Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2021
May 3, 2021
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Calling Strategies for Henned-up Spring Gobblers

By Dan Stephens

You’ve put the energy into scouting to put yourself in the best possible position to harvest a spring gobbler. The day prior to your hunt you took out your trusty locator call and found a roosted gobbler. Not wanting to spook the bird, you quietly left the area, hoping the tom would be there waiting for you in the morning. Daylight breaks on the morning of the hunt and the tom casually flies off the roost and joins up with hens, showing little interest in your calling or decoys. As you begrudgingly watch the gobbler walk away with his hens you ponder what went wrong. We have all been there. Chances are, you did not make a mistake, but what strategies you implore next could be the difference between another encounter with the gobbler or another opportunity to ponder what went wrong.

A group of wild turkeys forage and preen in a grassy area. In the background is a woodland.
Photo by Charles Risen.

The term “henned-up” simply refers to a turkey hunter’s way of describing a gobbler with hens. Often, a gobbler in the company of hens has no real incentive to come to your calling. If you find yourself in a situation with a henned-up gobbler, you will notice how difficult it is to draw him away from live hens.

To work a henned-up gobbler, give up on calling to him, and focus on calling to the hens. While this may sound counterintuitive, imagine you are able to draw the hens to your location and decoy setup. The gobbler will likely follow the hens, bringing him within your effective range. But, how do we as hunters focus our calling sequences to hens instead of gobblers? We first need to understand the dynamics and behaviors of hens and hen flocks.

Within every hen flock there is a mature and dominant hen, often referred to as the “boss hen” by hunters. The boss hen often dictates the direction of travel of the flock after flying down from the roost, where to feed, etc. Simply put, the boss hen is the one in charge of the flock. Being the dominant hen, she does not take to other hens challenging her rank. The ultimate goal with this strategy is to convince the boss hen that a new and mouthy hen (you) is in the area and she needs to run you off. 

Successfully challenging the dominant hen centers on your ability to sound like a mature hen. I often start by using aggressive cuts and yelp sequences to get their attention. When the hens begin to call back to you, aggressively interrupt their calls and mimic exactly what the hens are doing but in a more demanding and aggressive manner. The boss hen cannot stand this and will begin to come in to run the other hen (you) off. The other hens will follow, as will the gobbler.

Two adult male wild turkesy forage along the edge of a woodland.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

As the birds begin to approach your setup, your patience and ability to sit still will be put to the test. At this point, you may choose to reduce the volume of your calling sequences to make her think you are not as close as she thought. Often, I may slightly and slowly turn my head and throw my call over my shoulder making it sound even farther away. This will let the hens walk past you, leading the gobbler in front of your setup.

Next time you encounter a henned-up gobbler, you now have a strategy in your back pocket ready to be unleashed in the field. In essence, mimicking the boss hen in an aggressive and demanding manner is a great way to overcome henned-up birds and successfully fill that spring turkey permit. 

Dan Stephens is a Hunter Recruitment Specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. The Illinois Learn to Hunt program is a statewide program designed to teach adults (18+) why, where and how to hunt a variety of species in Illinois. Visit Illinois Learn to Hunt for more information or to sign-up for an event near you.