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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Flashback to First Turkey, First Turkey Hunt in April 1990

I smirked when pulling the Oshkosh Northwestern’s April 15, 1990, outdoors page from a folder in my filing cabinets a few days ago.

Over a half-lifetime ago, I worked for the Oshkosh daily newspaper, starting as a part-time sportswriter in spring 1982. I was hired full-time in December 1983 and worked there through the final day of 1990. During my final six years at the Northwestern, I wrote and edited its Sunday outdoors page.

My article on that 1990 newspaper page reported on the first turkey hunt of my life. With one glance at the yellowing newsprint, I recognized my clothing’s World-War II camouflage pattern and the Trebark camo my buddy wore. I long ago parted with that reversible camo/blaze orange jacket and pants from Cabela’s. I also doubt my closets still hold any Trebark clothes, even though Jim Crumley’s vintage pattern dominated the camo industry from the 1980s through the early 1990s.

I smiled again when seeing my Ithaca Mag 10 shotgun in two photos on that Page D10 tear-sheet. The gun still had its original 32-inch barrel. A gunsmith shortened the barrel by 6 inches and installed a screw-in choke system sometime in the late 1990s, and I last killed a turkey with that gun in 2019.

The article said I killed a gobbler the first morning of my first hunt, and that I shot it with No. 2 steel pellets.

Hmm. It must have made sense at the time.

I conformed soon after, switching to smaller, denser loads, such as No. 6 copper-plated pellets. Although I’m too cheap to comply further, some turkey hunters today shoot No. 9 tungsten pellets, paying about $15.40 per shell for this high-octane privilege. I’ve used those pricey pellets in more affordable .410 and 20-gauge loads to kill turkeys, but I can’t justify paying more than a minimum hourly wage for the promise of 60-yard kills with 12- or 10-gauge guns.

Those are just some thoughts that ran through my head while reading my account of my first turkey hunt 33 years ago. Here’s a condensed version of that April 11, 1990, hunt near Barneveld, west of Madison:

Three gobblers had my hen turkey decoy surrounded, and each wanted to have its way with her.

The toms had strutted onto the knoll 15 yards below, their pale heads tucked tightly atop their breasts. Their tail feathers stood tall, fanning in a perfect brown and black disc that would shame a peacock. When they faced the rising sun, its radiance reflected off their red waddles and gave their violet-black breast feathers an iridescent glow.

When the decoy didn’t respond to the gobblers’ show of force, the lead tom flapped its wings and slammed into the fake hen, bending its steel stake at the base and trampling the phony onto its side. The gobbler scraped its spurs and wings across the decoy’s plastic body, the sound echoing unnaturally through the woods.

I sat stonelike against a huge oak trunk that someone felled years before, my 10-gauge shotgun resting on my left knee, its barrel trained on the three amigos. I dared not shoot into the gobblers, which had approached head-on in tight formation, as if knowing I couldn’t risk a shot that could kill all of them.

At any second I expected one of the gobblers to yell: “It’s a trap, Tom! It’s a fake, Jake. Run! Fly away! Fly away!”

Instead, the lead gobbler flailed again at the toppled decoy and then hopped off and stood a yard away, its double beard swaying to a stop. My 10-gauge bellowed and a load of No. 2 steel killed the tom instantly.

One surviving gobbler quickly fled, pumping its wings skyward, and rocketing away loudly above the oaks. The third gobbler looked confused. It sprung high, but landed nearby, clucking nervously while walking toward a fallow field 30 yards away. It finally flew when I stood and walked toward my turkey, which was flopping its last.

As I lifted the gobbler by its legs, I expected its heft would be similar to that of a Canada goose. Instead, it felt twice as heavy. I suddenly felt lucky, knowing I had shot a gobbler to brag about. When I registered the bird after lunch, the clerk’s certified scale put its field-dressed weight at 23 pounds.

As I lugged the gobbler to camp, I couldn’t help but think of the wild turkey’s comeback in southwestern Wisconsin. I was hunting the Val Brungardt farm in Iowa County, a 400-acre property where I learned to hunt deer with my high school friends in the early 1970s. No turkeys roamed that land 20 years before, but the Department of Natural Resources started stocking the region with Missouri birds in 1976, and opened the first turkey hunting season in 1983. Less than a decade later, those birds’ offspring easily outnumbered the deer.

The night before my first hunt, I prepared by sitting and listening at the edge of a nearby field. I even heard several turkeys fly up to their roosts. A tom gobbled occasionally, making the hair stand on the back of my neck. I made a fix on their positions, and decided to start the next morning at the fallen oak trunk.

The gobblers resumed gobbling in dawn’s gray light. I responded every 10 to 15 minutes, taking turns with my box, slate and diaphragm calls. The toms didn’t seem to hear. The sun rose, an hour passed, and the gobblers seemed gone. Then a tom cut loose about 100 yards below on the hillside. I stroked my slate call softly, hoping to assure the tom that a hen was available.

We played our roles for the next half-hour, with at least one tom working uphill toward my decoy. The turkeys looked like phantoms when their three heads crested the knoll, the pale bulbs fading between chalky-white to pale-blue as if suspended in air. Finally, their bodies floated into view above the knoll on their final approach.

I slipped off the shotgun’s safety, pressed my right cheek into the gunstock, and waited for the gobblers to decide which one would join my family for dinner.

Patrick Durkin nestled against this fallen oak in April 1990 while hunting turkeys for the first time in Iowa County, about 35 miles west of Madison. Patrick Durkin photos

Patrick Durkin, seen here in April 1990 at age 34, poses with his first wild turkey.

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