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.