IN THE FLINT HILLS REGION, KANSAS – I watched a big tom on opening day of the Kansas wild turkey hunting season.
It wasn’t hard. He wanted to be seen.
Some 200 yards from my blind, the tom strutted to the crest of a picked cornfield, fanned his feathers and made clear he was the boss. From this spot he lorded over seven hens, a subordinate tom and a handful of jakes that pecked in soil desperate for a hard drink. I called repeatedly. They did not move. The only thing that moved was the sun. It kept sinking ever faster, its orange glow dimming as it dipped beneath the horizon.
At last, after legal shooting hours, the birds began their cautious march from field to forest. All walked warily within 25 yards of me. Some came within 5. The big tom brought up the rear. It was a fascinating yet frustrating parade. It ended when one by one — a flutter here, a whoosh there — the flock flew into the outstretched arms of towering cottonwoods trees.
“Good hunt. No bird. But there’s always tomorrow,” I announced upon returning to camp. That was true for Rad Royer, too. Gary Drotts and Greg Kvale had done better. They bagged birds before noon.
Residents of the Brainerd area, we four do what many turkey hunters do. We migrate. Come spring, we travel to a distant destination and hope for the best. Long ago, it was Minnesota’s Houston County. Later it was the Black Hills of South Dakota. Later still, we hunted in central Minnesota, seeking descendants of wild turkeys that Drotts introduced into Crow Wing and Cass counties while serving as a state wildlife manager.
Clearly, these regional adventures are small potatoes compared to those who travel extensively in pursuit of a grand slam, the harvesting of all four subspecies of wild turkey: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande and Merriam. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) keeps track of such hunters. William Barrington of Minnetonka has accomplished this feat six times.
Similarly, we hold no candle to those who have earned a super slam, the taking of a wild turkey in every state except Alaska. Six hunters have done this. The first was Daniel Rorrer of Oulaski, Va., in 2011, according to the NWTF website.
Still, we enjoy our spring trips, humble as they are. They take us to new places, spiritually and geographically. This year, we hunted the Flint Hills of Kansas. This eco-region, too rocky for settlers to plow, includes North America’s most intact tall grass prairie. The hill country rises in northeast Kansas and runs all the way to north-central Oklahoma. We found the hills rugged yet peaceful. The people were friendly and helpful. Café fare was hearty and inexpensive. Yes, we encountered more fellow travelers than expected (Kansas, I have since learned, sold 15,447 nonresident licenses last year for its spring season). These and resident hunters harvested an estimated 36,758 birds, roughly three times as many as Minnesota spring turkey hunters. Still, it was a good time.
Besides, phenologically, Kansas was a month ahead of Minnesota. Lilacs were in bloom. Wheat fields were green. Apple blossoms scented the air. Songbirds sang like crazy. Turkeys were in good voice, too.
The alarm clock chimed at 4:45 a.m. on the second day of the hunt. Shortly thereafter, Kvale and I were driving east to the blind I had exited just hours before. We arrived in the dark. We settled in. We waited. We did not wait long.
Almost immediately a gobbler announced his presence. Then a second did the same. Soon wing beats whooshed overhead. A hen landed. Then another. Then even more, all flaring-up like oversized pheasants as they alighted on the ground. Finally, the long parade that marched from right to left the previous night began to march again, this time from left to right. We had good seats.
It’s at that this point things go awry, a common occurrence while turkey hunting. Inexplicably, Kvale and I had exchanged shotguns in the pre-light dawn. It must have occurred while safely threading them into the blind. Typically, this would not be a problem. However, Kvale brought an autoloading 12-gauge. I brought a pump. This distinction became apparent when my bird dropped, Kvale’s didn’t, and his further squeezing of the trigger proved silently pointless.
That’s turkey hunting.
There’s always a shoulda-coulda-woulda. And to our credit, Kvale and I came up with one of the most novel shoulda-coulda-woulda’s I’ve ever heard.
Kvale did fill his second tag the following day. He was the lone member of our party to do so. Soon afterward, we hooked up with Royer and Drotts by phone. Like us, they had seen storm clouds gathering. Like us, they were content to call it a good hunt because everyone had taken a bird. Two hours later, the fifth-wheel trailer was heading north. The hills were fast disappearing behind us.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.