Spring Turkey: A Tradition of Merit in Midwest
Sextonville, Wis. — Change is swift in the Wisconsin spring.
One day fields are covered with 5 inches of snow, the next they’re spiked with inch-tall blades of green growth.
One day camp was empty, the next day it hosts a spirited group of 11.
One minute the coulee is quiet, the next it echoes with calls of wild turkeys.
And if you’re fortunate, the sounds transform into a close encounter with a gobbler.
The gifts of the season were on full display last week in Richland County.
I was privileged to spend three days as a guest at “The Roost,” a cabin near Sextonville owned by brothers Lloyd Purnell Jr. and Mike Purnell.
The Purnells’ mother, Billie, grew up in the hills and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, and the brothers learned to hunt by pursuing squirrels and other small game in the area.
Many years later, the brothers fulfilled a dream by purchasing land for hunting and wildlife management in Richland County.
The Roost and surrounding acreage was originally intended for deer hunting. But as the Wisconsin turkey population expanded and turkey hunting became more popular, the site has served as a spring rendezvous, too.
With me for last week’s turkey camp were: Lloyd Purnell Jr. and his 16-year-old daughter, Phelan; Mike Purnell and his 12-year-old daughter, Payton; Bruce Ammell, Glenn Goldschmidt, David Kovach, Mike Quick and his twin 20-year-old daughters, Allison and Bryn; and Jim Smukowski.
The Purnells also hosted a group during the youth hunt April 5 and 6.
“The night goes fast,” Mike Purnell said one Wednesday morning. “It’ll be daylight before we know it.”
Sleep is affected by a variety of factors. The alarm at The Roost sounded at 4:30 a.m. Early wake-ups make for short nights. So, too, does anticipation of the hunt.
Will the birds be vocal this morning? Will we be able to call one in? What other wildlife will we see?
After cups of coffee and a quick breakfast, the group dispersed to the woods and fields to listen for turkeys gobbling on the roost.
The season of sleep deprivation is upon us. For turkey hunters, it’s a small price to pay to be able to hear and see one of North America’s grandest big-game animals.
Among outdoors traditions in Wisconsin, spring turkey hunting is among the youngest.
The wild turkey disappeared from Wisconsin in the late 1800s due to over-hunting and loss of habitat. A 1970s trap-and-transfer project in which wild turkeys from Missouri were relocated to western Wisconsin set the stage for the thriving population seen today in the Badger State.
The project, a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Missouri Department of Conservation and assisted by the National Wild Turkey Federation, is considered one of the state’s greatest wildlife success stories.
The first spring turkey hunting season in the modern era was held in Wisconsin in 1983. The DNR issued 1,200 permits that spring and hunters registered 182 turkeys. Over the next three decades, the number of hunters increased as the new opportunity spread.
In 2014, the DNR made more than 200,000 turkey permits available to hunters statewide. More than 120,000 hunters will take part in the spring season, making it second only to deer hunting in popularity.
Turkey hunting brings in about $5 million in revenue to the DNR each year through license and permit sales, according to agency statistics.
For me and many other Wisconsin hunters who grew up with no spring hunting tradition, the opportunity to pursue wild turkeys has been a revelation.
The act of sitting camouflaged and still in a greening landscape, days spiced with blooming wildflowers and migrating songbirds, is as rich as any outdoors experience.
The wild turkey provides excellent table fare, too.
Add the fact the wild turkey talks back and you’ve got a transformative Wisconsin hunting experience.
An early spring storm covered the Driftless Area with inches of snow on the Monday before the season.
By the opener, spring had reclaimed most of the fields around The Roost.
The landscape was accented with green shoots of grass and winter wheat.
Everyone saw turkeys. Goldschmidt set out on a solo hunt, a blind and seat literally on his back. He backpacked away with about 30 pounds of gear.
He set his blind in a brushy spot in the middle of a field and waited. The second setup of the day yielded quick results.
“I never made a call,” Goldschmidt said. A hen walked past his blind, followed by two longbeards.
When he returned to camp, Goldschmidt’s load was 24 pounds heavier. The tom had a 9-inch beard and 3/4-inch spurs.
On that Thursday morning dawned windy, cold and overcast. Our various morning setups did not produce a turkey.
About noon, however, the weather changed. The wind dropped. The air softened. The clouds thinned.
We all agreed - it was time to get back to the hunt. The birds must be moving.
Mike Purnell and I made a plan to try a new spot on a neighboring property. Goldschmidt, who had slept in, offered to join us.
At 12:30, we hiked down a dirt two-track toward a back pasture. As we neared a creek bed, flapping wings and putts erupted 75 yards ahead.
Two longbeards ran west, another flew north.
After we beat ourselves up for busting the birds, we formed a plan to hike into the woods and to a hillside at the north of the field. Once there, we’d set up and call.
Ten minutes later we were in position. To our pleasant surprise, a distant gobble rang out.
I hunkered at the base of an oak tree that featured wings like an arm chair. From my spot, I could cover the lower field.
Goldschmidt and Purnell set up about 25 yards uphill from me, allowing Purnell to see any birds coming from the woods behind us.
Goldschmidt’s first clucks on a slate call were met by gobbles, both from the north and the west.
Five minutes later a single longbeard came into view from the north. The bird didn’t gobble but stealthily worked the edge of a woodline, pausing periodically to look for the source of the hen sounds.
Most sessions of turkey calling, even when conducted by the most skilled, don’t result in a tom in range. So when it happens as rapidly as it did that Thursday afternoon, it helps restore faith.
The turkey continued its approach. When it was 35 yards from my position, I waited for it to put its head up one more time and pulled the trigger.
The gobbler weighed 27 pounds, had an 11-inch beard and 7/8-inch spurs. Its meat will provide several delicious meals.
On that Friday afternoon I was able to repay the calling favor to another member of camp. Smukowski and I ventured to a clearing about 3:30 p.m.
Before we got in a blind, I yelped with a slate and a box call. Two distant gobbles rang out. Fifteen minutes later, after additional calling, a longbeard appeared.
It gobbled twice as it crossed the clearing. Smukowski soon had his first gobbler. The bird weighed 26 pounds, had 1-inch spurs and a 9-inch beard.
Sometimes days pass quickly, too. Thanks to a successful wild turkey reintroduction and hunting camps like The Roost, spring hunting in Wisconsin is a tradition here to stay.