Turkey hunting is hard. That is the beginning and the end of a sport that is more obsession than recreation.
We hunters think we have the birds figured out as we stroll into the woods all pumped up and cocky.
Then, the birds humble us. We sometimes leave the woods thinking we know nothing at all about how to kill a bird with a brain the size of a pea.
That’s how I ended seven days of hunting on Tuesday afternoon. Yes, I did manage to kill one bird— a young tom known as a jake. But, I exited the beautiful rolling hills of Wisconsin feeling like a failure.
Why? I had matched wits with an old, mature gobbler for four days, and lost.
Oh, I came close to giving him a ride out of the woods in my worn, torn turkey vest.
But, this crafty bird managed to stay out of shotgun range, and out of view. I heard his lusty gobbles, but never laid eyes on him.
These are the kinds of birds you think about — and are haunted by — for 12 months before you get another chance at them. Last year ended quite differently. I took three longbeards and did not have much trouble doing so. They gobbled enthusiastically to my calls, then paraded in fast and hard into gun range.
I got spoiled by that experience. The easy birds of last year were nowhere to be found either in Minnesota or Wisconsin. I got blanked in Minnesota, and got only the one jake in Wisconsin. My turkey expert friend, Steve Huettl, blames the very early spring we had for the toms’ lack of interest in early May. In a normal year, hens are nesting in early May, and the gobblers have plenty of zeal left for finding new girlfriends.
Not this year. Some hunters, myself and Steve included, found ourselves on properties that seemed devoid of lovestruck toms. Gobbling was way down on some properties, though still strong on others.
The bird I went after for four days on a farm near Ellsworth, Wisconsin, seemed to have plenty of energy. He would come in gobbling hard after he responded to the first series of calls I sent out, then he would eventually hang up. Sometimes, he was only about 40 or 50 yards away, but through some thick brush so I couldn’t see him. There were several times I was sure he would keep coming and eventually absorb a load of pellets.
But, alas, he stopped short of that every time. In the end, I must pay tribute to this tough old bird. He got the better of me, though he was merely trying to survive and not trying to outwit a hunter determined to put him in the cooler for the trip home.
This year, I made the same mistake many turkey hunters make — thinking it would be easy.
It never is. A hunt can be fast, but it is never easy. With a turkey’s sharp eyesight and hearing, and its wary, skittish nature, bringing down a bird is a great accomplishment, especially a long-spurred old tom.
One of the challenges of hunting in May is that the birds have seen and heard other hunters. And, believe me, they get educated fast. I think that’s what happened with this bird. When I talked to the landowner later, he told me that there was another hunter out on his land before me. Sometimes, it only takes one hunter walking around bumping birds to make them even more wary.
But, I’m not going to make excuses. I had chances at this bird, but I didn’t quite seal the deal. I think it’s like what happened to the NHL’s Washington Capitals in their recent playoff series with the New York Rangers. Up three games to one, the Capitals managed to lose the next three, the last one in overtime, 2-1. They thought they would win the series, but came up against a very resilient opponent that wouldn’t lay down in defeat.
So it was with this bird. He played the game, but got the upper hand in the end. I guess you could say this was a home game for him, and the advantage of being in familiar territory proved beneficial to him and bad for me.
I walk away vowing to be better next year. My friend Steve says these are the kinds of years that can teach you much and make you a better hunter. It remains to be seen if that will happen for me. What I do know is my desire will be fueled next year, and I will take to the woods loaded with new strategies, fresh zeal and an expanded base of turkey hunting knowledge.
I can’t wait!