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Jakes save the day

May 6, 2011

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I went into my wild turkey hunting seasons in Minnesota and Wisconsin this week with high hopes. Finally, the weather was going to get better. I was hoping the hunting would, too. It has been tough this spring, largely, I believe, because of the cold weather.

My Minnesota season began Tuesday on a cold, but clear, morning. I hiked up a hill and positioned myself up high so I could hear gobbling. W0uldn’t you know it? The only gobbles I heard came from across the road on land I did not have permission to hunt.

Time to strategize

So, what to do? I was sitting in a good area — a little tree line that goes up hill, with a strip of alfalfa and another strip of cut corn adjacent to it. Many times, hens and gobblers feed in this area. In fact, last year, I shot a nice tom in this very spot.

But, I at least wanted to hike down the ridge to see if there was anything gobbling farther down that I couldn’t hear. After going a short distance, I heard some hen yelps and I answered back to try and get the hen to come to me. We went back and forth for a bit, then all went quiet. I moved toward the hen between two rows of pine trees.

I went over a little rise and then — a tom in full strut came into view. I froze, quickly trying to determine if the bird was in range, and if he had seen me.

I watched for several seconds to see what the bird would do. Strangely, it did absolutely nothing. In fact, it didn’t move a muscle.

Very odd, I thought. Then, I spotted a hunting blind only 10 yards from the bird. It wasn’t a bird at all, but a decoy. There was another hunter there, and he had put out a decoy.

Trespassing

I was pretty sure that, whoever it was, did not have permission to hunt there. Sure enough, when I told the landowner later, he said he didn’t think he gave permission to anyone else during my season. He had given someone permission to hunt the previous season, which ended on Monday. He thought maybe the seasons overlap, but I told him they don’t.

Had I known this, I would have approached the other hunter and told him he needed to talk to the landowner about hunting. That would have taken care of the problem. I know the landowner well enough to know that he only gives permission to one hunter or group at a time. Hopefully, this won’t happen again next year.

Quick turnaround

I was more than a little frustrated because I had wanted to hunt this end of the property. But, not wanting to make a scene in the woods, I went back to where I had started. I decided to pick a spot near the alfalfa and cut corn fields and play a waiting game for the birds.

There was a small, permanent ground blind near the end of the tree row a short distance from the top of the hill. I put a chair in it and decided to sit down. The sun was coming in the left side and shining directly on me. I knew that would make it easy for turkeys to spot me. So, I draped a jacket over the side and shielded myself from the sun. One tip I learned years ago is to try to be in the shade as much as possible.

Now, I had a nice setup. If only the birds would come. Only about 10-15 minutes into my vigil, a hen appeared over the hill and came feeding toward me in the cut corn field. I tried calling to her, but she mostly ignored me — or so I thought.

After several minutes, she veered toward me slightly. She got to within 40 yards, and I would have had a shot if she had been legal to shoot. In the fall, hens are fair game, but not in the spring.

I continued to make soft calls — clucks and purrs — to try and keep her nearby. No more than a minute or two later, I saw the top of a tail fan pop up over the ridge — a gobbler!

It came back down, and I lost sight of the bird. The hen was still visible, though, so I had hope the gobbler might show his full body and offer me a shot.

I also thought about getting out of the blind and walking to the top of the hill to try and get a shot. When they see you, you have about two seconds before they run or fly away. I contemplated this maneuver for a few moments as I waited to see what the birds would do next.

Moment of truth

Then, the gobbler popped up to the top of the ridge and started walking toward me. I was amazed — he was leaving the hen to come to me. Because he was walking straight at me and the sun was behind him and his head was down, I could not see his chest very well. I knew that, before I could shoot, I would need to spot a visible beard, as required by law in the spring.

As he got closer, he turned slightly to the right, giving me a view of his chest. As I suspected, the bird had a beard, which made it legal to shoot.

Then, he stopped, ran his head up and froze, like turkeys often do when they’re scanning either for danger or another turkey. He, obviously, was trying to find the hen that was calling.

Had he just stuck with his one girlfriend, he might be alive today. But, to modify an old adage, curiosity killed the turkey. I poked the barrel of my shotgun out the left side of the blind and fired. Having patterned the gun this spring — and based on patterning in previous years — I knew this bird was well within range.

The bird turned out to be a young tom, called a jake. Jakes have short beards of about 4-5 inches in length that stick straight out of their chests, as opposed to the longer beards of adult toms that droop down and reach lengths of about 8-12 inches. Some hunters like to pass on jakes and take only longbeards.

I go back and forth. Sometimes, I take jakes, sometimes, I pass on them. In this case, I couldn’t resist. Not having heard any gobbles on the property I hunted, and encountering another hunter, I wasn’t sure if I would get a chance at a mature tom. Besides, this jake put on a show and came to my calls. To me, that’s what turkey hunting is all about.

So, mission accomplished in Minnesota. I was able to report the news to my son, Andy, before he left for school that morning. Time of harvest — 7:25 a.m.

On to Wisconsin

I registered my bird in Red Wing, then went over to Wisconsin to set up a blind for my season there, which would begin the next day. So far, things were working out very well.

I arrived at a piece of property I have hunted for several years. It usually has lots of birds, and the cut corn field I walked across was a welcome sight. Because the woods were taking so long to “green up,” I knew the birds probably would be feeding in this corn field. So, I set up the blind near the far corner, about 20 yards into the woods.

The next morning was calm and sunny, though on the cold side. Not long after crawling into the blind, the toms started gobbling. I heard five or six different birds, with one or two sounding pretty close.

I let them gobble on the roost for a bit, then I let out some hen calls. A couple of birds responded, and I figured it was “game on.”

Rude interruption

But, very soon after the toms started gobbling, I heard the sound every turkey hunter hates to hear — hen yelping. Not one but two hens started yelping, with both of them between me and the gobblers. They made quite a racket, and the toms answered and closed in on them.

I tried to mimic the hens, which sometimes causes them to come to you. But, that didn’t happen this time. Before long, both the gobblers and the hens went silent. That means only one thing — they found each other and formed a group.

Once the toms are with hens, they are almost impossible to call away from them. The only way to do so is to get really close to them. But, with the leaves not popped out yet, that would be tough, if not impossible.

So, I was left to sitting in the blind and hoping to pull in a rogue gobbler without hens.

Jakes to the rescue

Before long, I heard a short gobble closer than any I had heard that morning. Then, I heard a yelp that I thought was coming from a tom and not a hen. Hen yelps are higher in pitch, faster and last longer than gobbler yelps, which have a coarse, honking sound.

Then, I spotted the bird making the noise. I threw out some soft clucks and purrs, and it came right in to about 15 yards — a jake. At 6 a.m. on opening day, I decided to let him walk. He kept going and went into the cut corn field behind me.

He continued to yelp, and when he was approaching the other side, up popped a tail fan, and a strutting gobbler appeared. He veered toward me, and I thought he might come in. Then, he stopped just short of a small rise in the field that I estimated was about 60 yards or so away. He never got any closer, and both birds reached the tree line on the other side of the small field and disappeared.

I wondered if the tom might sneak around and come from the adjacent cut soybean field, so I would occasionally look out the back side of the blind to see if he showed up.

In the meantime, a second jake came in, this time to about 25-30 yards. Once again, I passed on what would have been a pretty easy shot to make. I was beginning to realize there were a lot of jakes on this property.

A short while later, I looked behind the blind and saw a turkey coming in from the soybean field — a hen. I called her in and she milled around my blind for about 15 minutes, clucking and purring  the whole time. It’s very neat to have a turkey come in so close. Hens seem quite willing to do this.

I figured a tom might eventually come in, but no such good fortune. However, a group of turkeys came through the woods at about 60-70 yards, and the hen broke away from me  to join them. I saw some red heads, indicating these might be toms. Sure enough, when I looked at them through my binoculars, I figured out what they were — four jakes.

There was a hen with them, and my hen joined them. After milling around for a while, they angled toward the cut corn field and passed by me at about 35-40 yards or so. Again, I could have shot one of the jakes.

They went into the field and began feeding. Then, up popped another tail fan. A second adult tom started strutting in the cut corn field.

Battle for dominance

The hens were a long way off, and I wasn’t sure which direction they would go. I started calling to them, but they seemed to ignore me. This tom, like last one, continued to strut on the little rise. Then, as the jakes moved in closer to the hen, he came out of strut and ran after them to push them away from the hens. He would always get between the jakes and the hens, and run off the jakes whenever they got too close.

This went on for about half an hour, and I enjoyed the show. I have never seen that kind of behavior before, and it was cool to watch. Yet, I was really hoping that the hens and the tom would come my way.

Actually, the hens did. In fact, they got to about 30 yards or so from me. The tom, however, stayed back and out of shotgun range. I think he might have come into range if it wasn’t for the jakes.

Eventually, like the first tom, he, too, angled across the field and out of sight, the jakes and the hens going with him. At least one of the jakes got within shotgun range, making it the third time I had a legal bird within range. And, that was it for the day. I did not see or hear a thing after that.

Once back home, my 13-year-old son, William, gave me a hard time for passing on the jakes. He couldn’t understand why I would do such a thing. I don’t consider myself a trophy hunter, but I do like to shoot adult toms.

Yet, I thought about what William had said, and about what kind of message I might be sending to him. Although I didn’t think I made the wrong decision to pass on the jakes, I figured maybe I should reconsider on Day 2.

Hitting the “jakepot”

I almost didn’t go hunting yesterday (Thursday). The forecast called for rain overnight and again in the morning. I got up at 3:30 a.m. and checked the weather. The radar showed lots of clouds, but it looked like the rain — at least this batch, anyway — was nearly past my hunting area. Time to go!

I got to my spot later than the previous day, and it was already light. I hustled to the blind and jumped inside, just moments after hearing my first gobble of the day. It sounded off several more times, then dropped down to the bottom of the valley and stayed there.

I didn’t hear another gobble after that. Then, it started raining, and the wind picked up. I knew this might shut the toms up, but I figured they might still be moving. So, I decided to sit in the blind and wait and see if something appeared.

I opened the blind windows up so I could see into the woods. And, I occasionally looked out the back, a task made easy by the 360-degree design of the blind. The back side was facing the two adjacent fields, and I knew I would have to look out the back side regularly, in case birds showed up there, which they will do when it’s raining.

At 6:50 a.m., I looked out the back at one field and saw nothing. Then, I shifted to my left to look out the back side at the other field. I slid the window up slightly, then saw two turkeys walking between the blind and the field.

I couldn’t tell what they were at first. Then, they ran their heads up, and I saw a beard on the one closest to me — another jake. This time, I decided to shoot, and I opened up the window a few inches and poked my barrel through the window.

It was an easy shot, and the bird went down and stayed down. The other bird, meanwhile, just stood there and didn’t know what to make of his buddy laying on the ground flapping.

So, he stayed put, first pulling his neck in and tucking it behind a tree, then stretching it out again and offering me a shot. I hesitated. Did I really want to fill both my tags and end my hunt this early, especially when there would be no adult tom as part of my two-state harvest?

In the end, I decided to take the second bird. I have a simple philosophy when I hunt — take what the Lord gives me. I called these birds in, and had them very close to the blind, which was cool. In fact, when I paced off the shots, it was only about 13 or 14 yards. That’s about as close as you can get when it comes to turkeys. And, in addition, it was my first turkey double.

Lots of meat to eat

One reason I chose to take both jakes is that these young birds will be tender and delicious. Sometimes, the older birds can be tough, even though you get more meat off of them. Now, I have six tender, jake breast halves in the freezer.

What I do is stick them in thick plastic bags overnight, then vacuum seal them the next day. You get a better seal when the meat is frozen, and it will stay good for at least a year, although I highly doubt it will last that long.

My brother, Joe, gave me a sample of turkey fajitas from his bird last weekend, and they were so good that I want to make them with my birds. I can’t wait!

Not over yet

The good news is, I have one more Wisconsin tag left to fill. I have one for the next season, which begins next Wednesday. By then, the foliage should be thicker, and the hens should be sitting on nests trying to incubate their eggs. That pulls them away from the toms and makes the gobblers more willing to come to calls.

I may bag a mature tom yet!

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Venison tips

December 2, 2010

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For most deer hunters, the season is over. There are a few diehard archery and muzzleloader enthusiasts yet afield, but many of us who like to chase whitetails now have some meat in the freezer.

So, this is a good time to talk about how to enjoy it. I offer the following tips for preparing and cooking venison:

Don’t thaw too fast. The best way to thaw your meat is in the refrigerator. This protects the venison from dangerous bacteria that can grow if it reaches room temperature. Many people pull steaks from the freezer and place them on a plate in the kitchen to thaw at room temperature. Experts do not recommend this. I have done it on occasion without any harmful results, but it’s best to be safe by doing it in the refrigerator. Generally, it takes about two days, so a little forethought is needed. It may be inconvenient at first, but you’ll get used to it.

Trim, trim, trim. This is a crucial point. Whether you butcher your own deer or have it done at a butcher shop, usually there is some fat, silverskin or other assorted tissue still on the meat. I like to take a fillet knife and trim it all off. My simple rule of thumb is that anything that is not dark red gets cut away. Yes, it’s a putzy job that can seem like a hassle, but this one step alone greatly improves the taste. What some people may not realize is that the gamey flavor that folks complain about is not from the meat itself, but from all of the trim. Once the bad stuff is removed, you’re left with what is actually a very mild delicious piece of meat. Do NOT skip this step.

Tenderizing helps. People often complain that venison is tough and chewy. I discovered a solution to this a few years ago when my son, Joe, shot a large, mature buck. Meat from such deer is notorious for being tough, so I asked Jim Stasny from Stasny’s Food Market in St. Paul (where I get my deer processed) what I could do about it. He recommended — and ordered — a type of meat tenderizer that incorporates 48 small, metal blades that pierce the meat when you push down on the handle. You operate it in much the same way as you would a spring-loaded stamp. It takes very little pressure to push the blades all the way through the meat. Be sure to put the steaks on a cutting board, and run the tenderizer back and forth over each steak at least three times (one side only, no need to flip the steak over and do the other side). This severs the connective tissue that runs through the meat, which causes the steak to shrink and curl when cooked. You will not believe how tender the steaks will be after you cook them. I like to grill steaks, and I have had great results after tenderizing them. I own a tenderizer made by Jaccard and it works great. Research showed that this is the best one on the market and, based on the results I have had, I would have to agree. This tenderizer costs around $40, and it is well worth the price.

Another way to tenderize is using marinades. I have had success here, too. I recommend doing it overnight. And, be sure to look for marinades that have citric acid or vinegar. If you’re looking to tenderize, as opposed to just adding flavor, stay away from the 30-minute and one-hour marinades. One brand I like is Allegro marinades. The company makes several that are good. My favorite is the Teriyaki marinade. All I do is put the steaks in a plastic container and pour the whole bottle of marinade over them, then place the container in the refrigerator. I do this right after dinner, then, the next morning, I flip the steaks to make sure the marinade penetrates both sides. By about 5 p.m., they are ready for cooking. It works every time.

Do NOT overcook. Cooking the meat too long is about the worst thing you can do with venison. Overcooking guarantees that the meat will be tough. Especially when I’m grilling, I will set a timer to make sure I don’t cook it too long. On the grill, steaks take only two minutes a side. Venison cooks much faster than other meats. I like to cook it to medium, not rare. If the inside of  the steak is pink and juice flows out when you cut it, you’ve done it right.

Slower is often better. When it comes to venison, the oven and crock pot are your allies. Use them to cook deer meat and you’ll rarely go wrong. In the oven, I like to make meatloaf and cheeseburger on a stick. In the crockpot, I like to make stew. There are many, many good stew and meatloaf recipes available online and in cook books. If there’s a recipe you like with beef, chances are it will work just as well with venison. I can’t recall a single instance when either a batch of stew or meatloaf has failed. Slow cooking works every time.

Consider the type of meat. In Minnesota, most hunters take whitetail deer. But, some folks also get bear and moose. And others, like me, travel to other states to hunt different animals. Elk is a delicious, mild animal that is tops on many people’s list. Meanwhile, the mule deer is an animal many people like to hunt, but it definitely has a different flavor than whitetail. I find it much stronger tasting. There’s definitely a gamey flavor, even after you trim all the fat and tissue away. Therefore, I almost always either marinate or smoke the meat before cooking. I have an electric smoker, and it has tamed many a mule deer steak and chunk of burger. Just 20 minutes in the smoker with hickory chips works wonders.

Another consideration is the cut of meat. The best cut is the backstrap, which are generally called “chops.” These are tender and tasty, and generally don’t need much help other than trimming. I do tenderize them with my Jaccard, but you probably could get by without it, especially if the chops come from a young deer. The other two cuts of meat are round and sirloin steaks. These come from the back legs, and aren’t quite as tender as the chops. However, with a little tenderizing and/or marinating, they are delicious. I will marinate and grill these, or bake them for a few hours and use them to make a venison meat pie. Both are winners.

Take a little extra time to apply these tips, and you should enjoy many fine meals of your venison or other wild game. In fact, delicious venison dishes are precisely why I consider every whitetail I harvest a trophy.

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