CLAYTON, Ill. — The morning began the way most April mornings have this year, chilly and calm.
The temperature didn’t bother Frank Winchester. The quiet concerned him.
“When I sat down, there was no noise whatsoever,” he said. “No wind whistling. No birds chirping. No crackle of leaves from squirrels scrambling. No gobbling either. Just nothing.”
It made him second guess if he’d pick the right place to hunt.
“There were three different areas we identified on the property we’re allowed to hunt where we thought there’d be good activity,” said Winchester, a former Adams County resident now living in Minneapolis who came back this week for the opening of the spring turkey hunting season.
“We scouted the areas, listened to the gobbling and saw birds. The spot I decided to sit on seemed to be the most promising.”
Tuesday morning, it seemed more ominous.
“Have you ever sat alone in the dark woods and heard nothing, not a crow or a cackle or a peep?” Winchester said. “It’s eerie, and you have a moment where you start wondering what’s out there. You can’t see anything and you can’t hear or sense anything. It’s kind of unnerving.”
About the time the sun hit the horizon and started to lift the veil of night, everything changed.
Winchester had a rabbit scurry past. A sparrow landed on a low branch of a tree just a few yards away. A rope of Canada geese flew overheard. Finally, the first gobble of the morning rained down from the roost.
“That’s the reason I picked this spot,” Winchester said. “I knew there were turkeys around.”
Could he get them to the ground and within range? That’s always the biggest concern.
The Illinois spring turkey season opened Monday in the Central Zone with varying amounts of success. Some hunters traded their shotguns for their fishing poles when it became apparent the birds weren’t interested. Others had their patience and planning rewarded.
Bryce Buckman harvested the biggest bird he’s ever seen, a 33-pound tom with 1 ½-inch spurs and a 12-inch beard. Clint Sorenson took his 12-year-old son, Conner, on his first turkey hunt and watched him roll a jake with his first shot. Tom Wilson spent three mornings on private property in the Siloam Springs State park vicinity and never saw a single bird.
“Be thankful if you’re hearing and seeing anything,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t a good start to the season for us.”
Winchester figured he was bound for the same fate.
“When you don’t hear anything, you get frustrated,” he said. “Clearly I was getting frustrated.”
He judged by his inability to sit still.
“I was fidgety,” Winchester said. “I was antsy.”
Once he heard some gobbling, he calmed down quickly.
“You can’t move, not an inch,” Winchester said. “I couldn’t risk giving myself away.”
He had two decoys in the field in front of him, and he built himself a somewhat concealed spot between trees with a fallen tree behind him. Still, he wasn’t in a ground blind, which left his movements and sound exposed.
“Turkeys pick up on that,” Winchester said. “You have to be sneaky around them. More importantly, you have to be quiet and calm.”
Much like the way the morning started.
“Maybe such a start to the day was a good sign,” Winchester said.
That’s only if the birds cooperate.
“We got lucky to have the birds respond to our calls,” Buckman said. “Never did I dream I’d kill such a big bird, but the birds were willing to work with us and came to our decoys. We had four birds actually in front of two of us, but you could tell he was a monster.”
Winchester hoped for such luck.
“You want to be able to pin your sight on a bird and be confident you know it’s a quality bird, not something that needs time to mature,” Winchester said. “All I hoped for was a big tom to come strutting into the field. I wanted to shoot something like the pictures I saw others posting on social media.
“And I wanted a big bird so I had plenty of meat. My family loves eating wild turkey.”
His family should be plenty happy.
The quiet morning that rolled into a bevy of activity at the break of dawn ended with a 27-pound bird on the ground. The 1 ¼-inch spurs and 10-inch beard were further proof this was a mature bird.
“I doubted my instincts in picking the right spot,” Winchester said. “I shouldn’t have doubted myself.
“My kids will be happy. They’ll get smoked wild turkey for a Sunday family dinner when I get back home.”