Nothing spawns more head-shaking, woe-is-me stories among turkey hunters than henned-up Eastern gobblers.
Solutions exist, of course, as outdoor writers are fond of pointing out. Get under their skins. Hunt the hens. Be where turkeys want to congregate. That’s solid advice, but those cut-and-dried tips don’t always bring success, as real-world scenarios can be more complicated.
An April 2018 hunt in northern Missouri illustrated that in painful fashion. I arrived to cool, breezy conditions, and my host, former World champion caller Steve Stoltz, pro-staffer for Woodhaven Custom Calls, said local gobblers had plenty of girlfriends and weren’t saying much after 8 a.m.
“Bird numbers look good,” he said, “but they aren’t coming to calling. We’ll need to get right with them to kill one.”
And with three days to hunt, that’s what we vowed to do. We just weren’t sure how we’d do it.
JAB AND MOVE
The first day brought frustration, as we heard little talk on the roost. Later that morning, I made matters worse by bumping a hot-gobbling turkey while trying to slip into position. I thought a hill covered my movements, but I guess I was wrong, and that mistake cost us a great opportunity.
Day 2 brought equally poor flydown action, so Stoltz suggested that we switch properties. And after a brief walking-and-calling trek at the new ground, he prompted a gobble from a bird about 200 yards downhill. We eased closer, set up and called, but it soon became obvious the turkey was moving away and probably had hens. So, instead of falling in behind the gobbler, we slipped uphill, circled around to another ridge and hoped to catch the breeding flock coming toward us.
As we walked to a likely setup, a gobble rang out from the fence line below. The turkeys were already on their way, and we had to scramble to find trees. We’d barely settled into some cedars before Stoltz’s yelps brought another gobble, and several hens popped into view about 100 yards away. The gobbler followed, pausing briefly to strut and survey the situation before keeping pace with his ladies, which were hot-footing along the fence from our left to right. We’d made the right move but weren’t close enough.
Soon, the longbeard disappeared behind some trees, but he seemed to slow his pace and sounded off now and then, letting us keep tabs on him. We weren’t done yet. As Stoltz called to elicit gobbles, letting us track the turkey, I slipped through thick cedars toward the bottom and tried to locate a good setup site. More low-level relocation brought me within view of the fence, where I saw several hens feeding in a field. But where was the gobbler? I heard his soft drumming but couldn’t see him through the dense cover.
Then, Stoltz yelped, and the turkey hammered back about 50 steps to my right. I eased my gun into position while watching his shadowy form slip along a small deer trail toward me, pausing frequently to strut and look at the hens. Finally, the bird walked into an opening between two cedars and raised his head. The shot sent him flopping, and I scrambled through the brush and trees to secure the gobbler. It hadn’t been a classic call-’em-up hunt, but our tag-team effort had worked, with Stoltz keeping the bird talking while I maneuvered close to a better setup.
Textbook approaches could wait for another day. That morning, improvisation had netted a heavy Missouri longbeard.
That night, Stoltz roosted a turkey near where I’d bumped the gobbler the first day. We slipped into the small woods early the next morning and were happily surprised when two birds began hammering from the limb.
They weren’t alone, though. Soon, multiple hens were also responding to Stoltz’s soft tree talk. And when the gobblers flew down, it became obvious they were with girlfriends. Stoltz ratcheted up his calling a bit, prompting several gobbles that revealed the group was heading away. With a nod, Stoltz indicated he intended to pursue them. I stayed put to survey the action.
Stoltz’s first move brought him within visual range of the flock, and it seemed like they reached a temporary stalemate. Soon, though, the birds headed away toward a high ridge, and Stoltz had to wait before trying to sneak closer. Eventually, he used cover to reach the ridge, but the turkeys had filtered to his right by then. Another stalemate ensued.
But the game wasn’t finished. Stoltz called now and then, and a turkey or two usually replied. Then, he’d go quiet for a bit, surveying the situation and trying to play on the birds’ curiosity. Eventually, it seemed like he’d have to make another move, but when a distant bird gobbled at his cutting, Stoltz realized he should stay put.
Soon, the interloping turkey was gobbling regularly and closing fast. I listened in suspense as I heard the gobbler swiftly cover several hundred yards and close on Stoltz’s position, and when the shot rang through the timber, it was almost anticlimactic.
Stoltz took his time walking back, and I soon learned why. His gobbler weighed almost 28 pounds — a heavyweight even by northern Missouri’s lofty standards.
It had been another adapt-and-conquer hunt. True, you might say that Stoltz simply fired up a hot turkey by calling to the original birds. But more accurately, he’d remained patient, used woodsmanship to put himself at a great calling setup and then took advantage of opportunity when it arose. And when dealing with henned-up Easterns, that’s solid strategy.
Sun seemed to warm the landscape as I left Missouri that afternoon and headed north. No doubt, hens would soon begin nesting, and the Show-Me State’s gobblers would start to act right. Maybe I’d experience that in 2019. For the moment, I felt pretty good about scoring two fine longbeards when almost every turkey seemed to be henned up tight. Dreams of fired-up birds racing to the call still played through my head, but the hunts for those tough Missouri turkeys would surely remain clear in my memory.