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5/21/2020
Publisher’s Note: As referenced in the May-June 2020 print issue of On Wisconsin Outdoors, the Ellis column Memorial Day-Trading it all… directs the reader to this website for stories of Americans in battle during World War II and Vietnam.  Posted in the April 30 Ellis Blogs on this website Tanks in a Mine Field is the eye witness story of 709th Tank Battalion gunner John “Mike” Kunnen during the bloody battle of t...
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Fencerows...“Capturing the Hunt”

By John Luthens

The grizzly can’t sleep before a turkey hunt.  He paces about wide awake, narrating plans for the coming morning. I sit at the dining table trying to be polite and listen, sneaking a second helping of potato salad and stuffing another slice of bread into my mouth, chewing and nodding my head like trying to stay awake in church.

Nobody much calls Dennis by his name.  He is built like a stout bear, with a grizzled beard and a sauntering gait.  I’ve know him for many years. He would give you the shirt off his back.  Without his shirt, he could be easily be mistaken in the shadows for the real thing.  Most everybody calls him the grizzly.

It is his turkey camp and he has dozens of mounted turkey fans on the wall to back up the wisdom and planning. If I don’t listen, I am doomed to failure. I have never been on a turkey hunt before.

I’ve already missed the Wednesday opening of the third period season, coming straight from three long days at work to the grizzly’s Kewaskum camp on the fringes of the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest. I am tired.  The grizzly’s crew has been out in the turkey fields since well before dawn.  They appear full of life.

“Once you hear the hens chirping, and hear the gobbling as the toms come down from the roost, and see the birds come into the decoys, you’ll be hooked,” says the grizzly.  “I’d rather hunt turkeys than deer.  There’s nothing quite like it.”

I’ve come to Kewaskum to capture a turkey hunt on video camera.  If I can understand the basics of a turkey hunt, learn the set-ups and learn the patterns- then maybe, just maybe I will decide to go for real.

I am slated to go with the grizzly’s son, Jake, in the morning.  I’ve known Jake for as many years as I’ve known his dad, have seen him grow from a young hunter into a seasoned veteran.  He hunts now almost exclusively with his bow.  You would be hard pressed to go with a better guide.

Jake leaves the dining table to head for home for a few hours rest.  He will be back early, because like his dad the grizzly, Jake can’t sleep before a turkey hunt either.

Growing up in northwest Wisconsin there was no turkey season.  I don’t believe there were any wild turkeys to speak of.  At least I don’t remember seeing any.  Maybe that’s why I never took to the sport. I know they are there now.  In a wide variety of outdoor travels and sport, I have seen them as far north as the Lake Superior counties.  I never bothered with them. They seemed too easy. I think these thoughts as I drift to sleep. But in the grizzly’s camp, I was about to learn.

The alarm goes off at 3:00 a.m.  It sounds like thunder above, as the grizzly stomps about, piling up camouflage clothing and manning the coffee pot.  Jake is already there, drinking coffee and checking over the video camera, making sure it too is decorated fully in olive-patterned tape.  We roll out into the woods by 3:30.  It feels damn early.

The grizzly’s truck disappears one way and we go another.  There is a maze of corn-stubble fields and rolling hills.  It begins to patter a slow rain on the truck window as we pull onto a two-track farm lane and pack in over the fields.  I carry the camera, a tripod and a turkey fan.  Jake hefts a pack big enough to supply an army, tucks a life-sized tom replica under one arm and carries his bow in the other. It seems a heavy load for a single gobbler.  We walk in silent and wet dark across the fields.  Jake drops his pack at the edge of a deep swamp facing a rising field and motions that this is the place.

A two-person blind comes out of the pack, along with chairs and two inflatable hen decoys.  Jake places the hens and sets the big decoy in between.  The turkey fan I carried gets mounted on the back of the tom.

The rain turns to a pattering of sleet on the blind roof as we hunker down.  I pull my face mask tighter and fuss with the camera. Jake checks distances with a range finder and swings the bow through his shooting angles. The decoys sway in the wind.  I swear they look alive.

In the dark hour before shooting time, we sit and make small talk quietly.  Slowly it begins to lighten. The plowed furrows of the fields take shape and every stump in the gray light looks suspicious.  Off in the distance is faint chirping.  Further behind us is the echo of a gobble.  I feel my heart pounding.  This turkey hunting business is not bad.

A single shadow separates itself from the trees and moves across the field.  We haven’t even made a call yet.  I start the camera and Jake raises his bow.  The shape comes closer atop the field, stops and turns, strutting down into the decoys.   I can see the red beneath the tom’s throat on the camera viewfinder. It glows in the corn stubble.  50 yards…40 yards…30 yards. There is the silent sound of steady breathing.

The sharp release of the bow skims the arrow at the bird and sends him running down the field furrows.  The camera captures it all.  Jake knocks another arrow and tears open the side window of the blind.  The turkey stops at 60 yards and looks around before moving off over a rise.

“Too far,” says Jake, slowly easing back on the bow string.  “We missed him, shot over his back.”

We review the camera footage in the blind.  It is good stuff.  Jake checks the camera and checks his rangefinder.  It was an error in distance of 2 yards.  It was enough.  We find the arrow and a single feather.  No blood.  We toy with the idea of editing some choice words out of the camera sound footage, but in the end we leave it in.  The others back at camp will want to see the uncut version.

Before packing out for the day, we move down a swampy path and hunker at the opening of another field.  There are dark shapes strutting on the far hill.  We back down the trail with plans for tomorrow.

I return home for some business.  I lay my camouflage out in advance and I am restless in my bed.   I am beginning to catch the disease.  My alarm goes off at 2:00 a.m. and I make the drive back to grizzly country.  The turkey hunters are waiting around the coffee pot and another day begins.

A full moon casts long shadows of two stalking hunters as we drop over a rise and set the blind in canary grass.  The hill we’d scouted yesterday ranges in front of us.  It is a quick and quiet set-up.  I’m slowly getting a feel for it.

No gobbling this morning.  Jake makes quiet slate calls and we wait.  Nothing stirs.  He breaks out a box call for a louder effect.  There is the squawking of sandhill cranes and a solitary goose.  A dog barks in the distance as the farms stir to life.  Then there is the snapping of a single corn stalk.

Don’t move-whatever you do,” whispers Jake.

Three jakes and as many hens stroll into the decoys from the corner of the blind; there is no time to turn on the camera, no time to pick up the bow.  The jakes are in full strut and the hens cluck about unconcerned.  One of the jakes is nearly as big as a tom, excepting the uneven tail feathers, there is no discernable difference.  We sit and watch quietly.  None of the turkeys sense we are there.

We let them pass on into the field.  The camera is on now.  Jake makes a soft call and the turkeys turn back into the decoys.  “I’ll take the biggest one if I get a decent shot.” whispers Jake.

Turkey shot with compound bow

Jake Junk with a bow-shot jake turkey.

Watching the camera footage later, you can hear rain hitting the top of the blind as low clouds come across the green field.  The three jakes turn broadside into the decoys and move within 10 yards.  There is a blur of feather as the arrow pierces the head of the biggest one and it falls flopping against the blind.

The camera pans out as the two remaining jakes trot into the field.  The flopping of the downed bird agitates them and there is loud gobbling.  They move back into the decoys in full strut.  I have seen much in my travels.  I don’t know that I have ever witnessed a better spectacle.

Back in the grizzly camp garage there are handshakes all around.  The jake weighs almost 17 pounds and sports a 6 inch beard.  The camera footage is wonderful. We eat cheese and sausage and there is much talk and laughter.

“Well, what do think-did you have fun?” asks the grizzly.

Everyone in the garage looks at me and they see the light in my eyes. Turkeys indeed!  I didn’t answer the grizzly’s question because I was in deep thought, mentally financing a blind and decoys for next season.