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Turkey hunting is part luck, part tom foolery

by Chris Niskanen

In April in the St. Croix River Valley, it's not uncommon to see men dressed head to toe in camouflage and looking sleep-deprived while ordering breakfast. So when the waitress took my order, she didn't make the usual quip "I hardly noticed you there!" She asked if I was hunting or fishing, then jotted down a No. 3: ham, eggs scrambled, toast whole wheat.

Turkey hunting, I said.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe it," she said. "The other day my boyfriend called me into the living room, and there was a turkey standing on my porch. Right there, on my porch!"

The insinuation might have been that turkeys, if they appear on your porch, are too tame and stupid to be a challenging quarry. Turkey hunters hear that a lot. But the waitress in this Stillwater diner, located down the block from Starbucks and an antique mall, seemed to know better. She asked questions. How do you cook one? Roast it, I said. How do they taste? Better than farm-raised, I said.

She smiled. She moved to another customer. I was thinking of other things she might like to know about turkey hunting and time spent in the woods in April. The story I would have told was this:

A few days ago, just before dawn, a pair of wood ducks flew into the oak tree above my head. I've never noticed the noisy chatter that male and female wood ducks make to each other; it sounds like two children whispering in a movie theater. Anyway, my attention was diverted just long enough so I caught only a glimpse of a big gobbler that silently edged out of the woods in front of me. He never made a peep. Just stepped out of the woods, then disappeared again. He must have been roosting nearby, so I decided to return to that spot when my tag was valid.

Three days passed. When I returned, it was 5:30 a.m. I drove through a housing development that abuts the woods where I have permission to hunt. No one was stirring in the cul-de-sac where I parked, slipped on a backpack and disappeared into the woods. I walked a half-mile and sat under the same oak. A half hour later, a thundering chorus of gobbles came from below the hill and I returned a few plaintive hen yelps. I moved the 12-gauge shotgun to one knee. The flock was led by six hens, including a brash older bird that barked back at my calls. She led the choir of turkeys into a nearby field, trailing two coal-black toms whose beards brushed the sprouting dandelions. They passed out of range. The old hen lingered long enough to give me a piece of her mind.

The field was long and narrow, so when they disappeared over a rise, I gathered up my gear and broke for the other end of the field. It was a quarter-mile of sneaking through woods. I found a spot next to a fence post, under a pine tree, and put out my decoy. But the flock had vaporized.

The wind blew. In a nearby gully, I thought I heard a single gobble. I moved again, maybe 100 yards closer to the gully that was deep and wooded and surrounded by pasture. A single tom answered my call. I crawled 20 yards into the pasture, put the decoy out and slipped under a small pine. The wind swirled, carrying the echo of the gobble until I realized it was not one, but two toms coming from different directions. When I answered, a third bird materialized from the pines behind me.

A few minutes later, the third bird had closed half the distance between us. It was now apparent it was two gobblers traveling together, making a total of four toms, all converging. Time collapsed. The gun moved to one knee. I heard the first tom's wing tips dragging on the ground first, then a full-throated gobble.

At the bait store, the scale dropped to 20½ pounds, where the owner ran his fingers over the bronze chest feathers and said: "Beautiful bird. You should have it mounted."

Then I headed for the nearby diner for ham and eggs, but never got a chance to tell the whole story.

Uploaded: 4/25/2004