Turkey season is now more than a week old and it’s likely many if not most hunters will encounter toms with hens especially in the early part of the season. The term “hen’d up” will often be heard among hunters who encounter and describe this scenario. If a tom is with a group of hens it’s highly unlikely he’ll leave the hen group to chase after another. If the hens are roosting near him a tom may not even gobble while on the roost and the hunter will hear nothing but the owls and crows. It’s times like these that frustrate turkey hunters, but some tactics may work at least sometimes.
Turkeys are not territorial, that is, they have a home range and can be fairly predictable in where they might be at any given time of the morning. The first thing turkeys do after fly down is to assemble and begin feeding. This feeding pattern is set by the dominant hen and other birds in the flock, including the dominant gobbler. All the birds in the group will follow her wherever she leads.
This feeding pattern may change if the dominant hen drops out of the flock to nest and her role is taken over by the next dominant hen in the pecking order. This change could affect the dominant tom’s daily schedule.
Whenever I get a hen to answer my calls I’ll repeat all the calls she’s making. If she’s alone she may come to investigate the calls she hears. Sometimes if she’s the boss hen, there’s a strong possibility she’ll simply lead the flock in a different direction and the tom will follow her lead. It’s scenarios like this that drive turkey hunters mad.
However, if the dominant hen is in a fighting mood she may want to drive off the intruder she hears. This is when I aggressively repeat every yelp or cluck she makes. It’s like grade-schoolers mocking each other. She may not be able to stand the competition and if she comes, the tom will most likely follow. If that happens I don’t watch the hen, I look in the direction from which she approached my position because the tom will most often be behind her usually at some distance.
Many times hunters will encounter turkeys in a large field especially after a rain, and these birds can be impossible to call. One of my most useful pieces of hunting equipment is my Leupold 10 x 25 binocular. I always check a field from inside the woods where I’m less likely to be spotted by any birds that may be feeding there. Since I can’t do much more than watch them as I try to determine the direction they are heading. Sooner or later they will reenter the woods and if I can position myself to be near where they will leave the field and reenter the woods, I may have an opportunity to call them in my direction.
This first week of May I heard birds enthusiastically gobbling the first three mornings. In fact, on opening day in Pennsylvania, I called in four jakes, and the next day in New York, five more came in to investigate my calls. The third morning it was total silence. So far, I haven’t heard a gobble all day in either state.
This silence may be maddening but, it isn’t unusual especially early in the season when the toms are roosted near the hens. Because they are all so close, the tom doesn’t have any need to gobble. He simply waits for the hens to fly down and when they are on the ground, he joins them. This silence can go on for a good part of the season until one morning the tom finds himself alone and gobbling begins again. If the gobbling occurs late in the morning then there is a strong possibility it is a dominant tom who has lost his harem of hens.
If more than one bird answers then it’s likely you are encountering several two-year-old toms or several jakes. In either case you’re likely to be in for some fun. Some hunters won’t shoot a jake but I’ll never forget the words of the legendary Ben Rogers Lee when he said, “Any birds wot’ comes in gobblin’ deserves to be shot.” It’s your decision.