When Lance Ness hears the gobble of a wild turkey, his heart pounds. And watch out if that big tom comes strutting in front of his hunting blind this spring.
“Your heart almost leaps out of your chest, it’s that exciting,” he said.
The 58-year-old Ness, of Golden Valley, will continue a tradition this month when he and his buddies set up camp near La Crescent in southeast Minnesota, where they have hunted for more than 30 years. They will pitch tents in a farmyard, spin yarns and traipse the rugged coulees in search of wild turkeys.
“It’s a very addicting sport,” he said.
Ness has been at it since shortly after Minnesota launched modern turkey hunting in 1978, following successful reintroduction of wild turkeys in the state. Already an avid hunter, angler and conservationist, he was intrigued when the state opened a very limited turkey season.
“I thought this is cool, it’s new, let’s give it a try,” he said.
He did and was hooked — as are about 40,000 Minnesotans who will pursue turkeys during the spring season, which begins Wednesday.
“In the spring, you literally watch the woods come alive,” Ness said. “There’s the whippoorwills singing; the flowers blooming; all the critters in the woods. And you’re actually talking to the turkeys. It’s just a wonderful time to be out there. The whole experience was life-changing.”
As with most of his pursuits, he went all-in. He bagged his first bird in 1984 — an 18-pound jake, or young male. He soon became a turkey-hunting instructor. In the early years of turkey hunting, when few Minnesotans knew how to hunt turkeys, the clinics sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources were mandatory. Later they became optional, and Ness continues to teach them.
“It still helps folks get an understanding of how to hunt turkeys,” he said.
Turkey’s aren’t Ness’ only passion.
For more than 30 years, he has been a major player in Minnesota conservation circles. He is well-known at the State Capitol, where he lobbies on behalf of outdoor interests.
His conservation résumé is long: He is the president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance and Anglers for Habitat.
Ness was an organizer of the Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water rallies at the Capitol in 2005 and 2006, pushed hard for passage of the 2008 Legacy Amendment, is former president and vice president of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, has been active with the National Wild Turkey Federation and has served on a host of conservation-related committees and groups.
Outdoor News named him its Person of the Year in 2006.
“There’s probably no conservation issue that he hasn’t been involved with in the last 30 years,” said Gary Botzek of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, who has worked with Ness on outdoor issues. “Hunters and anglers owe him a large debt for all that he has done. He’s a great advocate for the outdoors. We need more like him.”
Dave Zentner of Duluth, himself a longtime conservationist who headed the Capitol duck rallies, also has worked with Ness over the years. “He leads with his heart,” Zentner said. “He’s a joy to work with.”
Ness, who grew up in north Minneapolis in a non-hunting family, said he decided early to give something back to pursuits that have changed his life. He figures he spends 200 hours a year at the Legislature.
“I do it because I love it,” he said. “You have to find the time. It’s important for the next generation.”
And key issues remain: Water and wetland conservation, aquatic invasive species, climate change and monitoring spending of Legacy Amendment dollars destined for fish, game and wildlife habitat.
“We have to keep an eye on it, or they will steal the money [for other purposes],” Ness said.
But next week, Ness will temporarily forget about perplexing conservation issues as he and his friends head to turkey camp near La Crescent.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous — one of my favorite spots in the whole world,” Ness said. “I can’t wait to go. Camping makes it more old-style hunting. We have a big fire pit. We rough it. I like to do it that way.”
He remembers that first hunt in 1981, when he was a novice.
“I made all the mistakes. I scared turkeys away, left and right. I didn’t know you had to sit totally still,” Ness said.
Since then he has become an expert, hunted turkeys in five states and bagged three subspecies: Merriam’s, Easterns and Rio Grande. He needs an Osceola turkey in Florida to complete the coveted Grand Slam.
“It’s on my bucket list,” he said.
Whether he bags a young bird with a 2-inch beard or a longspur with a 10-inch bird, “the excitement is beyond measure.
“I consider every one a trophy.”