Learning To Hang Up On Hung Up Gobblers
That last 25 yards can be the toughest to close for some birds.
I had one season under my belt when I encountered my first hung-up gobbler. I had worked a bird into a frenzy and watched him strut and gobble for nearly 90 minutes as he pounded every call I made. He put on quite a show, and when he finally gave up on me, I couldn’t have been happier. I was exhausted and can tell you without reservation I was relieved when it was over. I left the woods that morning believing I had taken a severe whipping at the hands of a big bad bird. It wasn’t until sometime later I realized I had contributed greatly to my own demise that morning. In between my whipping and my revelation, I began to understand that a gobbler simply didn’t need my help to beat me, and if I was going to ever up my success rate, I was going to have to quit making it so easy for the gobblers.
If you’ve spent much time trying to throw a turkey over your shoulder, there’s a good chance you have encountered a gobbler that simply drew a line in the sand and refused to budge. If you haven’t had that wonderful experience yet, keep hunting — you will. I mentioned earlier that I had “helped” the first bird that ever hung up on me. Not only did I help him, I likely caused him to hang up in the first place. In fact, I believe a great percentage of birds that hang up on a hunter do so because of something the hunter does, or even more boldly stated, a mistake the hunter makes.
Hanging up is the wild turkey’s classic move and is his most likely response to every mistake we make, short of allowing the bird to see us move. If he sees us move, the hunt is generally over. However, all is not lost simply because a bird hangs up on us. If he has not walked away, we are still in the game.
I used to believe every bird that hung up on me was a direct result of overcalling, but after receiving repeated lessons in the art of causing a gobbler to hang up, I realized there are numerous ways to cause one to do so. Let’s look at a few surefire things that will cause a gobbler to hang up and some field-tested ways to recover before your bird wanders away.
Overcalling: Let’s start back at the beginning. The first bird that ever hung up on me was a fiery 2-year-old. He had gobbled obnoxiously at every sound he heard that morning: airplanes, trains, owls, geese and even my tree calling. I already had him in the smoker before he ever flew down. He wasted no time in making his way toward me, and I believed he’d be slung over my shoulder within minutes. Everything was fine until I saw him.
He approached slightly to my left and stopped on a small rise 55 yards away directly in front of me, and I watched as he strutted and eagerly scanned the open hardwoods around me. He let go of an occasional gobble and continued to strut and drum. I had little patience then and a lot less knowledge, so I decided he needed a little more hen talk. He ate it up, but little did I know, he applied the parking brake. The more he gobbled, the more I called. And so it went for the next 90 minutes. I don’t believe I ever stopped calling for more than 10 minutes the entire time. I eventually, in my frazzled state of mind, convinced myself the bird had miraculously closed the distance to shooting range without ever coming closer than the initial 55 yards. I shot, he left, hunt over. So, I began a learning process. After swallowing my pride and experiencing a few more hunts of similar consequence, I began to consider that I might very well be the reason I was coming across so many hung-up gobblers.
It is not very hard to overcall to a bird, and it can be very difficult to know when enough is enough. First of all, when you have the luxury of watching a bird approach, as I did that morning, you need to utilize that opportunity. If a bird is coming, let him come. There is simply no reason to continue telling a bird to come on when he is already doing it. I panicked when the bird stopped to look around. He had covered approximately 150 yards by the time he reached the rise in front of me, so why did I think he wouldn’t go another 10 yards or so? The more I called, the more he gobbled and waited. It was overcalling at its finest. I would give credit to overcalling as the No. 1 reason birds hang up.
So when is enough calling enough? That’s a tough question, and unfortunately there is no magic number here. You will have to determine what enough is and when he needs a little bit more. I generally try to err on the side of caution. I learned years ago the best rule of thumb is that the least amount of calling you can get away with is generally best.
I also believe that sometimes the least amount of calling you can get away with can be a lot of calling. The trick here is fixing the problem once you realize when you’ve overstepped your bounds.
A prime example of fixing a near mistake happened to me just last year on a hunt at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge. I got on a bird shortly after daybreak, and within a half hour the old boy was dragging me out of a creek bottom and across a high oak ridge. He was steadily heading in the opposite direction but was gobbling plenty enough to allow me to keep tabs on him. I called occasionally when he would go silent, and he obliged me but wouldn’t turn around. Eventually he picked a spot ahead of me in a thick head of smaller hardwoods some 125 yards away. He locked it down there and began his wait for the trailing “hen.”
The woods were too open to get any closer, so I had no choice but to dog it off and pull up a seat alongside an old firebreak. I began my attempt to persuade him to come in, but he was having no part of it. He began to gobble more frequently, and within 20 minutes it was apparent he was hung up. I began studying the situation and am proud to say I never reached for the panic button. I had played this game way too many times to mess this one up. That didn’t mean I “knew” I had him, but he wasn’t going to beat me with my help. If I didn’t kill him, it wasn’t going to be because I overcalled.
I was also being observed that morning by two of the finest turkey hunters I know, Bobby Knight and Lynn Stanford, of Eatonton. They had both limited out and came along for the show, and I was glad to have them with me. I still had a bird to go before I reached my own limit for the season, and they said they wanted to go watch me get him. Talk about putting the pressure on. They didn’t realize it at the time, but they played a huge part in that hunt. I thought about how they would handle that bird for a moment, grinned and slid my diaphragm over to my jaw. I never called again.
Within 15 minutes the bird triple gobbled and broke from the thick area he had hung up in. He was coming straight to me in a fast deliberate walk. He died at 35 yards.
I believe the best chance you have to kill a hung-up gobbler is to do something about it the very second you realize he is hung up. The second I realized he wasn’t going to budge, I quit calling, and he got hotter than he did at any point I had called to him. That wasn’t the first time I had used that tactic to break a hung-up bird, and it likely won’t be the last.
I mentioned earlier that there are other reasons a bird will hang up besides overcalling. Again, it is hunter error that causes it.
Setups: Poor setups are responsible for saving the lives of many a gobbler. I have missed more than a few opportunities at taking home some good gobblers over the years simply because I didn’t put enough thought into where to sit and work a bird. I used to think as long as I could get off a good clean shot at an approaching gobbler, I had a good setup. But what about all those birds that never showed simply because I made a poor decision on setting up?
I was making good time with a Cedar Creek WMA bird one spring morning. He was hot and was eating up nearly every call I gave him. I was set up in front of a big pine facing the direction the bird was coming from. He was approaching from a deep bottom, and judging by the increasing volume of each gobble, he would be on the scene shortly. Sure enough, he arrived within a few short minutes, and when he reached the edge of the woods I was sitting in, he locked it down. It didn’t take long to realize I had made a grave error in my choice of setups. He fully expected to see a hen when he stepped into the open pine stand I was in, and though I never called again, he had no intention of taking another step in my direction until he saw one.
If you’ve ever had an out-of-range gobbler stare you down for a full 25 minutes, you can appreciate the agony I was in. He finally left, and even after relocating, I was never able to raise another gobble from him.
Whenever possible try to set up in a spot where the gobbler will be in range when he gets in sight. This can be tough to do sometimes, and when I am unable to get in a spot that won’t allow me that luxury, I will at least try to get in an area that will break me up, even if it’s just a good shady spot. Remember, if you are in open woods or on field edges, when he is where you can see him, he definitely expects to see the hen. Don’t forget that a gobbler’s hearing is also top-notch and is second only to his sight. He can tell where you are way before he gets close to you, and if he steps into an open landscape and can’t see the hen, he’s likely going to smell a rat and leave.
Other scenarios that might cause a bird to hang up are when hunting around gullies, creeks, fallen trees, rivers and fences. Avoid putting these types of obstacles between you and a bird you plan to work if at all possible.
Think to the extreme here. I have witnessed birds cover a lot of real estate in a hurry, only to stop at the slightest interference. One bird that still haunts my memory hung up on the edge of a creek bank. He stayed there for a half hour before he decided to walk out of my life forever. I probably could have handled being rejected better had it been a little bigger creek. He could have basically stepped over it.
If you know the property you are hunting, you should be aware of where these obstacles are. When you’re scouting it’s a good idea to look at your surroundings and rehearse a little. Look for good spots to set up on a bird in case you get on one during the season in the area. Take extreme measures to avoid working a bird from a setup that will put these obstacles in his way
Nature: While I still believe that it is more often the hunter who causes a gobbler to hang up, I don’t necessarily believe it’s always the case. Nature can cause a gobbler to hang up that might be dying to meet you. However, nature tends to use hens to cause a willing gobbler to become uncommitted.
I grabbed the affections of one particular longbeard one morning that was in the company of five hens. My setup was good, and I was calling just enough to keep him interested. He was within a dozen yards of his harem and around 75 yards from me. He gave me the impression he was very interested but not necessarily in me.
After a half hour the hens began to ease away, and he seemed to be torn on what to do. I was beginning to get a little proud of myself and believed the scales were tipping in my favor when the hens were soon farther from the old boy than I was. He strutted almost constantly and threw in an occasional gobble for good measure. Soon, the hens were nowhere to be seen, and I began to lightly scratch in the leaves beside me. When he gobbled at that, I knocked the safety off. Fifteen minutes later he broke and walked away. He didn’t take off after the hens, and he didn’t come to me. He just left. Nature is especially cruel in turkey season. I can honestly say I had no quick-fix answer for that situation, and if it happened again today, I would still be at the gobbler’s mercy. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. It is small consolation when it happens, but I can live with a natural tail whipping better than I can a self-inflicted one.
I still believe that in the case of every single hung-up gobbler, the safest, and perhaps the best way to bring him into range is to give him a good dose of his own medicine. It has cost many gobblers to retire early and I highly recommend it. The next time a gobbler hangs up on you, hang up on him, and wait.
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