Some Thoughts on an Obsession

It’s a total cliché to call turkey hunting an obsession. There is a camo pattern bearing that label, there is a web series about it, and there are thousands and thousands of people who have written about it, many of them in arguably better fashion than I have.

Yep, it is an absolutely tired cliché. But the reason it is tired is because it is all-too-true.

I’ve always thought of myself as reasonably level-headed.  On occasion, especially in my much younger decades, I did some unusual things. Early in my turkey hunting career I was obstinate and inflexible, and it cost me birds.  I still sometimes have impulses like that, even though I seem to have learned that a hunter has to sometimes adapt in order to kill turkeys. Last year was one such example, and it paid off in absolutely unexpected success.   But this year, through a combination of opportunity and frequency, I can say without reservation that I was officially “obsessed”.  This obsession was with three ornery tom turkeys that live around a patch of ground I hunt in Simcoe County.  This is my tragic story.

I was in my local spot on the opening Saturday of the season with my Dad a few hundred yards southwest of me.  This spot is on a privately-owned chunk of hardwood and some swamp surrounded by a couple fields and some more privately-owned hardwoods and fields.  The other locations are closed to us, although I have seen vehicles in the past parked at those areas so no doubt other turkey hunters frequent them on occasion. Access locally can be tough, so we’ve always been very cautious about staying on ‘our side of the line’, but that adds to an already challenging hunt. My first solo tom came off this local property and I’ve had frequent close encounters there when, through fate or hubris, I was not able to seal a bird.

Just a few days prior, Dad had been in a run-in at this location with a couple of cagey toms that snuck in silent on him, and he couldn’t contort himself into a shot.  It was a frustrating hunt he said, but it gave me hope that birds would be frequenting the area.  I settled in against a large boulder as the breaking dawn brightened everything around me. As if on cue, three gobblers fired off at 5:20am in the posted land to the north.  They gobbled well, once breaking into a musical round that saw one tom finish and another immediately start, only to have the third bird holler as the second finished his chorus.  It was “Row-Row-Row Your Boat” wild turkey style, and it went on for three minutes.

I had chills and I could sense I was grinning idiotically behind my camo face mask.

Their gobbles changed as they hit the ground and then they fell silent.  A hen rasped away in the woods behind me and the toms briefly made their way in my direction.  They went quiet again before moving off to the west, and I got a text message from Dad that he could see them half a kilometer away strutting and not showing any interest in moving our way.  We called it a morning.

The weekend after, I killed a bird on the Bruce Peninsula in very memorable fashion, and it gave me hope that I’d be able to tag out on a Simcoe County bird with the remaining three weeks of turkey season still laid out in front of me.

The following weekend, while my brother and father were on the Bruce Peninsula themselves each harvesting turkeys, I was back at the local spot.  Once again, the three gobblers were loud and proud, roosted in the exact same property north of our access that they had been in the weekend before.  Once again, they were responsive on the roost and once again they flew down and showed passing interest in my calling before once again heading due west into inaccessible areas.  Of course, while all this was happening I was fortunate enough to be treated to a wonderful, if not slightly cool, spring morning with sightings of deer, coyotes, waterfowl, and hundreds of raucous songbirds.  That afternoon, my six-year old son went with me for his first ever turkey hunt, and although a hen circled us at twenty yards for a good fifteen minutes, the gobblers were silent.  Driving out, I spotted them in that same area they had been moving to every morning.

They had a pattern, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.  Not legally, at least.

Fast forward ahead to the next weekend, a glorious three-day weekend with the promise of incredible turkey hunting weather. The forecast was sunny and calm, but also just a few degrees on the cool side.  I love this as it keeps the mosquitoes down in the swampy spots of the property.

For a third hunt, the toms were in the same tract of hardwoods and for the third time they flew down and went north-west.  I held out just a but longer in the morning and fired them up after 8:30am, but a single shot from where I last heard them quite literally crushed my spirits.  They went silent and I packed up my things and moped to the car.  I drove out past the block where I had last heard them and was shocked to see the three birds strutting in the block just adjacent to where the shot had come from. I was grinning like an idiot again, because either a fourth bird had met his end in that area or some unfortunate hunter had missed. I’ve felt the sting of the miss myself before (and probably will again before I shuffle off) but I was pleased to see three longbeards alive and well within earshot of my preferred patch.  I resolved to be back on the holiday Monday.

It was a carbon copy of the previous hunt.  Gobblers hollering in the hardwoods to the north, that flew down into the field, gobbled some more, and never paid my calling any attention.  They were telling me something and I resolved to get out at least one more time and put a theory to the test. You see, previously, I had waited for them to gobble before calling back, and the result had always been the same: lukewarm to moderate interest in my setup before heading northwest of my direction into places I just cannot go.

Next time out I was going to be the one to wake them up.

I got in extra-extra early with my Dad on the last Saturday of the season. This time it was offering to be hot and humid and I had my Thermacell loaded and ready to do work.  I also had my mind made up that those birds were going to hear me long before I heard them.  After all, what was there to lose?  At the precise moment legal shooting light hit, I thumbed the shells into the 870 that makes every trip with me, and I pulled out a crystal pot call.  I tree yelped and did a fly down series at just barely past 5am; even at that early hour, the late-spring morning was bright.  In those moments between calling and waiting for an answer, I was a jumpy bundle of nerves.  I was waiting for the response that had come so predictably every other morning of the season.

Nothing.  I ratcheted up the volume on some yelping.  Still nothing.  I cutt hard and rasped so loudly on the call that my ears tingled just a bit.

From the hardwoods to the north came the shouted response from that trio of birds, and I exhaled with a smile.

They answered every cutt and yelp, and on fly down they showed more interest than at any other time this year.  They slid off slightly just before 6:00am, but they were still answering when I went into a fighting purr sequence (which my pot call does so well that it almost isn’t fair), and they thundered back.  Before I could call, they hammered again, closer this time.  I set the call down and steadied the gun.  Again, they gobbled, and they sounded angry then. I was sure they were in my field for the first time all season, and my heart picked up the pace just a bit. I cut my eyes left, hoping to see their forms heading into my hen and jake decoy setup.  They gobbled hard and they sounded to be nearly in range, but still I did not have a visual on them as they approached from my left.  I steadied the gun in their direction and twisted my left shoulder imperceptibly towards them.

Then, it all went to hell.

In that slightest movement a white-tailed deer busted from less than fifty feet to my right and ran out of the woods, on a bee-line between the decoys and where I had last expected to see those three gobblers. Tail-up and bounding along, snorting all the way, the doe crossed the field. I held the gun steady in the last spot I’d heard a gobble. Everything was so blasted silent that it made me temporarily believe that the turkeys had simply vanished into thin air.  I had not heard them putt and I had not heard them fly, so I clung to the hope that the deer had not pooched my whole hunt and they were still sneaking in.  For ten minutes I was silent, waiting to hear a turkey drumming or for another gobble to ring out.  Eventually I clucked on my mouth call and nothing happened.  I yelped louder, and still nothing happened.  I cutt and yelped and the three birds responded…hundreds of yards to the northwest, headed to where they had gone every other morning this year.

I lowered the gun, muttered an unrepeatable swear word and resolved to apply for a doe tag for that WMU so that I could come back and turn that deer into backstraps.

Shortly after Dad came by and I told him my pathetic story.  He’s always been fatalistic about things like that, and with a shrug and soft smile he said “if they were easy to kill, there wouldn’t be any of them left” which is true but was of cold comfort to me in the moment.  I was pretty annoyed at the turkey-hunting gods by that time, having just gone through the full emotional wringer in a matter of a few early-morning hours and been oh-so-close to actually laying eyes down the gun-rail on those three birds that had occupied my thoughts and mornings for the whole spring. But it was not in the cards.

In the self-reflective moments of the drive home, I realized how obsessive about these birds I had become and that through the lack of Sunday hunting in the township, along with work and family commitments, I was not going to get another crack at them this spring.  There was closure in that, and I was simultaneously frustrated at the outcome and grateful for the opportunity to tangle with them.  Aside from one of them actually dying at the end of my shotgun, they really were everything us turkey hunters hope for.  They were vocal, they had personality, and they were some of the most challenging birds I’ve had to work against.  My wishful thinking imagines them as hardy four-year-old birds with dragging beards and wicked hooked spurs, brothers that had lived their whole lives in the area and that I may have had run-ins with in prior springs. They very well could be, or they could just be unpredictable, contrary two-year-old toms that like all wildlife don’t really have a set of rules that they follow and just do frustrating things to people like me.

I wish for them to make it through the next ten months or predators and cars and another Ontario winter, so that come next April I will find myself seated in the same spot sparring with them once again; all I can do is hope that by then perhaps I’m a little better and that maybe they have an off day.

Doing the Rain Dance

The Thursday afternoon sun broke through on my left as I passed out of Shelburne on my way to the Bruce Peninsula, and I slipped my sunglasses on and turned the radio up.

Somewhere, I thought, there was a turkey on the Bruce that did not know I was coming for it.  This was not because of some sort of tactical skill on my part, but because turkeys probably don’t concern themselves with the specific dangers coming their way.  I’ve always observed them to be generally more concerned with countless non-specific dangers, and this observed paranoia is what no doubt makes them wily, hardy, supremely adapted, and frustratingly unpredictable.

And it is because of those traits that I’m hopelessly addicted to hunting them.

Arriving in the laneway of the family farm to a blazing orange sunset, I found it hard to believe that the weather models were calling for a soaked and dangerously windy Friday to come.  It was so bright and hot, that I peeled off my sweater and slipped into a simple t-shirt while I waited for a couple of my friends to join me around the farmhouse table for scouting reports, some laughs, a couple of beers, and to lay out the plan for Friday’s hunts.

The scouting reports were easy; a half dozen hens and a couple of longbeards were living right on the family farm property, which they seem to do cyclically.  In fact, the whole area around the farm had been lousy with turkeys during the early season.  Strutting and gobbling was down, due in our minds to the delayed arrival or a true spring, but the birds were finally starting to develop a pecking order and the toms and hens were beginning to get right.  The planning for the next day’s hunts was also a mere formality; with a 100% chance of rain from 3:00 AM through to 2:00 PM, all of the turkey hunters that I call family and friends were going to sleep in or do one more day of work.  I was resolute that short of a hurricane hitting the area I was going to be foolhardy enough to be stationed under a tree at 5am the coming morning.

With the last rays dying in the west, I slipped on my boots and walked up to owl hoot at the treeline, in the hopes of pinpointing the trees that the birds were in.  It was dead calm, and the notes roared out of the call and echoed around the bush. Silence was my response, but I was still hopeful that the morning would bring some action.

Three hours later I lay awake in my bed, unable to sleep out of sheer excitement for the hunting to come.  The rain tapped down soothingly on the rooftop, but there was to be no retreat into sleep for me.  I got up, lit a small fire in the downstairs woodstove, and fidgeted with calls and equipment and social media for a couple of hours until it was time to gear up and hike to my chosen tree.  I was secretly grateful for the last-minute decision I made to pack my camo rain suit when I shut the door behind me and was buffeted by wind and a hard downpour.  My watch said it was 4:50 in the morning.

I made the short walk to my spot and was placing decoys just after 5:00 AM.  No leaves were on yet, and the rain had no barrier between the heavens and my person, and within minutes anything that was not covered by rain gear was cold, heavy, and absurdly wet.  I made a mental note to pack this up and head back to the warmth of a woodstove and a hot breakfast by 8:00 AM.

The black of night slowly dissolved into the hazy grey of a rain-soaked dawn, and just after 6:00 AM there was a slight let up in the misery.  I took the opportunity to float a few soft tree-yelps and clucks on my mouth call, and somewhere to the north of me, a hen turkey softly responded.  I anxiously cocked an ear waiting for the gobbled response of a tom turkey, but instead I heard the pick-up in wind and rain that was blowing my way.  The downpour returned with a vengeance and at times my hen decoy was almost lifted from her stake by wind.  Both decoys spun unnaturally in circles, and I scaled my personal deadline back by an hour.

7:00 AM could not come soon enough to my drenched, cynical, and now slightly-shivering body.

As the gale increased in force, I grew aware that a single limb directly over my head was dripping a steady, rhythmic beat on the brim of my hat.  I slowly reached up hoping to break the branch off, but it was agonizingly out of reach.  Knowing that if I stood up, I would very likely give up and head home, I bit the bullet and slid slightly to my left; the dripping now pounded on my right shoulder and occasionally down the back of my neck, which was an only slightly preferable situation.  At 6:30 AM I was granted another slight reprieve and the wind slowed enough for me to ring out a series of yelps and cutts into the woods.  Again, nothing answered and I added some urgency and raspiness into another series of calls. Silence and a slightly defeated frustration were my only response.

I checked my phone to see if anyone else had been as lunatic as I and gone out into the nonsense, and seeing no other hunters reporting, I noted the time as 6:45 AM and resigned myself to fifteen more minutes of misery.  Both my gloves were soaked to the point of uselessness, and my fingers were increasingly stiff and numb.  The morning hunt was no longer fun, and I was just being obstinately masochistic by that point.

What happened next played out in about 45 seconds.

With the wind still calm I was mulling my own pigheadedness when I heard a telltale sound that excites every turkey hunter.  It is a sound, not a word, but to transcribe it would run something like this:

SHHHK…FFFFFFFFUM

A gobbler was spitting and drumming from a hidden point behind a woodpile that was ten yards behind me over my left shoulder, and I craned my neck slowly around to see his fire-engine-red head appearing from behind the woodpile.  He was half-strutting into my hen and jake decoy setup at double time, and he passed by me at a mere twelve steps.  He marched up to the now gently swaying fakes and promptly hopped onto the jake decoy with a thumping kick to the chest.  I shouldered my dripping wet 870, and he caught that movement, jumped off the decoy and began to quick walk to my right.  I covered his head with the bead of the gun and tightened my hand on the trigger.  The boom appeared to startle him and I was shocked to see him still trotting to my right.  The same moment I pumped the gun, he stopped and looked at the wobbling jake decoy.  I covered his head again and fired once more.  He cartwheeled backwards and began bicycling his legs in the air.  I pumped out the empty and the last live shell in the gun, put the weapon on safe and stood up.

My legs, shoulders, and hands suddenly didn’t feel so pained and numb.

I walked up to the bird and nudged his head with my boot, he limply flopped and was then still. My first shot had been at a mere 12 steps, and I imagine the shot pattern through the super-full choke I shoot was baseball-sized as it whizzed past his head.  The second shot had been at a much more reasonable 22 steps, and the #5 pellets had done what I had bought them to do.  I carried him out of the rain and back to the tree where I tagged him and took a handful of quick photos.  I was perplexed that he was out at all on such a dirty day, but I was thankful that he had been and that he’d given me another reel of moments for my memories.  I was grateful for the opportunity, sopping and chilled though I was, and although he was bedraggled and muddy, he still had all the requisite beauty that I associate with the wild turkey.  Weighing in at 21 ¼ lbs, he sported a ten-inch beard and ebony black spurs fractionally shy of an inch.  Putting him over my shoulder, I thought about what his previous couple years of life had been like and about how I was going to cook him for family and friends.

Carrying him out, the rain picked back up and flew sideways from the east, stinging my face and whipping his drenched tail fan into the back of head.  His weight wore on my shoulder and wrists, and I was shivering when I hung him by his feet in the woodshed at the farm.

I went in and peeled off dripping clothes, then stoked the fire into a roaring inferno.  Within a half-hour the kitchen was sauna-hot and I sat in shorts and a t-shirt warming up my bones. I texted friends and family and they were all incredulous that I had lasted that long, and all the more shocked that a gobbler was actually out trolling the area in such wretched conditions.

I just grinned and relived those recent moments over and over again, thinking about how much I would be willing to suffer what are, in reality, quite minor personal discomforts in order to hunt these incredible birds. His story and mine were forever linked now, and I felt a twinge of sadness that our brief time was already a moments-old memory.

Comfort Food: Deerburger Bowls

In what promises to be a neverending winter I’ve been working my way through the 2017 deer season’s venison supply (although as I write this, a cold March rain riding on the back of a blustery late-winter wind is decimating the snowpack at the end of my driveway).  This past November, the two camps I hunt out of managed to harvest four deer, and since we’ve got to split that meat between up to a dozen hunters, I’ve been stretching what I’ve got as far as possible.

To that end, I’ve started making one-bowl dishes that incorporate venison at their base before I add in other ingredients that I really enjoy.  One of my go-to meals is what I call a Deerburger Bowl; it starts with seared ground venison and then I add in whatever I like and have at hand.  This dish is rich, moderately spicy, and like most preparations of wild game, if treated simply and cooked properly it is ridiculously delicious and ultra-healthy.  The recipe below packs nearly 70grams of protein into a single bowl, is low in fat, and has all the ‘goodies’ inherent in quickly searing raw asparagus and leaving it crunchy. I imagine this would be all the better to the enterprising forager that procures some wild asparagus this spring uses it in making this dish. I’ve also used other seafood and greens, but this is my standard.

Deerburger Bowls

(Makes 8-10 servings)

  • 3lbs of ground venison
  • 2lbs of 26/30 size (extra-large) shrimp, de-veined and peeled
  • 40 stalks of asparagus, trimmed and chopped into 1 ½ inch pieces
  • 1/8 cup of water
  • 5tbsp olive oil
  • 3tbsp sambal hot sauce
  • Salt & pepper to taste.

Using a deep, heavy pan or a deep wok over medium-high heat, heat 3tbsp of olive oil.  Add the ground venison, salt and pepper to taste, and increase the heat to high.  Brown the venison quickly and thoroughly before removing it to a separate bowl using a slotted spoon.

Add 1tbsp of olive oil to the same pan and add the shrimp.  Cook over high heat until they are firm.  Remove to the same bowl as the venison and mix the two together.

Add the remaining olive oil to the same pan and add the chopped asparagus.  Sear the asparagus and toss to ensure even browning; it should be hot but still crunchy because no one in their right mind likes stringy, overcooked asparagus.  Once the asparagus is seared, add the water and mix in the hot sauce, browned venison, and shrimp. I stir this over high heat for a minute or two more to coat everything with the hot sauce before I pour the whole thing into bowls for storage for the week.

These bowls are great underneath a couple of sunny-side up eggs for a quick hearty breakfast, or heat one up for lunch or dinner (or both!) and serve it over wild rice before pouring yourself a cold beer.

You’ve earned it.

Fifty-Seven-or-so Signs that You Might (or Might Not) be a Hopeless Turkey Hunter

So, in case you hadn’t noticed, it is that time of year again.  I call it ‘silly season’ and it is the time of year when all the hunting magazines and websites regurgitate a few dozen different articles full of tips, tricks, and gear reviews aimed at perpetuating their existence while simultaneously moving some inventory for their sponsors.  I’m not cynical about it anymore, after all staff writers and editors must eat too, and those are the spiritual compromises that come with the territory in the print-media world.

I get it.  I don’t like it and I try not to partake too heavily in it, but I do get it.

It is the time to hear about “dirt naps”, “floppage”, “beak-bustin’”, et cetera, et cetera. If you can’t find a headline that boasts a better way to call to a hung-up turkey, or that assures you that these seven pieces of essential equipment will put a longbeard in your lap, or a piece that tackles the thorny issue of turkey reaping while simultaneously advertising for tom decoys that clip right to your mother-loving shotgun barrel, then I can confidently say you aren’t really looking at all.  Because that sort of thing is ubiquitous now; it has been since at least mid-January and it won’t disappear until sometime in July.

As handsome a bird as I can hope to see this spring.

Somewhere along the line, between the quaint magazine by-lines of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the shift to an advertising-centric approach that materialized in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, we lost our way and nothing was off-limits or unthinkable anymore.

The truth is there aren’t really that many different ways to safely hunt turkeys, and much of the “innovation” we see in the marketplace is flash and gimmick. I’m perfectly content to just sit under a tree, yelp, scratch in the leaves, and listen, but based on social media advertising campaigns set on full-saturation levels, I’m just a throw-back and not nearly extreme enough to be relevant anymore.

Sigh.

Turkey season will approach and take place nonetheless, and I’ll be out there enjoying it on my own terms, but might I suggest that if you don’t find turkey hunting exciting enough the ‘traditional way’ that you at least try not to do something reckless or offensive?

I’m old enough to remember when the conventional wisdom of the culture was to sit under a tree, call like a sexy old hen, and above all else try not to get shot by another hunter; that said I’m not so old that I was indoctrinated into the school of “yelp four times every hour until the tom shows up”, but I’ve read about enough respected elder-statesmen of turkey hunting to see the wisdom in that ethos either. Was it accurate, in the fledgling years when the pastime was a fringe pursuit that lagged far behind deer, quail, and waterfowl hunting, to imbue the wild turkey with some of the feats of wily intelligence attributed to it?  Possibly not, but it did breed a healthy respect for the quarry.  After all, did Tom Kelly or Charles Elliott ever utter the words “thunder-chicken” with anything other than likely derision for the term? I can’t say for certain, but I can make some inferences.

And what of safety? I was fortunate enough to take the Ontario turkey hunter’s education seminar all those years ago from two of the very men instrumental in the re-introduction of wild turkeys into Ontario.  They both scoffed at the idea of stalking gobblers, and each was gravely concerned with the safety ramifications around even entertaining the thought. But this is 2018 and extreme, like sex, sells. So long as someone, somewhere puts ‘if it is safe to do so’ in their piece about fanning, stalking, circling, boasting of 80-yard kills, or hiding in waterfowl layout blinds (yes, this is a thing in the turkey hunting world now) then they have sufficiently rendered themselves culpability-free.

It’s like saying “Go ahead, drink and drive, as long as you’re sure no other drivers are on the road” or something else comparably irresponsible.

Of course, I am not entirely immune and I do have some of the usual trappings of the modern turkey hunter.  The decoys, the precision-made crystal friction call and finely-tuned mouth diaphragms, right to my ergonomic and luxuriously thick seat on my turkey vest.

Still, I’ve never once put a tom or jake decoy out on public land because no amount of turkey meat or close-encounter adrenaline is worth a torso full of searing hot lead pellets.  I’ve missed birds, but never out to 70+ yards as I’ve heard and seen on modern social media.  I have equipment that would have made those Pennsylvania and Alabama forefathers of the hunt sneer and chuckle at my gullibility, but even still my 870 isn’t tricked out for tactical turkey killing, my ammunition didn’t cost me the equivalent of a rib-eye steak per round spent, and while tempting, I’m not really inclined to crawl up to a gobbler just for some much-hyped thrill over and above the one I’ll experience should I be lucky enough to hear a tom sound off in response through the breaking light of an early May morning.

So, what exactly am I hopeless for?  I’m bereft of optimism that things will change for the better.  There is money to be made, a market to shill for, and so many born every minute that I have a better chance of stopping a freight train with your bare hands than I do of making any meaningful impact on the direction the sport is moving in.

I’m completely aware that I get cantankerous this time of year; just go back through everything I’ve written here in every month of March since 2011.  I’m deep into withdrawal.  I’m fed-up with the glitzy, whore-like makeup applied in thicker layers every year to the serenity of a spring ritual I’ve grown increasingly addicted to, and most of all I’m helpless in the face of change and pathetically prostrate to the throes of my turkey hunting impulses. Just go ahead and hunt them how you want I suppose, because all my pissing and moaning likely won’t make a convert of anyone that doesn’t already think what I think. Have some fun and try not to get yourself shot.

It only comes around once a year, and if you’re reading this from a region where your season is underway, I hope the gobblers are willing and that your patterns are tight.

If you have not been out there yet in the thick of it, enjoy those “firsts” that might happen this season.

First mornings. First gobbles. First hunts with your kids. First birds ever.

We hope that you enjoy the hunt, respect the bird, eat well, and be merry. All this silliness will seem so very far away soon, and the season will slide past all too quickly, just like it does every year.

Hunting. Not Hype.