Henned Up Gobblers With Benny Briggs
I could probably be well on my way to a sizable retirement account right now if I had just one dime for every time an old gobbler flew off the roost, gobbled a few times at my yelping and cutting, headed straight for a flock of real-life hens and left my camouflaged tail sitting in the dirt scratching my head. I know I’m not alone when it comes to the problem of trying to roll an early-season gobbler that is all henned up. Did it happen to you just this past weekend?
You’d been looking forward to turkey season for months. You scouted, practiced, you were ready for March 23. Sure enough, a big gobbler sounded off right at daylight. You thought, man, there he is, he’s mine. With gun in hand, you scooted down toward the sound of that mouthy tom sitting up there hammering at every owl, crow and plane that flew over. Very carefully you eased within 100 yards of the vocal bird and sat down with your back to a large hickory. You squeaked out a very soft tree yelp, and he responded back with feeling and emotion as it sent a lightning bolt of excitement up your back. He’s gonna come, he just won’t be able to resist, you thought as you imitated the fly-down cackle of a hen on your favorite mouth call. He cut you off with a double gobble right before you heard him fly off his sturdy pine limb. You laid your index finder on the safety and took a deep breath. Your eyes shifted back and forth searching the open hardwood ridge. One minute passed, then two and three. You yelped… nothing, you cutt… silence. A pileated woodpecker started drilling on a nearby oak. The old tom, standing in a full strut, gobbled one last time. Whoops, you thought. Did I do something wrong?
As you leaned out to hear the tail end of the distant gobble that now sounded 250 yards away, you heard the high-pitched cackles from a pair of hens. You removed your headnet and exhaled. “All henned up, another opening day,” you whispered in disgust.
The good news is that there are ways to minimize this problem and increase your harvest rate on these early-season gobblers.
“If you get in this situation, you’ll want to try some aggressive calling and maybe agitate one of the hens to come in and see what’s going on. Oftentimes, she’ll bring the gobbler in with her,” said world-champion turkey caller Benny Briggs of Harlem.
Benny’s name is a familiar one on the turkey-calling circuit. He won the World Turkey Calling Championships in March 2001, and as of now, he’s the reining champ. His best finish at the Grand Nationals is sixth. On March 9 he finished third at the Southeast Spring Classic in Claxton.
When Benny isn’t busy with his contest schedule, or out chasing down a big gobbler, he’s making turkey calls for his company, Lightning Game Calls. Needless to say, Benny eats, breathes and sleeps TURKEYS. I spent some time recently with Benny to get his thoughts on the age-old problem of henned-up gobblers.
“There’s a good chance you won’t get that bird if he’s covered up with hens,” Benny said. “Let him know you’re there and work him the best you can. When he leaves, let him go. Go find a bird somewhere else. Don’t waste your time, he’s got what he wants. Come back in there later on in the day when the hens have lost him, because they are going to sneak away from him. When he loses them he’s out searching, and it’ll be easier to call him in. I’ve found that 10:00 or 11:00 is a good time to set up on a bird. Before I returned to the exact spot where I last called to him, I would start calling before I got there to see if I could locate that bird, but I’m calling going toward that spot. When I get there, I’ll sit there for 20 minutes, and if I don’t hear anything I’m going to get up and move some more until I locate the bird. I’ve seen some people hunt until 7:30 and say, “Well they didn’t gobble, I’m gone.” That’s a mistake. Sometimes, especially early in the season, the birds won’t gobble until later on in the morning when the hens have left.”
If most of your hunting is done before and after work, you may not normally have time to come back in those late-morning hours. Benny, who primarily hunts several thousand acres in McDuffie County, said that killing an early-season gobbler right after fly down is very possible. However, a trip the afternoon before you plan to hunt can make all the difference in the world.
“The gobbler is going to roost where he knows those hens are,” Benny said. “He’ll get close to the hens, and he might mingle in the afternoon a little bit, but he’ll roost away from them a little ways, in normal circumstances. I’ve seen them roost 40 yards apart all the way up to a couple hundred yards.
“That’s why it’s so important to get between him and the hens in the morning. It gives you the upper hand, because he’s going to fly off and go to those hens. You might not hear him gobble in the evenings, but you can hear him fly up. Let’s say you hear a group of hens off to your right fly up and they may cackle, and way off to your left you hear just one set of wing beats going up. You can pretty much say that’s the gobbler.”
If Benny hasn’t roosted a gobbler the evening before, he’ll start his day on a high spot owl hooting, trying to produce a shock gobble.
“I’ll stand there after the first one gobbles and try to find out if any other birds are going to gobble,” said Benny. “I’ve had days where I’ve gone after a bird, and from where I just left one is burning it up. He just hadn’t started up when we left our spot. That happens pretty often.
“We’ll try to pinpoint the bird that is just really, really hot, and I’ll get as close as I possibly can while keeping cover between us and not breaking a bunch of limbs.”
Benny, who often videos his turkey hunts for Lightning Game Calls, usually tries to get 100 yards from a roosted bird. Oftentimes Benny will prolong a hunt by making the gobbler strut for an extended period of time in order to acquire the footage needed to produce a video. However, Benny had some advice for the hunter whose main objective was to have that bird in shotgun range as quickly as possible.
“With a bird on the roost I’d get within 100 yards, sit down and start tree yelping,” he said. “I’d hit some real light yelping, real low, you want to keep it as quiet as you can. If you make a bird gobble too much on the roost, someone else could come in on him also. I just want to let him know that I’m there. When he comes off the roost, I’m going to do some hen yelping and hen cutting. You still don’t want him too fired up. I’m just letting him know I’m in the area.
“Don’t get discouraged if a bird goes the other way. Sometimes he can go out 75 or 100 yards and turn around and come back. As soon as he heads the other way a lot of people jump up and take off — big mistake. After a few minutes you’ll know whether he’s leaving or not. If he’s gobbling at you, and he’s steady going, chances are he’s not coming back until later on in the day. He’s just letting you know he’s interested, but that he’s got a sure thing where he’s going.
“However, if he is approaching you want to keep his attention, because if he hears hens he may go to them. You don’t want to be overly aggressive. Let’s say you’re watching a bird out there at 100 yards, and he’s coming toward you. Every time you call, as a normal thing, he’s liable to stop and go into a strut for four or five minutes. This is good in some cases if you want to prolong the hunt for video purposes or whatever, but you’re subject to lose this bird to a hen that might be hearing your calling. She might get agitated and come over there and pull that gobbler right on out of there. Keep in mind that early in the season there are more available hens out roaming, and it’s easier for a gobbler to get intercepted by a hen.
“I’d set there and let him walk as long as he could. When he stops on his own, then I’d give him a good call, which is an excited hen yelp. If he’s close, then I’d give three or four regular hen yelps just to let him start walking back toward me.”
Now let’s say you haven’t roosted a bird the evening before, but you hear one gobbling from the roost. You get set up at 100 yards. He gobbles, comes off the roost, and you think he’s heading the other way.
“I’d sit there for a few minutes and make sure he was definitely leaving,” said Benny. “Then I’d jump up and do all I can to get ahead of that bird. At that point he knows where he’s going, either to a strutting area or a flock of hens.
“You’ll have to get at least 100 yards away from him when you walk around him. What I’ll do is move a little bit and call. If he gobbles he’s more than likely going into a strut and he’ll sit tight. That gives you some time to pick up ground on the bird. Not only are you trying to make him stop, but you want to make sure you know where he’s at.
“I stop every couple of minutes and use an assembly call or do some cutting. I’m almost just trying to get him to shock gobble. If he doesn’t gobble I’m going to sit, try to fire him back up, and wait. The bird could be coming back to you at that point and you don’t want to spook him. If he’s not gobbling, you don’t know where he’s at.”
If Benny loses this bird, he’s going to be cruising, maybe stopping just to eat lunch and catch his breath.
“I’m going to continue to walk, stop and call,” said Benny. “I’m going to walk high points and ridges so I can hear both sides. I’ll do some cutting, something that’s going to really fire them up, something that they can hear a long way. Cutting is a long-distance call because they can hear far away.
“If you get one started, there’s a good chance that bird will come. He may be away from his hens and he’s coming back to get up with you. He’s not going to pass it up.
“Last year on opening day it was 3 o’clock before we got one to gobble, and we had been traveling all over that property. I love to get close, so I crawled and crawled until we were as close as we could get.
“When he fired up, it was like pulling him in on a string. We started calling and he just gobbled at everything we did. It was like we couldn’t do anything wrong. He came all the way in to 15 yards before we shot.
“But it was 3 o’clock before that bird gobbled, and we found him because we kept moving and looking for a vocal bird. He may have been henned up earlier and just didn’t care anything about gobbling. We waited him out, and it paid off.”
I’ll be joining Benny on opening morning in McDuffie County. He’s going to show me firsthand the techniques discussed in this article. When we spoke at press time the gobblers were talking, and there was plenty of henned-up birds. You’ll find opening-day gobbling reports on the next page. See how we did.
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