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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© Lonnie Bernarde
A white wild turkey is a rare find.

© Lonnie Bernarde

April 2007

Spooked by a feathered specter

When a hopeful hunter matched wits with a white turkey, he only had a ghost of a chance.

Lonnie Bernarde

My spring turkey season actually started during the T-zone deer hunt the previous fall. That's when I heard about a white turkey hanging out for an hour near my Uncle Jack's hunting area. My adrenaline rushed thinking about a trophy like that haunting my favorite hunting grounds. I couldn't help but dream about the spring hunt. Just seeing the bird would be an accomplishment; getting to hunt it would be a story right out of a TV outdoors show.

Not long after that first sighting I saw the bird for myself. On opening day of the gun deer season, I'd gone on a short walk to see my stepdad, Dan. As I crossed the hill just past my deer stand, there was the white ghost standing with eight or nine other toms. I quickly cut them off and tried to drive them toward Dan so he'd have the pleasure of seeing it as well. My improvised drive sent the birds through the pines, and Dan spied him as well. The bird's black beard wasn't the biggest, but it stuck out in sharp contrast to its white feathered body.

The next year, my spring hunt started rough. That first hunting period in early April came and went and I hardly saw a tom. I never hunted so hard with such minimal success.

My second season started on May 18th, the last hunting period that spring. The first four days were eerily similar to my first trip to the woods a month earlier. I had some success calling in hens, but the toms were nowhere to be found after fly-down. My time was limited. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I could only hunt until 10 each morning. On Saturday I had more time, but by the time afternoon rolled around, I was getting discouraged. A thunderstorm woke me up around 3 a.m. on Sunday and I took advantage of a peaceful house to come up with a strategy for that final day of the spring hunt. I was mentally prepared to get skunked, but I was not going to give up, even if I didn't see or hear a turkey all day.

I planned to hunt in my Uncle Jack's enclosed 4x4x6 elevated blind. I would take some things along to stay entertained if the day was quiet. Though I've tried reading in the woods in the past, I never get more than a page read while I'm concentrating on hunting. Still, in that enclosed blind I would take along a couple of turkey hunting magazines and my thermos of coffee. I planned to call the birds sparingly and quietly read an article, drink a cup, and maybe even take a nap here and there. I had plenty of time that day, and it just wouldn't matter if all I heard were blue jays squawking. My strategy included settling for a tom of any size; I wasn't going to be fussy if a jake walked in range.

I headed out.

To bring in any bearded bird, I only put out two hen decoys. I didn't want my jake dekes to intimidate a real jake. I was set up and drinking coffee by 4:45 a.m., just waiting for the outdoors to wake up. A storm had passed earlier and it was going to be a beautiful day. A full moon brightened the sky, and dawn was around the corner.

At 5:30 a.m., I started to hear some distant gobbles, but nothing nearby. I started calling a little, but nothing answered.

Shortly after I thought I heard a turkey fly-down, but I was still half asleep and kept my gun leaning in the corner. Not long after that I turned to my right and saw a nice tom sneaking past my stand at 20 yards. Of course I wasn't prepared, and by the time I got my long barreled shotgun and stuck it out the narrow window opening, he disappeared into the pines to the north. The first longbeard I'd seen while hunting all spring and I blew it. I wasn't too upset because it was still early and I also figured that the tom was heading toward some hens. Once his hens nested, he might come back.

Shortly after 6 a.m., I got some activity from three different gobblers about 150 yards up the hill in the hardwoods. They not only answered me, but responded to the ravens every time they made a raucous call behind me. We conversed for almost an hour when I spotted three hens walking up the hill toward them. I knew what was going to happen in about two minutes. The woods would go quiet and another opportunity would go by without a shot taken. I just needed to be patient. Patience was my long suit that day thanks to my plan (call, read, coffee, nap).

Around 8 a.m. a gobble at 75 yards got my attention and it was game time again. After a futile effort to create an ongoing conversation, all went quiet and life seemed to stand still. After my third or fourth 10-minute siesta, I woke up in time to see a hen walking toward the swamp in front of me. Things were looking up. I got my 12-gauge, put the barrel out the window and waited for the tom to follow. Nothing showed.

After a few minutes I grabbed my box call and made some quiet noise. Whatever I did worked! I got a gobble at 50 yards to my right from the pines. I slowly pulled my gun out of one window and put it into another. As soon as I did that I realized I needed to put the gun back out the other window because I spotted my blackbearded ghost walking through the trees. I started shaking. I needed to put the gun back but wondered how I would do so without hitting the plastic stand while I was shaking so much. Somehow I managed to reposition the Remington, then the real work began.

I needed to slow down my heart rate in order to make a quality shot. My red, white and blue trophy was walking at a good pace, which didn't give me much time to settle down. Somehow I relaxed and told myself to shoot true. I followed him and when he got in range, I squeezed the trigger and he went down in a heap.

I quickly got out of the stand and ran over to my trophy. He wasn't going anywhere and after a couple of minutes, I walked back to my blind to let the bird have his last moments in peace. I started packing up my gear, occasionally looking back as he gobbled under the red pine. After 15 minutes I walked back over to the tom with my gun in hand to see if nature had taken its course. Unfortunately there were still signs that the bird was alive. I walked away and unloaded my gun and grabbed my camera.

It had been over 20 minutes since the woods exploded with my pea shooter, so I walked back to take some pictures. It looked like his time finally came, so I focused my camera and pressed the shutter. Immediately after the shutter click, my turkey came alive and took off for the next county!

I was flabbergasted! Running away from me was my trophy of a lifetime and he was heading toward the swamp. I looked at him, looked down at my camera, then looked at my unloaded gun 40 yards away. I'm not sure how many emotions a person has, but within the last half-hour I'd had most of them except one – anger. That changed immediately. I was suddenly mad at my "dead" turkey running away and mostly angry with myself for not making sure the turkey was dead after the shot. I couldn't believe that my once-in-a-lifetime bird was going to end up as fox food!

In my knee high rubber boots I sprinted to my gun, slammed some shells into the chamber and took off hunting for my runaway prize. I headed toward the swamp and noticed he had stopped in some brush. Just as I was about to fling some number sixes in his direction, he took off again. I didn't want him to go any deeper into the swamp. I circled around to the east and tried to intercept him. It worked. As we looked at each other, I once again attempted to get a shot off, but he took off at a gallop. I thought about taking a shot through the thick stuff, but since I only had three shells with me, I needed to be somewhat conservative.

I chased him to a clearing, but he apparently ducked under an evergreen and I lost him! I spent 15 minutes searching frantically. There was no turkey to be found. I was beginning to get sick to my stomach: part for losing a trophy and part for not recovering a wounded animal. While I was starting to feel sorry for myself, he suddenly took off running from under some trees. I felt relieved, but I still had a job to do. I ran into the wet swamp and cut him off from going back into the thicket. He detoured and ran toward nearby hardwoods. He stopped briefly under a big spruce. I got down on one knee and had to take a shot, even though I would have to mow down a bunch of trees to get him.

I took careful aim and when the smoke cleared he was belly-up with legs sticking high. I quickly ran over to him and stepped on his neck. Ten minutes later I was still in the same position, scared to take my foot off. Finally I got the courage, grabbed him and started carrying him to my truck about half a mile away. It wouldn't have mattered if he had come back to life again. I was not going to let go, even if his one-inch spurs were ripping at my arms. My gun also stayed loaded until we got to the truck. No more stupid chances.

I gave the turkey first class treatment and put him in the truck cab on the passenger side. I didn't want to take a chance that he would fly away while I was going down the highway. I could envision us duking it out inside my truck at 65 mph. Fortunately he was done. I tagged him, collected my gear and drove home.

Every time I look at that mount, I'm grateful that I saw him and had two chances to tag him. It was a hunt filled with laughter, panic, pride, a lot of surprise and a humbling amount of blessing in harvesting a spectacular creature.

Lonnie Bernarde writes from Eland. A version of this story previously appeared in Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazine.