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Caitlynn Nemec, a wildlife ecology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, stands next to a large buck rub discovered while turkey hunting on public land in southwestern Wisconsin. / Patrick Durkin

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RIDGEWAY The twin barrels of Caitlynn Nemec's over/under gun hovered about 12 inches beyond my knee, and I expected its 20-gauge shotgun barrel to roar any second.

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We couldn't see it, but a male turkey was about 30 yards away, just over the wooded knoll. We knew this because the tom announced its approach with regular gobbles, and its "vroooom" drumming grew louder by the second.

A minute earlier, Nemec, 24, had raised her gun, rested its forend on her left knee and cocked its hammer. After watching her shoot the day before, April 1, at the Waunakee Gun Club, I felt confident she wouldn't miss. All we needed was the gobbler to crest the hill and expose its head.

The bird never made that mistake. Instead of strutting over the knoll, tail fanned and wattles flaring, the gobbler stayed out of sight. If we had been standing instead of sitting, Nemec probably would have had a clear view and easy shot.

But one does not ambush wild turkeys while standing, and so this one escaped by simply walking up the ridgeline, its gobbles taunting us as it departed. Nemec uncocked the hammer and lowered her gun. So close

We weren't finished, though. We hadn't been drawn to that particular Iowa County hillside by that particular bird. No, we had gotten there by following our ears to other birds after leaving my truck at the public land's parking lot.

The walk took about an hour as we paused, called, listened and worked our way toward a flock of turkeys that yelped, gobbled and cackled in the distance. Finally, we settled beneath a large, double-trunked white oak uphill from the flock, and then called and listened some more as they carried on in the nearby valley.

The gobbler that answered approached from uphill, apparently by itself. And even as it walked away, the flock below kept talking, feeding and milling about. We made one last, futile pitch for the loner before moving downhill, closer to the flock.

We set up against another double-trunked white oak and resumed calling. Eventually the flock grew silent but we didn't move. Maybe the turkeys were moving. Maybe we were in their path. We stayed anchored to our oak.

We sat there until hope abandoned us, and we finished the morning by calling, listening and easing back toward the truck. We stopped at times to admire cardinals, photograph turkey vultures and gawk at a buck-rubbed aspen as thick as a man's thigh.

The deer hunter in me rushed to the surface, and I explained that the buck authoring this rub was likely big, tall and heavy-antlered. "And just think: It probably lives here on public land."

After reaching the truck, we returned to Middleton, Nemec's hometown, for lunch. Nemec and I were taking part in a state-sanctioned Learn to Hunt program organized by Karl Malcolm, a graduate student in wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin.

Nemec, too, is a wildlife ecology grad student, and one of 22 young men and women who enrolled for this hunt. Malcolm arranged the weekend course with help from the Willy Street Food Co-Op on University Avenue in Middleton.

I've come to know Malcolm, 29, the past year through his research on black bears in west-central Wisconsin, and through his efforts to promote hunting to people who seldom cross paths with hunters. Malcolm grew up hunting in Michigan and lives near the Wisconsin River in Arena. He hunts every chance he gets for ducks, deer, turkeys and rabbits to feed himself and his wife, Shoshana.

Malcolm's strong bond to nature's free-range meat helps him connect to people who seek natural, organic foods grown near home. He encourages these folks to debate stereotypes about hunting, but to also consider similarities with hunters by learning their skills firsthand.

Those efforts led Malcolm to suggest a Learn to Hunt program to Dawn Matlak and Lynn Olson at the Willy Street Co-op, the legendary natural-foods cooperative that began in 1974 on Madison's Williamson Street. The idea took root, and so it was that nearly two dozen fledgling hunters ages 19 to 31 joined with 22 mentors ages 20 to 62 to shoot guns, share meals, wear camo and hunt wild turkeys the first weekend of April.

Six of the new hunters shot a turkey by sunset Sunday, but Nemec wasn't among them. Then again, she grew up fishing with her father, Al, and knows something about trapshooting, pheasant hunting and the uncertainties of food gathering.

Even so, we had hoped to present her husband, Matt Dolfin, a giant gobbler when returning to their apartment. That's a good reason to try again next spring.

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