Sitting on a flat rock, tucked in against the base of a big gum tree on the slope down the end of a long ridge, the hunter heard exactly what he wanted to hear in response to his first calls as dawn broke.
With two creeks draining the side of a mountain meeting about 100 yards to his right and spilling between his ridge and one directly across from him, he looked up to his right as he heard a long gobble from a turkey obviously roosted over one of the mountain laurel-choked creek beds.
The gobbler belted out two more loud responses over the last five minutes, then the stillness of a spring morning was interrupted again — this time by something the hunter didn’t want to hear: the plaintive three-note yelp of a hen turkey.
The gobbler responded, the hen yelped again, and the next gobble obviously came from the ground. The hen headed on a straighter line than any plumber has ever plumbed, right up the creek bottom to the gobbler, and within five minutes, everything was quiet.
Quietly, the hunter cursed to himself, “Henned again!”
He was doubtless not the only hunter who said those two terrible words during last spring’s turkey season in the Carolinas. it’s a common lament among the crowd that’s driven to rise at 4 a.m. in order to get into the woods before pitch-black gives way to dawn. For the first week or two of the season in both South Carolina and North Carolina, losing a gobbler to the romantic babbling of a hen is probably the excuse heard most when turkey hunters sit down for lunch in diners or pull up a stool to cut hoop cheese and baloney in country stores to discuss what went wrong that morning.
Early in the season, turkey hunters understand that they have competition when they try to reverse the natural order and mimic to vocalizations of a hen turkey to call a gobbler within shotgun range. It’s not supposed to work that way; the tom turkey gobbles and the hen rushes in his direction, yelping and clucking out sweet nothings the entire time.
The competition is from the gaggle of hens in the woods who are unbred or aren’t finished laying their clutches of eggs. They want to keep company with the neighborhood bully until their natural urges turn from reproducing to protecting their eggs. And there aren’t many hunters alive who can call a gobbler to them while a live hen is promising him things that would make a gigolo blush.
Two of the Carolina’s top turkey hunters have laid out for strategies that might help hunters bring a henned-up gobbler within range of that 12-gauge load of copper-plated No. 4s. Here they are:
Come back later. Marshall Collette of Greensboro, N.C., a veteran turkey hunter who is a member of the Mossy Oak and Quaker Boy pro staffs, knows that even a caller who has won numerous calling competitions has little or no chance of bringing a big gobbler under the gun when he’s with hens. His idea is, leave him alone and come back later.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, when I know a gobbler I’m working has hens, I’ll walk away and come back to the area later,” he said. “I’ll try to go find another gobbler, and then, later in the morning or around mid-day, when the hens have left him to sit on their nests, he’ll come back to the same area where he found them that morning. I’ve seen that happen a lot
“So I want to come back to that place later in the morning, about 10 o’clock or so, and sit down and call again, hoping he’s coming back. The other thing is, there’s so much commotion in that area first thing in the morning, you may have another gobbler come in later to hang around and see what’s up.”
Come back the next day. Heath Rayfield of Chesterfield, S.C., who guides turkey hunters at Buchanan Shoals Sportsman’s Preserve just across the state line in Morven, N.C., said to pay careful attention to what the turkeys do, then come back and get in the way the next morning.
“Nine out of 10 times, turkeys will be in a little routine: where they roost, where they fly down and where they go,” Rayfield said. “And it doesn’t vary much from day to day.
“If I see him in the morning with hens, and they’re up in the woods, I’ll pay attention to everything, pattern them, then the next morning, I’ll come back and try to get tight to him, get in between him and the hens.
“I want to go in the woods at pitch-black dark and go in super, super quiet,” he said. “I want to sitting within range of where I think he’s going to hit the ground. If I can put a decoy out in the dark without bothering him, I’ll put out a hen decoy.”
Call the hens in your direction. This one, most hunters can try, and once in a while, it will work. Rayfield and Collette say it will work on occasion.
“I want to challenge that old, boss hen that’s in a group with the gobbler,” Rayfield said “I want to get mouthy when she gets mouthy. I want to mock exactly the way she calls. She may come my way, looking for a fight, and if she does, he’ll come with her.”
Collette said he normally works a gobbler that’s dropped off the roost with typical hen yelps and clucks. If one hen in the group fires up, he’ll respond with “aggressive cuts and yen helps, even a few aggressive purrs.
“You’re trying to see if you can piss her off, see if you can get that cranky, old hen to come in for a fight. The rest of the hens will follow her at a distance, and he’ll come trailing along with them.”
Fan his flames. Rayfield said over the past couple of seasons, while filming hunts, he’s changed his mind and decided that using decoys, or even just a full turkey fan, can get a gobbler that’s with hens riled up to the point of throwing off his natural caution and barging in for a fight.
“I’ve almost gotten to where I don’t mind having hens around a gobbler as long as I can see ‘em, especially if they’re in a field,” he said. “Now, I don’t do this on public land, but I keep a gobbler fan, and if I’ve got him in a field, I’ll belly crawl out in the field with the fan up. Nine times out of 10, if he sees that fan, he’ll come charging in, and when I say charging, I mean charging. Last year, I killed two at three and four steps. One was out in a field, in a low spot, and I used a little roll in the land to crawl out, then stuck the fan up to where he could see it, and he came right in. The other one, I was lying down in a logging road with the fan, and he came 200 yards right down the road to me.
“If I’m in hilly terrain, in the woods, I’ll try to use the terrain and get to where I can put out a couple of decoys so he’ll see them when he walks past. I’ll put out a hen and a strutter, and I’ll gobble at him two or three times, then shut up. When he hears you gobble at him, he’ll perk up and look to see what’s there. If he sees that strutter, he thinks it’s there to steal his hens, and he’ll come on in.
“One thing I’ve learned is, don’t go cheap on decoys. Spend a little extra money and get the real deal, one that looks the most realistic.”