By Tom Conroy
I'm sitting at the edge of dark woods, staring at a shadowy figure passing nearby -- slowly, cautiously, pausing every few steps. Suddenly it catches my scent, snorts, whirls around, and bounds away.
Deer can be curious creatures. Although human scent usually frightens them away, they sometimes sneak back for further investigation. If it is deer hunting time, that curiosity can be their undoing.
Wild turkeys, conversely, have little curiosity. The slightest movement or sound that seems the least bit out of place will immediately set off alarm bells; and, quick as a hiccup, they're gone.
Turkeys, however, can't smell. Consequently, I have no concern about how I might smell; my only concern is that I remain still and quiet. I'm on a turkey hunt, not a deer hunt.
Time passes slowly as I sit here, a tree for a backrest, a thin foam cushion my seat, waiting for the legal shooting time of one-half hour before sunrise. At long last the eastern sky takes on a muted glow and a lone robin greets the dawn. In short order a glee club of phoebes, thrushes, and other birds chime in.
Cheery woodland birds seem to signal the rest of the countryside to awaken. In the distance a tractor sputters to life. From somewhere in the pasture below, a cow bellows; and across the ravine, a dog begins to bark. I swallow the last drops of coffee, adjust my position, place the shotgun across my legs, and pull a mask down over my face. The time has come.
For me, this is therapy, a chance to escape the clamor and clutter of everyday life. The hunt could last as long as five days, or it could be over within minutes. I've come here with hopes of shooting a gobbler, but whether that happens or not is irrelevant.
The Department of Natural Resources administers this spring turkey hunt through its wild turkey permit lottery system. In February 2005 our group of four old childhood chums learned that we had been selected for a five-day season in early May in Nicollet County.
Our hunting area is a patchwork of steep ravines, wooded lots, and farm fields. It abuts Seven Mile Creek County Park, where eastern wild turkeys were successfully reintroduced into south-central Minnesota in 1985. When wildlife biologists released the birds (trapped in New York and exchanged for Minnesota gray partridge) in the park, they weren't sure if wild turkeys could survive in a farmland-dominated landscape, beyond the forests of southeastern Minnesota, where turkeys had already been successfully reintroduced a decade earlier (see Wild Turkeys sidebar, page 25). But the turkeys flourished in the park and the agricultural lands. Progeny of those original birds have since spread up and down the Minnesota River valley and beyond.
As the trap and transplant program has continued, the wild turkey now thrives in more than half of Minnesota, from the southeastern blufflands to the sunflower and sugar beet counties in the northwest.
On day one of therapy, three of us gather next to a grain bin out back of the farm. There's a bite to the predawn air as we chew the fat, along with donuts, and discuss strategy. At 4:45 a.m. we prepare to head out.
As we're parting ways, I casually mention that a cougar had reportedly been seen in this area not long ago. Someone mutters an expletive at this unwelcome bit of news, while I chuckle to myself at the absurdity of encountering a cougar around here. Then I turn on my headlamp and walk off.
Walking alone into a country night -- no streetlights, traffic, sidewalks, houses -- incites the senses. You enter a mysterious world of inky shadows and curious sounds. That this landscape was long ago tamed by agriculture matters not. Alone in the dark, this is an uncharted wilderness. You quickly feel incredibly alive.
The field road I'm following has turned to muck after three days of rain. My boots soon put on 10 pounds, and I grow 4 inches. Not much farther to go, however. I round a bend, swivel the headlamp toward the woods -- and stop dead in my muddy tracks. Two glowing eyes rivet on me.
For a long, uneasy moment, our eyes lock and nothing moves, except my trigger finger. I scold myself for even thinking the word cougar. Finally, I realize the eyes are round and whitish, not elliptical and yellow. I resume my walk, and the raccoon waddles away.
By a half-hour before sunrise, legal shooting time, shadows in the woods where I sit are rapidly morphing into distinguishable figures. Amid the refrain of chirping birds, barking dogs, bellowing cows, and coughing tractors, my ears strain for a singular sound -- the gobble of a wild turkey.
Gobblers are most vocal early on spring days, as they strive mightily to entice hens to their harem. And, it's widely believed, they are especially active on sunny mornings following inclement weather. Conditions are perfect this morning.
An hour passes, and I have yet to hear or see a turkey. Prime time is wasting away. And then -- a distinct gobble. Five minutes later two more toms sound off. All three are a considerable distance away, but an aroused gobbler will travel in search of a willing hen. Sometimes they embark on miles-long pilgrimages. My hopes rise once again.
Along with superior hearing and eyesight and an extreme wariness, a gobbler has an astonishing ability to remain concealed as it moves about. The turkey hunter, in turn, wears camouflage clothing, sits still as a stump, sets out decoys, and uses various calls to imitate the sounds of a lonesome hen. Now and then, one of the toms gobbles in response to my calls. One bird, in fact, seems to be moving in my direction. My adrenaline kicks in.
The therapy is working. My mind is entirely concentrated on the approaching gobbler with not a thought given to the utility bill, leaky pipe, or price of gas. Every fear and worry has vanished.
Eventually the gobbling stops, but I'm still hopeful -- in the past, silent gobblers have snuck in and caught me off guard.
At 7:50 a.m., it happens. A large gobbler and two hens appear in the field and move slowly in my direction as they feed. My pulse quickens as I try to will them closer. I offer an occasional hen yelp or cluck to beckon the big tom to look at my decoys.
Alas, the birds have no interest in my pleading calls or the decoys, and they disappear over a knoll. When I'm reasonably certain they are not going to return, I stand, stretch, breathe deeply, and reach into my pack for a sandwich and can of pop.
This scenario will play out time and again over the next few days -- moments of pulse-pounding excitement bracketed by much longer periods of quiet and reflection. A few short naps thrown in for good measure. Therapy.
Throughout the morning the clatter of commerce escalates -- cars, trucks, tractors, ATVs, an occasional airplane. Folks being busy, productive. Me, I'm free to watch and wonder in that childlike way that tends to disappear as life becomes evermore impatiently ambitious.
A sudden gust of wind rushes by. I wonder what caused it. Where did it begin, where will it end? What, exactly, is wind? I pick up a stick and begin digging in the dirt, searching for nothing. And everything. Digging to see what there is to see in the dirt.
When I tire of digging, my attention shifts to the maple leaves scattered about. I gather several in my hands and study them. Out here, it's OK to do these things. It's OK to smile at the warblers and thrushes passing through, adding color and music. It's OK to kneel down and smell the wildflowers poking their heads up from their cold winter beds.
The 19th century American poet Walt Whitman said it's more than OK. In his journal on a fine spring morning much like this one, Whitman wrote: "After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on -- have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear -- what remains? Nature remains."
It's the last day of our season. One of our group managed to outwit a nice gobbler on the second day. The rest of us have had only close encounters. Yet, on this morning, I'm optimistic. I've thoroughly studied the habits of the big tom turkey that has been toying with me over the past few days. He flies down from his nighttime tree perch at sun-up to a patch of woods between a steep ravine and a plowed field. He remains among the trees for a while, gobbling robustly, before strutting out to the field to feed, usually with one or two hens. Today I am waiting.
At high noon I decide it's time. Time to surrender. I stand and give a respectful salute. "You win," I concede. On this final morning, the cagey rascal completely changed his routine.
On the hike back to the farm, the warm spring sun on my face, I'm feeling drained, physically and mentally.
It feels wonderful.
Information about turkey management and hunting seasons and permits in Minnesota.
Once upon a time, wild turkeys roamed the forested blufflands of southeastern Minnesota. But by the late 1800s, the last wild turkey had vanished from the state, a victim of uncontrolled hunting and loss of wooded habitat. In the mid-20th century, the DNR made several attempts to re-establish wild turkey flocks in Minnesota. None were successful, least of all attempts using pen-raised birds that didn't have what it takes to survive in the wild. But then in 1971, the DNR obtained 29 wild-trapped eastern birds from Missouri in exchange for ruffed grouse and released them into southeastern Minnesota. In just one decade, the wild turkey population in Minnesota grew to about 5,600 birds. The first modern-day turkey hunt in Minnesota opened in 1978, when just 420 Minnesotans drew permits in the lottery. In 2007 the DNR issued 34,000 spring turkey permits, and Minnesota's wild turkey population is now estimated at more than 60,000.
Tom Conroy is the DNR information officer for the DNR Southern Region.