Turkey hunting comes with no guarantee

The woods were black as tar and the sky awash with stars when I slipped into my hunting blind beneath gnarled oak trees on the edge of a pasture dripping with dew.

Wisps of steam billowed from my mouth in the cold morning air. For a while, the woods were quiet.

Then the haunting gobble of a wild turkey, just 100 yards away, pierced the morning silence. Then another. And another. Each gobble sparked a chain reaction of gobbles from nearby toms roosting in the same trees _ creating an amazing chorus that echoed through the creek bottoms, pastures and woods.

My heart pounded.

It was opening day of the 2007 Missouri spring turkey hunting season last week, and, as darkness dissolved to daylight and legal shooting time arrived, things were looking good. I had placed three turkey decoys outside my blind. Now I just needed one of those gobbling toms to respond to my call, fly to the ground and stroll my way.

The season could be over almost too quickly.

But never count your turkey before it's in the oven.

Fifteen minutes later, the gobbling stopped. No tom came my way, though two hens did. Four hours later, I packed up my decoys and gear and headed off in search of another spot. I never heard the gobble the rest of the day.

Three of us made the seven-hour drive from the Twin Cities to northern Missouri to hunt turkeys for three days_drawn mostly by an insatiable appetite to stalk gobblers. Also along were Tom Kalahar, 53, of Olivia, Minn., and Ben Hillesheim, 48, of Bird Island, Minn., both diehard turkey hunters.

Many Minnesota turkey hunters travel to other states to feed their habit, because one five-day spring hunt in Minnesota simply isn't enough to satisfy their cravings. And Minnesota limits the number of turkey licenses it issues. This year, the Department of Natural Resources received about 52,000 applications for 34,000 available permits. Over the past five years, an average of nearly 19,000 hunters who wanted to hunt turkeys couldn't get permits.

Many of them go elsewhere, where they often can buy a turkey license over the counter. Such as in Missouri.

Kalahar knows a friend whose family owns a farm near Macon, Mo., where turkeys thrive in the pastures, ravines, woods and farm fields. We had found success there twice before and decided to return, though earlier in the season than usual.

With turkey hunting, timing is everything. And timing definitely affected our hunt.

Once a turkey hunter decides to leave the blind in search of gobblers, the turkeys' advantage _ already great _ improves. Turkeys can see seven to 10 times better than humans, and their field of vision is 300 degrees.

Odds are great that they will spot you before you spot them.

That said, sometimes you have little choice.

I crept along a strip of woods to where the gobblers had been chattering earlier in the morning, then peered around a corner and up a long grassy draw that stretched nearly a mile.

Hundreds of yards ahead were six or seven jet-black turkeys sauntering single file up the draw like the Seven Dwarfs. I scampered up a hill and along a fence line, hoping to sneak ahead of them. Then I crept along the fence line, 40 feet above the draw, until I came to a patch of cedar trees, where I sat down, rested my shotgun on my knee and waited.

Incredibly, two toms popped their heads up only about 45 yards away. Then more appeared. Soon I counted a half-dozen toms, beards dangling, strutting and fanning their tail feathers on the sunny, grassy slope.

I watched them for a half-hour, gun ready, hoping one would meander a bit closer to me for a clean kill. But then they ambled back down into the draw, disappearing like a dream.

By 1 p.m., when the hunting day ends in Missouri, none of us had fired a shot.

"That's turkey hunting," Kalahar said. "It's no slam dunk."

The next day was a replay: We heard some gobbles early on, but the birds shut off quickly. Around 10:30 a.m., I crossed a pasture along thick woods to Hillesheim's blind. He had set two decoys in a clearing. My plan was to take a few photos of him, then hunt elsewhere.

Almost as soon as I climbed in, a loud, raspy gobble echoed in the woods. For an hour, Hillesheim called, and the unseen bird gobbled in response, drawing closer.

But then came silence. And at 1 p.m., our close call was just that.

"Oh boy, that was something; that got my heart going," Hillesheim said. "He knew (the decoys) were here; for some reason, he just didn't want to come in."

That was the only turkey that responded to our calls over three days. One local turkey hunter we encountered told us the cooler-than-normal spring weather delayed the turkey mating season, making hunting extremely difficult.

On our last morning, Kalahar set up his decoys along a wooded fence line that separated pasture and ravines from long-ago-harvested corn fields. The turkeys were feeding in those fields, he concluded.

At around 7 a.m., as the sun broke the horizon behind him, Kalahar looked across the green pasture and spotted seven tom turkeys slowly crossing it about 200 yards distant. He called and got no response. "They never gobbled," he said.

Then he called louder.

"Two big ones came running right over," he said. "They got about 40 yards away and put the brakes on. They didn't like something."

Kalahar decided one was close enough. He dropped the nearest bird _ the only one we bagged.

"Hunting turkeys is such a crapshoot," he said. "But I just love it."