By DAVE ORRICK | St. Paul Pioneer Press
SCANDIA, Minn. (AP) — Two days after being shot in the head, neck and shoulder, Jerry Cusick ambled into the snowy pre-dawn woods. He was barely able to swing his shotgun but determined to shoot a wild turkey.
This wasn't exactly his plan. He hadn't set an alarm. He had simply woken up early.
“Look, I'm a turkey hunter,” Cusick told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I had my tag, and if I could figure out a safe way to handle my shotgun, I wasn't gonna let a morning like that just pass me by.”
He couldn't lift his left arm, which was swollen badly. But he's a right-handed shooter.
“I went and got my lightest shotgun, sat down on the floor, and said to myself, `Can I do this?”'
That was May 2, 2013.
Two days earlier, on April 30, Cusick, a veteran turkey hunter from Scandia and commander with the Washington County sheriff's office, had been eagerly anticipating his spring hunt on private land in St. Croix County, Wisconsin.
Knowing no one else had permission to hunt the land, he went scouting, walking around, looking and listening for signs of turkeys, an invaluable task when hunting spring gobblers.
Turkey hunting had already begun for hunters holding permits for the mini-season before Cusick's. (In Minnesota and Wisconsin, spring turkey hunting is broken down into mini-seasons, with permits only valid for certain dates in certain areas.)
Knowing this, Cusick kept to a mowed trail some distance from a fence that marked a different property, one that might have a hunter on it.
Because turkeys have excellent vision and are notoriously wary in the wild, turkey hunters dress in full camouflage. Because of this, and other reasons such as calls designed to mimic natural turkey sounds, extra safety precautions are needed when turkey hunting.
Cusick knew these precautions well. After all, he had taught turkey hunting safety classes. He didn't wear red, white or blue; those colors are exhibited by male turkeys in the spring mating season. He stayed upright and visible; a crouched man can have a similar profile to a turkey. And he didn't call.
He heard a yelp, and close by, but it didn't sound quite right. “I thought it sounded like a box call,” Cusick, now 55, said. “I thought, `There shouldn't be any hunter there. But I should probably get out of here just in case.”'
He turned around and walked a few paces back along the trail, toward his truck.
From perhaps 20 to 25 yards away, on the other side of some small brush, Anthony Peter Cardarelli had shot Cusick. “It was like getting hit with a baseball bat,” Cusick said. The Louisville Slugger came in the form of 50 to 60 lead pellets from Cardarelli's shotgun that weren't blocked by the intervening undergrowth. Despite Cusick's face being peppered and one pellet lodging behind his eye, neither of his eyes was struck.
Cardarelli, then 29, of White Bear Lake, had been hunting with his father, who had permission to hunt the parcel adjacent to the one Cusick was walking and was set up elsewhere on that land. As it turns out, the Cardarellis were acquainted with Cusick, although no one pieced anything together right away.
Cardarelli, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment with a firearm, told authorities he mistook Cusick for a turkey. Cardarelli could not be reached for comment for this story. Cusick said Cardarelli wrote him an apology letter, but the two haven't spoken.
Cusick was taken to the hospital, and discharged the next day, May 1. When I interviewed him that afternoon, I asked him if he still planned on turkey hunting, he told me, “I'm going.” But he didn't know when. Then, exhausted and sore, he went to sleep.
“I think I just went to bed so early that I woke up really early,” Cusick said in a recent interview, in which he provided the sequel to his 2013 turkey season. Doctors had offered him pain medication, but he didn't take any, and it looked like he might not have to. He figures he slept for 12 hours. “Nobody's up in the house, I'm rested, and I got a valid turkey tag. I had paid my non-resident fee. It wouldn't be right to waste it.”
He quickly figured out that he could rest his Remington 870 Express between his knees and effectively aim his shotgun. He wouldn't have much versatility, but if a tom came in front of Cusick's muzzle, he could finish the job.
He drove to his spot _ the same section of woods where two days prior he was lying on the ground wondering if he was about to die. He texted a friend, who quickly responded: “You're nuts. I'll be there in 10 minutes.”
Then Cusick heard the sound all spring turkey hunters yearn for.
“I texted him back, `I heard a gobble. Gotta go.”'
Then another gobble, from a different turkey.
He set up behind a pile of wood a few feet off the ground in a plantation of 20- to 30-year-old pines. “It wasn't an ideal location, but I figured if I could wait until they flew down off the roost, maybe I could call them in, right down the lines of trees.”
It worked. After the two turkeys flew down from their nighttime roosts in the trees, Cusick called, and the birds ran straight toward him, coming at such an angle that he couldn't see them, and they couldn't see him.
The first glimpse he got of the jake, a young male, was when it popped his head up, just on the other side of the wood pile. “He was no more than 7 yards in front of me,” Cusick said. “I thought, `I think I could dust him right now.”'
The goal of spring wild turkey hunting is to shoot only males, since the females will soon be laying eggs, and hunters want the birds to thrive. (It was turkey hunters, after all, who are largely responsible for the wildly successful reintroduction of the native bird to Minnesota in the 1970s.)
In Minnesota, a hunter may shoot only a bird with a beard, a hair-like tassel protruding generally from the chest of males. Some females have beards, and some males don't. However, in Wisconsin, hunters are allowed to shoot a male turkey without a beard. But Cusick didn't fire.
“I could only see the head. I'm 95 percent sure I'm looking at a male turkey, but I waited to see the beard. I had to be patient.” That two days before another turkey hunter failed to be so patient is not lost on Cusick. “I don't understand why you wouldn't be patient. If you get a bird in that close and blow it, wound it or miss or, well, shoot something that's not a turkey, well, I just can't imagine messing up like that.”
The bird moved just enough to reveal its beard and remain within Cusick's limited field of fire.
Cusick, carrying a shotgun with one hand and dozens of lead pellets in his face, was soon affixing his tag to a dead turkey.