Amid some of life’s biggest heartaches and questions, turkeys still strut in the spring.
You’re snakebit on turkey this season. It’s been one unfortunate series of dumb mistakes after another to the point that you are realizing just how much of a waste of time and mental energy turkey hunting is, made worse by this year’s bumper crop of ticks.
Let’s be clear. It’s your fault. It’s not that you hate turkey hunting. In fact, just the opposite. You love it. But you don’t have a good reason for loving it, and it often causes problems in other parts of your life. It’s a blurred line of emotion, really. And you understand this runs parallel with addiction.
Stumbling through the house at 3:15 a.m., you manage to wake up not only the baby but also your wife and three dogs, which sound off in harmony as you make your way to the truck to waste yet another day chasing a 23-pound dinosaur — look closely at their feet and tell me I’m wrong — through the woods.
These days, it’s hard for both you and the turkey. For the turkey, because their species is in decline and you have countless people racing to the woods trying to kill them each spring.
You, because you’re getting older, and when that happens, your knees groan jumping that fence — and you get calls mid-hunt from your buddy Ed saying things like, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but James killed himself last night.”
So, I guess you could say we’re both in decline.
A Strutting Gobbler Is the Mr. Bean of the Woods
They’re idiotic, but somehow they always come out on top in some implausible, quasi-comical way. Frankly, I don’t know how they survived the last ice age with their stupidity. But then, how smart can you be for sitting under a tree poorly imitating their mating calls?
The weather should be better on today’s hunt, but this morning you are so sick with food poisoning that you actually turned the truck around twice en route to the farm. Sitting on the offramp, you remember you can’t catch fish if your line’s not in the water.
And you certainly can’t kill turkey if you decide that access to a toilet for puking is more important than feebly running a call as you try not to pass out from the loss of fluids in your body.
So you throw the shifter back in D, which today stands for “despair,” and head toward turkey hunting mediocrity.
Eventually, You Make It
You put the truck in park, grab your gear, throw up on the gate post, and hop the fence to your spot.
Working across the field, a blooming dogwood illuminates the treeline through an early morning haze and it gives you pause. Around here, it’s a first bloomer and its innocent, brilliant white reminds you that winter — and the darkness — is coming to an end.
Those petals look like stars bleeding over the edge of the field, and you think how beauty is somehow always more beautiful when it is unexpected or comes from some hidden place. This conclusion is probably heightened by your slight sickness-induced hallucinations.
You continue walking to your spot and think about James, wondering how he would’ve described that tree. He was a better wordsmith than you are. You also think about how he was your best friend, and you probably should’ve called him that night and asked if he wanted to come turkey hunting with you the next morning.
You had the damn phone in your hand, but you were mad at him about something, which in hindsight seems so trivial.
In the darkness, it’s difficult to make sense of things and even at 37, it can be unnerving. But there is a difference between being scared of the dark and being afraid of the night. James must have been afraid of the night, and I wish I would’ve known that.
Then, there are these moments of near understanding with turkey hunting. When the sun breaks the clouds and the morning frost starts to melt off your gun barrel. You close your eyes so one sense can’t rob the other, and you let the warmth wash over you with an unabashed kindness — and you think things will work out, even if it’s just for a moment.
Success in Turkey Hunting Is Fleeting and Doesn’t Always Track
It’s weird. Sometimes success doesn’t take the most expensive decoys on the market, a Lynch World Champion box call (also expensive), or the witchcraft-like two-way blind (also very expensive).
Sometimes, all it takes is a cattle fence separating two Toms trying to fight one another and the tunnel vision they have, which allows you to belly crawl in close enough to pop up and pull the trigger. The right bird drops stone dead thanks to those new TSS shells you bought.
And just like that, he’s gone.
The other bird stands there visibly confused and wonders what the hell happened. Why he’s there, and the other bird is suddenly lying dead on the other side of the fence. Did that fight have something to do with it or was it just coincidence? Must’ve been coincidence, right?
You take your standard photos without much fanfare and file this bird away as another memory in a long line of hunting experiences. The entirety of the season’s troubles are immediately forgotten, but the memory of it still crawls on you with the ticks.
Birds start appearing everywhere, parading around like they own the place, knowing your tag is filled. Of course.
Later that night, cradling the toilet still sick, all you want to do is relive the moment before you pull the trigger, not the moment after. This is different than other game and you don’t know why. It seems such a waste, even though you wholly know it isn’t.
It is important.
But with three gallon-size ziplock bags of turkey meat in the freezer, you also know the time you could have spent with your wife and new daughter was important. That’s what bothers you.
It’s always the things you didn’t do that bother you more than the things you did.
Should You Feel Proud You Outsmarted a Bird That Can’t Figure Out What a Fence Is?
An old quail hunter once said, “My idea of heaven is hunting quail over my two old pointers who have long since passed away, shooting a double on the rise, then walking over, picking those little birds up, breathing life back into them, and watching them fly away.”
You wish you could do that with the turkey. Breathe life back into him and give him the chance to fight another day. Maybe he wouldn’t have to fight. Maybe he could just look at the dogwoods or enjoy a moment of warmth on a cold morning.
But you can’t. No one can. He’s gone.
You decide life is both beautiful and oftentimes difficult. For some, it’s more the latter than the former. Yet, the sunrise has never failed to bring us a new day. So, we can question our actions — or more importantly, our lack of action.
You have to decide each morning how you’re going to go about that day’s hunt and hope you’ll make the right choice, but you’ll never really know.
It is the burden and blessing of the living. How are you supposed to do that, every single day, for the rest of your life? You glance over at your baby daughter and she smiles.
You smile back and end the story.
If you know anyone struggling with mental health, please reach out to them. If you are struggling, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.