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Frozen Wisconsin hunters get their turkeys the hard way

Austin Winfield of Lake Nebagamon, Wis., kneels behind a gobbler he shot April 27 near Barnes, Wis. Winfield, 34, has been hunting turkeys and calling turkeys for friends for about 12 years. Nick Lehman / submitted photo

BARNES, Wis. — All Austin Winfield and Nick Lehman really wanted to do was get out of their turkey hunting blind and get warm.

On this late April morning near Barnes, Wis., they had been sitting for five hours, huddled over a propane heater. A heavy dusting of snow covered the ground. The temperature was 25 degrees.

"We were sitting there shaking, holding our hands over the heater," said Winfield, 34, of Lake Nebagamon, Wis.

"I have some less politically correct ways to describe how cold I was," said Lehman, also from Lake Nebagamon.

Somehow, though, before they left the blind they needed to run off the hen turkey that had been feeding in front of them for a couple of hours. The hunters wanted to leave but didn't want to give away their presence to the hen. This patch of small oaks and jack pines had a lot of turkey sign, and they would want to hunt it again.

Winfield thought maybe a few excited yelps and cuts on his slate call would shoo the hen. Nope. She just went back to feeding.

That's when Lehman heard a faint gobble in the distance. The cold hunters decided to delay their retreat.

Half an hour passed. No more gobbling. Winfield gobbled at the hen with his call, trying to get her to leave. That didn't work, either.

But the faraway gobbler responded again — from much closer this time.

"He closed to within 200 yards immediately," Winfield said. "Nick put his gun out the window. He's getting cold. He's starting to shake."

Closing the distance

This was Lehman's bird to shoot, if it came to that. Winfield was along just to assist in calling, although he had a turkey license and he had his gun along.

Now the gobbler had closed to 60 or 70 yards, Winfield said. Turkey hunters typically like to have a bird within 30 yards or so before shooting.

"We can see his big fan (tail)," Winfield said. "He's turning right and left, showing that hen what he's got. But he's at 60 or 70 yards. I don't think that's an ethical shot."

The hen began moving toward the gobbler. The gobbler closed, now within 40 or 50 yards of the hunters. And kept coming.

"Now he's getting to 35 or 40 yards, into our kill zone," Winfield said. "The adrenaline is pumping through both of us. I said, 'Keep breathing, buddy.' His leg was dancing."

"After about 10 minutes of holding the gun up, I whispered, 'I'm gonna take it,' " Lehman said. He sighted down his 12-gauge and squeezed the trigger.

"I heard, 'click,'" he said. "It was a misfire. It's rare, but it happens."

"What do we do?" Winfield whispered to Lehman.

"Grab your gun and shoot that sucker," Lehman said.

The gobbler went into a half-strut, then poked his head up for a moment. Winfield took his shot. The bird, a nice gobbler with a 9-inch beard, dropped on the spot, Winfield said.

Finally, the hunters could think about going someplace warm.

One more chance

Later that afternoon, Lehman was back in the woods alone, scouting for the next morning. On a rural road not far from the morning hunt, he spotted several turkeys. He checked his map to make sure the adjacent land was public, not private.

He hustled down a logging trail, set up his decoys and hunkered in some brush.

"I did some light calling," he said. "They saw my hen and came in hot."

Among the three turkeys coming were a jake (a young tom) and at least one gobbler. Lehman told himself he would take the first good shot he had. The jake made the first mistake.

"Before I knew it, I shot the bird," Lehman said.

Sometimes, it's easy.

Turkey-hunting tips from Austin Winfield

• Cold-weather turkey hunting — "They're still going to be eating. They're still going to be breeding. My experience is that it makes them not want to call. A person has to do more spot-and-stalk hunting. You have to go after the bird."

• Combination calling — "I like using a combination of diaphragm (mouth) calls — they're more hands-free — and slate calls. It adds to the realism. You get different pitches from each one."

• Perfection unnecessary — "You don't have to have the greatest call or be the greatest caller. They want to find hens. They don't care what you sound like in most cases. Just get out there and make your mistakes."

• The call to start with — "If it's your first time, I'd definitely recommend a slate call. You can watch your striker and see what you have to do to make a putt or a cluck."

• Hunt in comfort — "Comfort is a big deal. Some hunting vests come with a back pad and a cushion to sit on. Or use a low-profile chair."

• Know the territory — "I use an app on my phone called onXmaps. It tells me the land ownership, so I could try to find the owner or see that there's county land along one edge. I also use the Douglas County plat book."

• Safety first — "If you're hunting on public land, and you notice somebody making an approach, don't move — yell. There have been too many times when people have shot at movement."