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Bill Marchel: When hunting turkeys, persistence pays

The 2021 Minnesota turkey hunting season begins April 14, and is divided into six hunt periods. Check the regulations for dates and other options.

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Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, bagged this beautiful tom turkey during the 2020 Minnesota turkey season. He and the author played cat-and-mouse with the gobbler for more than an hour. Photo by Bill Marchel
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PINE RIVER — “Only ruffed grouse and sandhill cranes arise this early,” I said to Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, as we stood quietly in the pre-dawn along a field edge. “Oh, and turkey hunters,” I added.

Near and far, sandhill cranes shattered the stillness as they bellowed their prehistoric-like calls. Closeby, a male ruffed grouse drummed away, hoping, we imagined, a female grouse would find his thump, thump, thump, to her liking.

Then we heard a turkey gobble. Silence, and then another gobble. Minutes later several toms were gobbling, though it was difficult to discern how many.

This was on May 4, 2020.

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A strutting tom turkey is a sight to behold. Add his gobbling to the mix and you have the makings of a turkey hunters dream. Photo by Bill Marchel

That was our third trip to that location, so we knew where the toms were. They roosted in a stand of red and white pines. Problem was, their roosting site was on private land we didn’t have permission to hunt.

Two days prior we had decided to hunker down right where we now stood, hoping at least one of the toms would respond to my calling. No luck. Several times the gobbling got louder, then the tom or toms would drift off. That’s usually a sign they are with hens, and thus reluctant to leave them.

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Now, as the gobbling increased, Rolf and I had to make a decision. Should we stay put, like we had the previous morning? Or should we change our tactic.

“Maybe we should walk down the field edge and hide next to that old farm combine?” I said.

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Happiness to a turkey hunter is spotting fresh turkey tracks while scouting or during a hunt. Photo by Bill Marchel

Some years earlier the landowner had parked a dilapidated combine along the edge of the field. Maybe that’s the spot where the beast finally picked its last row of corn. Brush and tall grasses had taken over the ancient machine, so it would make a great ambush for two turkey hunters.

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When we reached the combine, we could still hear toms gobbling, but they were a distance away on private land. It was cold that morning, and frost covered the ground. I decided to climb to the roof of the farm machine, all the better to hear gobbling.

Bad move. The roof was frost-covered, so when I reached the top and went to stand, my feet went out from under me. Down I went. I bounced off the top edge of the roof, then, further down, off the top of a big, tall tire. Miraculously, I landed on my feet, little worse for wear except a sore rear end. I couldn’t orchestrate such a fall and landing in a million tries.

Rolf and I took positions under the combine about 10 feet apart, facing the direction we assumed an amorous tom might approach. I went through my repertoire of calls — yelps, clucks, purrs, cuts — each meant to simulate a hen turkey looking for company.

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Now and then a tom or toms would gobble in the direction of the private land, but never seemed to get any closer. We were getting discouraged.

Then I thought I heard a tom spit and drum. Spitting and drumming is a soft sound compared to gobbling. A tom turkey strutting will often spit and drum, and as they do, they take a few quick steps forward. The spit-and-drum is a subtle sound not nearly as loud as a gobble, and is often described as “chhhkkkk” then “whoouump.”

So, there we sat, backs to the combine, while a tom was spitting and drumming directly behind us, likely in shotgun range. Eventually the tom walked out into the field far enough to our left so we could see him, but the big bird was out of shotgun range.

Gradually he moved off, and finally went out of sight over a hill. I continued to call now and then, but all was quiet.

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Some time passed, maybe a half an hour, when I decided to crawl over to Rolf and make a new plan. I took one last look around and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A big tom was walking in our direction down the edge of the field right in front of us.

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Rolf saw it, too. He aimed and pulled the trigger. It was Rolf’s first wild turkey.

And what a bird it was. Rolf’s tom featured some unique colors, different from the norm. The big bird was a heart-stopping feathered kaleidoscope of color. The end to a near-perfect morning.

The 2021 Minnesota turkey hunting season begins April 14, and is divided into six hunt periods. Check the regulations for dates and other options.

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BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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