Troubled turkey hunt photographer’s dream

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Ross Bielema

Ever wonder what wild turkeys do during midday? These two Waupaca County hens spent some time Thursday morning grooming on a log while outdoors columnist Ross Bielema waited for the toms to show up. (Photo by Ross Bielema)

Hunting doesn’t always end with a kill, but it’s nice to bag something occasionally.

Maybe I should call myself a wildlife photographer, and not a hunter, because I almost always come home with some wildlife photos when I return from a hunt.

I just enjoyed one of the most exciting turkey hunts of my life, but mostly because of the diversity of wildlife I saw and photographed.

Did I mention missing a jake — twice? I’m glad he had such a small beard, because I don’t feel so bad about missing. And the only reason I shot was because I wanted a buddy to have a nice, tender bird for his sous-vide water-bath cooker. Well, that and I haven’t shot a bird in umpteen years.

The saga actually begins during the second season of turkey hunting. I was out in 30-degree temperatures April 26, and then invited the same buddy, Lance Stratton, of Oshkosh, to sit with me in my ground blind on April 28. I’d say he brought me some luck, because I called a gobbler in that morning and took a shot with my 12-gauge Benelli, but the 40-yard shot proved to be a miss. The Velcro ziiiiip of one window opening made the bird gobble, so I tried opening another one, which may have startled the bird. We found some of the copper-coated 4 shot in a small sapling, but nary a feather.

Since this was the first gobbler I’ve had in gun range in years, I was more than a little disappointed.

Hunters are no different than golfers, tennis players or any other sports enthusiasts: When something goes wrong, we buy more stuff. I dug my Remington 870 Super Magnum Express out of storage and bought two boxes of Winchester Long Beard XR 3 1/2-inch No. 5 shot and a special Carlson’s extra-full choke tube made just for this special ammo. Did I mention these shells are $23 for a box of 10?

I patterned my gun at 40 yards and it was producing decent patterns, but you had to be right on the money because it was so tight. I normally prefer 20-yard shots, but bringing a bird to my decoys the past few years doesn’t seem to be happening.

The day after I missed the tom, I was ready for redemption with the Super Mag in tow. I set up in a woods jutting out into a pasture. I thought about sneaking to a wooden deer blind on the extreme edge of the pasture, but was afraid any birds in the cattle yard next door would spot me.

A few minutes later, two big toms appeared, following four hens that walked past the deer blind. The sad parade was about 75 yards away. Had I made it to the deer blind undetected a bit earlier, I’d have toppled one of the toms, I’m sure.

My bonus permit was for the fourth season (May 9-15), and since Thursday appeared to be the only dry day till Sunday, I took the day off. I knew the deer blind was likely to have birds near, so that’s where I went.

If you are old enough to remember the “Wild Kingdom” TV show, I certainly felt like Marlin Perkins by the end of the morning.

Shooting time was 5:04 a.m., and I was still getting settled in the deer blind about 5:15 a.m. when I saw movement on the ground. It was a hen. I was surprised she was down from her roost so early. She picked around the pasture for a bit, and that’s when the deer showed up. First, two came in within 40 yards, then six more appeared from the marsh area to the north. One came within 50 feet of the blind.

Of course, deer season is six months away.

Four hens then came out from the cattle yard and walked past my blind and into the marsh. A jake with a tiny beard later appeared. By the time I realized he was a legal bird, he had circled into the woods behind me. His colors were mottled and he looked nothing like the colorful gobblers I’m used to.

An immature bald eagle then soared past. It was moving too fast for a good photo. Shortly after, a mature bald eagle with white head and tail flew past and landed in a tall tree near the road. There’s a bald eagle nest not far from my hunting spot, and I figured both birds might be from that nest. A crow bombed the adult bird and he flew toward the farmhouse and out of sight. All this was before 8 a.m. It was an outdoor photographer’s dream day. A sandhill crane that had landed in the field eventually worked his way to within about 40 yards of my blind to complete the menagerie.

The hens came back from their sojourn and began bopping around in the woods by me. They hopped up on logs and began preening and grooming, which I found fascinating. While I was snapping away with my compact Canon point-and-shoot, I heard a putting behind me. Oh, boy. Was I busted? I called back with my diaphragm call and there was the jake again. He slowly made another circle, this time investigating the hens.

Should I shoot this somewhat scrawny, lackluster bird or let him go? I decided to pass on him, but then thought about how my friend wanted to cook up some wild turkey. When the jake got into an opening about 40 yards away, I aimed and fired. The big gun rocked my shoulder and rang my ears. The bird ran a short distance, apparently unscathed. I fired again, and this time he and the hens ran away toward the swamp.

I was shocked. How could this pump cannon fail me? I’m still at a loss for words. Maybe I should take another friend’s advice and take shooting lessons. I found consolation knowing that the two birds I missed this year were only the second and third birds I’ve ever missed with a shotgun. Maybe I’m aiming too high, as the head is a tempting target, but I know I’m supposed to aim where the feathered portion of the neck meets the bare portion. More patterning is probably necessary.

The other possibility is that my subconscious knows that if I miss, I’ll get to hunt some more. I’ll be back out there this weekend, and maybe that big tom is still in the cards.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at