Keeping It Real For Turkey Hunting Success

Sometimes it pays dividends to just act like a turkey.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 2, 2023

Here’s a birthday bird for the author’s brother, Walter Jarrett. The bird did what many birds do—hung up. The big gobbler was finally brought to the gun using some sneaky woodsmanship, which meant the Jarrett boys had to act like turkeys.

There was a time years ago when I tried pretty hard to convince my younger brother, Walter, to go turkey hunting with me. I had experienced some early success in the turkey woods and curiosity eventually got the best of him. 

The first day we went to the turkey woods together, I managed to call up a coyote. The next time we went, we had two gobblers firing off hard from the limb that morning, and I believed we were in the game when they pitched down in our direction. The best I could do though was to carry on a conversation with them until an uninvited hunter showed up to join us on our hunt. The birds shut it down when he showed up and then disappeared. In the process, so did any interest my brother had in turkey hunting.

Time passed and the years ticked by before his interest was rekindled, largely in part because his son, Walt, was becoming quite the turkey hunter at the ripe old age of 12. Over the next several years, Walt began to pile up a few birds, and his daddy caved in. He was finally back in the turkey woods after a long break.

He and I soon had a day planned to get after them, which just so happened to be his birthday. We headed to the woods on that early April morning on some property he had access to, and he laid all the info out that he could about where he had seen and heard birds. 

We made our way through the darkness and chorus of whippoorwills to our listening spot and the birds did not disappoint. By the time we made it to the place we would listen from, we could hear several gobblers cutting loose on neighboring property. I felt like we had a chance of pulling them across the line. It took a while to get them to show up, but they soon closed the distance to less than 100 yards; and there they stayed.

Sometimes birds will play the game like a dream until they reach that imaginary line that keeps them safe. It is a game to us, but it is all about staying alive to them. They expect a hen to come to them, and they expect to see her. When they don’t, they tend to get extra cautious. That’s when they quiet down and hold their ground sometimes, or maybe just slip in, often catching us by complete surprise when they are just suddenly standing there, staring right at us. So how do we break a bird that decides to hold his ground or, “hang up” as we say? While nothing is a sure thing in the turkey woods, there are a few things that can break a bird on lock-down, and when something works, you tend to resort to it when the situation calls for it. The No. 1 thing I always try to remember is to be as natural as I can be.

The Soft Stuff: It is no big secret that the soft stuff can occasionally cause a bird to throw caution to the wind. By soft, I’m talking about low-key, natural turkey noise. Make noises that turkeys make. Clucks and purrs are fantastic in these situations, but scratching in the leaves adds realism to your setup like nothing else can. Of course, you can only get away with that if the bird isn’t where he can see you.

I recall a hunt one afternoon while waiting for a particularly stubborn old bird to show up on a ridge he liked to roost on. I had tangled up with him more than a few times, and he had always managed to win the battle. 

I made my way to the ridge that evening after failing to raise a gobble for the past several hours. I decided to see if he was planning to spend the night there, and as I made my way to the tree I planned to lean against, I began to think about doing things a little differently than I had in the past. Instead of sitting there calling off and on saying the same thing over and over sounding like a broken record, I would quit being just the hunter and try to be the hen.

When I reached the tree, I yelped three or four times and sat down. I never yelped again the rest of the hunt. I thought, “What would a real hen be doing?” I began scratching around in the leaves, occasionally clucking and purring. That was the loudest thing I did until he showed up directly off my left shoulder over an hour later. He walked out in front of me and folded up when I squeezed the trigger. He never said a word; one faint spit and drum and the sound of him slowly walking in the leaves was the only hint of his presence I ever had.

The Challenge: I had spent nearly half a decade in the woods without so much as ever considering gobbling at a gobbler. It just wasn’t part of my arsenal,  and at the time I had never heard of anyone else doing it either. The first hunt I ever had where a gobble came from the hunter instead of the hunted came one afternoon with my longtime friend Cal Marsh. We had grabbed the attention of a gobbler that was absolutely wearing us out. He skirted us repeatedly until we managed to regroup on the edge of a small field. We jumped into a group of stumps that had been pushed into a pile on the edge of the field when it was cleared a few years before. Small pines surrounded the stumps and made the stump pile a great place to set up. 

The last time the bird had gobbled, he was a couple hundred yards up the old road that led into the field. We called just as we had in our previous exchange, and we got nothing in return. It was getting late now, and I was already scanning some nearby oaks where he might roost. We knew we had to do something different if we were going to pull him in before he grabbed a limb. I told Cal to hand me his fighting purr boxes and get his tube call out while I kicked up a fuss on the boxes and cutt on a diaphragm. We were about to amp things up a little bit. It was a Hail Mary, but we had nothing to lose at this point. When I started calling, Cal began throwing in a gobble here and there. It apparently flipped the switch and the old bird stepped into the logging road at about 125 yards. 

The next time Cal gobbled at the bird, he broke and came on a dead run toward our setup. I rolled him at 30 yards and do believe he would have stepped on me if I had waited another two seconds.   

Minimal calling late in the evening is what got this longbeard killed. This tactic was certainly Keeping It Real, since most times turkeys are not very vocal in the evenings.

Hang up: A hung-up gobbler is a frustrating bird to deal with. I believe that a bird that hangs up is generally, more often than not, the result of something a hunter does that causes him to do so. Poor setups and dangerous, close encounters with other hunters previously are certainly on the short list of things that can cause a bird to lock it down out of range, but I would rank overcalling to a bird at the top of that list. I had to repeatedly learn that lesson before I finally realized I was often the root of the problem when dealing with hung-up gobblers.

Sometimes we get caught up in the exchange rather than staying focused on the goal. In short, the goal, which is to bust his noggin, is more important than seeing how many times we can get him to respond. There simply is no reason to continue to call to a bird that is on the way. Sure, extra enticement is necessary sometimes, but there comes a time when we need to shut things down, be quiet and wait.

I was hunting a particular bird on a national wildlife refuge one morning when I tangled up with a particularly ornery old bird. He had the high ground on me from the first gobble, but he was pouring it on hot and heavy. He responded to nearly everything I threw at him initially and worked his way toward me, but it was becoming pretty evident after a half hour or so that he had no interest in a hen that was all talk and no show. It was not until he began to ease away that I could get on the ridge with him. By then, he had put some distance between us. He had toned things down a bit by the time I could get him to gobble again, and he eventually held up in a thick stand of hardwood saplings some 200 yards ahead of me. I managed to cut 50 or so yards off the distance between us and found a setup against a big pine. It was all I could do, other than beg at that point. I called, more than I should have, but I had convinced myself that he was going to break sooner or later. Thirty minutes passed and nothing had changed. I think the frustration began to set in, and I reached the point I should have reached a lot sooner. 

I slid the diaphragm over to my cheek and thought, “I’m done playing your game, buddy.” I completely shut it down, hoping that he would get antsy enough to come back to scoop up that hen that apparently was losing interest in him.

Ten minutes later the bird fired off again. I refused to answer. A minute or two later he gobbled again, and I ignored him. Within five minutes, the old boy worked himself into a gobbling frenzy. A minute later, I made my last call when I cutt sharply at him to stop him. I shot, he stopped and then flopped at less than 30 yards. Hanging up on him was more than he could stand. 

Nothing works all the time on hung-up gobblers, but that one sure works lots of times. I had gotten myself out of the norm of what hens do. Yes, they can get mouthy at times, but in the grand scheme of things, hens don’t generally run through the woods chasing gobblers, running their mouths non-stop.

Just Leave: I believe there is such a thing as an egotistical gobbler. In fact, I would say they are fairly common. They seem to think a lot of themselves. That belief, combined with their conditioned reflexes and survival instincts, presents a pretty tough challenge almost every time we hunt them. Such was the case on the hunt with my brother on the hunt I mentioned earlier. 

The birds had gobbled plenty and we could hear them drumming regularly, but they would not budge no matter what I did. I had toned things way down and I had completely shut up for quite some time, but nothing would change their intentions. 

The last gobble we had heard was 20 minutes earlier, so I decided to resort to an old last-ditch effort that had paid off before on occasion. It can be a deadly tactic to use when hunting with someone else.

The birds were still locked down in the same place they had been in for a solid hour, and they showed no sign of leaving or coming. Since they appeared to be waiting on the hen, I decided to play hard to get. I knew they couldn’t see us, so I told Walter to wait there and keep an eye out for the birds while I got up and walked in the opposite direction of the gobblers. I began calling sporadically as I retreated. I continued slowly putting distance between myself and the birds. They soon began to panic a little when they perceived what I was leaving and losing interest in them. When I got a 100 yards or so from Walter, I began kicking leaves all about the place and picked up on the calling. The birds responded, and I believed they were on the move. 

Within about 10 minutes, I heard Walter shoot. After waiting a few minutes, I walked back to him. He was still beside the tree we had set up against and he turned to look at me as I got close, wearing a big old turkey grin. 

He explained to me that the birds showed up quickly after I started kicking up the leaves and picked up on the calling. He had shot the lead gobbler at 35 yards as they headed my way.

It was as good of a birthday present as I could have given him. As we headed back to the truck, I couldn’t help but think of how differently that hunt might have ended years ago. All those beatings, all that training under all those mean old turkeys for all those years made all the difference on this morning. I think it is extremely important not to overthink a bird. The key with every bird is in the message they send, and when they send a message of desire with hesitation, keeping it real is always the best bet.

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