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Gobbler and hen in a clearing
Photo by John Higley

When most toms are henned up, getting them to gobble is no easy task.

What now?

Talk about frustrating turkey hunts. In an area with plenty of tom turkeys that were vocal just a few days ago, gobbling is now as sparse as hen's teeth.

The weather's the same, the barometric pressure is stable, the tracks and other signs are there, but the birds have apparently been swallowed by a black hole.

When that happens, my guess is the spring breakup of flocks, in progress a few days ago, is now complete. The majority of toms and hens have assumed their place in the pecking order, and the breeding routine is now in full swing. The hens, not yet ready to start laying their eggs, are hanging around with the toms all day. As a result, the toms (with few exceptions) are henned up. So, for a week or two, the only gobblers likely to come to a call are subordinate toms still not willing to accept their lowly position, and boss toms that have somehow become separated from their hens.

All of this is a normal part of the spring breeding ritual. The situation will change again as the season progresses. For the moment, however, hunters may have a tough time calling, or even locating, a cooperative tom. What can we do now to turn the tables?

Sit and listen

For the time being the toms are silent as clams, but that doesn't mean something won't prompt one of them to gobble at any time. It may be a strange sound that startles him, a hen that wanders away unexpectedly or a hen that suddenly reappears. In any case, if you're listening from some vantage point and hear a tom sound off voluntarily, at least you know approximately where he is, and you can try to work him then or later.

Keep trying

The subtle nuances of turkey hunting are what keep us coming back for more. When something we do turns a frustrating situation around, it's a magical event.

"Despite the odds, the one thing you've got to do is keep trying to make good things happen," Preston Pittman said. "Once in a while you'll succeed and that will definitely make your day."

Call sparingly and be patient

Preston Pittman of Pittman Game Calls could be a turkey in disguise. Based in West Point, Miss., Pittman, who has hunted far and wide, knows the birds inside and out. Here's what he said about days when most of the toms simply don't gobble.

"A lot of people don't realize that even when there are a lot of turkeys around there are days when they keep quiet," Pittman said. "I think it's because the toms have everything they want and just don't have the urge. When I encounter a situation like that, and we all do at times, I tend to slow down and rely more on patience. If I know where the turkeys usually hang out, I set up nearby and call subtly and sparingly. I stay in one spot longer than usual, sometimes an hour or two, because I know they can hear me. I figure a tom might come in eventually, out of curiosity if nothing else. If I'm not there waiting for him, I'll never know."

Cover ground and make some noise

If you don't know the country and the toms are quiet and spread out, you need to find the one tom in dozens that is still on the make. Often that requires covering lots of ground.

Here's how run-and-gun might work. Last spring, while hunting Merriam's turkeys in Idaho, a friend and I discovered the timing of our hunt was less than golden. After roosting gobbling toms the evening before our hunt, we had high hopes for the following days afield. But the turkeys didn't read the script. In the morning, we heard only a few tentative gobbles at daybreak, then nothing.

The country was vast, and the turkeys were scattered, so sitting in one place for long periods wasn't promising. Instead, we drove the back roads, stopping often to call wherever the timber mingled with meadows and clear cuts. Just in case there were turkeys nearby, we called softly at first. When that didn't work we got progressively louder. Before moving on we even screamed with crow calls. Still nothing.

After driving several miles, and making many stops, we got lucky. In response to a series of ear-piercing long box calls, a flurry of gobbles rang out from the edge of a cut block on the far side of a narrow stand of timber. It was three adult toms without hens and, thank goodness, one of themwas destined to go home with us. — John Higley