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Northbound gobblers

NEAR BARNUM, Minn. -- The Earth will need to rotate for another half hour before Carlton County catches the first gray light of morning, but Greg Bernu is hunkered down and ready. The first-year Minnesota turkey hunter, swaddled in camouflage head to toe, is scrunched against the trunk of a jackpine.

Before Bernu lies a grassy opening of a couple of acres. He has seen gobblers strutting here before, during his preseason scouting. Now, on this first day of Minnesota's first 2008 spring turkey hunting session, Bernu, of Brookston, is hoping they'll appear within 30 yards of him.

Minnesota's spring turkey season opened April 16 and the last of its eight five-day sessions ends May 29. For the first time, turkey hunting zones have pushed north into Carlton County, and that's why Bernu is here.

"It's kind of neat being on the edge of their range, trying to find the birds," he says.

I sit alongside Bernu, waiting for morning. On our drive to this field, the setting moon hung low in the west like a chunk of cheddar. It's down now, and as we sit in the dark, we listen to the emerging day. A hen mallard sounds off from a nearby wetland. She's so loud it sounds as if she's using a bullhorn. A pair of woodcock is performing dueling sky dances, whistling as they climb, warbling on the descent.

Then, at 5:30 p.m., there comes a soft sound, not quite a chirp, but more than a coo.

"There she is," Bernu whispers.

It's a hen turkey, making her first furtive yelps of the new day. She's just letting the gobblers know where she is. Soon after, we hear the first gobble of the day, off to our left some distance away.

Game on.

Bernu wears a camouflage balaclava of fleece, cinched so that only his eyes are visible. In his mouth, he has a latex diaphragm turkey call. He moves it into position and pushes air past it in short bursts. The series of soft yelps drifts across the field.

Somewhat later, the gobbler sounds off again, still at a distance. It's hard to know whether he has heard Bernu, or whether he cares.

Cool conversation

Still, it is this act of having a conversation with a gobbler that makes turkey hunting so addictive. Few occasions in nature allow us mere humans to have a meaningful exchange with a wild creature, especially an exchange that might result in the critter coming to check us out.

As it turns out, this gobbler keeps his distance, though he talks to Bernu for most of two hours.

"It stayed locked in the one spot over there," Bernu would say later.

Who knows why. He may be across the road and be unwilling to cross it. Gobblers are funny that way.

"Hey, baby," they seem to be saying. "Here I am. All ruffled up and struttin' my stuff for you. Get on over here. Check me out."

Or maybe he already has a hen with him. It's hard to call a gobbler away from the real deal.

This country is not loaded with birds just yet. The birds here have most likely wandered west from Wisconsin, says Rich Staffon, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager in Cloquet. Some may have also moved north from Pine County. Wild turkeys were transplanted there a couple of years ago, Staffon said.

A series of mild winters has aided the expansion of turkeys northward across Minnesota, he said. Although there's little agricultural land in this part of the state, turkeys likely are picking up corn from feeders that rural residents maintain for deer.

One farmer that Bernu has spoken to in Carlton County said he's seen 140 wild turkeys in his field at one time. A Carlton County highway crew reported that a jake (a young male turkey) accompanied by two hens had attacked its truck near Cromwell one day this spring, Bernu said. There are birds around.

Historically, turkeys were never this far north, said Martha Minchak, DNR assistant area wildlife manager in Duluth. The pre-settlement range of turkeys in Minnesota was limited to the extreme southeast corner of the state.

Morning comes on

As daylight slips over the land, Bernu can see his hen and jake decoys about 25 yards away. Then he notices movement beyond them. A wild turkey is moving our way.

"I was telling myself, 'Look for the beard. Look for the beard,' " Bernu says later.

A "beard" is a tuft of wiry hair that hangs from a gobbler's chest. Only gobblers are legal game. This bird doesn't have a beard. She's a hen. And she's coming to see us.

She moseys along slowly, as if trying to place her big feet carefully. She's picking weed seeds from the ground as she goes, and she's uttering quiet little yelps as she moves. She circles around to our right, then walks straight at Bernu until she is seven human steps away from him. We are sitting on the ground, and Bernu is eye-level with the hen. Turkeys are known for their keen eyesight.

"My heart rate took off," Bernu would say later. "I think it about tripled."

But the hen doesn't see us. She meanders out around the decoys, as if checking out her competition, before walking into the jackpines behind us. We never see her again, but her visit has changed our morning.

The gobbler doesn't want to play the game, however. Bernu pulls up about 9:30 a.m. We drive to another spot where he has seen birds and sit for another hour or so. The wind has come up, making calling less effective. Bernu uses both his diaphragm call and a slate call, but no gobblers respond.

As we return to his car after the hunt, Bernu stops abruptly by the road.

"Look," he says.

Turkeys are flying down the road. He watches them until they flare into woods on some leased land.

Sure enough. Wild turkeys.

Right here in Carlton County.