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Turkey & Turkey Hunting’s Retro Minute: The Beginning

Editor’s note: In this new blog, T&TH Retro Minute, Editor Brian Lovett looks back on memorable moments in his turkey hunting journey. The first entry, of course, covers his initial hunt more than 21 years ago.

If turkey hunting is a journey, I started at mile marker No. 1.

My home state, Wisconsin, didn’t have turkeys when I was growing up. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true. Some holdover birds remained from a failed 1960s introduction attempt in central Wisconsin’s jack-pine country. My father used to take us duck, grouse and woodcock hunting in that area, and once, we saw a group of those Allegheny-strain birds crossing the road. To a kid from Wisconsin, that was like seeing a dinosaur.

In the late 1970s, some forward-thinking biologists at Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources decided to trade some ruffed grouse, which the state had in abundance, to Missouri for a few turkeys. The turkeys were then transplanted in the Bad Axe River watershed in the southwestern corner of the state, and more than 30 years and several hundred thousand turkeys later, the rest is history.

As turkeys took off in Wisconsin, turkey hunting soon followed. Trouble was, 99 out of 100 state hunters had no idea how to hunt the big birds. Deer? You bet. Waterfowl? Sure. Grouse and pheasants? Absolutely. But turkeys? Unless they had grown up in the South or had money to hunt exotic locales, Wisconsin hunters hadn’t a clue. And trust me, friends, I was at the top of that clueless list.

After reading and hearing about this new type of hunting for almost a decade, my dad and I decided to give it a whirl one spring. He had a friend with several hundred acres of prime turkey ground just off the Mississippi River in Crawford County, and spending a May weekend in Coulee Country seemed like a great idea.

Of course, we figured we should probably learn something about turkey hunting first. So, Dad bought a few Quaker Boy mouth calls and an audiocassette of a live hunt from legendary world champion Ben Rodgers Lee. I listened to the tape again and again, never really sure what I was hearing, but realizing Lee sounded like a turkey and called a lot. And at the end of the tape, a gunshot punctuated the hunt, so whatever Lee was doing must have worked.

Then, it was time to master the mouth call. The instructions on the package said to place the call tab-down in my mouth and then mouth the words “thee-ock” while forcing air across my tongue. Simple enough. After a few weeks of “thee-ocking” around my apartment, I sounded like … well, I sounded like a guy screeching “thee-ock.” Actually, it was probably a fair representation of the death cry of a vampire bat.

As the big day neared, Dad and I broke out the secret weapon: a hen decoy! Being an avid duck hunter, I knew a love-struck gobbler would likely come to a faux hen just like bluebills to a string of black-and-white fakes. Sure, the hard-plastic full-body decoy was a bit cumbersome, and yes, I had to duct-tape a wooden stake to it, and OK, it made a lot of noise scraping against the brush, but it would doubtless be the element that sealed the deal on Mr. Tom.

Finally, the turkey weekend arrived. Dad and I drove to Prairie du Chien, Wis., got a motel and bought our licenses. The next morning, we were on the road early and in the woods before light. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I know no turkeys gobbled nearby despite my best “thee-ocking.” On the way out, however, we flushed a hen from a grassy fence line and watched in stunned silence as it floated away. It was the closest turkey I’d ever seen. There was hope.

The next morning progressed much like the first, with one exception. At about 9 a.m., as I dozed and daydreamed deep in a wooded coulee, something responded to my “thee-ocking.”

“Was that … ?” I thought.

The noise again echoed through the timber, and that time, there was no doubt. It was a turkey gobbling.

Now what?

Not knowing any better, I “thee-ocked” a few times. The turkey — which apparently also didn’t know any better — responded. Holy smokes, I’d really gotten into a mess. An actual live turkey was responding to my “calling” and would probably be looking for me soon. I had no idea what to do, and moreover, I was scared out of my wits.

In hindsight, the hunt played out the only way it could. I “thee-ocked,” the gobbler responded and moved to within 100 yards and then eventually faded away. I never saw him and was actually quite relieved when the encounter was finished. Of course, any competent turkey hunter would have killed that bird within 15 minutes. He was pepper-hot and closed 200 yards in a heartbeat. No doubt, he didn’t see the source of the hen talk and slinked away. Through the years, I’ve thought back often to that turkey and kicked myself for my ignorance. It would be three years before I finally learned enough to kill my first gobbler — and even that hunt involved lots of luck.

That initial hunt now seems hilarious, but it got me started on the turkey hunter’s path. Somewhere in that deep coulee, turkey hunting got under my skin and took hold. As my friend and esteemed turkey hunting writer Dr. Jim Casada says, I “lost a corner of my soul to the wild turkey.” I’ve never given it back.

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