Bouncing over semi-paved roads in a pickup truck, we flew through the hills of western Missouri in the dark. Presently we whipped off the road and pulled up at a wire gate, taking care to park in such a way as to block the gap against any vehicles that might come along later. My companion and I bailed out, shouldered our gear and set off at a stiff trot. In a few minutes we crested a rise and halted. Catching our breath, we heard the first songbirds of the morning as they began to chirp. Here and there in the still-invisible world below, owls called back and forth. Stars began winking out one by one.
As the sky turned pink behind us, I could see we overlooked rolling spans of pasture bordered by tall trees and perforated by fencelines. In a moment, I heard a turkey gobble, the first I ever heard live and in person. I rolled my left shoulder, hitching the sling of the shotgun I carried a little higher. I looked around, ready to go.
“We’ll wait a few more minutes,” Steve Stoltz said, replying to my enthusiasm. It was still too dark to see a face, but I could hear in his voice a wide smile. “There are several in here.”
Stoltz was a St. Louis firefighter who worked in the outdoor industry on the side, videoing hunts for the Drurys. He explained we were likely to spook hens and other gobblers off the limb if we moved forward just then.
I wasn’t quite 30 years old at the time. I had hunted small game since my single-digit years and had grown up an avid wingshooter. We didn’t have enough deer around home to hunt, though. What I knew of big game hunting had come from books and magazines. As for turkeys, the turkey population I had access to was exactly zero, so the spring turkey business was brand new to me. My career had suddenly brought me into full contact with the opportunity to learn though so, as far as I was concerned, class was now in session.
I understood the thumbnail basics of the turkey woods as well as anyone who’d never set foot in them could, but it was a world still almost entirely a mystery to me. Decades later, it’s a mystery that continues to reveal itself a few clues at a time. That’s a big part of the continuing attraction.
Turkey hunting’s move-and-call, call-and-move matrix resembles Western big game hunting in rolling strategy, but it’s a pursuit carried out more by ear than eye.
Scattered along the creek bank that lay somewhere in the half mile ahead, more gobblers sounded off. They gobbled at owls and at each other. Spaced at intervals along the facing arc, we pointed toward three different gobblers, then to four. Their census climbed to six, then seven.
Growing sunlight lit the strands of barbed wire connecting the fenceposts. Yellow buttercups and green pasture grass resolved from what had been deep, shapeless blue and dark, shadowy gray.
The gobbles continued, but their tone began to change from bell-clear to subtly muffled. Steve lifted his pack, threw its straps onto his shoulders, picked up his camera rig.
“They’re on the ground,” he said. “Let’s go.”
We worked our way down the hillside and into the steep bowl of a pasture below, then slid left into a finger of trees. We moved more cautiously now, trying to gain the crest of the next hill. We were 50 yards from it when a booming gobble out of sight ahead caused a halt.
“He’s in that open pasture,” Steve said, referring to ground out of sight in front of us. He began moving toward a big, lone tree that stood in the edge of the open field at our right. “We’ll have to set up here.”
We tucked ourselves tightly to the bole of a squatty oak and he began to call. In moments, a big gobbler crested the horizon, paused a moment at a crossing fence, ducked under its bottom strand and walked toward us, flanking slightly to our right and down toward the grassland below. When the turkey’s head was out of sight, I shifted the gun from my right shoulder to my left and moved my right knee out to support my elbow. I slipped the safety off, then found the bottom of the trigger guard with my left index finger and waited.
Steve poured on the coal, yelping to beat the band and the lone gobbler responded. He gobbled once, then walked up out of the steep bowl directly toward my right shoulder. I found his head with the crosshairs of the first scoped shotgun I’d ever used, and immediately appreciated the value of the glass. The gobbler flipped over backward at the shot and, after a few photos and a quick wrap-up on video, we were headed back to the truck with the first longbeard I’d ever seen in the wild.
Turkey hunting’s attractions are too many to count. The pursuit itself is exacting, though some successes come more easily than others. Hunters talk about what a bird weighed, admire the length of its beard and the sharpness of its spurs, but any mature gobbler is a shooter, so the necessity of aging game ahead of a shot is negated, not to mention largely impossible.
The combined adrenaline and admiration the birds command make their pursuit a deep honor, while the common background of every hunt is a medium for memories varied as can be. What we remember comes to mark each hunt. It separates them for consideration later.
My very first turkey came far too easily, and I’ve been making payments against a high rate of interest ever since. Thankfully, it’s been a debt well worth the difficulty. The pursuit has opened the door to experiences that would have never come my way otherwise.
Thanks to turkey hunting, I spent a couple weeks of my life one morning connecting a 4-wheel-drive’s winch cable first to the base of one pine then to the next, dragging our party down a muddy fire lane, digging a set of ruts at least a quarter mile long. I’ve greeted sunrises in the Midwest and the Mountain West, in Mississippi and in Maine. I’ve stepped on cactus in Texas, put my hand in cactus in Kansas, punctured parts too delicate to name with cactus in places too many to number.
I once carried a lightweight, compact, over-and-under, 3.5-inch 12 gauge turkey gun with which I’d fallen in love until I finally put its bead on a gobbler’s head at 30 yards and pulled the trigger. Both barrels went off at once, making it a 7-inch 12 gauge I suppose. While I don’t recommend the experience, there’s no denying it did a thorough job on the turkey.
Once on a hunt in Florida, I was walking quickly along a timber road, moving toward an intersection that would let me cut the distance on a gobbling turkey when I found myself face to face with a Florida panther at 40 yards. We both froze. I looked at him and he looked at me. I didn’t feel threatened, exactly, but I wasn’t sure what to do next exactly either. I was straining to recall what Outdoor Life would say to do when, between one blink and the next, he was gone. There was no flash of movement, no rustle of brush. No sound at all. No motion I could see. I didn’t watch him leave. He was there. Then he wasn’t there. That was all. We left the gobbling turkey to him and called it square.
I hope he’s still out there hunting somewhere. In a few more weeks, I will be too. It’s our rightful place in nature for both of us, of course, but I have to wait. Game laws are different when you’re a panther.