First-time turkey hunters take to Wisconsin woods
Volunteer mentors get kids out in the woods for their first-ever hunting experiences.
WASCOTT, Wis. — Breckin Bergquist had a lot of firsts on a cool Saturday morning in the pine and oak country of southern Douglas County.
It was his first time holding a loaded shotgun in the woods.
His first time learning to sit motionless in the predawn darkness, hopefully unseen and unheard by any wild turkey that might be nearby.
His first time using a slate call, in the woods, to mimic the soft yelps of a hen wild turkey, hoping to entice a tom turkey to come into range.
It was Bergquist's first turkey hunt. It was his first time hunting ever.
It was the first time Bergquist, 13, heard a ruffed grouse drumming in the woods and sandhill cranes chortling off in the distance and the just-a-little-too-distant sound of tom turkeys gobbling as the sun neared rising.
He didn’t seem to mind the 19-degree cold. Or the fact his borrowed camouflage gloves had fingers 3 inches too long for his still-growing hands.
The morning didn't end with what everyone involved hoped would be Bergquist’s best "first": his first tom turkey harvested. The birds were just a little too far away. But there will likely be more hunts for Bergquist in the future if his smiles after the first one were any indication.
"It was great," he said.
Bergquist was one of 13 Douglas County girls and boys, ages 10-16, to participate in the 15th Learn to Hunt program sponsored by the Gitchee Gumme Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation . Kevin Feind, Bergquist's mentor on this year's hunt, has been the coordinator of all 15 events.
Feind picked the spot, having seen turkeys in the area during recent scouting trips. He set up the decoys and did the first calling, then whispered to Bergquist through the teen’s first attempts at operating a slate call during a hunt. You could tell boy had been practicing.
Feind is a turkey hunting fanatic, with 34 turkey hunting seasons behind him, the perfect guide for Bergquist's first hunt. Bergquist was the perfect example of what the Learn to Hunt program is all about — namely getting kids who otherwise might not get the chance to get out in the woods and experience hunting.
“I’ve been wanting to go hunting for a long time. But no one in my family really hunts anymore, so I didn’t have anyone to go with,” Bergquist said.
Luckily, his mother saw a Facebook post announcing the Learn to Hunt program. “She was pretty nervous about it at first, about me going with people I didn’t know, with a loaded gun. ... She watches out for me,” Bergquist said. “But she said 'yes.'”
Across the Northland and nationally, the number of hunters has been declining for years, slowly at first and now much more rapidly as the oldest baby boomers begin to age out of the outdoors and fewer young hunters replace them.
As society becomes more urban, with fewer connections to the outdoors and wildlife, there are fewer people with ties to friends or family who hunt.
Other distractions and opportunities, from video games, to team sports, to non-consumptive outdoor adventures like biking, take up huge chunks of many kids’ time. Other prospective hunters don’t have access to gear, guns or hunting land.
But Feind and others involved in the Learn to Hunt program hope to at least show them what they are missing, and how to get started properly, if they want to stay involved. This year, four of the 13 participants bagged big toms on the first morning.
“It’s a lot of work putting this on every year. I’ll bet I have more than 80 hours into it over the winter. We get a lot of donations form local businesses, too,” said Feind, who recently retired as a park ranger for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “But it’s worth it when you see the kids' reactions.”
Volunteer mentors Bob Butzler, Mark Nollet and Dan Schafter each received commemorative turkey calls this year marking their participation in all 15 years of the program.
The Learn to Hunt program is far more than a weekend of hunting. Participants attended a four-hour seminar on turkey ecology, hunting tactics, gear and safety that was held two weeks before the hunt. Then mentors and hunters gathered in the garage of the Four Seasons Snowmobile Club on Friday evening before the hunt. Most of the mentors and all of the participants brought their sleeping bags, and local businesses and others donated food, so the kids were able to experience a true hunting camp atmosphere.
On Saturday evening, the new hunters participated in a turkey-calling contest using a commemorative, custom-engraved slate call from Luck Custom Calls that each participant received for free.
“I’m just glad we are able to do it again,” Feind said, noting COVID-19 precautions canceled the event in 2020 and 2021.
For Josh Huray, of Lake Nebagamon, this year’s Learn to Hunt program closed a life circle. Huray was a first-time turkey hunting participant in the program at age 15. This year, at 30, he was serving as a mentor and guide.
“I've hunted turkeys every year since that first time,” Huray said. “I love it. … Anything out in the woods and I’m good. To be able to sit out there and have the woods come alive in the morning all around you, that’s special. … I love taking other people out and seeing their eyes light up when they hear that big tom gobbling up close. That’s almost as good as shooting one yourself.”
Mentor and veteran hunter Dan Schafter, of Lake Nebagamon, agreed.
“Thirty years ago, I had never even seen a wild turkey before. Now, they are everywhere,’’ Schafter said. “I've had so much fun doing this … and maybe we can pass this on to some new kids.”
By the way, all that practicing that Bergquist did on the slate turkey call paid off. He didn’t bag a turkey, but he did win the turkey-calling contest Saturday evening and nearly called a bird in Sunday morning.
For more information on the Superior-based Gitchee Gumme Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and its Lean to Hunt program, contact Kevin Feind at firstname.lastname@example.org .
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com .