Turkey hunting, like so many other things in my life, did not come naturally. I have always been what you might call a “slow starter,” often accused of marching to the beat of a different tune. In summer, when I took the mound, you could count on two or three innings of balls and hit batters before I settled down and began recording outs. When that first gobbler strutted in front of me, I almost lost control of all bodily functions–almost.
He would not come any closer. Seventy yards out, an invisible force field lay between his “strut zone” and my position on a black walnut tree that green, spring morning. The spring was not cause for the only green element in the woods. As soon as the bird started strutting away from me, I jumped up and took off at a dead sprint, fingers ready to work the safety and trigger on my Mossberg 835. My 12-year-old, dysfunctional brain told me that I could close the 20-yard gap I needed for a reasonable shot without him ever hearing me. Wrong. Before I stood erect, he was telling the flight attendants to prepare for takeoff. I unloaded my gun at him without touching a feather, but comparable to what it must have been like when Jimi Hendrix played that first note on his first guitar, I became a fanatic.
Those first few seasons of turkey hunting pushed me to do things I now deem unreasonable and unsafe. At times, it got to the point I was so frustrated I would jump in my dad’s pickup to try and close the distance. Wisely, he banned me from the truck during the months in spring when I didn’t seem to be myself.
I had yet to kill a turkey by the spring of my 15th year, but I was a book- and magazine-learned expert. I steamed with jealousy as I watched the Primos team kill turkeys on what looked like an effortless, daily basis (it wasn’t until later in that I learned many hours are put into making hunting videos).
My first turkey did not come the way I had envisioned, but in the awkward way it was supposed to happen. Ambling through a pasture after being defeated by a couple of jakes that morning, I walked up on a big group of turkeys that, miraculously, did not see me. I was on a little rise above the 10 or so hens and equal number of gobblers. From a recent article in one of the “expert” magazines, I knew they weren’t supposed to be grouped up that time of year, but not having time to analyze the situation, I took action.
There were no trees or cover within 50 yards, so I followed my instincts and did the only feasible thing I could think of, lay down. Now, when I say that I lay down, you’re probably thinking the prone position, as any hunter familiar with the practices and principles of shooting would do. But for whatever reason, when I threw myself to the ground, it was on my back where I readied my gun and prepared to make a stand.
I moved the diaphragm call from cheek to tongue and began yelping softly. The throaty gobble of a mature tom answered directly. I lifted my head up, watching for movement in front of me while also laboring through a hellacious abdomen workout. Talk about awkward. There I was, lying out in the middle of an open pasture with a mess of turkeys possibly about to head my way. Watching this from above would have been priceless.
Another soft yelp, another instant response. My heart was beating so loudly in my straining ears I was having trouble concentrating. My stomach muscles were on the verge of collapsing when I caught movement. A head. A red head! Another popped up beside it and then went down.
The birds were working straight to me and a little off to the right. The bottom corner of the butt of my gun rested firmly against my armpit. Since they were a little below me, I could only see their heads. And since I had an itch worse than poison ivy on my manhood to kill my first tom turkey, I shot at the next head that popped up.
The gun went off in usual fashion, the 3-1/2-inch turkey load kicking like a deranged donkey. Amid the stars in the sky, turkeys were flying around my head. I could tell something had happened, but my body was too numb to move and my brain sent no waves as I lay sprawled out on the ground. As I contemplated my next move, I remembered a recent encounter with a turkey and sat up to see if I drew blood.
And draw blood I did! The recoil from my shotgun sent the butt, stock, trigger guard, and every other part right across my face. When I wiped my runny nose, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the allergies I so often acquire in the spring causing bodily fluids to run down my face. It scared me when I pulled my bloody hand away. I stood up thinking my nose was broken, but the sight of a bundle of feathers flopping on the ground a short distance away helped me momentarily forget about the whole incident.
The day was mine! After marveling at the beautiful bird, I dropped my gun and vest and took off at a dead sprint to the four-wheeler on the other side of the pasture.
Cranking the engine, I skipped the first few gears as I mashed the throttle. The rules were to drive it slowly, especially up and down the hills that make up the majority of our farm. But while my dad was waiting, ready to whip me for coming down the hill to the cabin at top speed, his curiosity overtook his anger. What he saw was his lanky, awkward-looking, 15-year-old son with a bloody face and his first turkey riding dutifully on the back. He still wasn’t sure whether to yell or cry when I pulled up, but the smile on my face reverberated a joy that only a father and son, two lifelong hunting buddies, could share. The bond is unspoken.
I have gone on to take some nice gobblers in my hunting career. Some hunts I was lucky enough to share with my dad, some I managed on my own. Some of the hunts were the most exciting outings of my life and some happened in the “roost ‘em and hunt ‘em” fashion. All encounters with spitting and drumming and longbeards make my blood boil. But none stand out like that first one. “Firsts” are one and done. There will never be another first in life whether it be a first kiss, a first love, or puberty, which ties into both.
That is what is so special about hunting. Certainly we have kills that fall into the category of “first,” but that is just one small aspect of being a hunter, a fisherman, and a conservationist. Now that I am older, I have been lucky enough to share many firsts with hunters who are new to the sport. That same spring of my first turkey, my dad and I planted a few hundred sawtooth oak saplings that produced their first acorns just a couple of summers ago. Turkey, deer, and other wildlife will benefit from those trees for years just as my family and friends will. However, the cycle of life does not stop there. God willing, the generations that follow me will also continue to benefit from something once so green that has grown to maturity in its own way.
Image by Hunter Worth