Talkin’ to toms: Northland hunters seek wild turkeys in southern Minnesota
NORTHEAST OF ROCHESTER, Minn. — The day’s first gray light seeps into the hardwoods. Mike Annoni sits on the ground, his back against an oak, waiting. He’s dressed completely in camouflage, including a face mask. He blends seamlessly into the forest.
Annoni, of Alborn and his friend Pete Rust of Rice Lake Township have come to these rugged hills and valleys of southeastern Minnesota to hunt wild turkeys again. Rust is sitting along a fence line at the edge of a cornfield a few hundred yards away.
Now the gobbling begins. A single gobble from across the valley, maybe a quarter-mile away. That jump-starts another gobbler and another. Their calling carries easily across the valley on the damp morning air.
Annoni and Rust have risen at 4:30 a.m. to hear this. In the pitch black, they labored up a 200-foot ridge, pausing at intervals to catch their breath.
“What we do for a Butterball,” Annoni joked in a whisper.
Annoni already has shot his Butterball, a 23-pound gobbler with an 8-inch beard. He shot it Monday morning, the first day of the hunt. Now, he’s out to see if he can call in another for a photo.
The two men have been hunting this area, on a mix of public and private land, over the past 23 years. Many years, they’re joined by another friend, Pete Leischke of Duluth. They’re on a hot streak lately. Both Annoni and Rust have each shot a gobbler every year for the past seven years.
Now, as daylight filters into the woods, Annoni begins to call, imitating the soft, contented yelps of a hen turkey. He works a wooden shaft, pencil-thick, across a synthetic slate call. He yelps. He purrs.
“I like to sound off so they know where I’m at,” Annoni stage-whispers.
Even a quarter-mile away, a gobbler will take note of the calling and perhaps come ambling over to check out what he believes to be a hen. It’s mating season for wild turkeys. A gobbler will walk a long way in the name of love.
Annoni and Rust had hoped to have a few gobblers closer on this late April morning, but most seem to be some distance away, across a stream and a gravel county road.
“We’ve called them across the road before,” Annoni says.
Now the gobbling has reached a fever pitch. At times, there is more gobbling than silence.
“I’ve never heard that much gobbling here before,” Annoni would say later.
The woods are alive with more than gobbler music. Woodpeckers play percussion on dead oaks, pounding out territorial claims. Dogs bark at a nearby farm. A cow bawls. A lonesome train whistle sounds in the distance.
It appears no gobblers are headed our way, so Annoni and I move to the edge of a field. He tries more calling, and a gobbler answers. Annoni scratches on the slate call. The next time the gobbler answers, he seems to have closed at least half the distance between us.
“He’s coming,” Annoni says.
The gobbler seems to be coming from behind us. Annoni is on his feet in a flash.
“Let’s go,” he says.
We hustle to a spot in the forest where Annoni thinks he can cut the bird off. Sure enough, the young gobbler comes striding up a shallow gully in the woods. Annoni can see him. The gobbler has a smallish body but a nice beard.
But the gobbler apparently sees us. He begins to issue a raspy bark that hunters call a “putt.” It’s the sound a turkey makes when it senses all is not right.
“Once you hear that, you’re done,” Rust will say later.
The gobbler marches up the gully and across the corn stubble, 50 or 60 yards way.
“If we had stayed where we were,” Annoni says, “you would have gotten a good picture.”
That’s turkey hunting.
Meanwhile, Rust has seen one hen and heard all the gobbling, but no gobblers present themselves near him.
Learning the game
Rust, 58, and Annoni, 54, grew into turkey hunting together, learning to call, learning the ways of the birds. They’ve tried every tactic.
“We used to run up and down these hills,” Rust says at supper one evening.
“We were like chickens with our heads cut off,” Annoni says.
“We’ve gotten slower or smarter. I don’t know which,” Rust adds.
They started out using mostly diaphragm calls, thin membranes a hunter puts in the roof of his mouth. But along the way, they settled on slate calls for the variety of sounds they produce. They’re successful callers, but they caution beginning hunters not to get hung up on calling technique.
“You don’t have to be a great caller from Missouri,” Annoni says. “The birds come in to about anything.”
They honed their calling skills by being among the pros.
“Pete and I learned most of our calling from hens,” Annoni says. “Get in with a bunch of hens.”
“You learn their cadence,” Rust says.
“You just mimic them,” Annoni says.
And it keeps working.
Gobblers in the mood
Annoni shot his gobbler at midday Monday after a morning rain. He saw a gobbler displaying at 60 yards and began calling. The bird responded and started coming.
“At 25 or 35 yards, he went into full plume,” Annoni said.
When the turkey came out of his strut and raised his head, Annoni took him.
The hunters often do some calling for each other when one already has killed a gobbler.
On Wednesday morning, Rust finds himself among gobblers early.
“I thought they were going to come down off the roost to me, but they didn’t,” he says.
But some vocal hens remain in the vicinity. Rust keeps calling in competition with them, and another gobbler comes in. Rust has his turkey before 7 a.m. It’s an 18½-pounder with a 9-inch beard.
That makes eight years of success in a row for the pair of hunters.
The men break camp and head for Duluth. But they’re not through turkey hunting. They’ll head for southern Wisconsin soon for another few days with the birds.
Sometimes, it’s hard to get enough.
Minnesota season info
The spring wild turkey season continues in Minnesota. Hunters may buy turkey permits over the counter for the following hunting periods: May 1-5; May 6-10; May 11-15; May 16-22; and May 23-29. Licenses are available from license agents across the state, or by telephone at (888) 665-4236, or online at mndnr.gov. There is a $3.50 convenience fee for telephone purchases. For online purchases, an additional fee of 3 percent of the transaction plus $1.65 for mailing the license will be added.
Resident licenses, for age 18 and over, are $27; for residents age 13-17, the fee is $6; for residents age 12 and under, there is a $1 issuing fee.
Wisconsin’s turkey season continues through May 27. Leftover permits for some turkey hunting zones may still be purchased. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov.