On a hardwood ridge in the Ozark Mountains, so many years ago, I heard a wild turkey gobble for the very first time. It was a primal call filled with challenge and lust. Though he was several hundred yards away, I sat bolt upright at the sound.
I made my move on him, but he had no trouble outflanking my rookie strategies. My calling – which is a very liberal use of the word — did nothing to change his course and it became a foot race to the small forest opening at the bottom of the ridge. If he beat me there I would have no chance, I had to head him off at the pass.
I spend the rest of the day looking for another player, I want another go, but it’s not in the cards. That night, as I try to drift off, I wonder why that wild song is still echoing in my head. For Pete’s sake, I ‘m hunting a feral version of the main course at everybody’s Thanksgiving dinner. Why can’t I quit thinking about the plans to fool him tomorrow? Why can’t I go to sleep? I have to get up at four a.m. to be in the woods before he wakes up. Why? It’s just a turkey!
Several springs later, I’m wiser in the ways of ol’ tom. I’m learning how to hunt him. I scheme and plan and spend untold hours learning the lay of the land. I pore over maps and run the dirt roads before work: wearing out a pair of boots, a set of tires, and my wife’s nerves. My gun is sighted and patterned a full two months before season. I’ve ruined three mouth calls by the middle of March and I’m sure my tongue has a callous on it.
All of my buddies are on the turkey hot line talking about the birds they have lined up for opening day. Two weeks from THE day and I’m already sleep deprived. Why? Good grief, we’re talking about a twenty-pound bird! I could save scandalous amounts of money and time by buying one at the store. They carry enough meat to feed a family of four maybe three times, not nearly enough calories to match even two days of what I’ve burned just getting ready. All this frenzied preparation for what? It’s just a turkey.
I can’t bear the thought of missing a day in the woods looking for him, hearing his gobble, finding his tracks, looking for the chink in his armor. I fight the urge to give in completely to obsession so, on weekdays, I grudgingly head to work after an hour or so in the woods. But, my mind is never on work. It’s still in the woods wondering where he’s strutting and what tree he will roost in tonight. It’s disturbing that a grown man with a family and a mortgage thinks along those lines, but there it is, out in the wide open. Go ahead and judge me, I find it troubling myself. After all, it’s just a turkey.
A hook-spurred and long-bearded veteran has whipped my tail for three mornings in a row this spring. The first morning he used the ol’ “gobble my head off on the limb and shut up when I hit the ground” ploy. The tactic is beautiful in its simplicity. After gobbling in the tree, the turkey doesn’t need to do another dad-gum thing and I have been presented a grand opportunity to outthink myself. And, that’s what I do. Without another gobble, it’s all a guessing game and I guess wrong. Morning number two he gobbled for too long and too loud and gathered a harem of hens in short order. Morning number three I zigged when I should have zagged and sat down in a place that he didn’t feel comfortable coming to. But… morning number four has found him very vocal and very lonely.
No hens in sight or earshot and his calls have a note of desperation. A soft string of yelps from my call is all it takes and the end is anticlimactic. His undoing was simply my persistence.
As I sit overlooking the creek bottom he called home, where I learned the intimate patterns of his life over the better part of a week, I’m not so sure about my decision to pull the trigger. I wonder what I’m going to do tomorrow morning. And, at that moment, I want more than anything to give his life back. To hear him gobble from the mossy limb of his favorite white oak as the morning sun wakes the forest on a dewy April dawn.
My non-hunting friends don’t get it. “It’s just a bird and hunting them is just a hobby,” they say.
I hear those words often from those that don’t understand and a muttered response rolls out as I nod and smile.