Mar 10, 2014

Girl Trouble: Hunting Henned-Up Turkeys

Let's hear it for the hen turkey

By: Brian Lovett

Hen turkeys make poults, after all, and many of those little turkeys live long enough to become gobbling turkeys. Without the hen, there would be no turkeys or turkey hunting.

Of course, there is another side to that coin. Hens are often the bane of spring turkey hunting, keeping love-struck gobblers preoccupied for hours, days or seemingly even weeks. Your best calling and maneuvering produce nothing but frustration, as longbeards seem content to follow and strut for hens (the real thing) instead of coming to you (a fake). You can call a gobbler away from hens now and then, but it won’t happen often. Henned-up gobblers are probably the toughest challenge in the spring woods, but they’re not a guarantee for tag soup. Here are some tricks to turn the tables.

Nailing Them Down

The easiest way to kill a henned-up gobbler is (duh) to determine where the hens are. A lovesick longbeard will follow hens during their daily routine of roosting, traveling, feeding, loafing and — depending on the phase of the breeding season — laying eggs or nesting. If you learn where that routine (and I use that word loosely, because the daily activity of most turkeys doesn't resemble a routine) takes hens, you've won half the battle. Sitting quietly near an acorn-strewn flat might not be exciting, but if hens are visiting that spot every day, it can be a darned effective hunting tactic.

To get the drop on hens, let's first examine how their movements and behavior changes through the spring breeding season.

In Wisconsin, spring turkey season opens while birds are still breaking apart from winter flocks and determining their pecking order. During this time, it's common to see large groups of hens and jennies (juvenile hens). These hens are typically focused on food and have little or no interest in breeding, but that doesn't stop gobblers from trying. They'll seek out hens, and then strut and gobble for them while the disinterested ladies feed and move about.

As spring progresses, hens instinctively become receptive to gobblers. They will have broken up into much smaller groups, and will seek nesting areas, breed and start laying eggs. During the peak breeding season, which lasts about two weeks, gobblers will be seriously henned-up. They often gobble on the roost, fly down with hens, go silent and spend all day strutting and following hens until one is ready to breed. Even after they breed a hen, a tom doesn't quit. One gobbler will breed several hens. To make matters worse for hunters, hens often avoid potential rivals during this time. When they hear calling, they often cut off a longbeard and walk in the opposite direction, dragging "their man" with them because they don't want to share him with some harlot.

During the breeding stage, hens usually lay one egg per day. They'll leave a gobbler at midmorning or midday, find their nest, lay an egg and then resume loafing, feeding or doing whatever they do. When hens have a full clutch (about a dozen eggs, but anywhere from nine to 17), they constantly sit on their nests to incubate their eggs, leaving only for a brief feeding foray or two each day. Incubation takes about 28 days, and all the poults hatch within 24 hours. During this time, gobblers are often without female companionship. However, that doesn't mean they don't try. They'll still follow even an unreceptive hen, and often wind up strutting for nonbreeding jennies (young-of-the-year hens). It often seems to take them several days to realize that hens are no longer coming to them for breeding, so they still act henned up. Further, some hens lose their nests to predators or weather, and many — some estimates say about 30 percent — will breed again. These renesting birds give gobblers plenty of options late in spring.

Here's the underlying theme in this loose timeline: Gobblers can be henned up before the season, during the season and even well after the season. A well-prepared turkey hunter will keep track of the movements and whereabouts of hens, because there will almost always be a gobbler or two nearby.

During early spring, look for hens and other turkey sign near hot feeding areas: crop fields, food plots, logging roads with fresh green shoots or areas with abundant acorns or other hard mast. Then, try to back-track their travel routes to roost areas. In early and mid-April, birds might cling to ideal winter roosts, especially large pines or massive hardwoods near food sources. Find good-looking ambush spots near the roost, field or travel route, and set the trap. Be especially careful while waiting for turkeys, and if the area is open, consider using a blind. If birds are still grouped up, you might have to hide from scores of eyes instead of a pair or two. Usually, gobblers seem to follow hens, although the reverse is sometimes true.

As birds begin to breed, you'll be scouting for much smaller groups of hens. Birds will still think about food after flydown, but as the woods green up, they have many more options. Search for the hottest fresh sign in the woods. If the weather is bad, turkeys might revert to winter feeding patterns and hit crop fields.

Later in spring, don't ignore potential nesting areas. Hens tend to relocate somewhat near likely nesting spots — thickets, CRP fields, brushy field edges and similar cover — and gobblers won't be far away. Look for food sources near these spots, and note any nests or dusting areas.

Basically, stay on hens throughout the season. Continue scouting as you hunt and even after the season is finished. Key on the gobblers, of course, but never ignore any clues hens leave you. One bit of information might save a hunt or even your season.

Working With the Enemy

Hens are social creatures, and they communicate via calling and visual cues. So even if gobblers aren't making much noise, hens might, especially during early spring. Focusing on hen talk can help you win the day and is probably the most exciting tactic for hunting henned-up gobblers.

As mentioned, in early spring, hen groups are still breaking up, and birds are sorting out their pecking order. There are dominant hens, just as there are dominant gobblers. (In reality, every turkey is dominant or submissive to another in some degree, based on their hierarchy in the pecking order.) So, as the pecking order is sorted out, hens often yelp or cutt aggressively to assert their social positions. Also — and this is true whenever hens get together — they cluck and purr in feeding situations, mostly, it's believed, to vocally claim and maintain their personal space and feeding area. In addition, young turkeys are fairly vocal in early spring. They still have strong bonds to their broodmates and often try to stay together, as they did as poults the previous summer, fall and winter. These birds can still be fairly gregarious in early spring.

To engage a hen with calling, yelp, cluck or purr softly at her, and then gauge her response. Did the bird seem agitated? If so, try to get under her skin by cutting her off or mimicking her. If the hen becomes increasingly excited, don’t be afraid to use lots of cutting and excited yelping. She might come in looking for a fight, and a gobbler could follow her.

If a hen responds in subtle or tepid fashion, echo her calling and answer every series, making sure not to sound too excited or aggressive. You’re basically asking permission to join her group. If the bird stays silent, don't give up. Keep calling, using soft yelps and clucks mixed with clucking and purring, like a feeding hen. Any calling that lures a hen near might drag a gobbler past you.

As the season progresses, and hens start mating and laying eggs, calling to hens becomes less effective. Still, it pays to listen for hen talk and gauge their reaction to calling. Even prompting an answer from a hen might let you slip closer and spy a flock feeding in a field, or let you hear drumming or scratching. That might let you keep tabs on birds and get into position for a shot.

Late in the season, some hens seem to get especially vocal near or on their nests. I'm guessing this relates to their pecking order or is somewhat territorial. Getting a nesting hen to respond to cutting doesn't mean she'll drag a longbeard past you, but the resulting dialogue might get a nearby tom to fire up and sneak in for a peek.

One final tip: If you set up on a roosted gobbler that obviously has a passel of hens nearby, you have little to lose by abandoning your conservative roost-calling and hammering the bird with fly-down cackles and aggressive yelps and cutting. This simulates a hot hen that's flown down early and is ready to breed, and sometimes, a red-hot gobbler might fly down from his hens to check her out. It doesn't work often, but it works often enough.

Working Around the Enemy

If the aforementioned "polite" tactics fail, it might be time to get down and dirty on henned-up gobblers. Often, the only way you can kill a henned-up gobbler is to use cover or the terrain to slip close enough for an ambush or bushwhack. By ambush, I mean setting up at a likely spot where turkeys might drift into range. By bushwhack, I mean crawling or sneaking within range of a gobbler and shooting it.

If everything else fails, try fall tactics on henned-up gobblers. If you spot a breeding flock, slip close to the birds, and then run at them, yelling and waving your arms. Hopefully, as with a good fall scatter, the birds will flush in every direction, thereby separating a gobbler from his hens.

Note the direction in which the turkeys — especially any longbeards — flew. Then, slip toward the gobblers, wait a half-hour or so, find a decent setup and try some soft calling. This might sound absurd, but turkeys get spooked every day, and it doesn't take them that long to get over it. I've even seen toms flushed by a charging coyote start gobbling 20 minutes later. A longbeard that's suddenly lonesome for his hens might forget about the bad experience and respond to your calling. He might come in silently, but that's a chance you should be willing to take.

This can also work especially well if you locate roosted birds in the evening. Try to flush them in the darkness, hoping that the gobbler spends the night alone. He might be lonesome and ready to work in the morning.

Not Always

Turkey hunting is often a waiting game, and waiting might provide the best solution to henned-up gobblers. If you're patient enough, you will eventually find a bird without hens. Maybe it will be at midday, when hens leave to lay eggs. Perhaps it will be later in the season, when all the hens are nesting. Maybe it will be with a subordinate gobbler that sneaks in from the side of your setup to find your calling. Or perhaps it will happen via some other circumstance.

However it occurs, it's inevitable. That henned-up gobbler that's frustrated you so much will not be with his ladies forever. When you find him alone, he's more vulnerable, and the tide turns in your favor. Of course, you still have to form a plan, set up on him and work him in, but that's turkey hunting.