Late May Wisconsin Gobbler

As luck would have it, this year's hunt was setting up to be an entirely different experience from my first turkey hunt the previous year. For my first Wisconsin turkey hunt last year, I'd drawn a 5-day permit for the third period at the end of April. The weather was downright cold, with temperatures in the teens throughout the five days. Consider also high winds, rain, sleet, snow and hot early-season gobblers with an abundance of available hens and you'll understand how I came away with some valuable lessons my first season. Despite crazy weather, I spent each day hunting until 5 PM and though I didn't come home with a turkey, I brought home a wealth of first-hand knowledge to use on future hunts; knowledge that would assist me this year as I embarked on my second solo turkey hunt in central Wisconsin. I'd drawn a 5-day permit for the final season May 21st through the 25th, 2003. This year's final period held the promise of wonderfully beautiful spring mornings coupled with the challenge of chasing well-seasoned and wary birds. Birds that had been busted, called to and shot at over the several previous weeks by other members of our hunting clan. However, that didn't matter as I like a challenge and I felt confident on how to proceed this year. I felt I had a better understanding of the turkey woods, of calling tactics and of effective setups in varying terrain. I'd practiced shooting regularly, patterned my shotgun, and had gained an extra shot of optimism from downing my first turkey in Kansas just a few weeks earlier. I was ready.

Opening day dawned clear and unseasonably cold at 28 degrees. Not the perfect spring morning I'd imagined! Thankfully, I had packed my lightweight long underwear...even on a late-May hunt. All my years of bowhunting in unpredictable Wisconsin weather had served me well. I headed out the door into the crisp darkness by 4:30 AM, and headed to a ridge just a few hundred yards south of the cabin. A ridge where the turkeys habitually roosted, and coincidentally where I'd busted several turkeys the previous year on opening morning. I was determined to right my wrongs. I drifted off the dirt road, crossed a shallow, muddy ditch and entered the woods silently, moving carefully through the tall brush leading up to the ridge. Walking along the southern edge of the ridge, I advanced east 100 yards to a point where another small ridge turned south. Kneeling down at the base of a big red oak at the junction of the two ridges, I took off my vest and started pulling out my two hen decoys. As I searched in my vest for the stakes, two birds exploded out of the tree branches overhead with a thunderous flapping in the inky twilight. I snapped my head around to glimpse them as they dissolved into the brush. One had flown north, the other south. I turned my head skyward to peer into the branches silhouetted against the brightening sky. My head jerked left and right, up and down, scanning the limbs, myself looking much like a nervous gobbler searching for a clue. Just then, several soft tree calls floated through the air behind me, followed by an instant fly-down to the north. Dang these birds! I'd expected them to be roosting further down the ridge another 100 yards! Exasperated by making this mistake again, but not wanting to move any more on the ridge now, I made an instant decision to setup as I intended. I settled in and started calling on my Mountain Screamer box call. Several minutes later, I had a Tom gobbling warmly from the south and moving in my direction. Smiling, I congratulated myself on making the right decision to stay put.

He gobbled not more than 75 yards away and I readied my gun. Despite wanting to focus entirely on the incoming bird, I kept hearing a faint noise... some vague disturbance... which kept pulling my attention away from the gobbler and to my north. I reluctantly peered around just in time to see a hen working its way towards me at 25 yards. She clucked and picked her way through the brush, moving west of me. The Tom gobbled again, and I could see his bright blue and red head poke through some buck brush 50 yards away. He quickly scampered over the ridge, protected by several large oaks, and then pursued the hen into the thick undergrowth. Squinting, I could follow their secretive movements as they traveled westward away from me. I attempted to call him back, tried desperately several times, but to no avail. He'd found what he was looking for, and they'd disappeared as quickly as they'd appeared. I spent the rest of the day wandering, calling, and hunting hard. I never saw another turkey, but did find my first deer shed.

My second day I hunted some County land south of our property where I knew several birds where roosting. Problem was, today they ended up roosting just out of reach on private land. I tried for nearly two hours, but couldn't pull the three hot tom's over to me. Although they were interested, pacing the ditch back and forth and responding to nearly every call I made, I couldn't get them to cross. Strike two. Before returning to the cabin for a mid-morning break, I surprised a hen which flew off her nest. Never seeing turkey eggs before, I quickly snapped several shots of them in their leaf-lined nest, then high-tailed it out of there so she would return and continue incubating them. I spent the rest of the day hunting and came across several hens, but no gobblers.

I awoke on day three at 3:45 AM and lay in bed trying to make sense out of the rhythmic beating outside my window. Two long days hunting coupled with long evenings relaxing and planning made for a fuzzy start to my day. I lumbered out of the room to the large kitchen window, slid it open and stared blankly at the soaking sheets of rain. Hmmm, the weatherman had forewarned there would be precipitation, but it was supposed to have occurred overnight and dissipated by morning. (Of course, by most people's clocks, this was still "overnight".) I turned back to the room to dress. Rain, not even a soaking rain, would keep me out of the woods. I enjoy being outside hunting in the rain. I embrace walking secretly among the soaking understory, my steps and movements obscured by the muffling effect of the rain. It creates an ideal environment to move silently and undetected. After all, wildlife still needs to feed and I still need to hunt. What a perfect combination!

Having left the nearby ridge alone yesterday, I decided to sneak back in today and give it one last try. This time I'd stay at the very west end of the ridge, within 75 yards of their roost, where it widened and flattened out, and where a rotting and mossy old stump stubbornly protruded just begging for an eager turkey hunter to keep vigil. More than once I questioned my sanity as I made my way down the road and through the dark woods in the heavy downpour. Immediately upon reaching the stump, I laid my gun down and belly crawled across the grassy ridge and placed one Feather-Flex hen decoy 15 yards away. I crawled back, popped my Mountain Screamer split double reed mouth call in, and relaxed. It was 4:30 and still extremely dark as the front moved through. Contented and warm, I enjoyed the damp morning, optimistically awaiting my moment of truth, which by some circumstance I felt was imminent today. This wasn't an uncommon feeling; I'd experienced it before when bowhunting for deer; an intuition and subtly overwhelming sensation that today would be my day, my time, when everything would come together and I'd take an animal. I mulled this over while I waited for the rain to slow.

Detecting a change in the rain's momentum, I adjusted my position and straightened my back against the soggy stump. Drops of rain fell more slowly and gently as the sky lightened. It was now 5:30 AM. A beginning "mouth-caller", I cautioned myself repeatedly as I readied my mouth call for a soft yelp. I released a whisper-soft call; just enough to drift down the ridge past an unsuspecting Tom just waking up. Almost instantly, I watched a turkey fly down just 75 yards east of me and to the north side of the ridge. The rain had stopped altogether now, with just big drips smacking the ground around me. I cautiously released another series of very soft yelps. Just over a small rise at the top of the ridge, I saw movement. Seconds later a bluish-purple head emerged from among the budding brush, cocked slightly backwards as if questioning who was there. With jerking head movements, he moved nervously out into the open ridge top, where I was able to glimpse him fully. He had a nice eight to 10-inch beard, and his head was flaring up into a beautiful and excited bright red color. He circled, and stood staring at me decoy just 40 yards away. A few more steps closer was enough for me, I reasoned, as he paused and I pulled the trigger on my Winchester 12-gauge. Wham! He went down hard and solid, without so much as a flap of his wings. I sprang up in celebration and let out an early morning victory "whoop" as I ran over and knelt beside my bird in the wet grass. My 6-shot had taken him down quickly at 34 yards. It was just 5:45 AM!

The sun cracked through the gray sky and began to filter down as I lifted him up and gazed at him in wonder and awe. I'd taken my first Eastern turkey, my second bird this spring, and I couldn't have been prouder! I'd scouted, setup and called him in on my own. He weighed 18 pounds, sported a nice 9" beard and wore a nice pair of 1" spurs. He's now ready for the turkey fryer and I intend to share him with friends and family this summer!
© May 2003