerous and difficult for them. So, if you expect a tom to get airborne for you, at least give him a safe landing strip.
You’ll also have to get a tom excited enough to make him make the mistake of flying over. In short, fire him up with calling. Try different hen calls to see which one gets the hottest response, then get loud, excited and demanding with it. If he still won’t take to the air, try some tom yelps to incite jealousy or some aggravated purrs with excited cutting and wingbeats to simulate a hen fight. Remember, a spring tom is hot to trot, after all.
5. He’s Simply Afraid
There are certain places a tom will not go. His daily life is an ongoing drama of predator attacks and narrow escapes, and he remembers everything that happens to him—and where. Add pressure from yelping hunters, who surround him the instant he gobbles, and you’ve got a hyper-cautious tom that won’t go where he doesn’t feel safe. If you’re set up in such a spot, your tom will almost certainly get hung up. The reason may be a mystery to you, but it’s obvious to him.
The Cure: Make Him Feel Safe
If absolutely nothing works to bring in a gobbling tom, chances are he just doesn’t feel safe. You can consider the area a dead zone and let him walk, or you can back out quietly and find another set-up. But where? For starters, toms feel safer in open cover where they can see danger at a distance. When checking out a call, they want easy walking in open woods—keep that in mind when choosing your set-up location.
True, you can find good hiding spots in tall weeds and brush tangles, but a tom won’t approach such places because these sites are not natural spots for hens to be calling from—turkeys only scoot into thick brush to escape a flying predator. Rather, if you call from a spot where you’ve seen turkeys or turkey sign, you’ll lower the odds of wasting your time on a tom getting hung up in a dead zone.
Then again, sometimes all bets are off. Remember, gobblers are genetically programmed to have hang-ups. It’s how they survive. As long as you don’t find the right cure.