Brainerd — Turkey hunters know the standard routine for bagging a springtime tom.
We rise well before dawn because so do the turkeys. Our goal is to be in the woods while darkness still cloaks the landscape. Then, when just a hint of light signals a new day, the hope is a lovesick tom turkey or two will bellow thunderous gobbles from their perches high on a tree limb.
Then we sneak in as close as we dare and set up. Will the amorous turkeys wander by after flying down from the roost? Maybe we have staked out a turkey decoy or decoys. We might emit a few “yelps” using a turkey call, hoping to further entice the bird or birds in our direction. Then we wait with shotgun or bow ready until legal shooting time a half-hour before sunrise.
We will greeted by the shadowy sight of a strutting tom in the still-dim light, tail fanned and wings drooping, if we’re lucky.
We will take careful aim and squeeze the trigger or release an arrow, and that might mean the hunt is over.
For a wildlife photographer? Not so soon.
My vision of a great photo of a tom turkey cannot be realized until the sun has at least peaked slightly above the horizon. Then, if the sun angle is just right and heavy vegetation does not interfere, a strutting gobbler’s iridescent feathers will glow bronze, gold, purple, and green. Too, its head and neck will flash the patriotic colors red, white, and blue. What a splendid sight.
I must think ahead a bit for photographic success, and try to determine where a tom or toms might be once the sun is up. I also need to consider the angle of the light. I want to be in a position were the sun is generally at my back.
That can be difficult. Oftentimes I must forgo the best hunting spots, and attempt to photograph a gobbler where the light is right, not necessarily in a spot that would be my foremost choice just to observe a tom.
A few years ago I had a landowner’s permission to photograph turkeys on his land. Several toms and usually a few hens almost always roosted in a stand of towering white pines, and it was fun to hear them gobble their heads off in predawn. But when the birds flew down, they would casually work their way to a nearby picked cornfield where the hens would feed and the toms gobbled and strutted.
The problem was they almost always passed my photography blind before sunrise. To complicate the situation, the cornfield was narrow, and the east side of the field was lined with tall pines. So, for the morning rays to illuminate the turkeys, the sun had to have been up for nearly two hours. By then, the turkeys would have moved to land I was prohibited to enter.
Now, I find myself looking for ideal photography locations where I would face west so good light is available as soon as the sun rises. I do just the opposite for photographing in the evening, looking for turkey hot spots where my back would be to setting sun in the west. I also strive to photograph turkeys in natural habitat, not in someone’s backyard or in a city park.
Once I’ve located a likely spot, I use turkey decoys and calls to hopefully lure a strutting tom into camera range.
This is not to say backlit, rim-lit or silhouette images of turkeys are not pleasing. Those images can and often do have an artistic quality about them.
Still, though, my preferred image of strutting tom turkey resembles the one shown on this page — front-lit and cloaked in attractive light.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.