After a week of hunting wild turkeys, I am left scratching my head. It was a week filled with highs, lows and extreme challenges. Because of our radically early spring, the birds were ahead of schedule in terms of the breeding cycle. Not so much the hens, which were sitting on their nests incubating eggs. Rather, the toms, which got interested in breeding sooner than usual and appeared to be losing interest.
Last year at this time, I heard lots of gobbling and didn’t have much trouble calling birds into shooting range. This year, it was much, much harder. In fact, in four days of hunting in Wisconsin, I never even saw a tom, though I heard gobbling and did have birds close on a couple occasions.
Fortunately, things worked out well on my Minnesota hunt, which last only about four and a half hours. I sat in my blind on a property near Red Wing at dawn on Mother’s Day, and heard only distant gobbling. So, at 9 a.m., I got out and started walking along a ridge to see if I could hear any gobbling. I heard only one gobble, which was across the road on land I did not have permission to hunt.
Then, I came to the property line and looked out onto the neighbor’s land, which I also had permission to hunt. I scanned the newly planted field and grass strip next to it. My brother has hunted this spot many times and has shot several birds there over the years, so I was on high alert as I approached it. I looked out into the distance and saw nothing. Then, closer to me, I saw something brown in the grass. As I tried to identify it, it moved!
Quickly, I realized it was the top of a gobbler’s tail fan. I shouldered my gun and took a step forward. As I did so, the head, neck and upper body of a nice tom came into view. Almost immediately, the bird ran his head up, which they often do when they see something and are trying to identify it. I knew it would be a long shot — maybe 50 yards or more — but I also knew my gun holds a good pattern at long range. So, I fired.
Immediately, three birds flew up and into the woods to the right of the grass. My heart sank because I figured one of those birds was the tom. “Oh well,” I thought, I knew the shot was long and I was probably not going to get any closer. In hunting, it often pays to react quickly to shot opportunities.
I decided to walk over the little rise and check the area where the bird was standing, just in case I happened to hit it. As I crested the hill, I looked into the field and there he was! It was a beautiful bird — 20.6 pounds with an 11-inch beard and 1-inch spurs. I couldn’t have been happier.
Getting this bird early gave me two days to do projects at home before I headed off to Wisconsin for my season there, which went from Wednesday through Sunday. The weather outlook for the first two days was not good, but I was hoping to find enough breaks in the rain to get on some birds.
I heard very little gobbling on Wednesday and none on Thursday, when it rained all day. On Friday, I went out with my dad on a small piece of property that has lots of birds on it. We got close to a group of gobblers that gobbled pretty hard, but wouldn’t cross a ravine that was between them and our blind. Even though we had six live hens feeding in front of us, no toms came in. One gobbled back in the woods, and we figured he would be drawn to the six hens, but he stayed put and left after just a short time.
It was at that point that I knew the toms were nowhere near as fired up as they were last year, when the same thing happend and I had a group of seven hens come out into a field. That time, a tom was strutting a ways back and followed them all the way over to where my blind was. I took a shot at 50 yards after the hens started moving away. I knocked the bird down, but he got up and ran into the woods. I never found him.
Six hens should be irresistible to a gobbler, but not this year. The toms seem very lethargic and extremely tough to call in. Yet, my dad and I did just that on the last day of our hunt. I repositioned the blind so that the ravine wouldn’t be an issue.
We crawled into the blind at about 5:30 a.m. and the birds were gobbling already. Just like I had hoped, they were on our side of the ravine and answered my calls with vigorous gobbles. They were in a corner and didn’t seem to want to move, but eventually, they came our way.
They were probably only 50 to 60 yards away, just around the corner. We were waiting for them to show themselves, but they never did. They went back the way they came, then swung around and went up into a field. We heard them gobbling there for about an hour, but we never saw them. I think I could have snuck up on them and taken a shot, but I wanted to call them in so my dad could shoot.
I know the birds can be unpredictable, as my turkey-expert friend always says, but I really can’t figure out why these birds wouldn’t come all the way in — and stay out of sight! I’ve heard of birds hanging up, but I find it odd that they would come all that way, then stop and not even try to see the hen that is calling. We had decoys set up, but I’m almost certain the birds never saw them.
I’m going to chalk this up to a tough spring and the toms losing interest in breeding. However, I am not done yet. I did buy a bonus license for Wisconsin’s final season, which begins Wednesday. I am taking my friend, John Nesheim, out for his first turkey hunt. After getting his feet amputated, he now uses prosthetics. And, we’ll be hunting the same property where my dad and I hunted, which is small and offers easy walking. Maybe we can find a way to call these birds in, or encounter some others. One thing I know — it won’t be easy.