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Dick Ellis Blog:
10/9/2019
Fall brings with it something for everyone in the field from the angler to the hunter.  Just a few recent sessions of shooting the bull tell me that autumn is for the youngest of outdoorsman just learning the games to those of us more seasoned with our eyes focused dead ahead on for example, the whitetail rut. James Wallace captured this great buck on trail camera during summer scouting. James Wallace, my nephew-in-law (is there such a ...
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Snow turkeys!

BY BILL THORNLEY

What is the sound of “soft?”

To me it is the sound of snow falling through the pines and hardwoods, gently tinkling as it hits the ground and covers the landscape in white.

The tinkling is the only sound you can hear if the wind is down. And if you watch, little by little the snow covers everything, every downed log, every pine branch, every leaf. And last week as I enjoyed the opening period of the Wisconsin spring turkey hunting season, it covered every decoy and added enough weight to my blind that I had to shake it several times to keep it from collapsing under the wet white weight.

And yet the sound was soothing, almost hypnotic. I knew it was April, but it felt so much like November on the deer stand.

I had been scouting the spot for some time and got permission to hunt there from the owners. I knew the deep pine woods held turkeys, it was just a matter of convincing a gobbler to get close enough, which is no easy task when he has a bunch of hens cooing around him, trying to convince him to go the other direction.

Opening morning of the hunt started out dry and very dark. I don’t care what anybody says, 4:30 a.m. is early, but I wanted to be in my blind well before the turkeys flew out of their roosting spots in the pines down the trail.

Didn’t work. As I was walking in I could hear several turkeys taking off already – they sound like elephants with wings.

So I settled in and hoped they would return. A hot cup of coffee from my thermos served as breakfast, and I was treated to the sound of several coyotes howling, yipping, and yapping as the greeted the new day.

The morning was waking up all around me. Mourning doves could be heard in several locations, and two owls called to each other as the pitch black transformed to dark grey. Geese and swans were everywhere, along with sandhill cranes and a barking red fox. A little later the first songbird chimed in, and I began to hear familiar peeps and chirps – the turkeys were working their way back through the area.

Soon the unmistakable gobble of a tom broke the quiet. Nearby a second tom joined in as I watched hens scurry here and there down the trail. It wasn’t long before the tom stepped out on the trail and fanned at a distance of about 75 yards. They had two choices: Come my direction, west, or go the opposite direction, east. They all went east!

Soon I could hear the sound of ice pellets, and later snow, hitting the blind. For a time it came down so hard I could hardly see across the trail. Besides, it was then going on about 9:30 a.m. and the morning seemed to be over. I thought if I wanted to get out of that trail I had better do it soon. The wet, slippery snow was piling up. Day one was over, and I had no turkey.

The second day looked like Christmas morning as thick snow covered the landscape, with snow still falling. I wasn’t sure if I could make it back on the trail, but I did and settled with darkness all around.

Like a replay of the first day, turkeys began to explode out of the trees a bit later. They were extremely vocal, and soon a tom could be heard gobbling nearby. It is almost maddening waiting for him to come into view, but in the dim pre-dawn twilight he eventually did, walking towards me at about 65 yards. Soon he was within about 40 yards, with only a small hill between us. I slipped off the safety and got ready for him.

It was at that moment that I saw a dark shape at a distance of about five yards racing past my blind – a young coyote, doubtless one of the family I’d heard earlier. He disappeared into the underbrush, headed right for the gobbler. Up the trail I could see a second coyote dash across the trail.

There was a commotion, and the gobbler broke out of the brush headed east, the coyote in hot pursuit. The tom looked like a roadrunner but finally had enough and flew into a tree. There would be no turkey breakfast for the coyote, and he disappeared.

I waited about an hour and the turkeys came back, about 15 of them. The tom reappeared, and I tried to lure him closer with a box call. He was in full strut, but I was no match for the real thing as several hens began chirping down the trail. Again, the whole flock headed east down the trail. I heard them until about 10 a.m., and each time they were farther away. Day two was over, no turkey.

Some might say the coyote cost me a turkey. I am thankful to have witnessed such a unique spectacle in the turkey woods.

Day three again opened dark and snowy, with the coyotes breaking into an early chorus to welcome the day. Geese flew overhead by the hundreds. Squirrels skittered about as I sipped coffee, and noisy crows filled the air.

As if on cue, the turkeys flew down and danced on the trail. And again I called the tom in close, only to have hens down the trail drag him away to the east.

I had to get past the spot where they were flying down each morning. They were doing the same thing morning after morning, and I was just in the wrong spot.

After they left I walked up the trail and found a great natural blind under a blown down tree. Their trail came right past it. But to get there the fourth morning I would have to sneak past their roosting trees and risk scaring them out of the area. I decided it was worth the gamble. Early the next day I began my walk down the trail past the trees.

As I feared, the trees exploded with the sound of the big birds taking off. It sounded like maybe 15 or so birds. But I knew that it was probably going to happen. There was no other way to get past them, and all I could do was trudge on to the downed tree, set up, and hope for the best.

The morning was black, cold, and damp. And very, very quiet. Unlike the first three days, there was no chirping and peeping from the trees. The turkeys had literally flown the coop, and I began to think they wouldn’t come back.

My friends the coyotes offered a 5:15 a.m. concert, and little by little the day came to life around me.

In the turkey woods it is possible to actually feel removed from the problems and fast pace of the everyday world. For four whole mornings I could hear absolutely no human-generated sounds, and that was great.

Ever so slowly the dawn arrived, illuminating the snow-covered landscape. Again, the feeling of November in April. It was a bit strange, but enjoyable.

One of the coyotes dashed across the trail a short time later, offering only a brief glimpse before melting into the shadows.

If he was again looking for turkeys, he was out of luck. Unlike the previous three mornings there was not a sound. No hens, no toms, nothing. And I started to suspect that my plan had been a miserable failure.

The morning ticked away. By 7 a.m. there was still no sign of the birds, and I considered simply heading up to the local diner for some eggs and bacon.

Suddenly, at 7:12 a.m., a chirp! Far, far away, but it was a hen for sure. Then another off to the north. For the next hour the chirps and peeps came, I answered, and it seemed that they were coming a little closer.

Then it happened – a gobble. A beautiful, wonderful gobble! Sure, it sounded 100 miles away, but at least there was hope! And as the sound of the hens got closer, so did the gobbling. He was in the mood for love, and I had beautiful lady turkeys all around me.

It was a fortunate setup. I was situated between the gobbler, which was off to my south, and the hens, which were to my north and getting very close, so close I thought that I should be able to see them. No luck, they stayed in the thick trees and underbrush.

But the tom started to sound like he was at a dead run, and then I saw the large black shape top the hill. He was in full fan, and those wonderful girls were chirping like crazy, urging him to join them. I put down my box call. Why risk spooking him? The hens were doing just fine.

He moved to a downed log and stopped. For about half an hour he moved only his wing, back and fourth, back and fourth, as if testing the situation. He answered every sound in the woods with a gobble. Cranes, geese, ducks, all got a response. But he would not move.

Finally, a loud response from what sounded like two or three hens in the pines brought him off the log and right towards the trail. He was about 75 yards away and closing steadily. Meanwhile, I was soaked from melting snow and shivering as I watched his progress.

I clicked off the safety as he came to the edge of the trail about 40 yards away, gobbling his head off. As he stopped, he stopped right behind a log. All that showed was his head, and that was not a shot I wanted to take. I offered a slight chirp on my call, and that did it. He stepped out onto the trail within about 30 yards. He took another two steps towards me and the shotgun roared. The hunt was over. Against all odds, my plan had worked, thanks to the hens behind me.

turkey decoy Turkey Taken in Spooner WI
The decoy became a snow decoy during Bill Thornley’s turkey hunt near Spooner Bill Thornley battled snow conditions, coyotes and real hen competition to tag this double-bearded Tom on day 4 of the first turkey season in Washburn County

He was a nice, big, mature tom. He probably weighed in at 25 to 27 pounds with long spurs and a rarity, a very long double beard. He was, I believe, the same dominant tom that I had been seeing at a distance for the first few days of the hunt.

He was a beautiful bird with thick, multi-colored feathering. I felt humbled and realized why Native Americans offered thanks to the game they took as I did the same.

Then the work began. Because of the deep snow, I had parked about a mile away on solid ground after nearly getting stuck on the snowy trail the previous day. It was going to be a long walk, but I suddenly felt a new surge of energy. It would be a good walk.

It had been a tough hunt, demanding plenty of planning and patience and good luck. But it was a hunt I will look back on with great memories of deep, soft April snow, howling coyotes, and a big gobbler. Even if I’d never pulled a trigger it would have be a magical experience.