Henned-Up Tom Playbook
By Ryan Becker
A henned up tom is a nightmare that we as turkey hunters will ultimately face many times over in our turkey hunting career. For those that haven’t heard the term “henned-up”, it basically describes a situation where a tom has found a hen or group of hens and is very if not impossibly reluctant to leave them to search out a more willing prospect in his courtship. Sometimes multiple toms can be henned up together but usually a solo tom paired with a mate is the toughest situation to overcome.
Hunting a tom when he falls into this dreaded pattern can be devastating to the moral of the hunter. One must be patient and smart to analyze the situation and know that getting a shot at this tom is not totally impossible. I’ve come up with a few tools any turkey hunter can use to stack the odds in their favor when a gobbler locks onto a hen.
Follow The Leader
Here’s the scenario; you come upon a field and notice that a tom is out strutting for his hens and they feed and scratch their way around while he shows his stuff. You quietly sit down and start to call and gain no response from the birds. The tom may gobble at your call, he may not, but it is clear that he is displaying no interest in leaving his hens for your call, sweet as it may be.
One option in this instance would be to get beside the birds 80-100 yards or so back in the timber, remaining undetected and follow them along as they make their way down the field. As you sneak, give some soft purrs and clucks every now and then to see if the hens will come and investigate. Your hope is that the hens will wander over in your direction and bring the tom with them. In a best case scenario, the tom may actually leave the hens to come locate your call. For this to happen is very rare but not totally out of the question.
Knowing the patterns of the birds on the property you hunt is the absolute best tool to use when times get tough. Turkeys can be fairly habitual in their daily routines and they will often use the same creek crossings, the same trails, the same dusting sites and feeding schedules day in and day out during certain times of the year.
To key in on the scenario above, interception can be a great way to put the element of surprise in your favor. If simply following the birds along and lightly calling doesn’t work, head down a couple hundred yards and wait them out if you think they are heading for a specific location. This is also where knowing the habits of the birds can pay off immensely. Sometimes birds feeding and strutting in a field will enter, do their thing, turn around and exit the field from the same location routinely. Knowing this is a game changer instead of anticipating them to continue down the field and exit via the other side.
I can remember a hunt in southern Iowa where we had been hunting a tom on a small property for three days without so much as clicking the safety off. This tom would fly down in the morning and greet the hens, remain with them throughout most of the day and then return to roost with them at night. The first two nights we hunted him, we saw him going back to roost following the hens along the same fence line leading to the tree they roosted in. The next night found us sitting along that very fence, playing the waiting game. As if right on schedule, here came the hens followed by the big old tom directly down the trail beside the fence. Game over.
The moral of this topic is that knowing the bird’s general daily patterns can really improve your success when setting up on a stubborn, henned up tom. Set up where you know the birds are likely to spend a portion of their time each day and play the waiting game. Just like hunting the does during the whitetail rut, you may have to hunt the hens in this situation and be where the hens want to be to position yourself in the kitchen when a big beard comes a knockin.
No man likes to see his lady leave him in a time of need, the same goes for a tom turkey. One strategy that rarely gets used is busting the roost in the low morning light. Be careful though as this option should only be used in times of desperation when all else has failed. One key element that must happen in order for this to work is that the tom or toms must not be roosted with or in close proximity to the hens. Simply walk right in on the hens in the wee hours just before shooting light and flush them quietly. If all goes accordingly, the tom will be looking for his supposed hens come first light only to find your gun barrel or broadhead waiting.
A tom is often very competitive when it comes to breeding rights for his hens. Any male bird he deems as a potential competitor is sometimes dealt with in an aggressive manner. Playing on a tom’s instinct to defend his own breeding rights means using a decoy that simulates another male bird vying for his hens. This option can be effective at times especially if the bird you are chasing is one of the dominant birds in the area. It is especially effective when dealing with a group of birds where more than one tom is present.
Decoys in this case would be jakes and toms, both in full strut or half strut positions. I have found that a half strut position is often the most effective. A half strut position displays a breeding intent but not necessarily a dominant position where a tom may feel threatened.
Let me revert back to another story of a tom we hunted in central Iowa last year during fourth season. I had recently acquired some new hunting ground during the middle of the season and only had one day to scout before the fourth season opener. In my evening mission I heard two toms far across the property line on the neighbors ground roosting roughly 300 yards away. I never saw a hen but I assumed they were roosting in the same general area. I was going to film this hunt for a friend and we were certainly skeptical as we did not have permission on the bordering ground but we decided to try anyways.
The next morning we set up near the property line and saw a single hen fly down into the field on the neighbors ground. A lone gobbler tested his mojo and came running across the field to the hen, immediately dropping into full strut as she fed and led him off to our left. The gobbler honest to God strutted for a solid hour while the hen scratched around and fed in the same acre space of field 150 yards away from our location. It was time to pull out all the stops so my hunting partner started to cut and yelp excitedly on his call.
This apparently angered the hen and she immediately started to close in on our two hen decoys on our side of the property. Madder than a wet cat and puffed up, she made her way over with the full strut tom in tow. At seven yards the decision was made to shoot and again, game over for Tommy.
Playing on a hen’s natural instinct to show interest in other hens on her turf is a great way to lead the parading tom to you if she decides to investigate. Getting excited on the call can either produce a really good situation or a really bad situation. In the bad situation, the hen may feel intimidated by the call and leave to avoid conflict, taking her tom with her. In the good situation, either the tom will leave his hen to come to you but more than likely if the hen is fairly dominant, she will come over for a closer look.
Another type of excited call that can be made is a kee-kee sequence. This plays on a hen’s motherly instincts and sometimes the hen will literally come running to you. This call is most often heard as an interaction call between a hen and her poults. If you begin to call and the hen responds, mimic her calls to a tee. If she yelps five times, you yelp five times. Eventually cut her off as she begins to call and call with her. This tactic can really get a hen fired up and bring her, along with her tom right to you.
10 – 2
Of all the tools and tricks I have described, this one is probably the best to implement on locked down longbeards. What 10 – 2 simply means is hunting hard for the birds during mid-day periods. Often times a tom will get comfortable with his hens in the morning and strut his stuff for a while. When the hens leave the tom to do their motherly deeds such as clutching and locating nest sites, the tom will be left high and dry and looking for any available love to fill his time.
Strike out on the property and cover some ground quietly. Glass fields and timber edges with binoculars to locate any toms or groups of birds out feeding. Use a locator crow call or some hen yelps every now and then to see if you can get a response from a longbeard. If a bird responds to a hen call, set up quickly as he may be in hot pursuit of your lonesome hen.
With turkey season upon us once more, it is undoubtedly obvious that many of us will experience the so called nightmare of henned up toms. This scenario is something that we must face with an open mind and bag full of tricks. Try some of these tactics if you haven’t already and don’t let a stubborn tom get the better of you. Have a great spring season!