It is the dreaded "h" word - hens.
For some, it may as well be the "H bomb," because many feel the morning hunt is blown when they encounter a gobbler with hens.
And, indeed, one of the toughest tasks in turkey hunting is to lure into range a longbeard surrounded by a harem of hens. Competing with live hens that are literally walking and breeding with the gobbler is difficult, at best, and always annoying and challenging.
Some hunters, including John Tanner of Hemingway, enjoy the challenge the dreaded "henned" scenario presents. Tanner said hunters can be successful on henned-up gobblers, but preparation and a patient mind-set, along with a full arsenal of weapons, are needed.
Tanner, who makes turkey calls for a living (www.johntannercalls.com), is a veteran hunter who has developed keen insights into how this tricky game should be played.
"Henned gobblers are probably the most difficult to take because there are so many variables a hunter must process," Tanner said. "Every gobbler presents a unique challenge, and hunting henned birds certainly complicates the situation. Instead of having one keen set of eyes and ears to defeat you, sometimes you have an entire flock of birds. Hens that are with a gobbler for breeding are extremely wary and suspicious of another hen calling that doesn't come to the gobbler. It's easy to over-do and put the hens on high alert.
"For these reasons, patience and perseverance are essential for hunters hoping to be successful on henned longbeards," Tanner said. "I've learned through the years that there are specific strategies that help me get a henned gobbler."
Tanner said one strategy is to roost the bird the evening before and get in position very early the next morning.
"Position and proximity are crucial, and getting close to a gobbler that is roosting with hens is important," Tanner said. "In a normal, non-henned situation, closer is better. However, when gobblers that are with hens throughout the day go to roost, they often roost among a group of hens.
"A big mistake on a henned gobbler is to unwittingly get too close and be sitting in the midst of a group of hens at dawn. I've learned that lesson the hard way, and have had to watch the hens fly down and walk off with the gobbler because I was surrounded by those sharp eyes and could not move.
"In some cases, I had already blown my cover, so to speak, and the gregarious hens were aware of my presence. Either way leads to no gobbler - at least at that specific time."
Tanner learns and uses to his advantage the land he hunts.
"Instead of simply getting as close as possible, I take what I feel is a close but strategic position," he said. "I determine what I think is the natural way the gobbler will naturally move and set up along that path, close but not in his bedroom.
"I make a variety of calls, but this situation is where I use those (calls) that make soft and subtle sounds. That's often be enough to have the entire flock of hens with gobbler in tow come to my position.
"I think calling is crucial for henned gobblers, so I keep it soft, subtle and realistic. I feel I'm calling the hens as much as the gobbler, so I begin with a raspy box call and make two or three soft yelps. Usually, that will entice a gobble. At that point, the gobbler knows where I am, and I go to my trough call, using slate or glass. I do soft purrs and easy clucks, and the calling I do is intermittent, not continuous. I believe too much or too aggressive calling will make the hens suspicious, and they'll work to move the gobbler away. If the plan works, the birds will fly down and move in my direction, and because of those subtle calls, they will usually pass close enough for the shot.
"If that doesn't go as planned, and the birds go a different direction, then by not being right in the middle of a flock of hens, I can still be mobile and deploy Plan B," Tanner said.
Tanner said that Plan B is simply knowing the turkeys' habits and determining where the gobblers and hens are going.
"I just have to get there first," he said. "Knowing the land is simply something every turkey hunter should do regardless of whether gobblers are henned or not. But paying attention to details and advance scouting are keys to success on henned gobblers."
Tanner said that what can and often changes with every gobbler and flock of hens is where they will go when they get together. If you are not successful early in the morning and the gobbler is henned, it may be time to make a big move.
"Often it means I may have to double-time it and take the long way around to get there," he said. "I take this precautionary circle to ensure I do not alarm the turkeys of my presence. Surprise is the key to success with this tactic."
Tanner said some of the where-to-go information he learns simply from preseason scouting and hearing and listening to where the birds naturally move when unpressured.
"It's important to me to know where two or three gobblers will be roosted and the general direction and location they will go," he said. "Sometimes early in the season, I also learn the hard way, by getting beat but then tracking the gobbler as he walks away with the hens. The longbeard will often gobble at my calls as he walks away, but he has no intention of coming to me at that time. But I learn the direction he is going and know the land he is walking through.
"Sometimes I cannot get there first that day, so I learn and know there's always tomorrow and another day," Tanner said. "Taking a henned gobbler is a process, not necessarily a quick kill. If need be, I will gladly take a couple more days to figure a gobbler out before I actually get in the right position to shoot. One of the great things about turkey hunting is it's not always an instant success type of hunting. Sometimes you have to build knowledge of the habits of a henned gobbler over the course of a few days and then use that knowledge when the timing is right."
"Of course, just because I get whipped by a gobbler doesn't mean I quit hunting for the morning," he said. "I'll set out and use my more aggressive sounding calls to strike up another bird that may be willing to work," he said. "But you can bet that I will be back on that gobbler later in the day or the next day. Once a henned gobbler beats me, it gets personal, and I tend to hunt him even harder."
Another gobbler guru with plenty of henned-gobbler experience is Bill Davis of McConnells, owner of Pure Gold Premium Shotgun Chokes. Davis said a combination of patience and just the right calling can lead to success, and that often, from 10 a.m until 2 p.m. is a prime time to take a gobbler, especially those henned in the early morning.
"Most mature gobblers are focused on breeding, and a hunt for a henned gobbler is not always successful in the early morning," he said. "But often by mid-morning to mid-day, the hens have moved off, and the gobbler is alone. The birds may not gobble as much, but usually they gobble a once or twice and give you the opportunity to get set up. I like to walk old roadbeds, powerlines and along the edges of creeks and swamps and stop and call every couple hundred yards. I usually rotate among different calls as I move along."
"What I do is a slower version of what some refer to as 'cutt and run,'" he said. "This is a tactic I'll use season-long, but it's extremely effective when the gobblers are henned. If the hens have left the gobbler, he is a prime candidate to answer the call. Odds are good that if he responds with a gobble, he'll come for a look. Then, my calling is more subdued, with purrs and clucks to finish him off, if needed."
Davis said that a typical response in mid-day would be a quick gobble in response to a call, perhaps even cutting the call off.
"That often means that the bird is already fired up and likely is on his way," he said. "The No. 1 thing to do at that time is to set up so you can watch the direction from which the bird gobbled.
"It's not unusual to see the turkey within a couple minutes after hearing the gobble," Davis said. "I'll see that longbeard walking straight toward my position, sometimes without ever gobbling again. On other occasions, he'll gobble several times. Either way, hunting a gobbler that the hens have abandoned can develop quickly, so be ready."
Both Tanner and Davis said that hunting henned gobblers can be frustrating, but by having a plan and working it, these gobblers can be taken.
"More than any turkey hunting situation, taking a henned gobbler requires preparation, patience and perseverance," Tanner said. "But when successful, taking a henned gobbler will be one of the highlights of your season."