Close The Deal On Hung-Up Gobblers

Take care of business when a gobbler hits the red zone.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | April 9, 2005

There are few things in turkey hunting more frustrating than a hung-up gobbler. I’ve had lots of birds come running to the call from great distances only to stop at an imaginary line just out of gun range. It’s like they know the distance at which my gun can do serious damage. Oftentimes, they strut and gobble until they grow tired of the game, and then they leave. Anyone who has hunted turkeys with any regularity can tell you a story of a bird that has refused to take those final steps into gun range. I don’t have a fail-proof method to keep this from happening, but I do know a few things that have helped me reduce this scenario.

When I first started turkey hunting, I’d shut up every time I saw a bird coming. I was scared my amateur calling would chase the bird away. The funny thing was that my hesitation to call began to result in quite a few dead birds. Several seasons ticked by and my walls began to fill with turkey fans. Confidence in my calling ability began to grow. I really enjoyed hearing myself belt out the turkey language in the spring woods. However, my turkey-hunting success took a nosedive.

I recall with vivid humiliation from a bird that I pulled almost into gun range one morning in a Putnam County hardwood bottom. After working him off the roost, I was overly confident that this bird would strut right into gun range. I poured it to that big boy — I cut, cackled, purred and yelped, but once he got to within 60 yards, he never took another step toward me. He stood for the next hour or so gobbling at my efforts before he finally strutted over a small hill and disappeared.

What went wrong? I believe I called too much. The more I called to the bird, the more content he became on waiting me out. Years later I’ve learned that rarely will a hung-up bird all of a sudden come running to constant calling.

These days, if I know a bird has heard my calling, I generally don’t make a peep from the moment he appears in front of me. Discipline yourself to shut up

For birds out of sight that know you’re in town, resist calling until he gobbles. Then, give him a courteous yelp or cluck. I feel if you can get a bird to call to you instead of you calling to him, you’re much better off.

Resisting the temptation to call is not an easy thing to do and generally requires more patience than turkey hunters can stand.

Besides overcalling, there are several other instances when a bird will hang up. I have narrowed the list to include a few of the most common, and hopefully I can provide some insight on how to correct each problem.

Field Birds: Field birds can be one of the most aggravating birds to call within gun range. When I knew birds were using a particular field, I used to go to that field, set up on the edge and start calling. If the bird showed up, most times he’d keep a safe distance out in the field. After a while, he’d decided that the “hen” he heard was bogus, and he’d be on his way.

I believe if you set up and call on a field’s edge, the gobbler expects to see you somewhere along that woodline. If he can’t see you, he has no reason to close the distance.

The only time I may set up on a field edge would be if there was some contour in the field and the minute the gobbler appeared, he was in gun range.

However, most times I don’t set up on a field edge. Instead, I’ll choose a spot 25 yards or so into the woods where I am able to see into the field. I have better results pulling a bird to the edge of a field when I’m not on the edge myself. If I am hunting with a buddy, I will place him on the edge, and I will get even deeper into the woods and do the calling.

I used the first method just last spring on an afternoon field bird. When I got to the field there were several big gobblers strutting around a flock of hens. I managed to get 30 yards from the edge of the field and set up. For the first hour I didn’t make a call, but as evening faded, I threw a few soft yelps into the field. The boss hen disapproved and headed my way with one of the gobblers in tow. The hen came into the woods looking for me, but the gobbler stopped 15 yards from the field edge. He was close enough.

Barriers: Barriers in the turkey woods can cause some serious headaches. Obstacles such as creeks, rivers, and fences are just a few things that turkey hunters encounter on a regular basis. While it is a good idea to avoid setting up where one of these may come into play, it is not always possible. We all know that creek and river bottoms are great places to find turkeys, but it seems as if every bird we hear gobble at our calls is on the other side. There are several ways to address barriers that can increase your chances of killing the bird.

One method I like to use is to set up as close to the barrier as I can if I can’t get across or around it. When a bird gobbles on the opposite side of a creek, I’ll move to the edge before I call. If he’s near the creek, I’ll often have to move up or downstream to avoid being detected. Even though you’ve moved farther away from the bird, getting beside a creek is important. Sometimes he won’t want to cross it, but lots of times you’ll see that he’s curious enough to head toward the edge of the creek to see the hen on the other side. Assuming the other side of the creek is on the property you’re hunting, you can shoot him. I’ll get wet to retrieve a gobbler.

Rivers can present a different problem. Sometimes the other side is well out of shotgun range. Getting a bird to cross a wide barrier is not impossible, but it can take a whole lot of patience.

I was hunting with a friend two seasons ago in Wilkinson County. Part of the property had a river on it. There was a huge sandbar on the bend of the river that the turkeys liked to use as a major strut zone. We could see the sandbar from several hundred yards away, and there were no birds there. We decided to set up and do some calling. I called a couple of times and got a response from a bird across the river. I called again. The bird hit again and was joined by another bird. They began gobbling quite a bit on their own, so I stopped calling.

A few minutes passed, and they fired off again. They sounded as if they were heading away from us, down the river. We started to walk parallel to the birds to see if we could get them to cross. No sooner than we started to move, the birds gobbled again and appeared on the edge of the sandbar on our side of the river. The birds had sailed across a wide, 150-yard section of the river. Ten minutes later we put both gobblers on the ground.

I believe those birds got hot enough to cross the river because I kept my calling to a minimum. I’ve hammered at birds on the other side of a river so many times, and they just never seem to cross. The message the bird gets when you overcall is that you are very interested. You’re so interested that he believes you’ll eventually come to him. This is when he hangs up.

Also, those birds walked away from us just so they could cross in a particular area. I believe that some birds have particular crossing areas. I also believe if a bird is red-hot he’ll cross anywhere he wants. However, setting up at one of these crossing areas, like the strut zone we found, is a good place to catch one.

Sometimes you’ll have a bird that will remain stationary across a river and won’t move. If this is the case, I’ll keep him interested only by answering with a soft yelp when he gobbles. If that gobbler starts to leave and parallel the river bank, I’ll move with him, and once again only call if he gobbles.

If a gobbler is halfway interested he may walk a half mile and then cross at one of these preferred crossings. If the bird just keeps getting ahead of you, try moving several hundred yards in front of him and call from the river bank. Just by getting in front of him, you may encourage him to play a game of catch up and cross the river.

No matter the barrier, the key is to let the bird do what he will. Many a bird will hang up at a barrier but begging him to cross it generally won’t get him to do so. Let him come and taper your calling. Sometimes it’s best to cease calling altogether.

When I have a gobbler coming in and he gets to a barrier such as a fence, I don’t usually call to him. I figure if he has come that far, if I don’t pressure him, he will eventually get past the fence. Turkeys cross fences, ditches, rivers and creeks all the time; the key is letting him do it when he wants to. There will be times when you’re hunting a bird that simply won’t cross that barrier. If this happens, try using the barrier to kill that bird.

A good friend and I got on a henned-up bird last spring that was about 250 yards out into a field. We decided to try to move on the birds, so we dipped into heavy cover and headed down the field. We came to a large drainage ditch that ran through the field. We felt the birds wouldn’t cross it, and it was too far to shoot across even if we could pull him to the edge. We jumped into the deep ditch and covered about 75 yards. I crawled up to the top, shouldered my gun and peeked into the field. The gobbler stood alert at 35 yards. That’s where he fell. It was a simple case of using a barrier to move into position for a shot.

Decoys: Some feel that using decoys is the cure-all for preventing a hung-up turkey. I feel pretty much the opposite. I simply would rather have a turkey come in and leave because he couldn’t find what he was looking for than to have a bird come in and leave because he saw something he didn’t like. I tried decoys years ago, and most times the results were horrific. I have had turkeys come running to the call only to see a decoy and veer off and disappear. I was hunting with a good friend several years ago, and we pulled a monster of a bird from several hundred yards to 55 yards. The minute he topped the hill in the roadbed he saw our decoys and locked it down. There he stayed for the next 45 minutes. He finally grew bored with us and the stationary “hens” and walked away. That’s the last time I used them. I believe there have been a couple of times decoys might have helped me but not enough times to start toting them around.

Public-Land Hang-Ups: Some birds just won’t budge from a spot far enough to be shot, while others might be convinced to travel a few more steps either by soft, subtle clucks and purrs or not calling at all. A henned-up bird may only come as close as the real hens will let him, or a hen-less gobbler may refuse to come simply because he has played the game before and might have only gotten himself a few stingers for his trouble.

The latter of the two is a regular occurrence for me when dealing with WMA birds. For this particular bird, I will rarely try to coax him in with a lot of hen talk. The later in the season it gets, the harder it is to break a gobbler who hangs up out of range.

One method I have used with some success is a few gobbler yelps or clucks. A public-land bird might be a little reluctant to come join a hen he can’t see, but turkeys are social birds and sometimes company is all he wants. When calling slow the yelp down a little and try to stay coarse. Some box calls have a coarse side to them, or you can stay toward the middle of a slate to achieve the tone you want for a gobbler yelp or cluck. Also, gobblers tend to yelp in short series of one to three yelps at the time.

Set-up: Don’t put yourself in a place a bird doesn’t want to come to. I blew a hunt for a client a couple of years ago simply by placing us in a wide-open stand of pines. When the bird came out of the hardwood bottom below and stepped into the pines he stopped where he thought he should be able to see us. Unfortunately, that was 60 yards away. He stood still for 10 minutes before turning around and heading back into the bottom. I knew better but let the excitement of the bird’s gobble make me sit down too quickly.

Try to set up in an area where a bird has to close the distance to find you. If possible, set up in areas that won’t allow you to see the bird until he is just about in range. When you can see the bird coming or can hear a bird drumming, quit calling altogether. Sweet talk such as soft clucks and purring can be good, but no calling at all will sometimes be more than a gobbler can stand. I stand firmly on the belief that the least amount of calling you can get away with, the better off you are, and the more you call to an approaching bird, the more apt he is to hang up.

Getting everything to come together in the turkey woods is a rare moment to behold, but when it does there’s nothing more thrilling than watching a big gobbler step into gun range and closing the deal.

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