Gobbler hunting strategies: The snood reveals the mood

As long as it’s hanging down, you have time.

If only you knew what a turkey was thinking. Then you could better guess when it’s time to shoot, or hold off and let it keep coming. If only there was a way to get a reading on a gobbler’s degree of excitement or anxiety over the current situation.

There is a way: Study the snood. It reveals the mood. Watching what’s going on with that fleshy appendage hanging from just above the beak will help you know when a turkey is excited about your calling and relaxed about the situation, or when it is tense and may be ready to leave.

It’s the first thing I try to see as a tom is coming to the call. I want to know about that bird’s relative mood, so I can help the shooter know when to try the shot. (These days, I’m almost always sitting behind a camera and/or just along for the show.)

Here’s the main thing to look for, and what it means in a hunting context: If the snood is extended, just hanging there, flopping around, with that blue and red appearance, chances are the turkey is going to stay around and keep getting closer. But if the snood is short, and especially if it changes from hanging loose to shriveled up on top of the head, that turkey is more likely to leave the area.

As is common with physical attributes of birds, biologists mostly believe the snood is a feature used to help attract mates. But it’s also probably a feature that helps boy turkeys intimidate other boy turkeys.

Studies with tame turkeys appear to show hens prefer to mate with toms that have longer snoods. Studies also seem to indicate tom turkeys with longer snoods are more intimidating to other toms. One study used fake turkeys that differed only in snood length, and showed real toms were more likely to try to steal corn from a tom with a shorter snood.

What’s funny about the literature is that it’s often stated that when a tom turkey’s snood is retracted (when it’s a short little stub sticking straight up off the top of the head), it’s an indication that the bird is “relaxed.” But I think they’re making a distinction between a funky definition of relaxed, as opposed to being excited; the literature is also full of mentions that the snood becomes engorged with blood and hangs down when a gobbler gets excited. In this case, excited can mean the turkey is about to get in a fight with another turkey, or the tom is excited about the prospect of getting together with a hen during the mating season.

In my experience, when a turkey’s snood is retracted into a little bump on top of its head, there is high anxiety involved. When turkeys hear a sound they don’t like, or see something they don’t like, the snood shrivels up in a split second, body posture tightens, and the bird almost always begins moving away from the source of the problem.

So we come back to the hunt. When you have a gobbler coming in, look for the snood and see what state it’s in. If the tom has been gobbling hard and coming good, the snood will almost always (maybe it is always!) be hanging down loose. That turkey is fired up and more oblivious to potential danger. As long as the snood is relaxed, I believe the bird “isn’t going anywhere,” as they say.

If I’m with a new hunter who doesn’t have a lot of experience with getting the gun up and taking the shot, I whisper to him or her to take as much time as needed and wait for just the right shot. If the bird is looking generally in our direction, I urge the shooter to hold stone still, even if he or she will need to move a bit to get the gun all the way into position to shoot when the time comes. A loose-hanging snood tells you there is time. Wait until the turkey goes into strut and turns his back to you, or goes behind a thick tree trunk, or otherwise looks away, before getting the gun into final shooting position.

But if something happens – such as the shooter moving a bit to try to get the gun up – and the turkey sees it, really watch the snood. If it shrivels and the bird tenses, your time is almost up. At that point, the shooter really has to try the shot if there is one. (If you don’t have a good shot, hold off. There are plenty of worse things than having a close encounter with a turkey that ends up walking away.)

The snood is a big deal. We talk about it at the wild turkey hunting clinic put on by the Minnesota DNR and National Wild Turkey Federation, so new hunters know about it. Making good decisions when a turkey moves into shooting range makes all the difference. You’re aiming for a clean kill, and it helps to be decisive.

From now on, keep in mind the turkey’s next move is often given away by that funny flap of skin. His mood is as plain as the state of the snood on his face.

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