When Minnesota’s wild turkey season opens Wednesday, the first wave of upward of 50,000 hunters will silently sneak into forest and field with high hopes of bagging a bird. Most will fail miserably ... or happy-go-luckily. That’s because the wild turkey is uncanny at detecting danger. This is hard to believe. The bird’s physical appearance — waddles, snood and beard growing from chest not chin — suggest the species got the short end of the evolutionary stick. Yet it is quite likely that fewer than one in three hunters will outsmart a bird by season end May 31. The hunter success rate has been in the high 20-percent range the past half dozen years and never more than 34 percent since the state’s inaugural season in 1978. Those peaks occurred in 2003, 2008 and 2009. To be sure, some turkeys escape knife and fork because those who could have downed them didn’t. Such hunters pass up smaller and younger male turkeys (called jakes) in favor of older and bigger male turkeys (or toms). Still, empty freezers are most commonly the result of a turkey outsmarting a hunter or more disappointingly, a hunter outsmarting himself or herself.
It is the latter I will address for that is the pithier problem. Like many veteran hunters, I am well-schooled in the ways and wiles of the turkey. Unfortunately, I am less schooled in knowing myself: I frequently fail to follow my own advice.
So, in the spirit of giving, I offer the following counsel so that others will not succumb to faulty logic:
Failure to get up: You would think this is a no-brainer. But, oh-no, it isn’t. There are many legitimate explanations to remain abed: pounding rain, biting snow, howling wind, and truck-miring road and field conditions. All are good reasons to catch a few more winks, because what self-respecting turkey would fly down at dawn into the arms of such punishment? The answer is the one that Tom Conroy shot. This interloper arrived at our hunting camp one eve to seek advice on where to hunt. Then, the following morn — as we waited for the storm to break — he darkened our door with bird in hand and unforgettable smirk on face. I learned an important lesson that day: Never share a hunting spot with Conroy.
Failure to heed a farmer’s advice: Successful turkey hunters are expert at sharing solicited and unsolicited advice, especially the latter. These men, women and children deserve your ear. They often possess roomy blinds, enticing decoy spreads, many different calls, a multipocketed vest, swivel chair, and a special shotgun fitted with special choke tube. However, if you happen to meet a man who owns a silo, John Deere tractor and manure spreader, you may want to pay more attention to him. Long ago, a tobacco-chewing farmer who had never hunted turkeys, never wanted to hunt turkeys and could not understand why I wanted to hunt turkeys suggested I cozy-up to his rusting hay rake in the far field. I had not seen turkeys in this field while scouting, but had glassed birds elsewhere. So, I ignored the dairyman’s tip for three days. On the fourth morning I pushed my back against hard steel. Boom. Done.
Failure to stay rooted: I am a firm believer in “planning your hunt, and hunting your plan.” For me, this often means setting up, sitting tight and taking comfort in knowing that birds will come, if not immediately, eventually. However, too often I have abandoned this philosophy due to itchy feet, a malady whose symptoms surface when long hours pass and nothing — absolutely nothing — seems to be happening. No gobbling toms. No puttering hens. No bachelor jakes. Just nothing, save for the occasional report of a distant shotgun or warm memory of a downed bird just a few hundred yards away. The balm for this infection, of course, is to unzip the blind, march toward greener pastures and then, like an idiot, be spied by a bunch of bobbing and feeding heads waddling your direction. I have remedied this malaise in recent years by stowing a novel in my blind. John Sanford has become an excellent hunting partner.
Failure to master the call: Much advice exists on how best to call. Call a lot. Call a little. Call soft. Call loud. Yelp here. Purr there. The counsel is endless, and much of it quite good. Yet equally important is mastering one call rather than being a jack-of-all-calls. Specifically, this means mastering a box call, slate call or some other call so that when that pivotal moment comes — a skeptical tom demanding one more encore — you hit the right notes with confidence. I rely these days largely on mouth calls. I carry a pack of three, each delivering a slightly different sound. One I call Pink. I use it for loud, semi-obnoxious and up-tempo calling. The second is Streisand. It delivers a timeless and universally appealing melody. The third is Kathleen Turner. It is raspy. Mature. It’s my sultry come-hither call. Sadly, turkeys in three states have ignored or outright skedaddled from these voices. Still, I trust them. I do because occasionally one or another gets the party started, and, oh, what a party it is.
For those who have never tried Minnesota spring turkey hunting, do know your opportunity still exists. Licenses for the April 26-May 2, May 3-9 and May 10-16 seasons are available in unlimited numbers. Hunters with unfilled tags can hunt again from May 17-31.
Also, an unlimited number of licenses are available for archers and children for all hunting seasons. Minnesota even has a limited exemption for those who have not completed a firearms safety course. These people can hunt under certain safety-imposing conditions. Therefore, it’s never too late to introduce someone to turkey hunting. And if you do, encourage them to rise early, accept advice, stay put and practice calling. They should do just fine.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.