For years, I didn’t see the allure of turkey hunting — or, to be honest, of any dogless hunting. If I couldn’t have my Labrador retriever out there with me flushing a pheasant or retrieving a duck, I wondered, what’s the point? But over time I softened because, as many hunting addicts know, you take what you can get. And in the spring, all you can get is a turkey license.
This year, the spring turkey season opens April 18, and runs through the end of May. The season is broken into six roughly weeklong periods, from A to F. Hunting permits in periods A and B are determined by lottery; anyone with a license can hunt during the subsequent periods. Each hunter is allowed one bird, and you’ve got to register your tag if you’re successful.
In late February, I received a postcard informing me that I’d gotten a tag for period B, and if I don’t get a bird then I can try again during period F.
As a neophyte turkey hunter five years ago, I looked for help. I attended a class in South St. Paul put on by the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. I scoured websites and read books. I practiced my turkey call, both the kind where you drag a stick across a piece of slate and the diaphragm call. The latter is pressed by the tongue on the roof of the mouth, and I’ve found that it results in lots of slobbering.
Then a veteran turkey hunter and friend of a friend, Mark Arcand, invited me to join him. Several times over the course of three years, Mark took me hunting on his family land outside of St. Paul — and I never shot a turkey. We saw turkeys, but only females (hens). In the spring, hunters are only allowed to shoot males, aka toms. In turkey hunting parlance, toms are either gobblers (old males) or jakes (young males). We heard males — only the males gobble — but couldn’t call one into range.
More recently, I’ve hunted our family land in Crow Wing County. Again and again, I’ve been skunked. Every spring, I faithfully scout, get dolled up in camouflage gear, put out a couple decoys, and sit under a tree at the border between an aspen grove and a cornfield. And every year I hear far off turkeys gobbling, mocking my efforts to shoot them.
I’ll be back on our family land this year, trying for a tom. And this year the stakes are higher than ever.
Last October, I was out East on college visits with my oldest child. Sitting in a cheap hotel in the middle of Vermont one night, my phone rang. It was my youngest child, Aidan, 13, who was breathless on the other end of the line. Because the boats and docks had been put up for the season, he’d gone bass fishing in a kayak (that’s how crazy he is about bass fishing).
“Dad,” he whispered, “There’s about 20 turkeys on the hill. What should I do?”
“Go get a gun and shoot one!”
Aidan, who already had a youth fall turkey license ($6!), paddled back to the cabin, retrieved a 20-gauge shotgun from the safe in the garage, and headed out. The next time my phone buzzed, it was with the photo that accompanies this article, sent to me by my cousin.
Aidan then called me back and asked what to do. “Watch a YouTube video on how to clean a wild turkey,” I told him. He did just that, and we enjoyed the smoked bird on Thanksgiving.
I’ve hunted turkey for countless hours over five years and haven’t fired a shot. Aidan turkey-hunted for five minutes and bagged one.
Ask a turkey hunter and they’ll tell you that my story isn’t unusual. According to the DNR, last spring there were 49,919 licenses sold and 11,854 turkeys taken. That’s a success rate of less than 25 percent. Turkeys are tough, they’re smart, and they have keen senses. Make one mistake in your setup, squeak out a bad call, or move too quickly when you’re shouldering your gun and they’ll be gone.
But as has been widely reported, the turkey population has exploded in Minnesota, the result of successful transplant and management by the DNR, dating back to 1971, when our state traded ruffed grouse for some Missouri turkeys. As our state’s populations of pheasants and ducks have waned, those of Canada geese and wild turkeys have waxed. Turkeys are now just about everywhere in the state — I’ve seen them walking around the University of Minnesota campus in the Twin Cities, and in the forest outside of Twig, north of Duluth. With a large, expanding range, there are ample opportunities for hunters.
So whether you’re patient, like me, or lucky, like my son, you might give turkey hunting a try this spring. No matter where you sit, you’re likely at least to hear a gobble.
Tony Jones of Edina teaches at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton. See his website at reverendhunter.com.