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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The author with a big bird in hand. © DNR Photo
The author with a big bird in hand. © Barbara Barr

April 2004

The elusive turk

For five years, respect was about as hard to find as a turkey.

Barbara Barr


Spring turkey tips

I wanted to learn to shoot and care for a gun properly, so when I retired in 1995 after 21 years of teaching, I decided to go turkey hunting. My husband, Bob, a hunter since childhood would never show me the finer art of the arsenal. Probably afraid I'd shoot him, accidentally or on purpose. Having butchered many a chicken in my day, I figured I could shoot a turkey better than deer or squirrels. So I read, got my license, and the next spring I sallied forth with a short-barreled, lightweight shotgun supplied by our friend Dave.

In the woods by 5 a.m. still half asleep, I became aware of the "rosy fingers of dawn" described in The Iliad and The Odyssey. For five days I persisted, trudging, waddling along behind Bob with my too-big boots and layered clothing.

The last fifteen minutes of the last day of that first season, while Bob was off mushroom hunting, I shot at my decoy some few yards in front of me. Bob came running around the hill saying, "Did ja git em?"

"No, and I think I missed the decoy, too." Examination found the decoy quite intact.

"Oh geez," he said. "Don't tell anybody. They'll feel sorry for me." Then he proceeded to tell everyone.

The spring of '97 dawned with many cold, rainy days, but I determinedly got my gear together and dutifully practiced always hitting the target a bit high, but in range. Learning to sit still was hard, but I was getting good at it.

One day a little, fat brown thrush danced on a branch at the end of my gun barrel, and a turkey hen putted around the grassy knoll I was sitting on. Her head bobbed as she'd stop to scratch in the dirt clucking and putting. Finally, she came to an opening and started toward me then stopped.

I was frozen, not even blinking. She looked steadily then turned and walked sedately away no longer putting. She sensed something wrong, but like Jody in "The Yearling," I'd seen "a thing."

And so the 1998 spring turkey season started with Bob again directing. We sat in a cold, drippy foggy blind; no "rosy fingers of dawn" this first morning. Gradually out of the mist a coon family emerged, crossed our opening, paused to examine the decoys then disappeared into a hole beneath a hollow tree. Two deer walked into our clearing, neither scenting nor seeing us. This was fun. Next came two men who stood near our blind unaware of us until Bob spoke to them. They were poachers and trespassers...not fun. They ended our hunt for that day.

The next morning was more invigorating. I was sitting in a different blind with Bob sitting behind and to my left. He'd paced off distance to the decoys patiently explaining the limit of my gun's range for the umpteenth time. I'm nestled into myself half asleep when ...Crash!

Gobble, gobble and across the clearing from me I see a form trying to get through the multiflora rose brush. The form disappears to emerge again through another opening. It's a tom in full strut! His feathers and wings are fluffed, his wattles are shaking, and he's somehow pounding because the ground seems to shake. The beautiful red and iridescent bronze-gold feathers are shimmering; he is turning around and around. Bob is gobbling and the decoy is swaying sensually when out of the woods comes a real hen who imposes herself between the decoy and the strutting tom. Gradually the real hen lures the tom off into the woods. I never even think to pull up my gun until they are nearly out of sight.

Thinking Bob had seen what I did, I raced back to him." My God, did you see that? It was so beautiful."

"You saw him and you didn't shoot!" He stomped out of the woods so fast I had to run or get left behind. He's recounted this tale always with the same disgust, more often than I care to remember.

And so endeth the '98 spring season.

The '99 season rolled around, and I was given to understand I'd be hunting alone, but dear Dave, he of the gun, took me with him calling and sitting interminable hours in the blind. The first morning four hens came to our blind and invited us to a pending orgy, then dropped down over the hill and out of sight. Dave is a convincing caller. They believed him, but the toms because of the willing hens, had no need to come to his call. The second day we moved to another hill and set up in a cozy tent. We heard gobbles and a "fly down," but then they went away from us toward the spring. Dave yelped a few times, then we visited quietly. A sudden rustling of leaves and Dave whispered, "They're coming."

Two jakes peeked into our clearing, craning their necks and trying not to be too obvious. If toms were there doing their business, these youngsters knew they would get their butts kicked. I made a bad shot too high, but Dave polished it off and a small 18-lb. jake was the main course at the hunter's feast next day. Luscious...fresh...no poultry seasoning necessary. This was real turkey flavor. When Dave presented me with my very own slate call, I knew he too was telling me I would be on my own.

The 2000 season dawned clear, cold, and windy. I'd staked out my blind early. I'd regularly seen birds when riding horses in this area. The horse was running hard when we popped up over the top of the knoll surprising the birds in the flat below. They heard us coming, but didn't know what we were, so they froze in place until we actually appeared before they ran and flew away.

I chose to set up the blind near a wooded point on the edge of the flat below the knoll. My ears ached from the cold wind that first morning as I tried to stay still listening to gobbles behind me in the woods. The turkeys weren't going to go into the open field to be blown around...drat it all any way. Bob came from his blind where he'd passed up a shot being out of position and was disgruntled, so we left the woods to go to Dave's venison steak lunch for a gang of hunters. One of them was on his way to the hospital having blown out his knee chasing a wounded bird. Doug reminded him that if he'd aimed for the head and neck, he'd have killed it, thus preventing his present injury.

As Bob prepared to head back to hunt, I thought longingly of my "lazy girl" chair, but I decided I'd better tag along, as he seemed to be including me in his plans. We drove to the foot of the hill we intended to hunt. I was placed in a thicket of multiflora rose that picked and scratched at my clothes and mask while Bob went farther along the trail and began to call. I heard rustling behind me at the same time I heard Bob's signal whistle. Wasn't that just like him!

Now what was I supposed to do? Be really still? Was there really a turkey behind me or did Bob want me to move? I stretched up a tiny bit. Now I can see his decoy, which means he's moved, so he must want me to move. God forbid I get the signals wrong. With difficulty, I extricated myself from the prickly blind and moved toward the decoy. I was staying close to the woods, when I heard a gobble behind me. I'd blown it! The turk must have seen me! I dove into an opening and knelt.

Suddenly, in front of me are four turkeys that seem humanly tall ogling the decoy. At the "schnick" of my safety, they simultaneously swung to look at me. It's now or never. One shot – mine – and one turk dropped dead.

I am aghast, dumbfounded, shaken. My knees are wobbly. I can hardly stand. I'm trying to say, "Bob come quick," but it's barely a whisper. Finally, having heard the shot he came out of the woods. Still unable to speak, I point at the bird.

"Is it a hen?"

Never sure of myself I say, "I don't think so; I think I saw a beard."

Sure enough there is a six-inch beard and it was a clean kill to the head thanks to Doug's subliminal reminder and my tendency to aim high. Bob is incredulous and beginning to sound proud as he tags him, then paces off the 45-yard shot.

I'm left alone while he goes to get the truck to haul the 22-lb. turk down the hill. I slip a stem of grass into the turkey's mouth for its journey to the spirit world. I bow to the four winds, thanking the turkey gods, and I'm humble and grateful to have been a part of the experience.

That evening, the hunters gathered for dinner at the hotel much being made of the successful first day hunt.

"What kind of gun were you using?" Glen asked.

"Well, I don't know. It has a short barrel and is light." I pretended not to notice the sidelong glances and amusement at this answer. He's thinking I don't even know what kind of gun I have.

Over dessert Mike asked what kind of shell I used. I didn't rise to the bait. "A little short red one. I have longer black ones, but I chose the little short red one."

A simultaneous inhalation of breath...amusement and perhaps a hint of disgust at my assumed ignorance and dumb luck was thick. But that was OK. After all the little Mossberg 500 with the 12-gauge magnum shells did their job, and so did I.

Barbara Barr lives in Bagley.

Spring turkey tips
  • Before the season, take turkey loads of varying sizes – try No. 4s, 5s and 6s – and head to a shooting range with a few turkey targets. You want a good even pattern to cover the head and neck area of the turkey at 40 yards. But don't limit your shooting to that distance. Pattern your gun at shorter distances of 20 and 30 yards so you are aware of how it will perform at closer ranges.

  • Plan your hunt. Hunt your plan. Let people know when you expect to return.

  • Don't wear anything red, white or blue. The tom turkey's caruncles, snood and head are these shades during the spring mating season. Even check that food wrappers in these colors are not sticking out of your camouflage clothing or gear.© Herbert Lange

  • Select a hunting location where your back and sides are protected by a tree, stump or some solid object at least as wide as your back and higher than your head. From your seated hunting position, identify a clear line of vision to your front. Select a sight line that gives you 100 yards visibility, then set your decoy(s) about 20 yards from your position along your line of sight.

  • Identify your target positively and don't shoot at a sound or movement. Make sure you can see the entire turkey and it is safe to shoot. Then, and only then, take a shot.

  • If you are calling over decoys and decide to move, check carefully to ensure that no one is stalking your decoys. If you see someone, call out to them in a loud, clear voice. You and they have already compromised each other's hunting positions, so make sure you are heard and seen.

  • For safety's sake, pack some blaze (hunter) orange clothing in your gear that you can wear if you are successful and are approaching or handling a bird on the ground.

  • Don't stalk turkeys; it's dangerous and people who think they are stalking turkeys often find that they are stalking another hunter.

– National Wild Turkey Federation