It won’t be too long now, and I for one am very happy for that. You see it has been a long time since I felt a May morning’s dawn on my face, and too much time has lapsed since I last had twenty pounds of feathers and turkey meat slung over my right shoulder. In the intervening months, I’ve dealt with all the same stressors and failings that you may have had to put up with. Long hours at a job, family commitments of varying importance and enjoyability, the interminable puttering around with gear, and the long pining for the always-too-lengthy season of this Canadian winter to pass. I did get out and enjoy an unforgettable few months of waterfowl hunting, and as I often do, I passed another personally fruitless deer season trying to use telekinesis to convince a tall-tined buck that he’d much rather reside in my freezer than spend another winter in his wilderness home. But warmer weather is inching ever so slowly closer, and my inner monologue screams out to re-mortgage the home and head abroad to pursue wild turkeys. Meanwhile, my imagination wanders to sun-dappled woods, the smell of trilliums blossoming, and the distant rattle of a dominant tom’s lovesick holler in response to my sweet calls floating on the spring breeze.
To paraphrase Tennyson “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of hard-gobbling longbeards”. Butchering legendary poetry in the anticipation of turkey hunting. That’s about where I am right now.
Some of you, if you are reading this from the southern United States, are already deep in the throes of turkey season, and for that I envy and secretly hate you. Not a day goes by when my social media feeds on Twitter and Instagram aren’t chock-a-block full of pictures of men, women, and children of the south grinning their proud, beaming grins from behind the fanned out tailfeathers of a recently deceased gobbler, or of hunters leaned pensively against a broad tree trunk patiently waiting for a wily turkey to make a fatal misstep. Meanwhile here I sit north of the border with my head in my hands, angst-ridden and impatiently waiting. Sometimes I slither down to my basement and delicately put hands on my favourite box call, before I lay it down and reverentially glide the purple-heart tip of a striker across roughly conditioned crystal. When I do that, the raw nerve is soothed…albeit temporarily. I drive my car to work every day, erstwhile yelping and purring and whistling on assorted mouth diaphragms, picturing the approach of a thoroughly seduced gobbler in my mind’s eye.
Somedays the old fella plays hard to get, tiptoeing stealthily in, walking almost sideways to the setup the way that old, cagey turkeys with scimitar-long spurs sometimes do. Other mornings I picture him as a frenzied two-year-old, horny, triple-gobbling and almost stomping on his beard as he stampedes down my gun barrel. I’ve been fortunate enough to see turkeys do both scenarios above and almost everything in between…and one hefty longbeard that did both the slow approach and the death sprint in short succession of one another. But most of the allure is in knowing that no matter the vividness of my imagination, pretty much every spring Tom Turkey finds some other way to surprise and teach me in a fashion that pales in comparison to everything I’d imagined.
My batting average is not hall of fame worthy, but my list of stories might be. Wild turkeys can be maddening to chase, and almost once a season I’m ready to quit on the whole goddamn thing. Operator error often plays a factor, and I’ve worn them all. Poor shooting, bad decision-making, impatience, having too much patience, over-confidence, lack of confidence, incredulously blind faith, and stubborn cynicism have all cost me turkeys in the mere decade that I’ve gone from rank amateur notorious for over-calling and educating turkeys, to only-slightly-less-rank novice turkey hunter who still overcalls and educates turkeys, but now does so with misplaced confidence in my occasionally shabby set of skills. Every time one of those gaudily-plumed professors whips me, which is often, I file the experience neatly away in the memory banks, hoping that being humbled that particular day will make me slightly less gullible the next time I spar with a bird. In the decades to come I marvel at the things I might learn about myself, all the while not really knowing what those things are.
Friends, or at least people who purport to be my friends, label my lamenting as grandiose. They say “It’s just a dumb bird” or “I don’t see why you think they’re hard to kill. My buddy shot one within twenty minutes of his first hunt” or “Stop being a drama queen and focus”.
So maybe that is it. Perhaps I am just of too fragile a disposition to make a legendary turkey hunter. True, I can call well enough, and I can even do a reasonably good job of sitting still, but when that longbeard sounds off and heads my way, things get immediately and chaotically re-wired in my brain. I instantly get into a pitched battle between pride and hubris, and things I’ve long rehearsed and believed all my life somehow fall by the wayside. Safety first and foremost always, but planning, rational decision-making, and even my proudest skills of being articulate fade from view under the heart-pounding, single-minded haze that making a gobbler bury his own head in the dirt breeds in my psyche.
I’ve got it bad, that gobbler fever. Even when I think I’m alright, it can all slip-slide away in seconds when I hear him drumming on the other side of the ridge. I think I’m so hot, with my high-test shotgun shells, sweet-sounding game calls, and photo-realistic decoys made of space age materials. They aren’t worth their weight in manure when a bird that I didn’t even know was there rattles my bones with a gobble from inside ten yards and proceeds to turn my insides into just so much quivering pudding.
Writing this all down was supposed to be an act of therapy, some shameless display of catharsis in the public sphere. An admission of my own faults and addictions that while purely self-indulgent, was also meant to entertain and perhaps even serve as a cautionary tale to those in the same lamentable predicament. But all I’ve really done here, so far as I can tell, is wind myself up even tighter. The drum is stretched taut now, and as the hands glide around the clock face in my office, every tick-tock just reminds me that I’m still weeks and weeks away from a happy place at the foot of a tree.
Picture Sylvester the Cat in that Looney Tunes episode where he thinks he’s finally managed to kill Tweety Bird. That’s me lately…pacing back and forth in my mind and about to wear a groove through the floor of my once steely resolve.
Pratfall comedy and children’s cartoon references aside, the masochist in me openly loves the emotional duress and occasional physical suffering. The sleep deprivation. The bewildered looks from my spouse. Silent mornings of serenity, punctuated with raucous turkey noises and booming shotgun blasts. The sense of community in being with other turkey hunters, and the sense of exclusivity in having a one-on-one battle of wits and skills with a supremely adapted and wary (not to mention delicious) adversary. The outdoors experience is full of emotional complexity like this; I’ve always felt a sad sense closure to a successful turkey hunt, mingled with a degree of whooping excitement as I smooth down any feathers I may have ruffled in harvesting the bird. When the season comes to a close, there is relief couple with a lingering sense of greater things still unexperienced, and I suppose these are true of any kind of hunting if a person is passionate enough about it.
I’m fairly far gone from being philosophical anymore, and this rambling is best served to end now, so I’ll close with wishing all the other members of the Tenth Legion out there the best of luck and I hope you have fine weather and willing gobblers wherever it is that you hunt them.