My initiation into turkey hunting was like that of so many other first time hunters, a disappointment. Though I was not legally able to drive a car to get to all the areas I’d seen turkeys while out and about, we had birds up the hill on our farm that we’d see occasionally during the previous few deer seasons. In those days, turkeys were a wonderment. Having not grown up seeing birds and recognizing them as a usual member of the local wildlife, it was fun just to sit and watch them work through the woods and pick out in the fields. It should come as no surprise then that I had absolutely no idea how to hunt for them.
Walking around as we did to hunt squirrels, likely too fast and aggressive, led to sign spotted but no birds. Holding tight and sitting on stand for them led to numbers of birds heard, but none seen. Calling became even more frustrating, with birds initially answering from afar then shutting up as my less-than-hen-like repertoire was too frequent and probably too loud. For the better part of 3 seasons, nothing I tried worked, and even when it seemed like I was near turkeys, I never came close to clicking off the safety. Then one day, three years later when hunting with my cousin Todd and his friend Mark, we struck turkey-hunting gold.
From the precipice of a sun-lit hillside, we took a seat as both spectators and actors in the greatest show on earth. As cardinals boomed and the countryside awoke, a bevy of toms gobbled for over an hour before flying down to the bottom corner of a pasture so green it almost glowed. They fed with hens not 200 yards downhill, occasionally visible but always audible. Eventually, one tom broke loose from the group, strutting zig-zags in the dewy pasture grass, all the way up the hill to our position. The cheap slate call I used was a poor instrument, and when played by myself sounded even worse, but for some reason this turkey couldn’t get enough. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew enough to understand that he was liking it, whatever “it” was. The last 50 yards of that bird’s approach, I felt more nervous excitement and anticipation than I think I’d ever be able to handle again. We left the field that day, heads held high, a bird slung low over the shoulder, with still no idea what in the hell we were doing.
The days before that one were full of good lessons, but I didn’t know enough at that point to understand what they were teaching me. More importantly, I had no tutor to show me any different. That’s when I met a turkey hunter that had guided in Illinois and throughout the Black Hills of South Dakota for nearly two decades, and he was gracious enough to take me out on a hunt. One turned into several, and in a few short years, I’d amassed what felt like a lifetime’s worth of knowledge. The next 10 years marked the formal beginning of my turkey hunting education, and something that has turned into one of the truest passions I’ve ever had.
The term guru is a label easily handed out or self-assigned, but I’ve been lucky enough to hunt with some that actually are. All of them have left indelible imprints on my turkey hunting identity, and their knowledge is something I do my best to channel in articles and online. That said, for me, it all started as one-on-one interaction with someone who had seen more than a few birds hit the dirt. From there, the tips, tricks, ideas, and theories were items I tested year in and year out in the turkey woods. I spent more time than most out hunting and learning what those turkeys could teach me, and every year I have to relearn many of the same lessons of years past.
I’m indebted to those who have shared so much knowledge, so freely, such that I’m proud to pass along many of the true secrets I’ve learned to seminar crowds like the ones at this year’s Outdoor News Minnesota Deer and Turkey Classic. It’s the best chance I know of to tap so much knowledge all in one place. From well-known seminar speakers and vendors, to unassuming gurus walking the floor that you meet by happenstance, I was impressed last year with the sheer amount of outdoors experience that was so readily accessible. Go. Ask questions, and learn. It’s really that simple, and far more rewarding than I can attempt to describe.