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.

Fear, Self-Loathing, and Internet Trolls

This week I decided to do something miles away from my comfort zone.

Explaining something…

Since 2011, this little webpage has acted as an insulating buffer between myself and the reader.  My ‘voice’ was expressed through typeface and I had the benefit of time, editing, and occasional proofreading to refine my ethic and message dozens of times before I put it out there. I’ve had all the control so that on the (rare) occasions that hateful or crude comments show up that revile me for being a hunter, or poke holes in my logic, or (to directly quote one aggrieved reader) deride me as just some “city boy pretending to hunt”, I simply delete the offending statements and move on my merry way. Unsolicited hate mail gone forever, just like that.

But this week, I lacked that luxury.  This week I did a television shoot, and went from ‘single voice among thousands of outdoors websites’ to ‘single voice talking straight into a television camera’. Those experiences are fundamentally different, and the public perception of those things are equally divergent.

For context, I was approached by Sang Kim, who is an author, chef, and television personality to talk about hunting and guns, as well as to cook my favourite wild game dish, which in this case was a wild turkey leg confit. I of course jumped at the opportunity because those are things I love talking about and things I love to do. But it did lead me to an existential crisis, and when I’m in an existential crisis, I write about it so here we are.

You see, there’s a chance I might be cast in the all-too-bright light of “expertise” which has always made me uneasy and self-conscious.  For whatever reason, even though televised media (even internet-based televised media) is ubiquitous, there still exists a sense that those with a mass-media platform have expertise. So, by way of full disclosure, here’s what I’m expert at.

  • I’m an expert at sharing my opinions.
  • I’m an expert at shoving delicious wild game into my face.
  • I’m an expert at trying new things with little forethought for how the external reaction is going to be.

And that’s where my head was during the shoot.  I offered opinions and statements on what I thought to be pertinent or what I believed to be valid on a variety of topics, some of which I was prepared for and some that I was not.  But nothing is off limits to me, so I gave it the old college try.  The demographic is non-conventional from a hunting perspective, the platform is non-conventional to typical media, and if anything, I’m not the typical ‘hunter’ stereotype (I think).

Some of what I said and believe will be unpopular with non-hunters and non-gun owners.  Some of it will be unpopular with hunters and gun owners. But all of it sits well with me which is what matters I guess.

Also, there’s that lingering and perverse fear that I have where people are going to ridicule and hate and mock me in a very public forum.  All the tough guy attitude, spunk, and bravado available to me still aren’t going to stop trolls and keyboard-social justice warriors, and other “better” hunters who might feel more representative of the tradition from trying to make me their whipping boy on YouTube.  But I guess that’s their prerogative and not mine.

Of course I’m not looking to be a martyr for the cause (although I would be if I had to I suppose) or for personal sympathy, or kudos, or bland affirmations.  Nor is this a pre-emptive disclaimer begging for kindness, forgiveness, or understanding because I waived rights to those things when I opted into this opportunity.  I’m mostly just going through prose therapy or literary diarrhea or whatever this actually is.  But at the heart of the matter, I’m writing this to clarify my hopes.

I’m hoping that I wasn’t too far off the mark in my opinions, hoping that I was representative of my personal ethics, and hopeful that my turkey calling was at least passable; the birds seem to like it anyhow.  I’ve yet to see the finished, edited product yet but the hope (there’s that word again) is that the passion and the simple message I have does not get lost in translation or flogged to death in a comments section.

Having a chuckle.

In all, the only thing I want is to represent hunting and the outdoors and my passion for both of them respectfully, humbly, and clearly. I also liked that I got to get myself a tidy new branded t-shirt with shiny dome fasteners out of the deal.

There were things that may end up on the cutting room floor.  There were things I desperately wanted to share that just never came up. Thankfully, I can honestly say that I never had a moment in the whole shoot (which was amazing by the way and an experience absolutely worth any stress or backlash that may come out of it) where my internal monologue went “Uh-oh, don’t answer that” or “This sounds dumb” or “This whole premise is ridiculous and going to negatively represent hunting and hunters”.

Still, it’s over now and nothing can be done about it anyhow, even if I had contributed something incredibly stupid to the record.  I knew the ‘risks’ about taking it on and did it gladly, because declining this would have led to regret and I like to live with a “what-the-hell” mentality. At best I like to think my opinions and contributions are benign and conciliatory.

Confit Wild Turkey Leg with Morels and Grilled Scallions

For Lucas Hunter, Chef Sang Kim, my family, TagTV and all those that supported this, I quite literally cannot thank you enough.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I’m truly glad I did it.  For those that want to actually see it, we’ll post the details once they come available.

Hunting. Not Hype.