Spring of 2021 was my first turkey season. To be honest, it was the first spring of my 33 years that I even had an awareness of turkeys. Between my jobs as mother, musician, student, and survival skills instructor, I was surprised I ever even found time to be in the woods! It’s definitely hard to balance it all, yet that respite of peace in the woods is what my soul needs in order to be fully present in all my other roles. It brings me balance.
My journey into traditional bowhunting was a quick one as most of you know. I went on my first rifle hunt at the age of 28 and soon after became disenchanted at the ease of shooting an unsuspecting deer from 150 yards away. I learned to shoot a vintage Grizzly recurve and moved to a modern longbow as I honed in on the style I preferred. After a few missteps, I managed to become proficient and confident enough to pursue big game in fall of 2020. I killed my first deer with a longbow on a mid-October morning.
I went on to miss what I would consider a trophy whitetail buck a few weeks after, he was later taken by a friend of mine during rifle season and ended up having 13 points with a mass of multiple brow tines. In aiming my arrow at his vitals I had failed to notice the small section of buckthorn that was between him and me. My arrow perfectly skewered the small tree and the large deer was gone. In walking through the sequence of events, I am still pleased with how I managed to hold myself together and wait for the right moment. I drew back as his head ducked behind a tree, he had no idea I was about to release my arrow and no idea I was even there. I had learned to wait to draw until the opportune moment after my first deer spooked when she saw me pull back and dropped before trying to leap away. My arrow hit her mid drop in the spine right above her vitals. It had managed to sever her spinal cord and I was able to follow up with a vitals kill shot, but I learned after that experience that I needed to put thought into my draw.
As odd as it may seem, missing that buck is one that has never bothered me. I felt like I was amazingly lucky to even witness that massive deer during the rut. Watching him (and another small buck) chase does, hearing them vocalize, and seeing their interactions was the first I had ever witnessed of rutting deer behavior. After my arrow settled in the tree I sat back to watch the scenes unfolding out of reach of my bow. A midsize rutting buck that grunted with every step came charging down the hill when I tilted the bleat can. He saw two does that were grazing broadside 50 yards in front of me and brazenly chased them, his head to the ground and saliva dripping as he ran. The does wanted nothing to do with him and turned tail to run, he crashed through the woods behind them determined to win them with his less than subtle approach. Soon after, a forked buck came on the same path but stayed just beyond my range. My hunt ended with a beautiful great grey owl flying in and landing just 5 yards from me on a branch. It studied me for a few seconds before noiselessly flying away. This most amazing predator mirrored all that I wanted to be with my bow: graceful, silent, and deadly.
As deer season closed in January, I began to study another animal I had never considered hunting: the wild turkey. I had read many stories by now of my favorite iconic hunters chasing these wiley birds and they had unanimously deemed it one of the most elusive quarries for a traditional bowhunter to pursue. The idea of a hunting challenge when I would normally be focusing on end of the year tests for my kids and planning my garden was too much to resist. I spoke with landowners in my area and ended up with a 160 acre parcel of land to hunt that housed a density of birds I didn’t know lived in Minnesota. I soon discovered that turkeys were everywhere… if one knew to look for them. I started to notice them in fields and strutting along woodlines as I was driving. Waking early, I would sit on my deck and listen to Tom’s gobbling at dawn. I was able to locate roosts with the help of my rooster, Winston, who’s loud crow could be heard throughout the valley in the stillness of the morning. He would crow and set off shock gobbles throughout the woods, then I would walk through and find the roosting birds. We were a great team!
I wasn’t able to be out the full season as the landowner would graciously open up his land to other people for the seasons they drew. Hunting with a bow in Minnesota allowed me to hunt the whole season without needing to draw a week, so even though I missed the best first weeks, I still had plenty of time. As the weeks wore on I found that every other person who hunted his land walked away with a bird…except me. The difference, as you probably can guess, was that they all hunted with a shotgun. I was incredibly blessed to find the landowner I did. When I told him I was hunting with a longbow he did all he could to help me succeed. He would let me know every time he saw birds on his land and where they were, and even set up a blind for me and moved it to what was the best spot.
Even with all this on my side, I didn’t end up with a bird. I saw more turkeys than I could count but never had the chance to take a shot. Every encounter with a bird taught me something more about their behavior and the more than fifty hours I spent in the field allowed me ample time to observe them and their vocalizations. I agree with Fred Bear, I feel as though I learned more in my one season hunting with a traditional bow than I think I could have learned in 10 years hunting turkeys with a shotgun! Had things been different, I would have likely had a bird by day three when the first shotgun range opportunity presented itself. I am thankful that I didn’t miss out on all the amazing encounters to come over the next 5 ½ weeks for the sake of walking away with an easy turkey in hand.
This season brought a lot of ridicule, advice, and well meaning (and other not so well meaning) efforts to dissuade me from hunting with a traditional bow. I heard arguments from quite a few people about how the equipment I chose was unethical, as if the stick and string themselves had morality attached, and how if I had to hunt with a bow it should at least be a compound. These arguments always dishearten me. I understand that it is only out of ignorance to the lethality of traditional equipment in the hands of proficient archer that people feel they can sustain this argument, but sometimes ignorance spoken loud enough and often enough makes an impact. I received ridicule that “you’d have a turkey by now if you would just use a gun!” all the way to the kindly meant advice to learn to hunt with a gun to gain confidence and then move to a bow.
All of these conversations and arguments made me realize that the reason behind traditional bowhunting is lost to the majority of the population, hunters and non-hunters alike. The majority of hunters seem to look at the animal taken as the prize to be won from a day in the field and they see how easily they got their prey as a testament to their hunting prowess. I looked at my prize this season as having gained knowledge from the best teachers: experience and time. This is what taught me how to find a turkey on a roost or where they are likely to be in windy and rainy weather vs. sunny and dry. I learned that the lone hen talks to herself when feeding and makes a series of noises I hadn’t learned or heard on any hunting video. I saw the way the Tom’s would briefly go into strut when they heard crows overhead start cawing. I learned to look for dust bowls because I once stalked up on a hen who was so busy dusting herself she didn’t see or hear me. I learned that I would have the best luck stalking on very windy days when it seemed the toms preferred to be in the open, my guess was that their hearing was obscured by the noise and they needed to be able to see predators. All of this pointed to a season that was not wasted, nor a failure, though I didn’t end up with the “prize” at the end that most hunters look at as the mark of success.
The last hours of the last day of the season, I had the most exciting hunt of my time in the woods yet. I had seen a group of jakes at about 400 yards through a field and heard a few high pitched gobbles. I started slowly stalking through the woods knowing that there was a game trail they used further in to get from one feeding field to another. They would often pass through this 200 yard strip of woods between the fields as it offered the most direct path, I knew it was time to either be bold or hang up my bow. No more waiting in a blind or hoping I didn’t spook them out of the area. I heard a few sounds that let me know there were turkeys ahead of me, and I slowed my stalk. The heavy dew from the morning had kept the underbrush in the woods damp enough to be silent on, even hours later in the afternoon, and I was able to walk in silently. I stepped out from behind a tree and a rush of feathers and crashing branches ahead of me told me I had found the group of jakes and they had also noticed me. Previously in the year, I had done this same stalking effort and when they noticed me then, I figured I had blown it and turned around and quietly walked off to look for birds in another location. About 20 minutes after I had made this decision I heard gobbles in the distance and looked through my binoculars down the valley to see that the group I had scared in my stalk were back in the same location, they hadn’t been spooked enough to leave. I had abandoned my stalk when I should have sat and waited.
This time, I sat down by a large tree that obscured my outline and didn’t move. Five minutes went by and I heard the rustling of grass and some soft turkey noises, they were coming back to the spot I was in. I was surrounded by small pines and only had one shooting lane, out into a grassy path between a cow pasture and the woods, a well used trail for them. A bold jake gobbled, and the rest of them chimed in, all seven were back in the area with me. It was thrilling to be in the midst of the noise for the first time, especially after I had watched it from afar all season. Through the brush I could see two jakes start down the path headed to my shooting lane. There was a shrubby pine just before I would be able to shoot, perfect to hide my drawing movement. I put pressure on the string, they were five yards from my shooting lane and headed unaware straight to the sweet spot. As they got behind the pine bush and I started to draw, the farmer up the hill started up a dirtbike and revved the engine loud before getting out to herd his cows with it. The sound of the engine immediately spooked the birds and they turned and ran deep into the woods, signaling the end of my hunting season.
After they ran away, I waited silently and none of them came back. They had moved on a different trail to the other feeding field. Those final moments of my hunt were some of the most exciting of the entire season. I felt like I was doing it right, I was hunting them on their territory, and I was truly a hunter: pursuing my prey, able to be within their midst. Yet, with all of this it just hadn’t worked out. Somehow, though, that was okay with me. I later learned the a lot of people say you’re not supposed to stalk turkeys, too dangerous and you could easily be shot. Yet another thing I didn’t know! I’m not sure that will stop me as I sure did enjoy those stalks.
Next spring I will go back into the field using all I gained during the 2021 six week turkey season. While I didn’t come away with a bird, and I am still far from being an expert, I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the hunt. And to me, that alone is well worth the effort.