"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies and Turkey Hunting

In the maturation process, one must come to face certain hard realities.  Maturity helps us live with the sometimes uncomfortable truths that perhaps we’ve avoided or hidden from ourselves for whatever reasons.  I am more than most, imperfect.  I have a face made for radio and enough insecurities and skeletons lounging in various and sundry closets to populate an asylum and a cemetery. I am  slowly learning that facing the truth, while sometimes painful, is the best thing for me.  

And so today, as I left the turkey woods for only the second time in the quickly waning one month  season, I looked squarely into my hunting soul’s mirror and said “You suck at this  turkey hunting thing”.  This admission comes after almost twenty years of hunting and two turkeys called in to the kill.  Okay, so I must be totally truthful here. Not counting the paintbrush-bearded  bird I called in for a first timer a couple of years back, that’s one bird in seventeen years of pulling myself out of a warm bed at hours beyond witching to stumble around in dark woods pretending to be something that a  few well -armed carnivores would like to make a meal of.   One in seventeen—generously rounded up, that’s a 6% success rate.  I strike out, come home empty handed, shotgun unfired, turkey tags still neatly tucked  and long beards none the worse for wear, 94 times out of a hundred.  So this morning as I did all the positive self talking I could stand, I decided on a new tactic and headed out a bit later than usual. Trying to beat the sun to the birds had not been successful and so now with another “O’fer” turkey season in the balance, it was time to change things up. The idea of the mid-morning start is to let nature take its course. Let the birds do their thing off the roost and in the pastures. Then, after all the loving is done, intercept the still stimulated gobblers as they cruise the woods for the hens that would be taking a break from nest tending.

And so this new way, I assured myself, would be the key to success. I imagined the hunt in the river bottom where I would call the bird in on a magnetic string of the raspiest, most alluring notes that no self-respecting gobbler could resist.  From somewhere on the oak ridge above the river, the boss bird would cut my calls off in mid yelp, breaking the songbird serenade with his thunderous pleas for love.  He would stroll in, head glowing patriotically, red, and white and blue.  Spitting, drumming and fanning his tail in and out of the shadows of buttressed trees, his gobbling would shake the ground and my heart would thump along with the reverberations.  In the cathedral of buckeyes, poplars, oaks and hickories, the wild world would stop to listen. And then, only after I’d watched every bit of the show and as he deflated his feathers to survey the scene, I would  pull the trigger, sending a tightly packed load of number fours to do the deadly job. I would rise and run to the flopping bird and after his final flings, I would kneel in respect beside him, stroke the obsidian iridescence of his plumage, feel the sharpness of his spurs and inspect the evidence of the work done to win the chance at making the next generation of  Meleagris gallopavo—eastern wild turkey. His tattered wing tips rubbed to frazzles and fan ragged from combat  and cavorting would be testament to his legacy.  And then I would heft the ol’ limb hanger respectfully  and sling him over my shoulder as I walked out of the spring woods, the almost two inch spurs  and foot- long beard the trophies I’d show to tell the winged warriors life. Ultimately, his life would mean the most in the recycling role as a satisfying meal gathered, like the venison we enjoy, to continue the circle of sustenance.  

That was the picture in my mind anyway.  It is a dream I’ve relived in and out of the April season.  Today, as it has been almost every time, it was not to be.  As I wandered down the woods roads, there was plenty of sign that turkeys were indeed here.  There were the trident tracks and leaves thrown about where they’d scratched and fed.  To bedazzle the birds, I kissed on my wing bone, sucked the diaphragm and stroked the box call but got only a token, distant gobble or two that sounded more like an uncertain Jake than the super confident Boss Tom I was hoping for.  There are two kinds of turkey hunters.  The super active runners and gunners call and chase, closing the distance between themselves and the bird with little patience of the sitters who call and cast, hoping to lure a bird to within range.  I suppose I am a hybrid runner-sitter.  My disposition depends on the day.  Today, I determined I would be patient and so as I wandered about slowly, stalking more than walking, I fell into the rhythm of the woods, waiting for what I knew the odds said was not likely to happen.

I followed my dream of the perfect hunt and ended up in the bottom, next to the Reedy River.  It is my favorite place on the property and it draws me, even though I’ve not ever met with hunting success there. There is almost always sign, and I became obsessed with stalking what I believed to be a mature buck there this past fall.  I failed in that attempt as browns and grays of autumn and winter dominated the scene. But now I hoped that something feathered would fall my way in the new season. 

Big trees, hardwoods and the occasional towering loblolly growing where it is meant to be with wet feet, populate the bottom like rooted columns. The forest floor, flush with tangles  of Virginia creeper, and young buckeye was open enough to let a turkey feel secure but provided enough cover to hide me from the most wary eyes in the woods.  And so I found a pretty sit at the foot of a big hickory.  I called-- nothing.  It was mid-morning but the dawn chorus had yet to wane.  A pair of Kentucky warblers dueled along the creek throwing their rollicking songs back and forth to proclaim a stretch of the scrubby cane and privet that might foster the next brood of yellow-bellied skulkers.  I am always amazed at the birds that find their way from their equatorial haunts, across the Gulf of Mexico to maybe the same tract of timber that nurtured them the year before. Instinct, whether to migrate across hemispheres by a two ounce warbler or to strut, spit and drum like a twenty pound gobbler, ultimately guides the lives of wildlings. The Kentucky warblers were joined by a who’s who of Neotropical migrants; other warblers, thrushes, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks and even a yellow-billed cuckoo fresh off of winter vacations in Central and South America, whistled, trilled, and chipped a claim to the rich real estate.  I called again for the one bird I’d not heard from, and this time, a gobble!  From somewhere on the bluff above me, someone was paying attention.

I hunkered down and got ready to live the dream. My breathing was heavy and my hands shook, just like they do when a whitetail makes an appearance. I called again. Nothing-again.  The minutes slogged  by like the river below me and a carpenter ant explored the expanse of my leg, wondering perhaps if my camouflage was worth chewing.  As my rear end numbed and the  adrenalin sapped away, the dream did too.  A northern parula warbler zipped it’s song up the scale and the cuckoo, the bird my grandmother used to call a “rain crow” , croaked and cowked even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I had a lengthy bird list for the morning. It just didn’t include a wild turkey  permanently sampled.

The statistics weren’t looking good. Perhaps there’s too much going on in the spring woods that makes me a less than competent turkey hunter. With all the new avian arrivals, I can’t resist sneaking a peak at the flashes of feathers or turning to see the bird belting out territorial solo just yards away from me.  Perhaps the bird obsession is causing me to give the turkeys too many breaks.  I let perfectly edible and legally hunt-able Jakes walk just a couple of weeks back. Why?  Because I let my birder get the best of me.  Maybe it’s being on the ground at eye level with the wood’s world instead of above it.  There in the musty leaves with life burgeoning in the decay, I sometimes fall into an odd stupor, finding the litter as comfortable as a feather bed. Maybe in the occasional slumber I’m missing chances at stealthy birds or becoming passive when I should be attentive and chasing.

I eventually left the little bottom to begin my trip back to the truck. The gobbling had stopped and the day was heating up.  I’d dropped the expectations of living the dream and was really looking for other things, like whether the thieves who had stolen two of my deer stands had made off with a third. As I slowly made my way up the bluff, I spied a dark form, stalking towards me. It was a turkey—a long beard, probably the bird that I’d heard earlier!  He was in and out of saplings and vines of the higher and drier site.  I sat down quickly and called softly on the diaphragm.  He half gobbled and fanned into a semi-strut.  Interested but less than fully convinced that I was the hen he sought, he declined my offer for dinner and hung up—as turkeys will tend to do, just behind a big oak that saved him.  Once I heard the sharp “cluck” I knew that the gig was up.  And my dream was too.  There is a little less than a  week left for me to make the stats look marginally better.  Maybe I should stick to hunting turkeys in my dreams. But then, I would miss all the other things that the time in an awakening world of wild things brings. I think I’ll keep at it.  Mark Twain said something about stats being another way to twist a lie—or the truth. Maybe that’s the way I need to think about my turkey hunting.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April's Fools

April marks the season of renewal and rebirth.  Leaves unfurl and blossoms bloom, driven by the warmth and longer light.  There is new green everywhere and feathered ornaments clad in yellow, orange, blue and red, suddenly dangle and dart, perched on every limb. Migrating songbirds find their way back to familiar haunts.   Birders mark the days eagerly as the first Prairie warbler sends a buzzy song stepping up the chromatic scale from some scrubby spot. Will the wood thrush that flutes the three part harmony all by himself return to that pretty, fern-full place down by the creek again?  As the songbird choir fills in by the day, I anticipate the return of another tradition that pulls me into the woods to watch in a different way.  It is time for turkeys.  

In my twenty- something years of hunting, it is has always been a dual season deal for me.  Autumn is the time for whitetails. I climb high to wait and watch their world unfold.  A rub and a scrape or a grunt and a flash of gray are the treasures sought.  A clear shot is almost anti-climatic. There have been many times I simply watched, even when the shot was there.  

Spring is for feathered quarry. Beyond the birds I watch through binoculars, I hunt wild turkeys. There is no climbing to wait for the glint of polished antler in new light or flip of a white tail in the setting sun. Instead, I awaken even earlier to beat the dawn so that I can sneak past the hens and longbeards roosted in the tall pines.  In the eerie dark the newly arrived whippoorwills whine their identity to weariness.  A barred owl’s bark from the bottomland shocks a gobble from somewhere on the ridge.  Somewhere out there in the blackness, a wild turkey gobbler claims the hens roosted across the creek and I tune my ear and turn my steps towards him.

As I walked the overgrown woods road toward the pine glade that was probably once a piedmont prairie, I picked my way as carefully as I could, trying not to alert the big birds on high that were watching and listening.  Wild turkeys hear and see at levels beyond our comprehension.  Pinpointing a sound to within inches and a seventh sense that tells  them something is there before it isn’t is a valuable   asset when you’re the main course on some coyotes menu. Cautiously clumsy, I snapped a minimum of sticks and stumbled only once as the softening eastern sky was greeted by early-rising cardinals and anxious hermit thrushes. Not wanting to get too close, I found my way to a spot on the pine and oak strewn ridge and nestled into a trio of post oaks, my back to sun and my hopes rising with it. I peeled soft yelp and before the second one split the cool air, a gobble broke the rhythm.  

Hunting is part skill and mostly luck. In a fair chase deal, where you bring nothing but your five senses and a killing tool to the game, failure is the norm.  Because we humans can’t see, hear, smell or sense the unseen like wild things can, we are largely at a disadvantage. Absent a bullet or an arrow that gives advantage, a one on one human versus wildlife due should be an uneven match with hooves, hide, feathers and flight winning out more times than not. 

This morning though, luck and the little skill I’d gained over the two decades of striking out seemed to be in play. As I sat there trying my best to be a post oak, a blue head attached to a dark feathered form appeared out of the dark that was trying to be light. But then another one appeared, and another.  Before I could re-swallow the heartbeats that were trying harder and harder to spill out of my mouth, a half-dozen wild turkey gobblers stood less than thirty paces from me and the 12 gauge shotgun barrel that was pointed in their direction.  I blew softly across the diaphragm in my mouth and let out a soft cluck. Immediately, as if someone had turned on some hormonal switch, three of the birds went into full strut, their tail feathers erected into brown fans and their heads glowing red and blue and white in the shadows.  Here I was, in a dilemma of choice; to shoot or not to shoot. But then, each bird’s fan bore a telltale sign that kept my trigger finger still and the safety on.  The central feathers on all of them were longer than the rest and instead of the long, hair-like “beard” of feathers I’d hoped for, each gobbler's breast was adorned with little buttons and finger length tufts that told me these birds were "Jakes", first year males full of more wanna be than wisdom. These were April’s fools.

As I sat watching the show, the birds strutted, hissed and postured.  More like boys at a prom who’d been fooled into believing the homecoming queen was theirs for the asking, they twirled about and generally looked confused. It was the first day of the season and I didn’t have the heart to take advantage of such foolhardiness.  Perhaps I was thinking a little about my own hormone-heavy son who at eighteen looks the part but is still learning.  Somewhere not too far away from the party I was watching, an older bird—potato- sack –heavy;  black as coal with a paintbrush of a beard dragging the ground and spurs like hanging hooks was making off with a flock of hens  for the morning’s fun in some secluded glade.   

The gang of six was eerily silent as if not wanting to arouse too much suspicion or attention. The Boss Tom who rules the woods around here could very well kick all of their fanned tails. I imagined that earlier in the season, they all had their share of encounters with “Boss” and didn’t care for further humiliation.  Should they survive the gauntlet of bobcats, coyotes, feral dogs and human hunters, next year would see them wiser and better prepared to pass on their genes to the next wild turkey generation. 

I watched them make their way off and I sat there in the new day, listening to the songbird chorus in full morning throat.   A bobwhite quail, an increasingly rare wild treasure that I treat as endangered species on my Ninety –Six Home Place, name-called from the colonnade of tall pines. It reminded me that even though a prescribed burn is  way overdue that perhaps I was doing a few things  right on the management side to hold “Gentleman Bob” and a covey or two on the place.  Louisiana waterthrushes, northern parulas, yellow-throated warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-eyed vireos and a host of other choristers made the day a success.  I took a walk into the little bottom, half-heartedly hunting but more caught up in the new green of ferns and wildflowers that made the place seem surreal.

 Huge loblolly pines and an old warty hackberry were mirrored in the creek’s black water as a wood thrush threw his song into the morning air.  I caught it with my ears and saved it to my soul.  The trophy today was in the watching, the listening and the being.

 There would be other days for pulling the trigger....maybe.

Happy Hunting,