REDWOOD FALLS, MINN.
Thirteen-year-old Nina Buchanan of Montevideo was resting her eyelids at 7:15 a.m. Saturday when a 25-pound gobbler stormed in, pouncing on her plastic tom turkey decoy with vengeance.
"I was napping," she said with a grin, after getting up in the darkness to get to her hunting blind well before sunrise. "Four a.m. is early, I don't care who you are."
Two shots at point-blank range with her 20-gauge shotgun, and Nina had bagged her first-ever wild turkey -- a trophy nearly as tall as she is, with a dandy 9¾-inch beard.
"It was really fun," Nina said later, accepting congratulations from a dozen other young hunters and their mentors and parents who participated in Minnesota's 10th annual youth turkey hunt over the weekend.
She was among about 300 youths age 12 to 17 who hunted at 28 locations around the state, accompanied by volunteer mentors and a parent. The goal is to introduce kids to turkey hunting.
And by that count, it was a success.
The 13 youths who hunted in Renville and Redwood counties Saturday and Sunday braved rain and wind but learned a lot, including just how difficult it is to go home with a wild turkey. Minnesota hunters overall have about a 30 percent success rate, meaning seven of 10 hunters go home empty-handed each spring.
Nina was the only young hunter in the group to get a bird, though it wasn't for lack of turkeys. Four other youngsters took shots and missed, and others heard or saw birds but never got shots.
"I thought there were plenty of birds -- everyone at least heard some," said Mike Anderson of Danube, local hunt coordinator.
For Nina, turkey and deer hunting is something she hopes to do more of with her dad, Dave. She has been battling leukemia for years, and can't participate in contact sports.
"This is a sport she can do the rest of her life," said Dave Buchanan.
He and Sam Sihvonen, 17, a Finnish exchange student who is staying with the Buchanans, watched from another blind while Nina bagged her turkey with the help of mentor Tom Kalahar of Olivia.
Rain, wind ... and tornadoes?
Bryce Horejsi, 13, of Elko, shot his first deer last fall, and he has hunted pheasants. He also shoots in an archery program.
"The whole family hunts," he said.
But Saturday was his first wild turkey hunt, and I was his mentor.
"I don't know who's more excited, him or me," said his dad, Greg, an avid pheasant hunter who accompanied us.
We were on the road at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, and nestled in our blinds at 5:30. The gobbling from numerous toms started around 6 a.m., and was encouraging, though none of the birds were close. At 7:15, we heard a shotgun blast, but at 7:20 we heard something ominous.
"Rain," Bryce whispered.
It rained all morning -- less-than-ideal weather for turkey hunting. We heard owls, a pileated woodpecker, white-throated sparrows, Canada geese, mallards -- but no more turkeys. Shortly before noon, the rain stopped and, like other youth hunters around the state, we joined our group for lunch, met Nina and saw her big bird and heard the kids describe their hunts.
Afterward, we tried a different spot, atop a ridge overlooking the Minnesota River Valley where other hunters had seen several toms.
But sunshine soon gave way to more clouds and thunder, and another strange sound: a warning siren. Tornadoes had been reported in the area, we learned later.
"Well, that's a first," I said as we quickly folded our blinds and retreated to our vehicles and our motel.
But there's no quit in Bryce. Sunday morning, we returned. And at 6 a.m., two gobblers, perhaps 40 to 60 yards in the woods, gobbled loudly, buoying our hopes. But despite calling the birds for hours, they never made an appearance. And at noon, we called it a day.
Bryce was among the majority of hunters heading home without a bird. But he said he had fun and wasn't disappointed.
"I thought it was awesome," his dad said. "I think I know what he's getting for Christmas. A turkey hunting blind."
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org