“There’s three of them over there,” said my turkey hunting mentor, Jay Johnson.
I couldn’t readily see them, so I lifted my binoculars and looked some 500 yards in the distance toward a cornfield and a stand of trees. Sure enough, there they were.
Johnson and I had been sitting in a blind since before sunrise, somewhere in the Lino Lakes area. It was about 7:30. We’d watched the natural world wake up, and now I looked at birds that would eventually run toward our decoys and position themselves within shooting range.
It was my first hunt of any sort, in early May, but I still wasn’t sure I could shoot to kill.
That’s OK, Johnson assured me — and that’s part of the reason I was chasing birds. I’m an inaugural member of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ new Learn to Hunt Wild Turkey program, led by Johnson, who is the DNR’s hunter recruitment and retention coordinator.
The DNR offers several learn-to-hunt programs, primarily targeted at youth or at women. However, Johnson is trying something new: A program for adults who would like to hunt but don’t know where to begin.
“I want to learn how to hunt a wide variety of animals, but I find it very intimidating to ask friends to teach me, as they have been doing it for decades,” said fellow newcomer Scott Vonderharr, 36, of Fridley. “Hunting seasons are very short, so to ask a friend to give up their hunting season to teach me just did not seem like the right thing to do.”
Access to knowledge is a big barrier, Johnson said, noting that if someone doesn’t grow up in a hunting family or doesn’t have close friends who are willing to teach them, it’s hard to get started. Most Minnesota hunters have the tradition. Johnson’s big-picture goal is to teach people like me to hunt, hoping that I will make hunting a new activity in my own family.
In that way, Chris Rice, 35, of Minneapolis was the perfect candidate.
“My primary motivation was to learn the basics so I can have a starting point and take my kids hunting when they’re older,” Rice said. “Turkeys are appealing because they don’t require a dog in the way that pheasants, duck and grouse would, and it’s not a large animal to field-dress and store meat from.”
There is little to no hunting tradition in my greater family. We tend to skew more to the angling side. The exception is my sister, who hunted ducks once to impress a boy. However, we all have an appreciation for wild game and, should I get a bird, it is an unspoken expectation that it will go on the table for my entire family to sample.
Johnson is picky about who he’ll accept into the program: Candidates must have either never hunted or only hunted one time. Candidates must attend pre-hunt classes and be available to hunt on a specified weekend. In return, Johnson provides in-depth hunter education training, shotgun practice and a hunting mentor.
The first learn-to-hunt program took place in the fall of 2014. Ten candidates were chosen from 13 applicants to hunt deer. The turkey program was not quite as popular: Four of us signed up, and all were accepted.
The idea of hunting, let alone doing it for turkey, had never crossed my mind. I attended an informational class at the Seward Co-Op in Minneapolis in late February. I was so intrigued that I filled out my application and sent in the $50 fee the following day.
During the two prep meetings, Johnson addressed turkey hunting safety (always carry your decoy in a bag; sit against a tree wider than your shoulders; don’t wave at other hunters); biology (they have extremely keen eyesight and hearing; an immature male is called a jake; the hanging thing over the beak is a snood); habitat (they roost in trees at night; they eat seeds and grubs; their range has expanded in Minnesota); and gear (shotguns, decoys, turkey calls).
We practiced shooting with borrowed shotguns (aim for the neck) and discussed state rules (the seasons, a one-turkey limit, and no shooting a female unless she has a beard). Our homework was to pass the online hunter education course.
Then, we were each paired with a mentor for a weekend hunt. One went near Carlos Avery Wildlife Area, one to the Welch area, one to Hastings. I went with Johnson to his favorite spot in Lino Lakes. I’d met him earlier in the week to scout and set up the blind.
Fast forwarding to my hunt: Things got exciting when we saw the three jakes, followed by two mature males (called toms). I kept watch of the birds while Johnson used a slate turkey call. They turned toward us. The three jakes started toward us first, followed by the toms. Johnson told me to get the shotgun ready, so I poked the muzzle out of the blind and tried to remain still.
They scooted across the field, jumped a couple of ditches and then appeared in the field directly in front of us. The toms were more standoffish, but the jakes wandered up to the decoy. All three of them were about 15 feet away but remained clumped. There was no good shot. Then, something got their attention, they spooked and made a quick exit into some trees. The toms followed. We saw them later, in a field behind our blind, the toms in full display for an uninterested female.
“Look at this,” Johnson said, his hand trembling. “I get such an adrenaline rush just calling them in. I wish I could bottle this.”
Why did they run off? Did they see our shadows? Did they hear the other hen? We could only speculate. Johnson said that just when you think you understand turkeys, you realize that you don’t.
We called it a day at 10:30 a.m. By that point, we’d seen upward of 20 birds, but no others came near our decoys. The next day, we heard ample gobbling from surrounding trees, but didn’t see turkeys. We did, however, see deer frolicking and several sandhill cranes, and heard pheasants.
I didn’t shoot a turkey. Neither did the other hunting apprentices out the same weekend. However, the concept of success took on a new meaning.
Rice was the only one of the four to shoot a bird: a 15-pound jake. “My hunt was very successful, not just in the outcome of getting a bird but the experience was thrilling,” he said.
“The best part of the hunt was actually being in the field and hearing the gobbles,” said Mike Molumby, 50, of Columbia Heights. “When they were close, you could feel the excitement build.”
“I originally defined success as getting a bird,” Vonderharr said. “The longer we hunted and the harder we worked caused me to redefine success as learning the process of hunting. Had we gotten a bird early on, I would not have had the chance to hunt two different properties, and learn how to think on the fly while hunting.”
For me, success was learning more about our state’s turkey population and stretching out of my comfort zone. I’ve even caught myself thinking about the fall turkey season, looking at ads for hunting gear and noodling the idea of taking the Learn to Hunt Deer course.
Johnson will be proud of this, too: I’ve even thought about how to get my niece and nephew into a youth hunting program.
Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.