May 5, 2013

Hunting: A wild turkey may just have a mind of its own


Conventional turkey hunting wisdom tells us it's nigh onto impossible to call a love-struck tom away from his hen. Sage veterans will explain it's much easier to call turkeys uphill, and all the how-to manuals tell you to avoid obstacles like water and fences when calling a gobbler.

Being self-taught, I didn't know any of those things when I killed my first Maine turkey. He was strutting for a hen and when I called he folded up, walked downhill, ducked under a barbed wire fence and waded through ankle-deep water (my ankles, not his) to reach me. I have since learned all that advice is good, and holds true most of the time. But there are exceptions to every rule.

People who haven't read the instructional books before their first hunt are sometimes a bit confused if and when they encounter a bearded hen. It's actually a fairly common phenomenon, and the reason that most states allow hunters to take a "bearded bird" rather than a male. I usually see at least one or two a year. But I've seen much more exceptional things.

I recall one particularly slow opening day when the birds just weren't cooperating. Several hours passed before I caught movement, then zeroed in on the source. The sun was directly in my eyes so all I could see was the silhouette, but there was no mistaking the shape of a strutting tom and what I presumed to be two hens. Eventually they made their way out of the shadows and into the sun whereupon, much to my amazement, I could clearly see that all three were hens. I have since witnessed several hens in a sort of half-strut posture during antagonistic interactions with other hens, but that was the only time I've seen a hen in full strut.

Two different people told me they'd witnessed this next oddity. In both cases I shrugged my shoulders and merely said "huh," but while I was thinking, "there's absolutely no way."

And I firmly believed it was not possible, until I saw it.

I was sitting against a stone wall watching a pair of hens scratch along scarcely 30 yards away when I heard what sounded like a distant gobble. But at precisely the same time one of the hens stretched its neck out and sort of shuddered. "It can't be," I thought. Then it happened again, while I was staring directly at the hen. This time there was no question. She gobbled. Fortunately I had a friend with me who verified it because I even doubted myself.

Turkeys generally fly up to roost some time in the early evening. Timing can vary a little depending on weather and their personal disposition, but they're usually settled in well before dark.

After finishing up an afternoon hunt in Texas we all gathered at the trucks after dark where we swapped stories and enjoyed a few beverages before loading up for the 30-minute ride back to ranch. The sun had been down for over two hours when we pulled onto the ranch road the headlights swept across an open mesquite flat illuminating a large, moving object. We were all astounded when the driver backed and clicked the high beams on the strutting tom.

If you're going to hunt turkeys it's helpful to know their habits and what they're likely to do under a given set of circumstances. It's also good to know that the terms "never" and "always" should not be applied to turkey behavior, unless you're advising someone they should always be aware that you never know what a turkey might do.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:


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