As we loaded up for a short hike though the darkened prairie to a turkey blind he had set up a few days before, Tom Kalahar sniffed the pre-dawn air and said, “If I had to choose between hearing a chorus of heavenly angels sing and the music of wild turkeys, I’d take the wild turkeys every time. There is no better music.”
Last week we had made a “date” for Kalahar, perhaps the most avid turkey hunter I know, to hopefully place me in position to take photos of the fluffy, sex-starved toms. We met before dawn Sunday morning beside a patch of CREP land near Minnesota Falls. We had parked on a minimum maintenance gravel road, gathered our respective gear and started our hike, traversing on a barely visible, worn deer trail.
This field, like so many others in Renville County, is a solid part of his legacy as former director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District. He was noted among his SWCD peers before retirement for converting the most cropland into the perpetual conservation easement CREP program several years ago.
“The turkeys, if they’re around, won’t be far from us,” he said. “There just isn’t that much habitat around for them anymore, and this is one of the rare spots.”
We hiked for maybe 700 or so meters through the dormant grasses past a finger of a tree blessed gully and a deer stand tucked on the inside corner away from the road. We then cut across the pasture to the next finger of the tree engulfed gully where he had put the blind. As he set up a couple of decoys I readied my camera gear and got situated inside the blind.
Sunrise was at about 6:48 a.m., and we were safely ahead of schedule as he pulled down the panel pieces for camera angles and viewing. Moments later he pulled out his slate and began chirping a hen cadence. Immediately he got an answer, and moments later a tom gobbled in return as well. Their roost seemed like it was mere meters behind us in the wooded gully. It was a conversation that would continue for an hour or more giving us a sense of hope and promise.
As the dawn approached and eased into the morning light I continually adjusted the metering of the camera. If the turkeys came into our view I wanted to be ready. There might not be time for adjustments once they arrived. As the light continued to brighten I realized what a fine choice Kalahar had made for our shoot. This open prairie was like a stage with a beautifully contrasting muted woodland as a backdrop. Easing over the tree line was a nearly perfect three-quarter backlight with a comforting softness. All we needed was the turkeys.
Meanwhile Kalahar kept working the call, and the responses were nearly immediate. “They’re close by,” he whispered. Several moments later he again whispered, “They’re now off the roost and on the ground.” No sooner had he spoken when a chickadee lit momentarily on a dead tree branch just outside my side port window. Suddenly another appeared, then about four more. Just as quickly they were off toward the inside curve of trees, all before I could raise my camera.
Pheasants “barked” almost off and on while Kalahar and the turkey hen continued their bantering back and forth, with the tom occasionally joining the conversation. Then, abruptly, all went quiet save for the distant pheasants. And would remain so for the rest of the morning. We whispered an intermittent conversation about turkey hunting. He counted seven different states where he has hunted, including on my family’s farm in Missouri.
When I expressed my admiration of how the tom’s fluff themselves in their finery, he said, “It is impressive, especially if you’re bow hunting. They’ll fluff their feathers this full,” he whispered, opening his hands the width of a bushel basket, “while inside that fluff of feathers is a body like this.” Now his hands had narrowed to the width of a football. “There isn’t much to shoot at.” It’s that display of puffiness I was after with my camera.
Our time would pass peacefully. We would not reconnect with the brood, for they must have found more CREP land habitat down the way. “You never know,” Kalahar explained, still in a loud whisper. “It can be quiet like this then suddenly in all the quiet they appear. Now, while the hens are laying their eggs, there is more group movement. The hens come in and the toms follows. Once the eggs are laid, then the hens separate themselves from the flock to incubate the eggs. The toms are more or less on their own and will be moving more. That comes later in the season. Right now they’re still following the hens.”
Our morning in the blind went slowly quickly, and while that might sound as a contradiction, it is as described. “Patience is the entire key to turkey hunting. Maybe 20 percent of the hunters score a bird and those that don’t are basically impatient. Me? I have unlimited patience. I can sit here in a blind from dawn to dusk, and really, there is nothing better. This is by far my favorite game to hunt. For moments in nature just like this.” In his “man cave” back in Olivia he will bring forth an impressive collection of turkey beards from his years of hunting. “I’m pretty picky. Mine is a selective harvest,” he said.
Contemplation over much of nothing comprised my morning, which was chilly enough without activity yet warm enough under down outerwear that there was no shivering. Watching a morning awaken is a delightful experience especially in a prairie meadow surrounded by dense wood. A few times I would see something of interest and shoot a picture. Tom intermittently worked either his slate or squawk box, though the answering had long before stopped.
This wasn’t going to be the day despite our honor of patience. Entering Kalahar’s world for a morning was something to cherish, a world filled with the nuances of nature from chickadees to distant hovering buzzards, from conversations with an adept turkey hunter and his distant prey to the continued “barks” of pheasants, also in the trials and tribulations of springtime romance.
“This is one of my temples,” he would say at one point as we waited. “I have many such temples, though none better than this. There is nothing better than turkey hunting. Nothing.” It would be a morning of all call and no beck, and we both honored these timeless nuances of nature between hunter and prey.
As we loaded our respective gear in our vehicles near noon, some six hours later, he extended the invitation to join him in the blind on another day. Perhaps I had passed the “patience test,” although he added, “Just be prepared, for next time you might be next to a shotgun blast.” His preferred hunting season was just three mornings away whereas mine seems perpetual, and like his, spring after spring.