The big gobbler stepped from woods to pasture, followed by three more long-bearded toms and a bunch of hens — a virtual herd of turkeys.
All ambled toward Tom Kalahar, nestled on the ground, wide-eyed at his good fortune. After hunting 23 hours during the first two days of a four-day Kansas turkey hunt, he hadn’t fired a shot.
“They came right down the edge of the woods toward me,’’ said Kalahar, of Olivia, Minn. When the first gobbler was at 40 yards, he fired his 12 gauge once, dropping the bird.
“Then I jumped up and shot another one at 50 yards,’’ he said.
And just like that he filled his two-bird Kansas bag limit. “That’s as sweet as it gets,’’ he said.
For many die-hard Minnesota turkey hunters, gobbler fever leads to long drives to distant states. Hunting for a few days during Minnesota’s spring turkey season just isn’t enough.
Which explains why Kalahar, Ben Hillesheim of Bird Island, Minn., and I drove eight hours on Friday to northeast Kansas, exchanging menacing Minnesota snowstorms for green grass, 65-degree temperatures — and turkeys.
Count me among those with turkey fever. I’ve journeyed to Wyoming, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin, but Minnesotan gobbler hunters head even farther — to Florida, New Mexico, Texas and beyond.
“I just can’t get enough turkey hunting in Minnesota,’’ Kalahar said. “There’s nothing prettier in the world than seeing those toms strut. That’s as good as it gets in my world.
“And it’s just fun to go to different places and meet different characters.’’
Hillesheim feels the same.
“I like turkey hunting a lot,’’ he said.
This was our second trip to Kansas. Our first, in 2011, was remarkable. We returned home with five gobblers and hunting tales we’ll be telling for years. There was the eagle that swooped down at the hen turkey checking out my decoys. And there was Kalahar’s first “daily double.’’
I had shot two birds, one each of the first two days, and accompanied Kalahar after that, hoping to see him kill a gobbler. The next day, after a fruitless morning hunt, we set up a ground blind on the edge of a pasture, and waited. Just as I was nodding off, we heard a gobble.
“Over there,’’ Kalahar pointed. Three big toms approached. We called, then waited. All three came straight to our blind.
Kalahar fired, dropping one tom in its tracks. A second gobbler took flight, and Kalahar, shooting out the window of the blind, dropped it, stone-dead.
A remarkable feat, especially considering that most states, like Minnesota, allow just one-bird bag limits. And those states with two-bird limits usually require that they be taken on separate days.
Not so in Kansas.
This year, Kalahar did it again.
“I can’t believe it,’’ he said. “Another double.’’
In Kansas, the percentage of turkey hunters bagging at least one bird has averaged about 60 percent in recent years, twice the success rate in Minnesota.
Last spring, hunters in Kansas killed 31,239 turkeys, nearly triple the number harvested in Minnesota.
And we weren’t the only nonresidents to sample Kansas hospitality. More than 13,000 nonresidents came to hunt gobblers last year. Those nonresidents have even higher success rates than residents, likely because they hunt harder.
Turkey numbers here are healthy. Driving into Topeka for dinner one evening with our hunting hosts, we saw scores of birds in fields, sometimes in groups of a dozen or more.
“I’ve never seen that many birds,’’ Hillesheim said.
It’s not easy
But that doesn’t mean easy pickings.
“People driving down the road see all those turkeys and think, ‘How hard can it be?’ ’’ Kalahar said. “But you have to get them within shotgun range, and that’s hard.
“Turkey hunting’s not easy.’’
It takes persistence, patience, skill — and some luck.
I hunted hard, from dawn to dusk, but after three days had spotted just 10 hens and one gobbler, and he was ambling in a distant field.
Hillesheim hunted almost three days, too, before waylaying a big gobbler as a thunderstorm was about to move in Monday afternoon.
“It was the first tom I saw,’’ he said.
After three days of pleasant spring weather, we awoke Tuesday — our last day — to hard rain and a biting north wind. The temperature hovered near 32. Of course, we went turkey hunting.
Hillesheim set up where he had shot his bird, while Kalahar and I sat in our ground blind where he had bagged his two birds on Sunday. Soon the rain turned to sleet, then snow — covering the ground and our decoys. The cold wind howled.
“Unbelievable,’’ Kalahar said. “I never dreamt we’d be hunting in snow down here.’’
At noon, without seeing another turkey, we packed our wet gear and headed for Minnesota. Still searching for spring.