Dawn again. This time it’s the Nebraska Sandhills. A slight breeze out of the southwest will crank up to gusts of more than 25 miles per hour by ten o’clock. The sunrises are long and red in the Sandhills, like elongated slices of watermelon stretched along the eastern horizon, flecks of clouds giving contrast. Gobbles and more gobbles from all directions confuse the hunters as to where we should set up.
This trip, in a sense, has been a mix of failures and frustrations. At the same time, it has been none of those things. Three mornings earlier, arriving sleepless and bleary-eyed, two great redheads peered in our direction from 70 yards, tempted but not committed. The one beside me was none other than the incorrigible Lyle. Our crosscurrent of good and bad ideas only paralyzed us, glued to the fallen log out of sight from searching eyes until they were forever led away by hens into the dense woods.
What is it about these birds that tug at my heartstrings like true love? Perhaps it’s the throaty gobble of an old tom ringing through the hills of southern Tennessee, rays of sun on the light-colored fan of the majestic Merriam’s strutting through an alfalfa field in the Midwest, bowed up, spitting and drumming and bending me out of shape like a woman I once loved. Win some, lose more.
Then as Lyle and I continued to compile more and more near misses, I wondered about our relationship as hunting buddies. “We are rusty together indeed,” I speculated, often aloud, remembering the times when it seemed much easier between us. On the second afternoon we sat comfortably in a cedar windrow looking out over a winter wheat field. A car door opening and closing back near where my truck was parked concerned us both and Lyle stepped to the back of the windrow to glass in that direction.
“Hey!” he hissed, moving toward his shotgun still lying on the ground next to me. I heard the sound of feet first, thinking a deer had walked into the windrow, scared out of the field behind us by the stopped car. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a low profile. I too reached for my gun as my brain recalculated and said, Coyote! Only when the red head appeared in a small opening some ten feet away did I realize the importance of the situation. An ol’ longbeard had literally just stepped into the windrow with us. Seeing Lyle go for his gun, the gobbler quickly exited the long row of standing cedar into the wheat field in front. Expecting this I jumped out with him, raising my gun as he dipped back into cover. The instant I lowered my gun he reappeared 40 yards away and giving his legs all they had. My shot went wide in the opening chapter of what would be a weeklong lesson in the schoolhouse without walls.
“Who does that happen to?” were the only words my mouth could speak.
But then, not 24 hours later, something almost supernatural happened that made the frustration dissipate and the realization of just how lucky we actually are arrive like a train that refuses to leave the station. Not only were we hunting in the great Midwest, but we were also fortunate enough to have our good friend and old roommate from Auburn University, now a biologist and federal game warden living in Nebraska, join us for most of the week we spent vying for a Rio, Merriam’s, or a hybrid of the two. Dale, Lyle, and I have hunted, fished, and indulged in “unspeakables” for about as long as we can and can’t remember.
The three of us walked up the hills and down through the coulees on a private spot of ground Dale had permission to hunt. Despite the hundreds of gobbles that answered his soft yelps and cackles at daylight, the toms refused to leave their hens. Up another hill, my lungs and legs burning past the point of comfort, down another coulee, my kneecaps feeling as if they may pop out and hit Dale in the back of the head. Then a gobble ringing loud and clear from the tree line to our right and we know we might just get on this bird.
It’s hard to go back through all the chances we missed. But we were burdened with what seemed like the weight of the world that morning, especially Lyle and me. Another yelp, another gobble. It’s quite unfortunate that that gobbler would never be able to comprehend the absolute power he had over us. When his fan came up over a small rise 20 yards to my left, and I saw Lyle’s hand move to his gun, my heart beat in my chest and ears louder than the spitting and drumming of the most magnificent bird on Earth. I will never be able to fully or appreciably recount that exact feeling as he slowly he put his head up.
Image by Josh Wolfe