Eric Morken: What I learned from hunting turkeys with a 9-year-old
The final hunt of the season with my daughter, who was the one with a tag for the first time this year, ends with a tom at 12 yards in the decoy.
WOOD LAKE, Minnesota — If you love spring turkey hunting, you know what makes for ideal conditions in the woods.
Calm winds. Blue skies right at daybreak. Toms gobbling on the roost that sends a jolt of adrenaline through a body that is still waking up at first light after getting out of bed at 4 a.m.
I filled my archery turkey tag the first weekend of the Minnesota season this spring. Since then, I have been waiting for those conditions to align with my schedule so my 9-year-old daughter, Aubree, could experience turkey hunting in its most exciting form. Instead, the times we have been able to get out have been in cold temperatures, light rain or gusting winds.
The morning of May 22 felt like one of those perfect days in the turkey woods right from the start. It was still cool. The temperature gauge on my truck read 39 degrees when we left the driveway at 4:30, but stars shined bright and the wind was nonexistent.
Aubree and I had hunted the night before and had a close encounter with a group of birds at 7:30. They gobbled back and forth with my hen calls, but would not commit to coming in.
We went back into that general area right away the next morning.
Our setup was on a tree line that separated two properties. In front of us where our two hen decoys were was a field recently planted in corn. Behind me is a neighboring property I have permission to cross but not hunt on. Oak-filled ridges that drop down into a riverbottom surround us to the left and across the field in front of us.
It was not long after legal shooting light when the first gobble rang out to our left. Close.
There were at least four toms gobbling from various directions by the time I let out a few soft yelps on my mouth call. A fly-down cackle on the box call sent them even further into a frenzy.
Ten minutes had passed with a lot of back and forth calling when I turned my head slowly to the left over my shoulder to see a tom strutting 75 yards away. The rising sun coming over the horizon behind him illuminated his rust-colored fan.
“I see him, Aubree,” I whispered. “He’s behind us. Just stay still.”
The bird was on the field we did not have permission to hunt, so there was no need to reposition. We needed the tom to cross the tree line into our decoys. He wouldn’t do it.
We could feel him right behind us. Gobbling like crazy. Spitting and drumming. A few soft yelps were not enough to entice him through the thick tree line to the other side.
The bird gobbled his way west across the field, and my mind was pondering our next move.
“You want to try something, Aubree?,” I asked. “There’s a spot I know of all the way across the field in a little patch of brush where we could set up on him and try calling him back.”
Aubree has been willing and ready to hunt like I like to hunt turkeys by being aggressive. We let the tom walk off before picking up our setup and using the low terrain to reposition.
We were almost to where I wanted to set up when I saw the tom along a fence line in the field over 500 yards away. We got Aubee positioned with her tripod against the one bigger tree in a patch of thick brush just off the field edge.
I belly-crawled about 12 yards into the field before seeing the tom again and deciding not to push my luck, placing a single laydown hen decoy out and crawling back to Aubree.
A series of standard yelps on my box call immediately elicited a gobble from him. I had called somewhat conservatively right off the roost. Different birds have different temperaments depending on multiple factors like time of day and season. It felt like this was a bird that would respond to more aggressive calling.
Clucks and yelps on my box call interrupted by cutts on the mouth call were bringing him closer, but he was out of sight down low on the field.
The tom finally crossed the grass fence line into sight, breaking strut only to let out another gobble. He scanned the situation, saw the laydown hen and went into full performance mode. Strut 10 feet, stop, gobble. Repeat.
“Stay still,” I told Aubree. “He’s going to come right in.”
Aubree sat perfectly, waiting for me to give the OK to move slowly into shouldering her gun. The tom strutted in and postured up to the decoy.
“OK, go slow. Aim at the head and neck and slowly squeeze the trigger whenever you’re ready.”
Movements like this become so rapid as adult hunters. It becomes instinctive to rush a shot. But when it’s a brand new experience, every sequence is thought out.
“Now?” Aubree whispered.
“Yes, whenever you feel comfortable.”
She settled in, and her shot rang out. The tom jumped a bit before running off 10 yards. He stopped and looked back at the decoy.
“You can shoot again if you want,” I told her. “Go slow.”
She took aim and fired another round. Another clean miss.
“I’m sorry,” Aubree whispered as the tom ran away.
Aubree knows how much hunting means to me, and this comment kind of jolted me. She must have thought I would be disappointed. I’m sure I have given off that vibe from my own hunts when a turkey or deer has gotten by me in the past.
I put my arm around her and told her how great she did. How adult hunters often struggle to time their movements to get a turkey that close. Then I reminded her of the tom I missed with my bow two years ago. That made her smirk.
“Yeah, you only hit his feathers,” she said.
I take hunting so seriously that it can become stressful at times. I don’t necessarily regret that. Hunting motivates me in some form on a daily basis, but my reasons for hunting are different than when I started as a kid.
What a breath of fresh air it was to walk the woods with my daughter this spring. She reminded me of why I fell in love with this in the first place. It was going on an adventure, and being with my dad.
“You want to go again next year?” I asked Aubree as we walked back to the truck. “Yeah,” she said.
Turkey or not to bring home, that’s what I was hoping for from the season.