How I contracted spring fever.
I hate being late and am particularly disgusted with myself when I arrive to the farm well after sunup for a last chance Sunday morning hunt for a gobbler. After fulfilling all my family and work obligations for the week, my Minnesota spring turkey season has been shrunk down to about a day and a half, an all day Saturday and half-day Sunday hunt for an animal that so far, I have had mixed results in closing the deal with, with a previous hunting tripping proving that you can in fact miss a strutting turkey at 26 yards with a 12 gauge loaded with 6 shot.
Saturday was windy and cold. In the predawn darkness, I parked my truck on the edge of a CRP field, grabbed my shotgun and two decoys and headed to the ridge that overlooked a ravine where I had heard turkeys two weeks prior during preseason scouting. I placed the two decoys, a hen and a small tom in a clearing about 50 yards down from the ridgeline and settled myself in at the base of a great white oak. A half hour before dawn, having not heard anything resembling a turkey, I started calling. I’d be lying if I told you that I sounded anything like a lady turkey looking to party, but I kept at it, using the slate call every 15 minutes or so, hoping to hear a gobble through the wind and rain.
I didn’t hear or see a single turkey that day.
I figured that was it. The weather wasn’t cooperating and I had only Sunday morning to hunt. The rest of Saturday was filled with a family reunion, and by the time I got back home and put my kids to bed it was nearly midnight. That night I dreamt of the woods and awoke to a morning that promised sunshine and fair weather.
Late and in a hurry, I park my truck in the CRP field like I did the previous day. Before I even closed the truck door I know today is going to be very different from yesterday. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and from the ravine below the oaks I hear the roar of multiple turkeys. Racing into the woods, I set up the decoys and sit about 25 yards back at the base of a dying elm. I am three shrill scratching yelps in with my slate call when I hear the roar of what could only be the world’s largest and loudest turkey from the ravine below. Shit. Now I have to see how this plays out. What if he never comes into view, than what do I do? Do I keep calling or do I try to put the sneak on him? What if he comes within sight but not within range? What if he comes charging up the hill and I shoot and miss?
I hit the slate call again, and again hear a bellowing roar. The turkey that comes charging over the hill toward the decoys isn’t the huge old scarred up tom of my imagination, not by a long shot. It’s a very enthusiastic jake. He comes running over the ridge at full speed, heading directly toward the hen decoy. The second he sees my small tom decoy he hits the brakes and immediately makes a hard left turn and heads the opposite direction. Not exactly the response I thought I would get from the decoys, but since he was a jake, I figured the fanned tail of my small tom decoy must have scared him off.
Now, I’m pretty sure that the gobbling I heard coming from below the ridge did not come from that jake. I’m proven correct when, again after only two or three yelps on my slate call a very loud, very aggressive gobbling erupts just below the ridge line. Minutes later a big tom followed by a subordinate male comes strutting around a brush pile at the top of the ridge. For a first time turkey hunter like myself, he is a sight to behold, standing tall and handsome with his chest puffed out and tail fully fanned. It turns out to be all theatrics; the minute the tom sees the decoy his chest deflates, his fan drops and he turns around and disappears behind the brush pile heading south with what I can only presume is a look of dejection on his face. What in the hell? Why is the small tom decoy scaring off turkeys half its size? Does my farm only produce chicken-shit turkeys?
Regardless of the doubt racing through my head, I am not giving up yet and with another loud aggressive reply from the big tom, it’s apparent that he hasn’t either. He is about 60 yards out, working his way south along the ridgeline. I call, he answers. We keep playing this game for a few minutes but I can’t get him to turn.
Time to change tactics. I stop calling. I wait. A few minutes later I hear an unprovoked gobble from the ridge. I yelp back quietly. The big tom appears from behind an oak tree and starts working his way toward me. The subordinate tom is right behind him, making a shot impossible without the high likelihood of killing or wounding the smaller male. The big tom turns, sticks his neck out just enough for a clear shot. I fire. The tom drops like sack of bricks and the young male at his side executes a swift 180 and rockets down the ravine below. I pace the distance from my elm to the turkey at 45 yards, a fair poke for the old 870. The neck is clearly broken, but the turkey still clings to life and I finish the job with shot to the head at about 5 feet.
When I decided to start turkey hunting, a relative of mine, known by all as "Jolly" told me that he too got into turkey hunting later in life. He described the calling and shooting of his first bird as almost more thrilling than shooting his first deer. He’s right. I run my fingerers along the fine black-tipped breast feathers to the beard which is nearly 10 inches long. The turkey’s feet show the wildness of this bird. Like the feet of some prehistoric raptor, they are almost scaly in appearance, hard and tough having spent the last two years roaming the fields and woods, scrabbling up hillsides and roosting in trees. Avoiding predators and being a predator on the smaller creatures of the land. Hanging the turkey off of a branch of an elm, I pluck it and remove its organs, head and feet and very quickly the wild bird is transformed into a package that anyone, would consider “food.” This bird will make for a few fine meals for myself and my family.
I like to think that the turkey wouldn’t begrudge me for taking its life to sustain mine, much as I wouldn’t begrudge him for taking the grasshopper or frog to sustain his. It’s the circle of life that the wild turkey was born into and the same one that humans have largely separated themselves from, except for the very few that, on crisp spring days walk into the woods take part in it.