Because of his fondness for sleeping in, my brother-in-law has never hunted turkeys.
Watching turkey-hunting videos has therefore formed his opinions of turkey hunting and turkey hunters. He shared these with me a month before this year’s Washington opener on April 15.
“What’s the big deal?” he asked. “You set out a decoy and sit down by a tree. Then you cluck a few times like a chicken. The gobbler comes running in, you shoot it, exchange high-fives with your buddy, take some pictures, and go back to town for grits and biscuits.”
Obviously, my brother-in-law has simplified the process while watching videos made south of the Mason-Dixon Line, because those particular video turkeys all seem to be shot in full sunlight in hardwood forests.
There is not a hardwood forest within 200 miles of Spokane. Unlike myself, the subjects of a turkey video don’t stumble through rain-soaked darkness taking faceplants, eating spider webs and being smacked in the groin by springing limbs of Douglas fir. I have never heard a video hunter say “*!@#!” or “#@!%$” or “#!%#!-%#$@.” Especially not “#!%#!-%#$@.”
Video turkey hunters never seem to flounder around looking for a place to set up. When the turkey gobbles less than 100 yards away, the video hunter grins at his partner and motions toward a wide oak, where they’ll sit in wait. The ground beneath is flat, dry and carpeted with soft leaves. You almost expect to see a cup holder.
On the other hand, I experience high anxiety when a turkey gobbles nearby. Do I want to lean against the trunk of a 2-inch cedar, my vision obscured by buck brush, or do I want the sap-covered black pine that leans so far forward my chin will be on my knees? How about the twice-burned bull pine still covered with soot from a fire 10 years ago?
Before settling comfortably in, a video hunter places his hen decoy; it goes in the ground easily and quietly. It looks good. I make a lot of noise while hurriedly setting up in the dark, particularly when I can’t find the stake. Because I have been carrying the decoy folded in my vest, it looks hinged in the middle with the head and tail at a 90-degree angle.
Next comes the part I find most difficult – sitting quietly and working the bird. In the videos, sitting quietly doesn’t seem to matter so much, because the bird always shows up in a couple of minutes anyway. Because he can remain motionless for this short span, all you see of the caller are his eyeballs as he expertly manipulates his diaphragm call. For the next 3 minutes while he duels with the gobbler, there is never a doubt the big tom will soon be going for a ride in the back of a truck.
My own calling has never achieved the perfection of that heard on the videos. Although I can maintain a decent cluck, my yelps quickly take on similarities to the “putt,” which is a distress call, and because of the overall numbness from sitting with my chin on my knees, my friendly “purr” begins to deteriorate until it sounds rather like I am flubbing my lips into a bowl of milk.
With my less-than-ideal setups, it is nearly impossible to sit quietly. My back is usually the first to complain, followed quickly by my butt. If I give in to my body’s insistent demands and move, there’s a good chance the turkey will spot me. If I don’t give in, there’s an excellent chance I will never use various body parts again.
Video turkey hunters always make one-shot kills. I have missed four times in my 20 years chasing toms. Several times, my excitement has been so intense I have pulled the trigger while silently admonishing myself to “wait, wait, WAIT!”
Even when I do get the bird, I sometimes have to rely on a second shot. My first turkey came in quietly and was so obscured by budding snowberry bushes there was but a tiny window through which to shoot. When my brain and finger miscommunicated and the shotgun roared, I was horrified to see the old gobbler sprinting through the underbrush, only his bobbing head visible. Instinctively, I swung and touched off my second barrel as he disappeared.
I sprinted for the spot expecting to find nothing. Glory be, the tom was spread out like a rug! As I stooped to gather him in, however, he jumped up and began to run again. Finding myself with two empty chambers and no shell at hand, I took off in pursuit. Then, for whatever reason, he turned and ran right toward me and I trapped him between my knees as he attempted to run through my legs.
A terrible wrestling match ensued. When the woods were at last quiet again, I sat with my gobbler for many long moments and offered up a prayer.
Partly, I was thankful for this beautiful gift, but partly, too, I was relieved there was no videographer in the woods.
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