I killed a male turkey Saturday. A tom, in hunter speak. He was the first animal I’ve intentionally killed in 20 years.
I shot him with a shotgun and made turkey tacos.
The last time I killed something, or should I say tried to kill something, was when I was 9 years old. For years, my family spent its summer vacation at my grandparent’s lake cabin on Loon Lake.
Often, I would fish for sunfish, catch and release. Usually, my father would bait the hook. If I caught something, he’d get the hook out. It was easy summertime living.
On one day, though, my father was asleep. I was alone down by the lake. I baited the hook. I cast. I caught a fish.
But I couldn’t get the hook out. The fish had swallowed it (or, in our ignorance, were we using barbed hooks? Likely). I tried everything. The fish was flopping about. I put it back in the water, then tried again. No luck. Some blood oozed out of its mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if I screeched.
I realized I needed to kill this animal.
I looked for a weapon, digging through the ammo can that served as a community tackle box for three generations of apathetic sportsmen.
That’s where I found the sewing scissors, big and menacing. The perfect implement to decapitate a fish, I must have thought.
That fish died a slow death. That experience, and the guilt of it, has stuck with me.
Which brings me back to the present.
The turkey, the unlucky one, jumped down from the tree. I was sitting in a camp chair with Mark McLean. We were on McClean’s property near Mount Spokane. It was 6:30 a.m. and McLean had kindly offered to take me on my first hunt.
The turkey wandered around. The rest of the flock babbled from the safety of the trees.
The tom came toward us. It all seemed a bit too fast, so I waited. Waited to see if other birds would jump down. Or if the tom would get closer.
He didn’t. Instead, he went behind a tree. Maybe, I thought, I’d missed my chance.
But the bird changed its mind and came back into my field of fire. Raising the shotgun, I sighted in on his head and pulled the trigger.
It was a good shot, McLean told me. The pellets hit the turkey in the head and neck. He died quickly.
Shaking from the adrenaline of it, and deeply aware of the gravity of death, I approached the body. It took me a moment to reach down and touch it. I couldn’t help but feel that it was still alive, that it would jerk up, peck me and run off.
It did not. As it cooled, the heat slowly seeping into the morning air, the animal increasingly became an object. A thing. No longer a conscious entity.
I had killed.
Reflecting on it over the next days, it all felt a bit ridiculous.
At its simplest form, I had sat under the tree where these birds were sleeping and ambushed them when they woke. I couldn’t help but imagine waking up, dressing, having a cup of coffee, stepping out my front door and being shot by two turkeys camped out across the street pretending to be fire hydrants.
As far as I can tell, hunting turkeys in the spring relies on similar trickery. Although instead of ambushing them as they wake up or search for food, you pretend to be a female turkey looking for a good time.
It seems to be the same with deer and elk. You figure out where they eat, sleep and mate, then you shoot them.
My nonhunting friends were a bit taken aback at the trickery of it all. That’s not fair, one said. I get that. It does seem wildly imbalanced.
But then I remembered that fish and its slow, painful death at the hands of an amateur. Which was better?
My thoughts coalesced further when I came across an article by former Spokesman-Review outdoors editor, and consummate hunter, Rich Landers. The article, written in 2013, was titled “Hunting is serious business.”
In it, Landers wrote, “The perfect hunt ends with the animal never knowing what hit it. The goal in terms of hunter stealth, and the meal to be served later, is to take the animal before it’s spooked or even alarmed.”
That turkey died within 2 minutes of me puling the trigger, probably sooner. It had no idea what happened.
Throughout learning to hunt, this is what has most impressed me. The clean kill ethic. I’ve heard countless stories of shots not taken because the hunter wasn’t sure they could hit the animal accurately and kill it cleanly.
Even while turkey hunting Saturday, McLean, my mentor, told me that if I didn’t feel good about the shot, if I didn’t feel completely ready to take the animal, I shouldn’t.
I don’t know if I will become an avid hunter. I will go deer hunting this weekend, and I imagine, if I am lucky enough to get a deer, the experience will be more powerful, more intense.
But I feel comfortable saying that the hunters I’ve met (and they’ve ranged the gamut from liberal, back-to-nature, long-hairs to conservative, stand-yer ground, diesel truckers) are taking life in the cleanest, most respectful way they can.
Over the coming months, I will be writing about my experiences learning to hunt.
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