By Eric Mathes
In the week leading up to my spring turkey season, I had mixed emotions about how things would go. Turkey hunting is my biggest challenge and I truly love the battle. The perfect chess match is how my friend Travis Mueller of Avery Outdoors described it. For the spring turkey season, I had acquired permission to hunt nearly 1,000 acres of private land. There surely were turkeys on the three different farms I was planning to access, but sketchy patterns and a lot of surrounding pressure made me reluctant. Over the weekend I tried to think of anything else I could to come through with a plan for the Wednesday morning opener. On Sunday morning, I woke up early to off-and-on rainy weather. I decided to get in the truck for a random drive to see if I could come up with anything else to consider for the week. I thought to myself, ya never know, maybe you’ll find something better.
I found myself on a familiar road that morning, one I had traveled before on a similar mission. I was approaching some farmland that is home to one of my most treasured hunting memories. There are two words that my friends know well, we affectionately refer to this goose hunt as; Amish Paradise. The area I grew up and now hunt is also home to many Amish homesteads and families in the Holy Land of eastern Wisconsin. Little secret? They are the kindest and nicest people to ask permission for hunting. I wasn’t sure if I would have another Amish tale to tell, however, I do now.
Rolling around the property on Sunday, I turned my head and spotted a large bunch of turkeys. Out in the middle of a muddy, run-down corn field were five toms in full strut doing the dance. I just knew I would find good birds here. The bunch had something like 9 birds total, but I just remember watching the toms out parading together amongst their hens. I stopped only for a few moments to glass the muddy field they were occupying before putting the binoculars down to go ask for permission. It was a large property and only a few days before season opened, so I was hoping to catch someone in a good mood on the farm. As I pulled in, I saw a young Amish lad working in the back. He greeted me with a smile, we shook hands. I told him I was looking to turkey hunt and he mentioned that someone in the family had gotten a turkey tag for the spring. My heart sank. He said, “You can talk to Jacob, though, he is the one with the tag and he might let you hunt if he isn’t.” Perfect, one more try at a sales pitch. “He’s in the barn milking cows, you’ll find them in there.”
I headed to the milking parlor and saw a guy rustling around. “Jacob?” He turned with a big smile like we were best friends and came over to welcome me. I asked him if he had a turkey tag and he said yes. My hopes were shot at that point, but then he asked me when I had a tag. I said that my season started in a few days. I asked how he had done the year before and he said he hadn’t had much luck, but that there were plenty of birds in the area. With some apprehension, he asked, “Well, do you think the birds would come back if you hunted them for a day?” I shrugged and said it’s hard to say what they’ll do from now until his season came around, but for the most part agreed that they would remain in the area. I definitely didn’t want to push anything on the man, it’s his land after all and we have had great success hunting geese a few times in the back in the fall. The last thing I wanted to do was get into an awkward and uncomfortable situation with a land owner. We talked a little more and finally he said, “Well, if you want to hunt for just one day this week, you can. I don’t have a problem with that. But just one day. I hope you have good luck.” I tried to keep my composer, but I was fist-pumping like a champ on the inside. “Thank you,” I said. He again wished me good luck, and I did the same. Time to scout.
After getting permission to access the land, I spent the next two days with closer eyes on the property trying to figure out a pattern. Cold a wet weather moved in, because it’s Wisconsin and it just does that. Scouting trips on Monday night and Tuesday morning didn’t produce any sight of birds, the cold weather must have kept them in the woods and out of the wind. I came back tuesday night, the night before the hunt, and glassed the land from a hilltop without much luck. I thought for sure my chances were dwindling and the hope had been for nothing. I only had once chance and one day to hunt on this property so I had to make it count. My scouting had to justify a good sit the next morning and I wasn’t getting the results I hoped for. There was no sign of birds at all, but I was confident in the area and with the group I saw the first day. With the recent cold snap and rain, I just didn’t have a pattern, so I gave up. I put the truck in drive and turned the wheel to drive up farther when a glare of sun in the field caught my eye. I threw the truck in park because I knew, even at about 500 yards away, I just saw a turkey. I picked up my binoculars and tried to find the glossy back of a tom.
Sure as shit. Just barely over a hill, a quarter mile out in a muddy corn field, two toms were feeding over the wood line. I could barely make them out, but with the sun behind them, their feathers reflected a glair just visible to tell they were birds. It was the sign I needed, at just the right time. With time running out, I had to get back to work that night and wouldn’t be able to roost the birds before sun down. It didn’t matter. The site of the birds again was enough to convince me to go for it in the morning. I just had one of those feelings and I was sticking to my gut.
I showed up a little after 4 a.m. and it was cold, the calm kind of cold where everything is quiet and brisk. Every step seemed to echo as my boots hit the ground. Right off the bat, the chips started to seem like they were stacked against me. I decided on the area I last saw the birds working to set up my B-Mobile strutter decoy. As I was walking to my spot, I noticed the weekend’s rain left some sheet water on the field that I would have to walk around. As I approached the water a goose sounded the first alarm, sending an echoing siren that sounded like a car horn. Strike two, I thought. There no way I can get in here without being busted now, even though it’s early. Discouraged I pressed on to the spot I wanted to set up, on the edge of the field about 300 yards parks the geese. As my footsteps faded after the nested geese, soon too did their honking.
With an almost full moon, I didn’t need a headlight to make out the edge of the field where a section of hardwoods started. This would be where I would set up and wait for the first gobbles. I put my decoy out and tried to find a good spot to sit. I needed to be as quiet as I could but with the extra layers on in the 23 degree weather, I bet I sounded like a clumsy fool, snapping sticks and sliding on the frost. Either way, I was set and I caught my breath. Here we go, time to wait.
I wasn’t far from where I saw the birds the night before, though I know it didn’t matter, they could have ended up anywhere for the night. Daylight started to break and I heard the first gobble off in the distance. Ok, I thought, I’ll hear one closer soon. Again, about a half mile out, another gobble. Then another. Off to the south a little ways I heard another. And another. I could pin point four different gobbles between two other sections of woods, far enough away from my location. In my head I was already starting to evaluate the morning. It’s cool, you’ll hear two closer birds yet, just wait. Be patient. Nothing. It started to get a little lighter and it was clear that I was off my mark. These birds were blowing up the woods with a thundering show a long way away from me. Fuck… shit…. son-of-a…. I only have one chance. Do I stay here and hope this is where something will end up? Or do I try to make a move and set up closer? As I looked out across the Amish farmland I thought, there’s a lot of open ground in between me and these turkeys. It is just dark enough to still make a move without being noticed, if I could stay quite. I would have about a half mile to cross to re-set up and hope I don’t spook any unnoticed hens in the process. If I go, it’s now or never. It will be completely light soon. Ok, last chance gut check… Fuck it. I’m going.
“You stupid, impatient, idiot. Whatever chance you had at these birds, you’re going to blow it with this move. Go back to the truck, you’re not cut out for this today.”
I second guess myself way too much. I know I should be more confident in my judgements, but whatever, I’m still alive. Carrying my decoys and slinging my shotgun, I started to make my way across the frosty corn field to the end of a pasture where the cattle would graze. In the shadows of the morning, I was trying to be as swift as possible. Familiar enough with the land, I knew my next obstacle was coming up. There was a series of barbwire fences that shuffle the cattle through different areas. Great, I’m over dressed and loaded with gear. Put it on the list. Cleared through the first one with easy. Ok, I got this. Hustled over some flat ground and listened to the birds continue to gobble from the roost. Ok, two more fences. Second one down. Dammit, I ripped my vest. One more to go.
I approached the last fence which was in a fence line running perpendicular to the woods where the turkeys were holding. I stopped to listen and find out where everything was. In the fading darkness I established two toms about 150 yards down the timber and two others off to the left in another section, about 250 yards away. Ok, now I was getting to be where I wanted. I scanned the wood line for cover and tried to figure out how in the hell I would get across this fence line without sounding like an imbecile. I looked ahead a few steps to see nothing but leaves and sticks covered in snow and frost. Great, this is where it ends. Nope, get your ass in there and don’t mess it up. You’re so close.
I calmed my breath and tried to get my game face on. Jesus Christ this is stupid, I thought. Just stay down here in the pasture, you’re close enough. I could have played it safe, maybe I should have, but I thought I had to move up another 50 yards to be in the best location given the terrain. If I can just get 50 more yards, I can make this happen. I pressed through the fence line and luckily didn’t make too much noise. All that was left to do was hike up a small hill along the wood line, try to sneak my decoy out about 10-15 yards, and find a tree to sit under. That’s it, the last stretch, the hardest part. Seal the deal, I thought, you’ve just trekked a half mile to get here. Make it happen.
I made it up the hill and crawled the decoy out about what looked like 10 yards. Not ideal, but enough to be visible and it’s all I could muster in the morning glow. It was just about light now and the turkeys would be flying down at any minute. They were still gobbling back and forth as I eyed a tree to hunker beneath. Just then, a burst of feathers erupted from above. Oh no. It was a hen sitting in a tall oak. Busted. She flew down the line of trees towards the others. I was so close, and I blew it. The air went silent. No more gobbles. I hurried under to the tree and put my head down on my knees. I remember being disappointed. Coming all that way to be busted at my last step. Seconds ago there were four toms gobbling, but now the air was quiet. It was over.
I heard what I thought of one of the toms down the line fly down back into the woods away from the open field. My second sign that it was done. I could hear him purring, fading back into the darkness. Head down, I felt defeated. (GOBBLE). Head came back up. Wait, am I still in this? The two birds across the field were down from the roost in a bottom opposite of me. I could tell they were in the same field, but out of sight over the hill. They gobbled again. Alright man, get your shit together, you’re still in this. Just then, as sudden as can be, a big gobble behind me not but 50 yards. The fourth bird had made it around my back side and was in the pasture I last crossed. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I turned my head slowing to see a big tom in full strut on the ground I contemplated settling on. I didn’t know what to think, but then I did.
I now had turkeys gobbling on both sides of me and realized I could work it in my favor if I called correctly. The bird in the pasture was in site of my decoy, the other two across from me weren’t. If I could use the single to lure in the other two by gobbling at my call, then maybe the pair would come up to try and compete. Maybe. I called soft, just enough to get a response. The two fired back quick with a gobble, the single answered. I called again, same thing. This went on for ten minutes without much movement. Not working, they’re just chatting back and forth. I could tell they were losing interest and decided to get aggressive, because, why not. I took a deep breath and worked an aggressive calling sequence through my diaphragm call. Finally with some luck on my side, the notes came out clean and crisp with a good rhythm that just sounded enticing. A few second later, I heard a gobble followed by another out front. These birds were gaining ground. They loved it. I called soft again, they responded even closer. I scanned the hilltop for a few minutes, 75 yards out, waiting to see two heads break the horizon. Nothing. I cut up again. Moments later, there they were.
Atop the hill, the two males paused as they caught a glimpse of my decoy. They hung up for a few minutes, sizing up their competition trying to decide whether or not to move in. I cut up again quick and they made a dash, covering the 20 yards in seconds. I took a deep breath and realized in that moment what just happened. I was in disbelief, but now, I knew they were mine. I had no time to celebrate or relish in the feeling, I just kept my head down, pushed the safety off, and waited. The birds were moving cautiously towards me; fifty yards, forty, thirty, twenty. They turned to the side and I eyed up their beards to find the bigger bird. As they passed the tree in front of me, I decided for the bird on the right. I picked an opening between two hanging branches and waited for the tom to clear. This is it, two more steps. As he cleared the tree he stuck his neck out just enough and I squeezed the trigger.
The shot rang out with a boom in the calm morning air and I watched the turkey roll over in the dirt. His teammate was unsure of the noise, looking confused, but quickly retreated when I stood up. I walked out to the bird and counted 15 steps from my tree. I took a knee on the ground and waited for him to stop kicking. I looked up and over my shoulder at the land around me. I couldn’t believe it what I pulled off.
After I punched my tag, I grabbed my downed bird by the feet and started the mile long hike back to the truck. The feeling of fulfillment grew in my chest and I couldn’t contain a smile. I felt lucky and confident all at the same time. The ultimate game of chess had just been played and I had come out the victor. I hung the bird on the fence on the edge of the pasture to collect my thoughts and snap a quick photo with my phone. I laid on the grass, looked up at the sky, then closed my eyes, and smiled. I couldn’t have been happier.