Below is the story of our annual Southeastern Minnesota Hunt, this past weekend. MN C season. As usual, the weather was "interesting", but we had a good time . Also, as usual, the story is fairly long, so you've been warned. But really, short hunting stories are no fun anyways
Back from a windy, wet, three day hunt in southeastern Minnesota. We’ve been making this trip for four years now and it’s always a good time. Bird numbers were good, we ran into gobbling birds every day despite the weather.
I left Minneapolis a little after noon on the two hour drive down to southeastern Minnesota. I would be joined on this trip by the usual crew, my friends Jack from Rapid City, SD; and Matt from Detroit Lakes, MN. We would be hunting the 3rd Minnesota season, which began on Saturday, and ran through the following Wednesday. I had planned to get down there mid afternoon and do a little trout fishing before meeting up with Jack to try and roost some birds for Saturday mornings hunt. The forecast was calling for a decent day on Saturday, switching over to heavy rains on Sunday and Monday with high sustained winds throughout the weekend. Our plan was to make the most of the better weather on Saturday, as it looked like most of Sunday and Monday would be spent in a blind trying to stay relatively dry.
I checked into the hotel and was out on a local stream by a little after 3:00. Fishing was decent, I managed to land a half dozen or so browns in a couple hours before I headed out around 5:00 to scout for birds out in fields. I met up with Jack at the hotel and we headed out to one of the farms we had permission to hunt to hopefully roost some birds for the next morning. Matt arrived in town just in time to roost birds that evening and he went off to check another property we have hunted for several years now. We located a single gobbler roosted back in a draw that birds have used in the past, and he was close enough to the property line that we thought we had a reasonable shot of pulling him over in the morning. Matt also heard a couple of birds gobbling on the property he scouted, so we went to bed that evening with a plan in place for Saturday morning. Jack and I would head back to the farm, while Matt would go after the birds he had roosted.
We are all up at 4:15 and soon out the door on the way to our respective properties. Jack and I arrived at our farm a little after 5:00, grabbed our gear and headed to a small pasture in the back of a valley just below where we had roosted the bird the night before. We sit down against a couple of trees on the edge of the pasture, figuring we are 150-200 yards from our bird. We don’t have to wait long before he gobbles, about where we thought he should be on the ridge above the pasture. A few more birds join in and before long there are 5 or 6 gobblers going off within earshot. After quite a bit of gobbling on the roost a hen starts yapping in response to our calling. She is not that far from where we are sitting and between us we really get the gobblers going. Come flydown time most of the birds move on up the valley, but the gobbler we had set up on stays close on the ridge side. At one point it sounded like he was heading down to us but he eventually wandered off to the top of the ridge. After an hour we started walking and calling around the farm. By now the wind had picked up considerably and would remain in the 20-30mph range for the rest of the trip. After a couple hours with only a few distant gobbles in response we headed into town to meet Matt for an early lunch.
Matt had also had an eventful morning; working a couple of birds off the roost and striking another later in the morning, but like us had failed to score. After lunch Jack and I decided to head back to our farm and work the ridge top the gobbler from that morning had wandered off too. Matt decided to head back to where he had been that morning as well. We were purposefully trying to split up and cover ground as we figured a lot of the next two days would be spent crammed in a blind due to the rain. Jack and I took the ridge-top road to the back side of the farm and came in on the end of the ridge where our bird had been that morning. Sure enough, after a short walk in we got an answering gobble to our first set of calls from further down the ridge. We moved along the ridgetop yelping as we went and the bird gobbled back enthusiastically each time. We stopped at the first decent set up location to see if he would close the distance on his own. After a few minutes we moved up to a small meadow on the top of the ridge and resumed calling from there. By now the bird was about 100 yards away and seemed reluctant to come much closer. At this point I really started getting on him with excited cutting and yelping, which finally got him to break and come toward us. He cut the distance in half in about 30 seconds and gobbled just over a rise right in front of me. I cutt one final time and got my gun up, waiting for him to show himself.
At his next gobble he had drifted off to my right a bit, and began to circle us below the crest of the ridge. He walked back and forth gobbling from below the crest at us for about 15 minutes before we tried to make a move on him. Apparently he busted us during the move as he snuck off and went silent. Jack and I had been sitting about 30 yards apart when the bird first approached and Jack said he had seen the bird enter the meadow around 60 yards away. He said the bird had started walking towards me but had changed course and gone below the crest after I cutt at him that last time. I couldn’t see him from where I was seated because of some brambles in the way. If I had known he was that close and already headed in my direction I would have probably kept silent. Oh well, it had been close. We walked the rest of the ridge without striking another bird and made it back to the truck with time to hit one more spot before dinner.
We headed over to a nearby piece of public land where we have found birds in the past to run and gun for a couple hours before heading into town. We pulled our gear out of the truck and started walking down the old logging road, stopping to call every couple of hundred yards. After about an hour we were in a spot where the road was cut into the side of the ridge, with an open view to the left and below and a steep bank above the road and to the right. We stopped and I ran out a short series of yelps. A bird immediately gobbled directly above us on the other side of the steep bank. It was one of those unexpected alarmingly close gobbles that seem to immediately drive all sense of thought and reason out of your brain. Jack and I scrambled to sit down at one of the trees that lined the left hand side of the trail, making a good bit of noise in the process. As soon as we were situated I clucked a couple times and the bird gobbled back immediately from the same place. He gobbled another 6 or 7 times over the next few minutes to calling and leaf scratching, but didn’t move any closer to our position. All of a sudden he gobbled a considerable distance away back up the hillside, and his next gobble was even further away. We never heard from him again after that. I don’t know if we had spooked him just enough by our mad scramble to sit down, or being that it was early evening he already had a destination in mind and was not willing to come the 20 yards in the wrong direction.
We walked the rest of the area without striking another bird and headed into town for breakfast. By now it was clouding up and the rain was supposed to start later that evening. We met up with Matt and he had a similar experience to ours, striking a couple of birds but none that he was able to work. Over dinner we decided on our plan for the morning. As it was supposed to be windy and raining we would all pack into a blind on the grassy point of a finger ridge just across the small valley from where Jack and I had come close to tagging the bird today. Birds have used this grassy area heavily in the past, and it had sounded like two of the birds from the morning were gobbling from that general vicinity. After dinner we headed back to the hotel to watch the Wild game and enjoy a couple of after hunt libations. Around 8:00 the rain began…
It was raining steadily when we got up at 4:15, and the wind was gusting up to 25mph out of the east. The three of us piled into the truck and took the ridge top road to the back side of the farm. After a short walk we got the blind and a couple decoys set up on the grassy point. We soon figured out that we were going to have to stake the blind down, as the wind was really whipping even though we were somewhat sheltered from it by the slope of the ridge. As the sky started to brighten we began calling every 5 to 10 minutes or so. It was difficult to hear with the wind and rain pattering on the roof of the blind, but we didn’t hear any gobbles. Around 7:00 the rain began to let up, and it stopped completely shortly thereafter. It looked like we would have a couple hour break, although the wind was still whipping.
Shortly after the rain stopped we heard a gobble in response to our calling from the opposite ridge, in the same general location where we had struck the bird yesterday. He gobbled fairly regularly to our calls, and really started to get worked up as he came closer along the opposite ridge. He ended up walking right through the clearing where we had almost taken the bird the day before. He eventually worked his way down the ridge and was walking back and forth gobbling directly across the valley from our blind, maybe 200 yards away. He probably gobbled 30 times in the next 15 minutes but wouldn’t cross the valley to come to us. Matt and I tried to make a move around to the ridge top field above him, which was going well until some deer in the field winded us and went tearing down the hillside right past our gobbler. That shut him up and we didn’t hear from him again. This was most likely the same bird from the previous afternoon, and if we had set the blind in the meadow we had called him to yesterday instead of the grassy point, we probably would have carried him out that morning. Oh well, another close call. The rain started up again around 9:00 so we packed up and headed into town for breakfast.
Breakfast is good. Omelets, hash browns and pancakes are a great excuse to get out of the rain for a bit. As we dry out we come up with a plan to head back to the farm and set the blind up in one of the back valleys between the finger ridges. We figure the birds will be hunkered down in these to try and stay out of the wind. It was still raining, but undaunted we jumped in the truck and headed back to the farm. We walked in and got set up without incident. Around 11:00 the rain really starts to come down, and a few rumbles of thunder join in. We spend an uneventful couple of hours in the blind, calling every so often, but without any sign of birds. About 1:00 the rain starts to let up and finally stops. A quick check of the radar map (what did we do before smartphones?), and it looks like we should have a couple hour break before the next system moves in. Now, there isn’t much our hunting crew dislikes more than sitting around in a blind, and two hours is really pushing the limits of our patience, so we decide to split up and cover some ground during the predicted lull in the rain. Matt will stay in the blind, I will work the ridge and accompanying valley to the northeast, and Jack will do the same on the ridge to the south.
We all wish each other luck, and set off in our chosen directions (well except for Matt, who hunkers down in the blind, probably for a nice nap). I follow a logging trail north to the edge of the property line, then turn west and begin climbing the ridge. Like most ridges in southeaster Minnesota, it’s tall (probably ~400ft above the valley floor) and steep (most of it seems to be at a 45⁰ angle). Add all the recent rain and it’s a muddy slippery climb. It takes me about 20 minutes to reach the crest, out of breathe, and I decide to sit and call a bit in the grassy meadow on top. The place just looks like there should be birds there. The ridgetop is mostly oak savannah, with open strutting areas and a few scattered cedars for cover. I begin to hear some distant thunder rumbling away to the south and decide to start moving along the ridge top, calling as I go. After about an hour of slowly moving and calling I haven’t seen or heard anything and begin working my way back towards where I’d come. The thunder had been getting closer and closer during this time and it now began to rain. Slowly at first, but quickly picking up until a pretty vigorous shower is coming down. I see a flash and thunder cracks close enough to convince me that maybe I shouldn’t be walking along this fairly exposed ridgetop carrying a 4ft piece of metal. I head down the opposite side of the ridge that I climbed up, planning on working the valley back down towards the blind. It’s more of a controlled slide than a climb down the side of the ridge, and I silp and slide in the mud on a couple occasions as the rain and thunder both start to pick up in intensity. I even think I see a little sleet mixed in. It’s a small storm cell however, and moving quickly so the rain has almost stopped by the time I reach the valley floor a few minutes later.
I start slowly working my way down the valley, stopping to call every couple of minutes, but it isn’t long before I can hear thunder rumbling ominously to the south again. The thunder continues to get closer as I work my way down, and it seems there is more of it than with the last cell. When I’m about halfway down the valley I hear a bird gobble in response to a rumble of thunder. He’s a couple hundred yards in front of me, near the mouth of the valley below. I yelp and he gobbles back immediately, so I start picking my way through the trees in his direction. He gobbles twice more to cracks of thunder and I sit down at the base of a good sized oak about 100 yards up the valley from him just as a light rain begins to fall. I yelp and he gobbles back. I cutt and yelp back at him excitedly and he cuts me off with a double gobble. He’s screened from me by a rise of land about 30 yards in front of me and I start trying to figure out which path he will take to get to my position. The rain has increased in intensity and there are claps of thunder every 10 seconds or so when he gobbles just on the other side of the rise. I get my cheek down on the stock and aim right at the gobble, flick the safety off and wait.
I’m expecting to see his head crest the rise at any moment, when it happens. A bright flash of light and an immediate crack of thunder directly overhead, it must have struck just above me on the ridgetop. I jump unconsciously at the sound, but before I have time to worry about movement a cascade of hail starts pouring down from the sky. We’re not talking small little “huh, isn’t that neat” hail either. This is big, angry, painful, quarter sized stuff. I’m getting pelted pretty badly and it actually hurts. I take one off a knuckle, off a finger, off an ear. Thankfully the bill of my hat keeps my face pretty well protected. The sound is deafening, I couldn’t hear a bird gobbling in my right ear 5 steps away. The rain and hail are so thick in the air I can’t see more than 20 yards. To make things worse the water pouring down the trunk of my tree has found its way between the jacket and pants of my raingear. The end result is much like what I’d imagine sticking a garden hose down the back of your pants and having someone turn on the spigot to feel like. Yet there I sit, the safety off, not moving a muscle, waiting for this bird that was seconds away from showing himself. The squall lasts for a couple minutes, and the entire time I’m wondering to myself what the heck is a bird going to do in this? Run for the hills? Climb back into his secret bunker? Hunker down where he is? I sit absolutely motionless, trying to convince myself he will still be there when the storm passes. Hoping he will still be there. Believing he will still be there. Willing him to still be there.
The hail stops just as quickly as it started, falling back into a moderate rain and suddenly I can hear again. A crack of thunder echoes down the valley and he gobbles, a little further off than I last heard him but still in the game. I yep and cut loudly over the sound of the wind and rain and he hammers back. One more time and he cuts me off. A few seconds later I see him picking his way through the trees in front of me, to the left of the small crest maybe 70 yards away. I watch him gobble but never hear it, the sound drowned out by a perfectly timed crack of thunder. The entire scene is surreal. He’s angling from left to right in front of me and passes behind the crest of land at 50 yards. He gobbles once in front of me and I put my cheek down on the stock and point my gun at the sound, thinking I already did this part, I know how this story ends. The rain slows to a drizzle. The woods are as silent now as they were full of sound a moment ago. I know the next time I see him he will be in range, I just don’t know where. I open my eyes as wide as I can and sweep them back and forth, straining to cover as large an arc as I can while remaining absolutely still, just waiting for a flicker of movement. One minute passes. Two minutes. Should I call? Three minutes. Should I scratch in the leaves? I fight the urges, keeping silent and motionless. On the very edge of my peripheral vision I catch a small movement 90⁰ to my right, and there he is: Twenty yards away and cautiously picking his way along the hillside. I need to get my gun on him and I need to do it quickly, in a few short seconds he will be beyond the arc I can swing to as a right handed shooter. There are a few small saplings between us, but otherwise no convenient obstacle to screen my movement. With no other choice I make my move as he passes behind one of the saplings.
As soon as I start to turn he putts, and I know the jig is up. I continue my swing and he quickly turns and sprints straight away uphill. If he had been 40 yards out he would have gotten away with it, but he was close. Too close for him, I center the bead on the base of his neck and fire. The bird crumples at 25 steps and I jump up and hurry over to him in case the shot wasn’t true, but it was. He wasn’t going anywhere. I kid you not, as I stood there next to him in the rain a small rent in the cloud opened and I looked up to a beam of sunlight shining down into that little hollow in the woods. It caught the raindrops and a small rainbow formed. In less than ten seconds the clouds shut it out again, and the light and rainbow disappeared so quickly it was like they were never there at all. I had killed the evil gobbler of thunder gulch and the woods were rejoicing. You cannot make this stuff up.
I tagged him and headed back to the blind where Matt was sitting. He had heard the gobbling and the shot. Soon we were joined by Jack, who had spent most of the afternoon sheltering under a cedar from the rain and hail. He had not heard any birds. It was 4:00 by now and a quick check of the radar showed another “break” in the rain until late evening. We decided to pack up and work a couple other properties before we ran out of daylight for the day. Swinging by the landowner’s house on the way out we had a nice chat with him for an hour then headed off to finish out the day. We split up again, Jack and I covering one property and Matt the other for the final 2 hours of the day. Neither group ran into any birds and we headed into town to grab some burgers and celebrate having a bird on the ground. The forecast for Monday was more of the same. High winds, heavy rains, and cold temps. We would be setting the blind in the meadow Jack and I had almost taken the bird Saturday afternoon, and where he had sat and gobbled from Sunday morning. See, we’re pretty smart cookies. He only had to show us twice where he really wanted to die…
Up again at 4:15, we’re in the ridgetop meadow and set up as the sky starts to lighten. The wind is really whipping and a moderate rain makes us glad to have the blind. A couple extra stakes for good measure to keep the blind in place and we all pile in. Right around flydown time a bird responds to our calls from down in the valley below the meadow. He gobbles 5 or 6 times in response, and things are starting to look a little promising. Soon after the rain really starts to pick up and he goes silent. Checking the radar it doesn’t look like it will be slowing down any time soon. We stick it out for a couple hours in case he decides to show, but end up packing up around 8:30 and heading into town for breakfast. Pancakes and hash browns sound awfully good sitting in that cold, wet blind. We end up talking shop for awhile with a couple other groups of hunters at the café, and despite the poor conditions each has managed to take a bird per group over the past couple days. After breakfast we head back to the hotel to pack up and check out. Matt was going to hang around and hunt another day, but Jack and I need to get home that afternoon, and Jack especially has a long drive in front of him. It ended up being a good thing he left when he did as he ran into high winds and drifting snow in western SD. We said our goodbyes and all headed our separate ways. Twenty minutes out of town I got a text from Matt saying he had seen a bunch of strutters in a field, got permission from the landowner and was going to give it a shot over the next couple days.
So, it was another great trip with good friends to southeastern Minnesota. We always seem to run into issues with the weather, but honestly it just wouldn’t be the same trip if that didn’t happen. It’s part of the mystique I guess. The people are friendly, the country is beautiful, and the birds are there.