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What Does it Mean When a Turkey ‘Hangs Up?’
Is the turkey hanging up the result of pressure or is it normal behavior?
Hunting is replete with a lot of unusual language to those that find themselves new to the culture. There are still moments in the bird dog training world that I have to ask things like, “What does flagging mean?”
It’s all part of the learning process and can be an exciting adventure into learning animal behavior and understanding hunting theory. In the turkey hunting world the phrase “hang up” is commonly used and when I slow down, write the words, and think about it, it is an awfully strange term.
Turkey “hang ups” refer to the situation that arises in turkey calling when a bird comes to a specific distance (out of shooting range) and will not come any closer. People have often attributed this behavior to pressured (or educated) birds. But the truth of the situation is much different. It is in reality part of the normal breeding ritual of wild turkeys.
Why is the hang up normal?
Toms “hang up” when they have closed to within a distance that they now feel should irresistibly attract a hen. I will follow that with the disclaimer for all hunting situations as quoted from the book The Urban Deer Complex: “Deer will do exactly what they are supposed to except when they don’t.” That applies to all species. Like all birds, the display ritual—the dance, the spitting, and drumming—is all part of “winning” over a hen. Toms do not overpower breeding hens by rushing up on them; they win them over with this particular display—the “hang up.”
So, as we sit there stuck in a ground blind, out of shooting range, we curse turkeys regarding this overly educated behavior that has made them impossible. The reality is they are behaving exactly how they should and not how we want them to.
What breaks the hang up in turkey hunting?
There are certainly cases when birds come running in without any hesitation of that hang up. Ever hear people say calling less is one of the most effective turkey tactics? Why is that? Many of the places we hunt have unusual sound flow hindered by trees, land features, cover, water, even human sounds. By calling less a turkey cannot locate us and stands a higher chance of coming closer. By over-calling, a turkey can pin us down and begin the mating ritual out of shooting range. Seriously, the turkey is not thinking “this is out of shooting range.” If it were then it would be running away.
This hang up has resulted in people adding movement to their turkey decoys to inspire that last closing gap, hence the use of a breeding hen decoy or anything else that can trick a tom into thinking this particular hen is responding to them. In nature, without hunters around, the hen will usually close this gap, walk to the tom and allow the breeding to begin.
Other things like a live hen walking away (as we all dread) will take a tom with them. This is because, in spite of everything mentioned above, it still needs to win the hen over. This has given rise to highly effective turkey hunting tactics like the “turkey retreat” which essentially is the idea of creating movement with sound rather than an actual decoy or a living hen. Under this scenario, a person walks away from the shooter with the tom in tow behind them (out of sight of the tom, of course). The idea is that now the “hang up” (or lack thereof) will occur on top of the shooter rather than too far away.
That same concept can be applied by separating the caller and the shooter by 50 yards or so and staying put. In these cases understanding the woodsmanship of the lay of the land and how turkeys will use it is important to a successful setup.
What does all of this mean?
The turkey hang up is normal behavior. As a culture, we have attributed it to everything else other than our lack of knowledge in turkey behavior. It’s a little bit of the “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” attitude.
What we should take from this is the idea that we limit ourselves by not understanding fully the breeding rites of wild turkeys. This does not mean that we should throw out the ground blind and turkey decoys. It simply means that we should address this normal turkey behavior in our setup. Maybe it means getting a box of tungsten turkey loads and taking more distant shots.
Sure, there are plenty of cases where turkeys will still close those final distances. But a cultural phenomenon like the word “hang up” does not occur because it is uncommon. By thinking more about adapting to turkey behavior as it actually occurs and less of how we want a turkey to act we can become more successful turkey hunting.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.