Thunder in the Northwoods: Pursuing big toms in northern Minnesota

For years, there’s been a void of outdoors activities as the ice has melted off of our frozen lakes. Not totally, unless you’ve been walking in the forest in search of antler sheds or early fungus, like a morel. However, in recent years the range of the Eastern turkey has pushed farther north than many could have ever imagined, giving hunters more early-spring opportunities. The numbers have grown too, from just a few birds in the early 1970s to more than 30,000 today.

I started turkey hunting back in 2005 near the Mankato area. I had applied for three years to draw a license, and didn’t really know what to expect of the hunt. Nor did I know how addicting this sport could become. Also, a close friend of mine had family and friends in the area that provided us with the some property, and bit of direction to the birds.

Season regulations were much different back then, allowing hunters a five-day season with shooting hours ending at 5 p.m. each day. We had selected the second season, which would hopefully allow for a bit warmer weather.

The day prior to the hunt we drove around the countryside and looked for big toms out strutting in the unplanted fields. Boy, did that prove to be exciting—as we pulled up near a state management area open to hunting, three large toms scraped their wingtips along the recently tilled soil. I couldn’t wait to see where these birds would roost for the evening. We then made our setup as close as we could on the public land.

As 5 p.m. came, several hunters using the management area came out to end their season. None of them had even seen a bird that entire day nor heard a gobble. Still, we walked into the heavily wooded timber along the Minnesota River and searched for small openings that would work for decoy placement the following morning. We also made a couple makeshift ground blinds to conceal our movements as birds approached the following days to come.

Once back in our quarters, it was a restless night as we awaited the alarm, sounding our call to the forest. The next morning upon arrival to the hunting area, we were the first to arrive. This allowed us our choice of the best hunting spots. We wished each other the best of luck. I headed one direction while my friend headed in the other.

I didn’t get far from the truck when I could hear the gobbles echoing from the tops of the trees throughout the valley along the river. This was shaping up to be a thrilling experience. I proceeded to set up my hen decoy, situated myself on the ground and gave a couple light purrs. In a matter of minutes I was surrounded with birds. Up and down the slopes of knotty white oak trees, the toms voiced their excitement of a lonely hen.

However, it was over nearly as quickly as it had begun as the sound of my shotgun silenced the piercing gobbles. My first turkey was down.

Since that memorable spring season, I’ve traveled to Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, searching for the rumbling gobbles of roosted toms. Now, I can consistently pursue these birds and their deep, thunderous gobbles through the tall Norway pines of northern Minnesota.

Last year, I had returned from a quick weekend in Nebraska with a friend of mine; we both brought our oldest kids. It was a great trip, not just because we were successful, but also with the entire experience of the road games, jokes and getting together with others that we’d met years prior on hunts to the same area.

Despite our success, I still had not gotten my fill of wild gobbler action. Since I knew youth licenses are valid for the entire season as archery licenses, I decided to purchase a turkey license here with such weapons for Minnesota and give it a crack. Though I felt confident shooting my bow, I was still a bit hesitant to try my luck on a leery tom with one. But the simple fact that I could chase birds the entire season sealed the deal.

My son Logan, daughter Kylee and I immediately began scouting for birds and properties to hunt. However, all the turkeys we’d seen all winter and spring had all but disappeared. The toms many folks were insisting they had watched at this farm or that farm were gone by the time I had arrived to investigate.

Patiently, I continued my search of the newly established turkeys. Weekends were the only time I could get to really hunt, especially on a morning. Kylee and I had traveled to an area where numerous reports had people seeing birds along the roadway early in the morning. We called from several locations—we never got a response.

Later, we had nearly given up when I decided to give it just one more attempt. As I made a couple cuts on my slate call, a single gobble echoed through the pines. Kylee’s eye doubled in size as we grabbed our gear.

As we went farther in we jumped some deer as we entered a clear-cut area of the forest, ultimately scaring the investigative tom. Saddened with the lack of response from the once aroused tom, we walked our way back to the vehicle.

About halfway back, I decided to give it another attempt. I worked that slate as hard as possible, trying to blast out the sounds of a lonely hen.

Then, the entire forest erupted with gobbles.

Suddenly, our sad excursion had turned into a panicked rush for cover. While Kylee positioned herself against a tree, I placed the decoys in the logging trail and joined her. I called again in hopes one of the toms would again respond. Not just one tom called, but four did so from beneath the canopy of trees.

Within a couple minutes, we could see a large tom strutting down the trail toward our hen decoy. It had all happened so quickly that Kylee got “the fever.” And by the time she was ready to pull the trigger the colorful head of the giant tom was less than 10 yards from us.

She jerked the trigger of the 12 gauge, just missing the unsuspecting bird. She then attempted to chamber another round, not fully pumping the action forward enough to allow the firing pin to strike the shell. Click! It was at that moment “Mr. Lover” realized he had better hit the road.

So, despite the fact no birds were harvested on this particular turkey run, I was able to spend a great morning chasing local birds with my daughter. And even though these turkeys had likely never been hunted before, or that much, they still provided a huge challenge that brought about a memory I’ll never forget.