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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Northwoods Gobbler States its Heartfelt Intentions

Updated: Jan 4

The turkey’s gobble was just distant enough to doubt, obscured as it was by light winds swishing through red-pine boughs overhead.

Tom Heberlein must have sensed my uncertainty. Was a wild turkey really gobbling within earshot in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake? Heberlein pointed subtly toward the far-off sound when I glanced over my shoulder. I could sense him saying: “Yes, that was a turkey gobbling, you mope. Turn up your hearing aids so you can hear it yourself.”

Then again, why wouldn’t I be doubtful? Thinking big picture, Wisconsin had no wild turkeys when I was growing up. Even after the Department of Natural Resources started restoring them in the mid-1970s, history and the best biologists said turkeys would never live north of Highway 29.

And even when Wisconsin’s wild turkeys blew past those false assumptions long ago, I couldn’t believe their pioneering spirit. Whenever spotting them in Ashland or Sawyer counties, a good two-hour drive north of 29, I half-jokingly called each sighting a fluke.

But the numbers don’t lie. Hunters in northwestern Wisconsin — the state’s Zone 6 turkey zone — registered 1,132 male turkeys in spring 2021. That’s a best-ever 21% success rate, which means Zone 6 hunters were just as successful last year as their counterparts farther south and east in zones 2 and 3, and even more successful than hunters in Zone 1, the state’s prime southwestern region. Zone 1 hunters notched an 18% success rate in spring 2021, about the standard there the past decade.

Even so, when Heberlein announced during the November 2021 deer season that he wished to hunt turkeys in spring from his deer shack near Cayuga, I figured he just wanted a novelty hunt. I mean, success percentages are one thing, but Zone 1 hunters registered 11,691 turkeys in spring 2021, roughly 10 times the turkey body count of Zone 6.

Novelty or not, I agreed to tag along if he drew a tag. Deer hunting, after all, provides an excuse to visit Heberlein’s “Old Tamarack Lodge” in November. Why not use turkey hunting as an excuse to air out the shack in May?

In fact, just to make the hunt look serious to casual observers, I asked family friends John and Brenda Maier to show us around the forest. The Maiers, too, own a cabin in the Chequamegon, and fish and hunt it year-round from Hayward to Ashland. More importantly, they’ve both killed forest gobblers, and assured me these birds weren’t flukes.

Brenda Maier and I met Wednesday, May 4, near Clam Lake, and spent the afternoon scouting public forest lands where she and her husband often see turkeys. When I returned with Heberlein on Thursday morning, Brenda said she had just caused a nearby tom to shock-gobble by yelping with her voice.

After she hopped into my truck, we drove down the forest road she identified, turned off on a two-track, and parked 30 yards from a forest opening. A gobbler hollered at us seconds later as we climbed out of the truck. Needing no further encouragement, Heberlein and I walked over to the clearing and sat against a big aspen, shoulders touching but quartering away from each other.

I then got up and helped Brenda stake in our decoys 25 yards across the way. We debated moving the truck farther back into the woods, but decided it was too risky to start the engine with a gobbler within earshot.

After settling in beside Heberlein, I watched Brenda disappear about 20 yards into the woods beside us. Seconds later, we began a long seduction of the gobbler, doing our best to sound like hens yearning to meet him.

The courtship started uncertainly. Soon after Heberlein pointed out the tom’s direction, the next gobble sounded as if it was farther away. Just as I considered pulling out and moving closer, the tom shouted from my left. It had flanked us and was approaching from the rear.

Should I suggest to Heberlein we swap seats so he’d be facing the bird? No, we’re both old and slow, and anything but smooth and stealthy. I feared the tom would be upon us before our joints started popping and cracking from our exertions.

Sure enough, when the tom next gobbled a minute later it was about 50 yards behind my truck’s tailgate and heading up the two-track we had driven a half-hour earlier. It alternately walked, strutted, spit and drummed as it approached the truck. If Heberlein had sat in the truck’s box, he could have shot the tom at 10 yards.

But on the tom came before turning onto an adjoining two-track and marching past Brenda, who flattened herself into the ground like a parachutist whose ripcord failed. Each time the turkey gobbled or drummed, the sound vibrated through us like shock waves.

“I see him,” Heberlein whispered, when the tom stepped into our clearing far beyond shotgun range. Minutes later our hopes dimmed. Fading gobbles told us the bird was moving on. Brenda and I called louder, and scratched nearby leaves, trying to imitate feeding turkeys.

Our hopes soared when the gobbles grew louder once more. The bird now approached from Heberlein’s right, an impossible angle for a right-handed shooter who’s butt-anchored to the ground. Though I couldn’t turn to watch, I pictured Heberlein scooching to the right each time the tom looked away.

With each small scooch, I envisioned Heberlein’s double-barrel 12-gauge coming closer to bear on the tom’s head. This was the gun that never failed him through any fault of its own. In fact, the first 15 times Heberlein swung on a pheasant and pulled this shotgun’s trigger, feathers flew and birds folded.

On the tom came, its gobbles, spits and drums growing ever louder. My thoughts raced. My ears strained for clues. Could Heberlein hear my hammering heartbeats? Could Brenda? Would Heberlein wait till the tom reached our decoys before firing, or had he scooched enough to shoot sooner?


My mind flashed to a favorite Heberlein story from his youth. After Heberlein killed his first ruffed grouse in the Northwoods, his father called out from the woods beyond, “Did you get it?”

The youthful, cocky Heberlein shouted back, “I shot, didn’t I?”

But that was then and this was now. And so we sighed and second-guessed.

   At times like these, it’s best to glorify the shots that once made us proud, and not dwell on those that now make us humble.

Tom Heberlein and Brenda Maier pause to rest while walking out of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest after turkey hunt in early May. — Patrick Durkin photo

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