IN THE BLACK HILLS - The gobbler appeared in an instant, just over my shoulder, 20 yards away.
I was scouting for birds, 15 minutes into a four-day wild turkey hunt in the Black Hills, and had mimicked the call of a hen. A real hen chirped back.
I barely had time to slip on a camouflage face mask and sit against a tree when two hens and the tom emerged from the woods. The tom, sporting about a 5-inch beard, strolled into the open, presenting an easy, point-blank shot.
My heart pounded.
You'd think a guy who had sat in a turkey blind for 14 hours over two days last month on the Minnesota youth turkey hunt and never saw a bird -- hen, jake or tom -- would seize the opportunity.
You'd think a guy who never got a shot during his last Black Hills hunt would relish a tom with a 5-inch beard.
And you'd think a guy who knows that two-thirds of Minnesota's turkey hunters fail to bag a bird each spring would slowly raise his 12-gauge and squeeze the trigger.
You'd be wrong.
I passed up the shot.
We were hunting along the Wyoming-South Dakota border, with licenses in both states. I didn't want my hunt there to be over before I had a chance to even explore the area. And while I'm not a trophy hunter -- I've shot jakes (young male turkeys) before -- I figured I might as well wait for a long-beard.
Besides, it appeared there were plenty of birds around. Eight more hens came out of the woods following the tom.
All soon disappeared -- along with my common sense.
Black Hills adventure
Tom Kalahar of Olivia, Minn., Ben Hillesheim of Bird Island, Minn., and I made the nine-hour drive west earlier this month. We set up camp in a 12-by-20-foot wall tent, complete with a wood stove, not far from Spearfish, S.D., in a small U.S. Forest Service campground.
Kalahar and Hillesheim believe in the comforts of home. They brought a generator to power electric lights -- and a small freezer for our turkeys.
"Oh, we gotta have a freezer,'' Kalahar said.
Hunting the Black Hills is an adventure, with its rugged rock outcrops, sweet scent of ponderosa pines and breathtaking vistas. In early May, the newly sprouted aspen leaves were florescent green, accenting the dark-green pines. Deer were everywhere.
The Black Hills National Forest covers 1.25 million acres. A hunter in good shape can hike endless miles of rugged woods, ridges and valleys.
"In Minnesota I know every nook and cranny where I hunt,'' Kalahar said. "Here, I get to explore.''
And there are turkeys -- the Merriam's subspecies, with ivory-colored tips on the tail feathers.
The problem is finding them in such a vast expanse.
After my opening day misadventure, we drove a forest trail about a mile distant, then separated. I wasn't 10 minutes away when I heard a shotgun blast. Kalahar had climbed a nearby pine-covered ridge and called.
"I got an immediate gobble,'' he said. He hustled closer and called again, and once again the bird gobbled.
"All of a sudden, there he was,'' he said. He fired once at about 40 yards, and toted the bird back to the truck. Sometimes it's just that easy.
"I tell you, boys, it doesn't get much better than this,'' Kalahar said.
We saw other birds on the stretch of road, so the next day we returned. Hilleshire set up not far from where Kalahar had bagged his bird. Just a half-hour after legal shooting time, a gobbling tom responded to Hilleshire's calls.
"He came right up a deer trail and was 25 yards out, displaying. It's a rush when you hear a gobble that close.'
That bird, too, ended up in the freezer.
A bird in the hand ...
I hunted hard, covering lots of territory: Near the top of a 6,000-foot ridge, covered with wild flowers. Along a gurgling brook that snaked through a valley. Under a canopy of ponderosa pines.
But I spotted few birds and heard fewer gobbles. Which forced me to replay my first-day decision.
"I bet that gobbler with the 5-inch beard looks pretty good now,'' Kalahar said with a smile near trip's end.
Yes, it did.
We journeyed home a day early, driven out by thunderstorms, with two birds. We never fired our guns in South Dakota, though we spotted three toms one afternoon. Still, the Black Hills is alluring.
"I'll definitely come back,'' Hillesheim said.
You'd think I might get sympathy at home when I relayed my tale of the bird not bagged.
You'd be wrong.
"What were you thinking?'' my wife asked.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org