I’ve heard turkeys gobble at coyotes and car alarms. I’ve seen them strut their way through school zones and supermarket parking lots. I once sat slack-jawed as a dozen jakes flowed around either side of my pickup like a whitewater river rushing around a midstream stone. So it seems like they’d be easy to kill, doesn’t it?
Only those that have never hunted them think so.
I chase longbeards every spring and at least once a season, I’m the one that winds up looking like the turkey. Don’t get me wrong, I usually bag a bird or two but I always feel like I just kind of lucked into it. Rarely, if ever, have I had a textbook turkey hunt, a time when the birds read the script and did exactly what I expected them to do. Something always seems to happen. I’ve had cows fall into lockstep with strutting toms, effectively blocking any attempt at an ethical shot. I’ve watched coyotes hunt the same birds I was hunting and then spring their trap before I could. And who knows how many times a nervous hen has spooked at some figment of her imagination and led the longbeard behind her out of range?
The toll turkey hunting takes on my body is tremendous. I get up too early and stay up too late. I sweat and I sun burn and I scratch myself raw with chigger bites. My family suffers, too. I neglect the yard and fall asleep at the supper table. And still the blasted birds continue to outsmart me.
Last year that moment came on a sun-soaked, April afternoon. The moon that morning was beet red and clutching a wisp of cloud across its midsection, like a man running through the house in nothing but a towel because he’d forgotten his boxer shorts in the bedroom. I should’ve recognized it for what it so obviously was – an omen, a foretelling of future embarrassment. But I ignored it and plowed on ahead anyway.
I set up that morning under the cover of darkness, believing that the birds would fly down from their roost, peck and preen for a minute, and then make a beeline for the tree line, leading them right past my set up, just as they’d done every morning of the last week. Unfortunately, the flock somehow got their directions mixed up and headed west instead of east. I trailed along behind them, shaking my head and watching to see where they’d cross the fence so that I could ambush them after lunch. I ran late that afternoon, though, and wound up walking right in on a big bird strutting in the very field I needed to cross. That stubborn turkey wouldn’t respond to a single call. Oh, he strutted and showed off, sure, but he never gobbled. Not once. And he certainly never veered in my direction. So I veered in his. Or, rather, I army crawled for what felt like miles through goat heads and bovine landmines to plant myself in the one spot the tom had no interest in passing.
When that bird never showed, I went ahead and crossed the creek to set up where I’d watched the turkeys duck under the fence that morning. I didn’t have much faith in the hunt that late in the game, but I stuck my decoy in the dirt, took a seat at the base of a live oak, and hoped to get lucky anyway.
I made a single sounding call and then listened intently for a gobble. When none came, I leaned my head back against the tree and closed my eyes. That’s when I heard a bird drumming. A tom had snuck in silently with a hen. Evidently, the gobblers on this place had taken a vow of silence. But this one had made the mistake of falling for the wrong girl. She was obviously looking to ditch him because she led him straight to my decoy and then skedaddled the minute his back was turned. The afternoon silence was broken when my twelve gauge boomed. Never in my life have I felt more frustrated and fortunate to be standing over a bird. I knelt down and smoothed his feathers, marveling, as I always do, at the color palette God used to paint the wild turkey and was reminded again of the reason I subject myself very spring to the roller coaster ride that is turkey hunting.
As I shouldered the bird and started the trek back to the truck, I smiled to myself. “Who’s the turkey now?” I thought. Then I bent over to pull a sticker out of my sock, lost my balance and fell over, landing face first in a fresh cow pie. Who’s the turkey now, indeed?