Turkey hunters love it when a plan comes together, when the stars align and that perfect scenario we all dream about goes exactly like it’s supposed to. On those hunts, we step into the woods at first light and have a tom blast us with a tremendous gobble in response to our first call, coming in with all the subtlety of a Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park, breaking branches and sounding off with every step, barely giving us time to set up for a shot. These are the moments that made us take up turkey hunting in the first place and keep us motivated and fantasizing throughout the long turkey-less off-season. Sadly, the reality is, that’s a scenario that very rarely happens. Most of the time, turkeys—especially the large toms we’re after—are a whole lot smarter than we give them credit for.
Despite responding with gusto to our initial owl hoots or raucous early morning yelps, they vary rarely hurl themselves into shotgun range with reckless abandon. Instead, despite their initial response and interest, big toms will approach with extreme caution—no matter how tantalizing your calling sounds. They’ll become hung up. Toms will do this in several ways, from breaking off the approach following a misstep in calling, to circling around gobbling and clucking but never fully committing to a setup. Worst of all is when the tom just suddenly goes silent and vanishes as if they were never there. It can be frustrating and disheartening, but it’s part of the game. You can either give up or find ways to overcome a tom’s hang-up habit. Here are a few tricks to convince one to come forward, tip-toeing into bow or shotgun range.
This is the easiest and often most efficient method to changing a big tom’s mind. It can be a challenging thing to do and requires a great deal of patience to pull off, but simply shutting up and sitting tight can really shift the odds in your favor. This is especially effective for a very vocal bird who has been responding well to your calling but refuses to show his face. Going silent triggers a tom’s curiosity, making them wonder what happened to the lady they were having a conversation with, and will sometimes make them come and take a look. You’ll know it’s working when the tom suddenly starts gobbling more frequently, trying to get a response. All a hunter has to do is clam up and wait for him to move in.
Move away from the tom
When a bird is repeatedly answering your calls but seems to be hanging up at a certain distance, it often means that either the tom isn’t entirely convinced of a hunter’s authenticity, or is trying to convince the hen to come to him. To counter this, the best strategy for a hunter is to quiet down for a moment and move 40 or 50 yards directly away from the tom and then start calling again. This will often convince the tom that you are a hen who has suddenly lost interest and is leaving, convincing him to stop being coy and chase the hen down, often coming in so fast you barely have time to set up a shot.
Mix it up
Many times big toms will hang up after initially answering calls simply because they lose interest. If they repeatedly answer the same call but begin to sound a bit farther away, as if they’re wandering off, suddenly changing calls can reignite their interest. If you were mostly yelping, change to some soft clucks. Add in a few loud purrs as if another tom is moving in on a hen. If you were using a diaphragm call, try switching to a box or slate. Start raking the leaves with your hands to mimic the sound of a scratching and feeding hen. Make it sound like whatever is going on near you is the place the tom really wants to be.
Attack the flank
One of the best tricks a hunter can use on a hung-up tom is circling around behind him. Much of the time, especially early in the morning when a gobbler has just come off the roost, he will be hesitant to move into an area he hasn’t yet explored. You can tell it’s happening when a gobbler responds from different areas of the woods but doesn’t sound like he’s coming any closer. He’s simply pacing back and forth, gobbling from an area he’s comfortable staying in. So by circling around behind the bird and starting to call, you’re drawing the bird into an area he’s more comfortable moving to because has already been through it that morning.
Move in on him
This is a last-ditch, completely desperate move, because when you’re moving toward a bird there are plenty of things that can go wrong. Primarily, the tom will see or hear you before you see him. Desperate times call for desperate measures! When nothing else has worked, approaching the bird can be the only way to get him. One of the biggest gobblers I’ve ever shot was hung up on the end of a field, and despite my perfect setup, I couldn’t get him to come any closer. So I got up and, using a pile of brush as cover, I crossed the field to within 80 yards of where he was strutting. Lying on my stomach, I took a decoy in my hand and pushed it out around the corner of the brush pile and started to cluck softly. Through the brush I saw the tom turn and make a beeline for the decoy, gobbling like thunder and kicking up wads of grass under his feet as he ran. When he was less than 10 yards out, I dropped the decoy and stood up with my shotgun, shooting the bird before he even realized what had happened. Sometimes the big gambles pay off.