The plan for my 2021 spring turkey hunt began taking shape on the final day of the 2020 spring turkey hunt.

I hunted the A season last year, and I hunted it hard, but I didn't come close to filling my tag. Then, in the so-called “second chance” season, I went out at least 10 days without success, and on the evening of the final day in May, I set up a few feet back in woods that bordered a corn field.

This wasn't one of my usual hunting spots, and my blind was set up elsewhere, so I sat down against a tree and tried to get comfortable. After about 45 minutes, I was beginning to get sleepy when, seemingly out of nowhere, a half-dozen turkeys materialized in the six-inch-high corn just outside the treeline, less than 20 yards away.

One bird spotted me almost instantly, and before I could even begin to get my gun up, the whole group vanished.

Two hours later, I managed to get between a gobbler and his roost tree just 15 minutes before sunset. As I carried the bird back to my truck, I already was picturing where I would set up a blind the next time I dusted off my turkey calls – on the edge of that corn field, right against the treeline where the birds had eluded me two hours earlier.

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I hunt a 40-acre property near Oronoco, and it's a nice mix of woods, pastures, food plots and crop ground. In the not-so-distant past it was crawling with turkeys, but of late the population has decreased fairly dramatically. I don't know if that's true region-wide, but I've been seeing far fewer turkeys this year.

If I had a huge property to hunt, I might do a lot of run-and-gun calling in search of a cooperative gobbler, but on a small property, the exact opposite is true. With few birds around, I couldn't afford to risk spooking any.

So, while it's always tempting to move, to go after a bird that won't commit, I was resolved to stay in my blind this year, no matter what.

April 21 was a cold morning. I was in my blind at 5:20 a.m., and by the time the sun rose behind me and finally reached the decoys I'd positioned 25 yards out in the corn stubble, I was shivering and bored. By 8 a.m. I'd heard nary a gobble nor a hen call, and it appeared that the yelps and clucks from my 25-year-old box call were reaching zero turkeys.

Then, at 8:15, I heard a very distant gobble, so faint that I doubted my ears. I responded with the loudest yelps my box call can produce, and seconds later I heard another faint gobble.

The bird was at least a quarter-mile away, probably deep in a ravine on a neighboring property. I kept calling but heard no more responses, and at 11 a.m. I headed for home.

I didn't hunt Thursday, but on Friday the same scenario played out, almost exactly as it had the first day. I heard no gobbling from the roost, and no hen calls. At 8:45, I again heard a faint gobble from the distant ravine. This time I managed to coax two more gobbles out of the bird before it went silent, and again I resisted the urge to leave my blind and go into the woods after the bird.

Once again I left my blind at 11 a.m., and I had yet to see single turkey.

Saturday morning was slightly warmer, but as I positioned my decoys in the pre-dawn gloom, the woods were still silent. After sunrise I called aggressively but heard no response.

I was baffled. In a normal season, I would have been able to count at least a half-dozen toms as they heralded the sunrise from their roost trees along the Zumbro River. This year, nothing.

My pattern is to call every 15 minutes, and at 8:15 I cranked out a series of loud yelps. Two seconds after I stopped, I heard a familiar, distant gobble.

“That bird is dedicated to his routine!” I said to myself.

I waited about 30 seconds, then called again. This time the tom interrupted me, but its gobble was still very, very distant.

Eric Atherton shot this 20 pound gobbler near Oronoco on the morning of April 24. (Eric Atherton / sports@postbulletin.com)
Eric Atherton shot this 20 pound gobbler near Oronoco on the morning of April 24. (Eric Atherton / sports@postbulletin.com)

My third series of yelps went unanswered, which was not a surprise. Still, I figured I should at least be ready. A corner of one of my blind's mesh window coverings had come loose, so I reached up and reattached it, then sat back in my chair with my gun lying across my lap. I set down my box call and reached into my pocket to get out my mouth call.

And suddenly, the bird was there.

It stepped out of the woods just 15 yards from my blind, gave voice to a thunderous gobble and stared directly at me.

I didn't dare move. The bird eyed my decoys for just a moment, then resumed his stare through the blind's recently replaced mesh window. He didn't spook, but he was on full alert, and if I so much as twitched I was certain he'd duck back into the brush and be gone.

So I waited, my heart pounding. For a full minute or two the gobbler studied the blind, then looked out into the corn field before him. I silently prayed that he'd strut, or simply move out into the stubble, but he remained anchored against the treeline.

Finally, he turned north and began walking directly away from me. I moved my gun quickly to my shoulder – too quickly, as it turned out. The barrel grazed the mesh window, and right about the time the bird turned for one last look back, the mesh came loose again.

I haven't practiced shooting my 12 gauge while a piece of nylon mesh is hanging from the end of the barrel, but it was now-or-never. I squeezed the trigger, the gun roared, and the gobbler fell over, flopping.

I've shot bigger turkeys. This one sported a 9-inch beard and was a few ounces shy of 20 pounds. And somehow, that 3-inch load of No. 5s managed to blow a huge hole in the middle of the gobbler's fan, so this wasn't a bird that would go to the taxidermist.

But that turkey will go down as one of the most memorable birds I've ever bagged. I figure he covered at least a quarter-mile, most of it uphill, in just two or three minutes. For all I knew he was the only mature bird within a mile, and he went into my freezer.

Needless to say, the next time a bird gobbles at me, then goes silent, I won't be caught with my gun across my knees – and I'll make sure the mesh windows are secure.

Eric Atherton is an outdoors writer from Rochester. He can be reached at sports@postbulletin.com