Daylight lengthens and cold winds finally give way to warm, gentle breezes, for the most part anyway. This is the special time of year when many of us enjoy being outdoors, a welcome escape from the four walls that almost held us hostage just a few months back.
Each year it never fails. Warmer weather arrives and it seems I’m never quite ready for it. One moment there’s a lone daffodil springing up from the warming earth, and the next, cicadas are calling as the sun reaches the summer solstice.
Our refreshing spring season provides many opportunities — be it fishing, hiking, bird watching, searching for Indian artifacts, delicious morels or just taking in the splendor of our natural environment coming alive with new birth.
Spring also ushers in my favorite and most sentimental activity, our state’s wild turkey hunting season, which this year runs from April 22 to May 10.
Hunting wild turkeys is probably a little more emotional for me than most. Here’s why.
Back in the early 1980s and ‘90s, my quest for collecting these large birds meant driving hours from home. The closest would be the Hoosier National Forest in Southern Indiana. My travels also took me to places like Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. The thought of hunting wild turkeys within my own home county was not even a consideration, something unfathomable. Before the mid 1990s you would not see a turkey in Howard County. Why? Because there were none.
It was late February 1996 when I received the call.
“Hey John, we are going to release wild turkeys in western Howard County and want you to join us,” said now retired IDNR wildlife biologist Tom Hewitt.
The original reintroduction took place in a well-known area which was then referred to as Stellite Park.
“Most of our latest release sites have focused on areas in the northern part of the state,” Hewitt explained on that cool morning. “Although Howard County is marginal in terms of habitat, we have been looking pretty hard at the western Wildcat Creek drainage for quite a while and we are going to give it a try.”
With that said, we began opening cardboard boxes containing the birds.
“Isn’t this something,” I said out loud as the first bird bolted from its enclosure.
It was history in the making. We watched nine hens and three gobblers sprint on slender legs before taking flight on raucous wings. They sailed over the tree lined banks of the Wildcat.
“Isn’t that beautiful,” Hewitt said, as we watched the birds soar across the gray, late winter sky.
“Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to hunt close to home and won’t have to drive very far,” I’ll always remember him saying.
“Yeah right,” I said in sarcasm, “not in my lifetime.” The thought of harvesting birds locally was a pipe dream, one I thought I’d never see.
Normally the DNR allows for the legal hunting of turkeys six years after they are reintroduced but in the case of Howard County they opted to give it an additional year. In 2003 Howard County was added to the list of Indiana counties open to hunting. I couldn’t believe it. We went from no turkeys in this area to a population substantial enough to warrant legal hunting.
It was during that inaugural season I took my place in the woods. The sun was nothing more than an orange smudge on the eastern horizon when I heard a bird pitch from its roost. Shortly after daylight I succeeded in calling in that small gobbler. He strutted and pranced around my collapsible decoys.
With my Remington 12-gauge pushed tight to my shoulder I clicked the safety off. But squeezing the trigger was something I couldn’t do. It was something personal. It was a feeling the time wasn’t right, still too early I thought. I watched as the gobbler disappeared into the woods, with it my chance at collecting my first “homegrown” wild turkey. Instead, one week later, I made the several hours drive to Owen County to collect my bird.
The following year would be different. I will always remember that special morning. I could feel the rain drops tickle the back of my bare neck on the way to the woodlot. I cautiously placed the decoys before taking my seat against the trunk of a large cottonwood. The clucks and yelps from my calls seemed to hang in the damp air. It wasn’t long before a gobbler paraded from the woods. Each soft purr brought him closer and closer until he was strutting in normal turkey splendor trying to win the hearts of the fake hens which moved slightly in the soft breeze.
It was at that moment a huge smile crossed my face. I had personally witnessed the reintroduction of these magnificent birds in my home county and now was provided, on a personal level, the opportunity to collect one. And it all took place in under a decade — not a lifetime.