It seemed every kind of bird in the world was around me except the kind I was looking for.
When it was still dark, it was whip-poor-wills and barred owls. As dawn approached a ruffed grouse starting drumming. Not far away sandhill cranes were making their prehistoric calls. Chickadees, red-winged blackbirds and robins, crows and ravens, a drake mallard and countless little birds, warblers I think, all were singing for the new day.
Yet there wasn’t a peep from the wild turkey I was after. Not the clucks or yelps of a hen. And definitely not the gobble of the tom I was hoping for.
But after not being in the woods much in recent months, or even far away from the house for that matter, this heavy dose of nature was a balm for what ailed me. It was exactly what the doctor ordered for my case of not-going-anywhere-very far-soon coronavirus lockdown blues.
This was my first Wisconsin turkey hunt. I have tried for years to snag a second or third season hunt in Douglas County in April or early May, considered the prime times for hunting. But non-residents generally get only what Wisconsin turkey tags that residents don’t want, and I never got an early one. This year I applied for anything I could get.
My name was drawn as hoped, but when the yellow postcard came in the mail from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, it informed me I could only hunt the dreaded very last seven-day session of the season — Time Period F. Not only did it fall over Memorial Day Weekend, when I’m usually fishing in Canada, but by the sixth week of hunting season most of the dumb turkeys are dead.
Moreover, it’s warm, the woods are thickening up with greenery, making it hard to see far. And the ticks and mosquitoes have hatched. There were so many deer ticks and wood ticks in some grassy areas last week that it creeped me out.
But I got help from a local woodsman who lives out in this scruffy, sandy country of red pine plantations and scrub oak, Darrell Anderson, a veteran of many successful Douglas County turkey hunts. He knew exactly where I should try, a place on timber company land open to the public where there might still be a willing tom around, even in the very last days of the season.
And he was right.
I had been sitting nearly motionless against a red pine since 4:45 a.m. and by 7 my troublesome back was telling me to stand up and stretch. I needed to get rid of some coffee. I was ready to try someplace new. No use staying here, I figured, what with no turkeys around.
I made one last series of obnoxiously loud hen calls, took off my facemask, put my calls in their cases and was about to get up when I heard a faint gobble to the north.
Well, now we’re back in business, I said quietly aloud, only to the red squirrel chattering a few feet away. Right there and then, that may have been the biggest smile on my face since February.
The facemask came back on. I rested the shotgun on my left knee and settled in for what sometimes can be a long game of back-and-forth.
I answered the tom with a few hen yelps. He called back. I played hard to get, and by the next time he gobbled I could tell that he had cut the distance between us in half. I answered quietly, facing away from him, hoping to sound like the love of his life was walking away from him.
He gobbled again, still out of view but this time so loud I could feel the rumble from his bellowing. Then I heard the spit and drum noise of air filling up his chest as he strutted, and I knew it was game on.
There really is nothing as magical in the outdoor world as the minutes between first vocal contact with a tom turkey and the time he appears in view. Coaxing call-shy mallards into the decoys is way up there. Maybe calling a bugling bull elk into range, but I haven’t done that yet. It’s a two-way communication between species, one fooling the other. In the case of turkeys, fooling them well enough to reverse nature. In nature, the hen goes to the gobbing tom. In hunting, you have to get the tom to come to what he thinks is a hen.
He gobbled one last time, so close the ground seemed to shake, then appeared from behind a thick balsam tree, in full strut, walking toward my decoys, straight down an old logging road, 30 yards away from me. But he wasn’t alone. A second mature tom — with an equally long beard and red,white and blue head — was just a few feet behind the first.
I wasn’t going to wait, though, to see which one was bigger. I was in perfect position. A quick “kee-kee’’ on the mouth call and the front tom broke strut and slightly raised his head. Then it was over.
I gave my usual triumphant owl hoot and the other tom, moving quickly away, gave one last gobble in retreat. It was 7:15 a.m. All of this had taken less than 15 minutes.
So thanks a bunch, Darrell. After two months of a bad case of coronavirus lockdown blues, it was exactly the 15 minutes I needed.
And I guess hunting the last days of the season isn't so bad after all.