Tag-Along Toms

Spending a few hours tagging along with a gobbler after he flies off the roost can reap rewards late in the morning.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | February 1, 2012

The author prefers to keep up with a gobbler that is henned up by using locator calls, such as crow or hawk calls.

Every once in a while I find myself tangling with a bird that is seemingly reluctant to leave me but does it anyway. I’m not talking about the ones that give a few courtesy gobbles as they vanish with a harem of hens into parts unknown. I’m talking about a bird that is genuinely sincere about the invitation he is sending, but for whatever reason, he continues to wander away.

You will recognize these types of birds by the amount of hard gobbling they do and by the slow manner in which they depart your company. The harder they gobble and the more often they gobble, even though they are still leaving, the better chance you will have in keeping up with him and eventually turning him around.

Longtime friend Bobby Knight, of Eatonton, and I got on a bird last spring that managed to drag us around for the better part of 4 1/2 hours. He had shunned us at daylight, even after we had accidentally set up within 60 yards of the limb he had spent the night on. We were penned down by the time we realized our error and were forced to sit completely silent and motionless for the next half hour before the bird pitched into a field 30 yards from his perch. Now he was over a little rise and was nearly 100 yards from our setup. We immediately did a fly-down cackle and waited.

We could hear the big bird drumming, but when we finally saw him, he was heading in the opposite direction. We pleaded with the bird to come back, but he wanted no part of it. He would let loose of an occasional gobble, each time a little farther from us than the last.

We had no other choice but to try to follow the bird. He was more and more vocal as the morning wore on, and by 8:30 we had managed to catch up to the bird when he decided to lock it down in a maze of cedar trees about 100 yards away. He gobbled regularly but would not budge in our direction.

Soon the bird grew tired of waiting on us and began walking away again. He started gobbling a little less frequently, and we were afraid we were losing him.

Nearly half an hour passed before he finally gobbled to my crow call. We soon came to a point when the bird locked it down again. He began pacing back and forth and at one time closed to a little more than 50 yards. I decided to let it all hang out at that point with some very aggressive cutting and yelping, and he became hotter. A hen began to cut at me in the distance, and the old boy went into a gobbling frenzy. Fifteen minutes later Bobby folded the bird at 40 yards.

It had been a grueling hunt, but it ended in our favor. In all rights, this bird should have lived to see another day, but there were several reasons why he didn’t.

I’m a firm believer that if you know a bird is in the area, especially one that is gobbling more than just every now and then, you have a chance. I used to write a bird off if he started going the other way. I also usually assumed he had hens. It was nothing more than luck that taught me that just because a bird is heading in another direction doesn’t me he’s necessarily trying to get away from you.

I had decided to try and get in front of a bird one day that was heading in the opposite direction. The problem was the terrain wouldn’t allow me to get around on him, but I ended up following him instead. He would gobble occasionally and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to put distance between us. In fact, he ended up slowing down to the point that I had to sit down and wait for him to put some distance back between us. He had been answering me quite a bit, and when I sat down to see what his next move was, he showed up. He was quick and deliberate and never said a word when he turned around and headed my way. I was fortunate enough not to be caught off guard and dusted the 2-year-old at 35 yards.

Bobby Knight, of Eatonton, killed this Cedar Creek WMA bird after tagging along with him for most of the morning.

It was an eye-opening experience. I have often said the words always and never don’t apply to turkey hunting, and I will stress it again here. I will say, however, the method I use for tagging along behind a gobbler rarely varies.

First of all you will need to determine if the gobbler that is leaving you is with hens or if he is a loner. It does matter. The way you hunt and call while bringing up the rear should be dependent on whether he has company or not. If you don’t know if he has hens with him or not, it’s usually best to treat him as if he does.

If he is with a hen or a group of hens, I tend to keep the chatter to a minimum. I don’t get overly aggressive. Most times, if you are too aggressive on a gobbler that is walking away with hens, the hens will pick up the pace a little and the next time he gobbles, if he gobbles, will be a much greater distance than the last time you heard him. I believe the best way to keep your hopes alive when following a henned-up gobbler is to keep things soft. Just letting him know there is a hen that wants to be with him but is having trouble keeping up will sometimes be enough to slow him way down or sometimes turn him around altogether. The fewer hens he has, the better your chances of turning him around altogether.

It is possible to play on the possessiveness of a hen that is trying to take the gobbler away, too. She might very well turn around and bring the gobbler with her, but more often than not, aggression on a bird that is with hens and one that is already leaving will simply put more distance between you and that bird.

I prefer to keep up with a gobbler that is henned-up by using locator calls, such as crow calls or a good shrill hawk call. If you can get him to gobble at these, it will allow you to tighten up on him a bit. Sometimes it will take a turkey call though. If the bird is henned up, I will call loud enough for him to hear, but I won’t get overly aggressive. I treat retreating gobblers in much the same way I would treat a hung-up gobbler. If I sound too anxious to get to him, he’s going to think I’m able to keep up. It is extremely important to keep following only if he keeps gobbling, the hens keep talking or the terrain allows you to see him. Just remember, if you can see him it’s possible that he can see you. If he shuts up, he very well could be coming in and if you’re heading toward him, well, you’re fixing to mess up. That doesn’t mean he has to gobble continuously, but you need to be sure he’s not just standing around the corner waiting on you before you go charging around the corner.

There is no set amount of time to follow him. Stay with him as long as you can and as long as he will let you know where he is. The longer you are able to keep up with him, the better your chances are of taking him home with you. If it is a morning scenario, he will eventually lose hens along the way. When he does, the odds of him coming to check you out will continue to swing in your favor.

Bobby followed a henned-up Cedar Creek WMA gobbler one morning for 5 1/2 hours. He watched several hens slip off from the old bird during that time span, and when the gobbler realized that Bobby was the only bird left, he turned and headed straight for him. Of course, the tom paid dearly for his decision.

If the bird has no hens, you can generally get away with a little more calling and at a different level of excitement. I will sometimes mix in a little short, aggravated cutting and harsh yelping at intervals to get the point across that ‘I’m trying to get to you if you’ll just hold up a minute.’ Of course, as in any situation when calling to a gobbler, there is a fine line between overcalling and calling just enough. If he starts answering less and less and he is still going away, it’s time to cut back on your calling.

It’s important to realize also that you might not always be in terrain that will allow you to follow a gobbler in a direct line behind him. In such cases you might have to veer off to one side or the other to be able to stay close enough. Any time you are on the move and sounding like a hen, you’re subject to call in a different bird that’ll be on top of you before you know it. A prime example of this occurred one morning last spring on a henned-up bird I had located at daylight.

When I finally reached a good setup as close as I dared, I was seated 100 to 125 yards from the gobbler that was high on a limb across the bottom on an opposite ridge. He was on the end of the high ridge in a big pine. I let him know I was there, and he answered right away. Soon I heard several hens begin their morning chatter, and a few minutes later I heard birds begin to pitch. I waited a full 10 minutes without hearing another turkey sound and decided to pitch down myself. The gobbler hammered my call, and I could tell he had moved down the ridge toward the bottom between us. I gave a few soft yelps and waited.

Fifteen minutes passed before I saw a full fan approaching from the bottom below me. He was in front of four hens, and things were looking promising. He began angling to my left, and when he strutted behind a small rise 60 yards away, I knew it would be just a few seconds before he crested the rise between us and I would close the deal.

The few seconds turned into several minutes, and when I saw the bird again, he was headed up the hill with the four hens in tow. He was leaving me behind and had obviously swung by to give me the opportunity to join the group. The small flock soon disappeared over the hill 85 yards away.

I was a little aggravated at first but regrouped quickly, got to my feet and began to head toward the gobbler. The farther up the hill I went, the more obvious it became that I would have to swing wide to keep up with him as the woods were far too open to continue straight behind him.

I walked 100 yards to my left and picked up an old logging road. I hit the crow call a couple of times, but he would not answer. I yelped a few times, and he responded. He was still slowly easing off. I picked up the pace and headed up the road out of the bottom. About halfway up the hill, I called again, and again he gobbled. I had cut the distance to about a 100 yards but still needed to continue flanking him if I was going to stay in the game. I moved another 30 yards or so and called again. The next gobble I heard nearly knocked my boots off. Another bird had honed in on my position and was trying to get to me in a hurry. I sat down quickly and yelped a few times. The bird hammered back much closer to me this time, and within seconds I began to hear loud drumming ahead of me. I watched the curve of the road ahead and suddenly a big longbeard appeared in full strut at 30 yards. He gobbled once more before I stopped him with a cluck and a load of No. 6s.

Another minute passed before I heard the gobbler I had been chasing sound off. It was clear to me then that the bird I had just shot was indeed another gobbler altogether. I thought about that as I sat admiring my bird in the tranquility of the cool spring morning. The bird I ended up killing had never gobbled until he was close to 75 yards away. I wondered how many times I had unknowingly bumped an approaching, silent bird while trying to get in a better position to work a vocal one. It reminded me of another point I learned years ago on the football field. Keep your head on a swivel. Don’t get tunnel vision, or, just like on the football field, you’ll get ear-holed.

One thing that stands out to me in the spring woods is there always seems to be more turkeys in an area than I think there are, and you can never tell when one of those other birds will show up. An interested bird doesn’t always gobble. When and if he does gobble, he might wait until he is nearly on top of you to do it. He might also be going away from you. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to leave you. He may feel like he has to.

The bird Bobby and I followed last spring for 4 1/2 hours flew down and headed away from us, not to escape but to try and get with another group of birds roosted about 300 yards north of the tree he’d spent the night in. I used to always take that personally but have since learned every bird on the move in the opposite direction isn’t always ignoring you. Just be ready, and stay encouraged that a bird could show up at any moment.

The next time a bird heads away from you, don’t get discouraged. Get on your feet, and tag along. You won’t always catch up with him, and you’ll likely bump one from time to time, but when you hang with one that drags you halfway across the county and you finally get a bead on him, it’s one of the most rewarding turkey hunts you can experience.

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