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A (b)log of Natural Resources Info

By Guest Blogger, Travis Feller from Eagle River, Wisconsin


Spring turkey hunting is among my favorite pastimes. To me turkeys are the star of spring, nothing beats hearing a gobble so loud it can be felt or watching the morning sunlight dance off a strutting tom’s iridescent feathers.   A hunter only gets so many springs to chase tom turkeys and I hope to make the best of each one. In 2023 I was invited on a hunt in southeast Kansas. The hunt was incredible, and it was such a joy to experience a turkey hunt in unfamiliar terrain and habitat.  I had so much fun exploring a different state that I wanted to do it again. Only a month after I returned from Kansas, I found my next place to explore. Google maps aerial map showed a small ribbon of green in an expanse of tan, which piqued my curiosity.  After a little research I confirmed the next destination: northern Nebraska along the Niobrara River.  Nebraska Game and Parks has a lot of information on their website to help a non-resident hunter find camping spots and hunting areas.  Nebraska is also generous with their tag allocation to non-residents, issuing 10,000 permits at a very reasonable cost.  The subspecies of turkey that calls Nebraska home is the Merriam. Like many other states, historical wild turkey populations needed a lot of help and in 1959 reintroduction efforts began with 28 birds released in the Pine Ridge area in northwest Nebraska.  The main difference between Merriam turkeys and the Eastern turkeys we have here in Wisconsin is their plumage.  Merriams tend to have white tip tail feathers and more white barring on their wings.  Other subtle differences are their shorter beard length, shorter spurs, and a less boisterous gobble.



(Photo caption: The subspecies of wild turkey that we know here in WI is the Eastern Wild Turkey on the left.  On the right is a Merriam's wild turkey- note the very light tan tail and wing tips.  Photo credit: Mossy Oak)

Joining me on the 2024 Nebraska turkey adventure was my brother Bob and my good friends Patrick and Brad.  We were all excited to be feral hunters exploring an area unknown to any of us. Bob and I left Northern Wisconsin in the early morning of May first.  Bob and I were surprised to see we were the only campers in the campground when we pulled in and the solitude was welcomed.  A weather front was approaching so we hustled to set up our home for the week, a 12x12 canvas outfitter tent.  The campsite was right beside Bone Creek and was a short walk to the adjoining Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and to a foot bridge that provided a wonderful view of the steep bluffs and banks lining Bone Creek.  The campground had little traffic over the course of the week and was a great place to relax and enjoy some birding in a different habitat.  We had a resident flock of Gold Finches, a beautiful Redheaded Woodpecker, a Spotted and Eastern Towhee, Cardinals, ducks, geese, and many Mourning Doves.  A notable absence on our bird list for the week was Sandhill Cranes- not a single one was seen or heard. 

The areas we hunted and explored near camp were diverse in terrain and habitat types.  We were all surprised how steep the country was.  Ravines and canyons, sometimes two hundred feet deep, split the landscape. The tops of the ridges were either yellow prairie grass or Ponderosa Pine. Dropping off the ridges and steep banks were dense thickets of cedar and juniper. Some sections of the ravines were sheer cliffs. The bottoms had stands of bur oak growing alongside creeks or creek beds. Closer to the Niobrara River the hills were more rolling and dotted with juniper. 

(Photo Caption: the rugged banks along the Niobara River may not be what you think of when you picture Nebraska's landscape)

The area right along the river was lined with emerald green pastures and was flat and park-like with cottonwoods and bur oak trees. The Niobrara River itself is shallow, mocha colored, and braided flowing east to the Missouri River.

The four of us experienced a quintessential turkey hunt.  Sometimes turkey hunting is easy, as proven by Brad and Patrick.  Brad got his bird less than 2 hours into the first day and Patrick shot his bird less than a quarter mile from our tent on day two.  Other times turkey hunting is hard. Bob and I had a tough hunt; we chased turkeys up and down steep creek banks choked with cedar and juniper, scaled big Ponderosa Pine ridges, got stabbed by yucca plants, sat on cactuses, and were schooled by the Merriam turkey.  Camp life was a ball too.  We ate like kings, told stories, and had plenty of laughs.  It was such a privilege to share camp with three guys I look up to.

(Photo Caption: The Niobara River glows green against the tan grasses of the surrounding landscape)

There were too many highlights from the trip that I am hard pressed to pick a favorite.  Every morning the whippoorwill calls were abundant. Those little birds reminded me of my childhood when they were common in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.  Seeing bison on the wide-open prairie made me feel as though we stepped back in time and got a glimpse of what this part of the Earth was supposed to look like.  There was a moment I crested a hill to see the orange, waning crescent moon at eye level and it appeared as though I could reach out and touch it.  I found a fresh mountain lion track in a creek bed. It was easy to imagine that cat up on a bluff watching Bob and I walk along the creek below it. When Patrick shot his turkey above camp it was great to see him walk down the trail towards the tent smiling ear to ear with a big tom hanging off his shoulder. The image of a white tipped turkey fan just beyond a crest of a hill will be forever in my mind.

(One reason I enjoy hunting is that I get to connect with nature in a more primal, rugged way.  This scene of bison on the wide open prairie gave me pause to think about how the land might have looked hundreds of years ago).

Hunting is one of the many ways our natural resources are managed, and I'm proud to take part in that tradition.  While it might be viewed as strictly taking from the land, the vast majority hunters share a commitment to conservation and sustainability because they want to continue to have populations to hunt.  What a privilege it was to connect with an animal and pastime near and dear to my heart in a different part of our country. Nebraska gave us everything it had to offer, cold mornings, starry predawn hours, the sweet smell of the damp juniper, the prairie winds, the hot sun, the stunning hilltop views, and gobbling turkeys. I can’t wait to go back.