Dealing with runners

Any turkey hunter with a little experience has come into contact with what I call “runner toms.” They’re the ones that acknowledge your calls and give you hope, only to move away just when you think you have them hooked. Such a scenario is enough to make you question your calling ability, but usually your calling isn’t the problem.

Runner toms may be following hens or going to the place where they routinely meet and pick up the ladies. In either case, if a tom continues to gobble back at your calls he’s expecting you (the hen) to catch up with him, rather than the other way around.

Sometimes a runner tom is a subordinate bird anxious to attract a hen but reluctant to come in for a closer look, lest he meet up with the big boss and get his feathers kicked.

Running Gobbler
Photos by John Higley

Where are you going? Here's how to deal when a tom is heading the other way.

Once, I was able to follow a runner tom, because he faithfully answered the calls I made every few minutes. The “Here I am! Where are you?” game went on for nearly an hour, and then the tom suddenly turned around and almost ran me over. I barely had time to flop down and ready my shotgun before he crested a low rise and strolled into view less than 20 steps away.

I may be wrong, but I’ve always believed the tom stopped running when he reached a comfort zone, a place where he’d likely encountered hens before. So, when I entered this zone, where he expected a real hen to be, he ran to me.

Matt Morrett, head of Zink Calls’ turkey products division and host of “Avian-X TV,” said all hunters have to deal with runner toms once in awhile. His approach to each situation depends on how the scenario is unfolding.

“If a tom shows interest but moves away, and I have room to run and gun on the property, I’ll try to circle ahead of him and call to him from the direction he wants to go anyway,” Morrett said. “To keep track of a runner, I prefer to use a crow call. If he answers back once in a while, I can keep tabs on him until I find a spot to set up and tempt him with hen calls. On days when it works, a crow call is the best $10 call in your vest.”

Morrett admits that age and time have mellowed him a bit. “In my younger days, I’d try to get in on a runner about as fast as I could,” he said. “I bumped more than one, because I was careless and moved too quickly. Now, I try to figure out why a tom is going away and where he’s headed before I attempt to head him off at the pass, so to speak. I find a thoughtful approach to each situation works best for me.”

Vary your approach

Moving on a runner and calling from a new direction sometimes works like a charm. When it doesn’t, back off and come back later that day or the next day to see if the runner’s attitude has changed. If he initially walks away with hens but gets separated from them before you come back, your hand may hold all the aces.

In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to stay put and turn a tom that’s going away, especially when he’s following hens. In that case, getting ahead of the parade offers you the best chance to call them close.

In a best-case scenario, the tom will be with a dominant hen, and she’ll be in no mood to tolerate an uppity stranger yelping sweet nothings. She may come looking for the competitor, and her lover boy could follow her.

A number of years ago, a friend and I roosted what we thought was a lone Merriam’s gobbler in the hills of Montana. As the first light crept over the eastern ridgeline the next morning, the tom gobbled repeatedly from his roost. At fly-down, we called to him, and he answered with such gusto we were sure he’d come looking for us any minute, but we were wrong. A hen magically appeared, went to the tom and, as they often do, led him away like a puppy on a leash. Despite moving away, the tom answered every call we threw at him, and that gave me one of my best ideas.

I asked my pal, who killed his tom the previous day, to stay and keep the gobbler talking while I worked my way around and set up in their direction of travel. Because the tom was vocal, and the terrain allowed it, I set up less than 100 yards in front of the traveling pair. I yelped with a box call, and the tom boomed back instantly. I called again, and a couple minutes later the hen stepped into the clearing. I pointed my shotgun and held my breath. When the big tom stepped out behind her, I ruined his day. — John Higley