ITHACA, Wisconsin – The orange blast from my shotgun’s muzzle briefly blinded me in the dawn-gray woods, making me worry for a second that I missed the gobbler 35 yards away.
Then I heard the pounding of dying wings on earth and fallen leaves, confirming my shotgun’s pellets cleanly killed the turkey after it followed the old woodlands lane into my ambush.
And just like that I realized how wrong I’d been a year ago to doubt the worth of hunting turkeys on Memorial Day or its preceding weekend. In two days of late May hunting in 2018, I never heard a gobble. I did see a small flock of turkeys last year, but they were 150 yards across an alfalfa field they refused to cross. I assumed the group’s gobblers were following hens and had no interest in leaving their sure things for an unseen temptress atop that field’s knoll.
You might recall that 2018’s spring season was the first time Wisconsin shifted its entire six-week, six-period turkey hunt one week later than it had run the previous three decades. Instead of starting turkey season on April’s second Wednesday, Wisconsin now starts it on April’s third Wednesday, which ensures it ends the week of Memorial Day.
Now that I’m a year older and wiser, I still think turkey season should open the second Wednesday of April, but that we should add a seventh hunting period in late May. Now, though, I no longer complain. I’ve shot a turkey on Memorial Day, so I can act as if I’m a savvy stalwart whose persistence paid off.
Everyone must concede, however, that Wisconsin’s final week of turkey hunting has never produced like the first five weeks. No matter the year or the season’s starting date, success rates are highest the first week and then drop steadily before hitting bottom in Week 6.
Here are the success rates for those six periods the past five years: Period A, 25.4%; Period B, 20.6%; Period C, 18.2%; Period D, 15.2%; Period E, 15.8%; Period F, 14.2%. In fact, Period F’s success rate in 2018 was 12%, its worst performance those five years.
Department of Natural Resources biologists haven’t yet finished this season’s tabulations, but I’m assuming late-season hunters fared better than in 2018. Not only did I shoot a bird, but friends Janis and Jennifer Putelis of Montana bagged a jake and three gobblers on Doug Duren’s farm near Cazenovia while hunting Friday through Sunday that week. They heard no gobbling their first day, but things picked up Saturday as nice weather pushed aside chilly, cloudy conditions.
The Putelis’ success inspired hope when my alarm sounded at 4:15 a.m. on Memorial Day. I dressed, grabbed a snack bar and my 10-gauge Ithaca, and ascended the hill behind my cousin Peggy’s home in northeastern Richland County. I paused at the edge of a clearing she calls “The Neighborwood,” and stared down a deer at its opposite edge 50 yards away. After it fled, I walked to where it had stood near the dirt lane winding into the woods above.
Far uphill a barred owl hooted its trademark call: “Who, who, who; who cooks for you all?” A tom turkey about 200 yards up the hill fired back a gobble. I worried, wondering if the owl was actually a trespassing hunter who’s a talented caller. My fears faded as I sneaked up the lane. The owl kept calling. No hunter I knew would keep hooting once they’ve provoked a gobble.
I was barely 50 yards inside the woods when the tom gobbled again. I stopped and backed up against a huge, deteriorating maple tree that once held my Uncle Terry’s deer stand. I didn’t dare go farther. The woods’ foliage was getting lush, and likely muting the gobbles enough to make the turkey sound farther than it was in actuality.
Once seated, I pulled out a slate call and wooden striker peg, and stroked each with a chunk of sandpaper. After pressing the peg to the slate, I flicked it sharply in a semi-circle to produce what sounded like a hen turkey yelping softly. My gobbler up the lane hollered back, as did a second gobbler downhill from me. I assumed both birds were still roosted. Five minutes later, with the woods brightening a bit, I heard a turkey fly off its roost in the woods below. About a minute later wingbeats up the lane signaled the other turkey left its roost.
I called again with my slate. The uphill tom answered. I set the slate aside, raised my left knee high, rested the big shotgun atop it, and checked its sights to ensure I wouldn't have to move much to line up a shot. And then I waited, still and silent.
Five minutes passed with neither sound nor movement uphill or downhill. Then something dark flickered between two trees 75 yards away. Seconds later I spotted more movement, and then saw a turkey easing down the lane, heading my way. When it passed behind a tree, I leaned forward to press my cheek to the shotgun’s stock.
The turkey’s slow approach suggested caution, but it was soon within 50 yards. And then 40 yards. Its jet-black breast and beard swung to a stop between two small trees 35 yards away, its head and neck periscoped high. Experience reminded me to align the shotgun’s front orange sight between the rear sight’s two green fiber-optic dots. I shot when all three dots aligned with the gobbler’s head and upper neck.
I’ll never know if that gobbler was seeking the “hen” it heard minutes before, or if hens it usually accompanies were incubating eggs on nearby nests behind me. All I know for certain is that turkey hunting is so much easier when gobblers walk toward you, not away from you.