A onetime duck and pheasant hunter, Gary Detjen still chases things with wings. But not so much anymore in autumn, when waterfowl arrow south from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and florid roosters catapult skyward from cattail marshes. ¶ Instead, Detjen is now a man of a different season -- and has been for nearly two decades. ¶ Ever since he hunted his first wild turkey.
"It all started April 18, 1991," Detjen said. "I was hunting turkeys in southeastern Minnesota, near Caledonia. I called in a tom and shot him, and when I registered the bird, the guy weighed it and said, 'You're going to mount it, aren't you?' "
To that point, the thought of engaging a taxidermist to preserve the bird, and the memory, hadn't occurred to Detjen. But when the turkey's weight was revealed -- 27 pounds, 7 ounces -- and Detjen was informed how rare toms of that size are, he decided, yes, he would have the bird mounted.
Fast forward to 2009.
Detjen now concentrates most of his time afield on the wily wild turkey. He also has a room in the home he and his wife, Cindy, share dedicated only to those birds.
Foremost among turkeys in that lair, and the biggest, is the one Detjen took in 1991, a robust example of the Eastern subspecies. Alongside it is a Merriam's turkey he shot in South Dakota, a Rio Grande tom he collected in Texas, an Osceola gobbler from Florida and a Gould's male turkey from Mexico.
Also decorating the room is an Ocellated gobbler.
That one didn't come easily.
Detjen first had to fly to Guatemala, then board a small plane that toted him into the jungle hinterlands bordering Mexico.
"At night, we slept in cots with mosquito netting," he said. "Conditions were spartan."
• • •
Detjen is comfortable with his conversion, generally, from autumn hunter to spring hunter, from one who walks up birds (pheasants, grouse), or awaits coyly their arrival (ducks, geese), to one who arises on April mornings at 3 to chase winged fowl that are, well, nuts.
"I don't think you can really figure turkeys out," Detjen said. "I've hunted many, many times when it didn't work the way I thought it would. When you think you know what a turkey will do, that's when you're about to be embarrassed."
Many Minnesota turkey hunters will learn that anew beginning Wednesday, when the 2009 version of the state's gobbler season begins.
Perhaps never in the state's history has a bird garnered so much interest so quickly as the wild turkey. A few decades back, Minnesota had hardly any birds.
Then the Department of Natural Resources began transplanting them here from other states (Merriam's were the first arrivals, but they didn't work out). Now the Eastern subspecies not only can be found in Minnesota's best turkey habitat -- the southeast -- but as far north as Moorhead.
Still, fewer than a handful of Minnesota's more than 30,000 turkey hunters have collected the variety of birds -- or the honorary designations -- Detjen has.
Example: After he felled at least one each of the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Osceola subspecies, Detjen's efforts earned him notice by the National Wild Turkey Federation as a hunter who had his "Grand Slam."
When he added a Gould's turkey from Mexico, he qualified for a Royal Slam.
After which, with the addition of the Ocellated turkey, came Detjen's World Slam.
In addition to a long string of toms mounted in full strut, many things turkey decorate Detjen's gobbler room. Beer signs. Decanters. Wingbone calls. Stamps. All bear in one form or fashion tracks distinctive to turkeys.
All of which Cindy Detjen is OK with, and in fact encourages -- though she doesn't hunt herself.
"I keep trying to get her to go," Gary said.
• • •
While most Minnesota turkey hunters won't get their first crack at a bird until Wednesday, Detjen already has been afield this spring.
Or tried to be.
"Some friends and I were at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian reservations in South Dakota a few days back, but a blizzard swept in and we had to come home," he said.
Traveling to Texas is next on Detjen's spring to-do list. There he'll hunt Rio Grande birds, before returning to Minnesota to chase toms here.
"The Eastern birds we have here are still my favorite to hunt," Detjen said, adding: "They're the biggest, the most savvy, and the toughest to call in."
But not the best eating. That designation, said Detjen, goes to the Ocellated. "It's the tenderest," he said.
Yet the Ocellated bird is far from a pushover, in part because the toms don't gobble. Instead, they issue a sort of song. Additionally, Detjen said, Ocellated toms don't so readily come to a female's call (or simulation thereof) in mating time, as they do that of a fellow tom.
Those unfamiliar with hunting and its many challenges might think the actual shooting of a game animal or bird -- or, as in Detjen's case, the shooting of various subspecies of wild turkeys -- is the main point.
It's a point.
But, as Detjen said, so is supporting the National Wild Turkey Federation (he belongs to the Twin Toms Chapter in Hopkins) and other conservation groups.
Hanging out with friends of similar interests is also important.
"I like hunting turkeys because I like being out in spring, when we're just coming out of winter," Detjen said. "The excitement of being in the woods, the camaraderie, and the difficulty of calling gobblers ...
"I just love hunting turkeys."
Dennis Anderson •