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  • Patrick Durkin

Turkeys, Spiders and Bears, Oh My!

My humble hunting goal for the spring 2022 turkey season was to be a helpful, competent, memorable guide for three special people.


Pfft! Even modesty was a bar too high.


As the season neared its end in late May, I conceded I’d never make it as a professional guide. Not one of my three “clients” shot a gobbler, and only one saw a male turkey within shotgun range. If they’d been paying me, they’d sue for refunds.


Or simply beat it out of me.


But let me tell you: Although I’m a poor turkey guide, I’m an excellent accidental arachnologist, mammologist, herpetologist and waterfowl biologist. Count on me to stumble into everything but strutting gobblers when guiding armed friends and family into Wisconsin’s turkey woods.


These past few weeks I put them or myself within handshaking distance of little snakes, big spiders, bold raccoons, pregnant deer, feeding hen turkeys, and a flying gobbler that rocketed over my blind like a Tomahawk missile.


Without trying, I also got my daughter Leah within camera range of two coyotes and a black bear. We also saw a hen mallard trying to lose her newborn brood to the first hovering hawk or eagle that spotted them waddling across a bare field 430 yards wide. Talk about exposed and vulnerable.


Not once, though, did Leah and I see a turkey while hunting in Chippewa County during the season’s fifth week. And if not for one distant gobble at dawn May 22, we wouldn’t have heard any gobbling, either.


Sheesh. This marked Leah’s first turkey hunt since 2007, given that she spent the past 14 years in the Navy. She was so long absent from the spring woods that the Department of Natural Resources gave her the half-price license discount as a “returning” lapsed hunter. Their loss. She was expecting to pay full price.


At the other extreme from Leah was Mykaela Yang of St. Paul, an 11-year-old fifth-grader making her first hunt. As my guest at my cousins’ farm in Richland County, Mykaela saw plenty of turkeys during the special youth hunt April 16-17. Twice she watched hens walk through our decoys; the second hen stopping often to scratch for food in the leaf litter.


Mykaela even counted seven gobblers the second morning, but I coaxed only one closer than 75 yards. I figured that tom was probably just there coincidentally, given its indifference to my calls and decoys.


I also blame myself for the shot my friend Tom Heberlein fired over a gobbler’s head an hour into our hunt near Clam Lake on May 5 with Brenda Maier. I noticed right off that the rib between the double barrels on Heberlein’s 12-gauge had only a tiny bead at its midpoint.


Why does that matter? Heberlein’s a great wingshot. His shotgun’s rib aligns smoothly and naturally with his shooting eye whenever he shoulders the gun and swings on flushing birds. But a walking or standing turkey can be deceptively tricky to hit. Such shots require the precise aim usually reserved for deer or squirrel rifles.


After settling in against a tree to call, a good friend and competent guide would have reminded Heberlein to align that tiny mid-rib bead with the red bead at the muzzle. “Make it your final check before squeezing the trigger,” I should have said.


Yes, stating the obvious can irritate and insult a veteran hunter, especially one who’s a good friend. But good guides take such risks. Minor insults are soon forgotten when a gobbler flaps its last. In contrast, missed shots trigger reviews and painful replays for weeks.


Or months.


Even years.


Fortunately, my clients and I enjoyed some memorable, unexpected encounters in between our sundry failures. While scouting national forest lands west of Clam Lake, Maier and I chased up a 16-inch smooth greensnake. The thin little serpent slithered off the path, its smooth, emerald-colored scales shining in the afternoon sun. Maier had never seen a greensnake before, so I played the seasoned expert, even though it was only my second encounter with this native snake.


If I could affect an English accent, I might have said: “Yes, my dear Brenda, the smooth greensnake is common to Wisconsin. It mostly eats grubs, insects and worms. Notice I use “it” as a plural when pretending to be a detached, intellectual herpetologist. It’s called a ‘smooth’ greensnake because its scales lack the rough ridges common to most snakes’ scales. Hmm?”


No one was with me in the turkey woods, however, when encountering my first specimen of Dolomedes tenebrous, a member of the family Pisauridae, on May 9 in Richland County. For those of us who don’t speak Latin (including me), Dolomedes tenebrous roughly translates to “dark fishing spider,” which is a nursery web spider. (As if I knew any of this without Google.)


For the record, dark fishing spiders can literally run across water, but they don’t need to live near water. They do fine far away from ponds, puddles and wetlands.


In fact, I was at least 100 yards from water when this spider surprised me. And because I was alone in my pop-up blind, I didn’t have to apologize for levitating and gasping like a guppy when spotting this gigantic, man-eating spider about 18 inches from my forehead.


Of course I exaggerate. Dark fishing spiders eat insects, minnows, tadpoles and other spiders. They don’t eat people, or even gubernatorial candidates. And their bite—though painful—won’t kill you.


But the spider I found inches above my turkey blind’s entrance—the site I passed through earlier—was big. I estimated its diameter, including its hairy legs, was bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball. I hoped it would leave on its own, but it refused.


When the noon whistle blew and I had to go home, I tickled its butt with a small stick to chase it down the wall. Two more tickles, and it raced to the ground and out of the blind.


I sighed, relieved I didn’t have to shoot it in self-defense. No court would have believed me, and a conviction would have further tainted my guiding credentials.

A dark fishing spider rests on the wall above the entrance to Patrick Durkin’s turkey-hunting blind. — Patrick Durkin photos

Patrick and Leah Durkin after their hunt in Chippewa County.

Patrick Durkin with Ya and Mykaela Yang after their hunt in Richland County.

Patrick Durkin, Brenda Maier and Tom Heberlein after their hunt near Clam Lake.

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