It’s a good sign when a tom turkey spreads his tail and puffs out his feathers. Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Things appeared to be going well when the big tom finally appeared in the distance. He’d been gobbling to every call on my slate and steadily closing the distance, a good indication this hunt would soon come to a successful end.

He was in full strut, this tail fanned out and his head glowing in a resplendent red, white and blue. Just a few more steps and he’d be in range. There seemed no reason to be hasty, until he stopped short at 40 yards. His tail went down, his head went up and he froze. It was now or never.

Subtleties can be important in turkey hunting. Evaluating how a turkey reacts to your calls will help you determine whether to tone it down or crank it up, but body language also provides important clues to how you should handle the situation. Here are a few examples.

You see a tom sauntering across an open field, hit him with a volley of yelps and he stops, puffs up into full strut and begins pirouetting in his courtship dance – all good signs. He’s clearly excited about the sound of a potential mate. If he turns and starts your way you shouldn’t have to do any more than be patient. If he hangs up, still in strut, he might need a little more convincing. A few soft purrs should do the job.

Slowly, gradually he gets closer. You can hear the deep, resonating sound emanating from his chest: “pfft-dooom.” He seems oblivious to all except the hen decoy that stands between you and him, but just at the limit of your range he stops short. If he’s still in strut, be patient. Let him come.

Suddenly he breaks strut and folds up. Now what? Wait. Let him make the next move. He may break and walk or even run closer, or he may decide that’s close enough.

Look at his head. If it’s still brightly colored and in a relaxed or slightly elevated position you’re in business. If it suddenly goes pale, or if he raises it up as if searching for potential danger, it may be time to take your shot as a few steps could put him safely out of range.

You don’t always get the full show. Sometimes turkeys just show up unannounced, taking you by surprise. What kind of mood are they in? Do they seem relaxed, or alert? Again, look at the head. Is it up or down? Watch how the birds move, whether they’re scratching for food or stopping frequently to look around. If the former, wait. If the latter, take the first good shot opportunity you get.

Turkeys always seem nervous, especially when they’re around other turkeys. Toms constantly challenge each other for dominance, running, chasing and even sparring. It can rattle the nerves of even the most seasoned veteran hunter, but as long as they’re concerned with each other and not you, there’s hope.

One of the more subtle but important signals is the wing flick. It’s quick, so you have to pay attention and remain focused because it’s a sign the turkey senses something wrong and is about to leave. The birds probably don’t even recognize they’re doing it, but it’s likely a reflex, testing their wings to make sure they’re ready should a hasty retreat be necessary.

There are other subtle signs in body language and behavior that will cue you in to a turkey’s mood, whether it’s on the way or ready to leave. They’ll come to you in time and with experience. Be patient and observe. Don’t be too hasty to end your hunt. Waiting too long may cost you a bird or two, but over the long term those experiences will ultimately help you be more successful.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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