By Jeff Kurrus
For those still with me, today was a good day. I think I found the general direction I want to go.
At this stage, my essay will be anchored by a turkey hunt I had last year, and interrupted by general observations I have had of turkeys since I started hunting them. I am steadily moving material into “The Box,” which is the purgatory of my writing process, and completely deleting other portions.
So far, this is the start of the direction I’m trying to go.
It’s 4:00 AM, exactly ______ hours from legal shooting time for spring turkey hunting, and I’m sitting against a tree in a small patch of woods with my eyes wide open, sweat already creeping down my forehead. I am here because sleep evades me during spring turkey season; I am here because every single morning when I arrive near shooting time the toms I covet walk in the opposite direction; I am here because this is no longer a quest for fun – it has simply become a quest.
I was introduced to turkey hunting by a close friend who stands 6 foot 5, topples the scales at 350 pounds, and is afraid of no man, big or small. Snakes, raccoons, possums, spiders, and the dark, however, scare him beyond words. Yet during his first year of turkey hunting, he admitted crawling across forest floors, swimming across creeks, and __________ in an attempt to get close to a roosting tree. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in the woods,” he said, “and I never fired a single shot at a bird.”
But I still wasn’t convinced … at least not until I walked into Commission fisheries biologist Daryl Bauer’s office the next April and asked him when we might be able to catch a few walleyes together. “Let me be honest with you, Kurrus,” he said. “I have turkey on the brain right now. I’ll fish later.”
Turkey on the brain. There’s probably know better way to explain the spring turkey hunting phenomenon. For the turkey hunter, everything in life sounds like that guttural call from a tom – doors slamming, a coffee pot turning on, and every sound afield makes a hunter tilt their head to listen in hopes of hearing a second blast.
But sometimes one call is all that a hunter hears, until the bird has walked completely around the blind, crept to within 10 feet, and gobbled again at point-blank range only to run away before a shot can be had. These moments lead to sleepless nights for the hunter, when one finally dozes off two hours too late and wakes up two hours too early.
This morning, turkeys will not evade me. It’s near 5 AM, still an hour and four minutes before shooting time, and I am less than 60 yards from their roosting tree. The air is cool, in the mid 50s, and I am absent of both insects and fatigue. All I can see are stars. But it’s still too dark to even make out a single bird above. I lower my head, stretching already tired muscles in my neck, and hear the first gobble of the morning. Turkeys will not evade me today.
“Dawn for show, noon for dough,” has been stated by turkey hunters. If you want to hear birds, arrive before sunrise as a tom attempts to gather every possible hen he can for a morning walk through the woods. Never has the phrase “one in the hand” been more poignant. He may talk back to you, responding so quickly to each of your calls that you’re convinced he’s running in your direction. But if he already has hens, stop calling. You’re probably wasting your time.
Come midday, however, and the tom turkey tends to get a little bit more lonely. While strutting and calling all morning, he’s more than likely forgotten to pay close attention to his harem. They’ve disappeared, often one by one, to lay eggs in the woods. And the tom suddenly finds himself alone.
But he is not alone this morning. There are at least two more toms with him, as well as a ____________ of hens. I can’t see them yet, but soon I may be able. Despite the twinges of regret already entering my mind regarding my close proximity to the roost tree, I remain still. They are only twinges, mind you. I have hunted these birds for nearly two straight weeks, and this morning I plan on shooting the first one in range as soon as his feet hit the forest floor. I feel nearly compelled to do so.
Turkey hunting is a cure of many phobias including, but not limited to, acarophobia (itching), achluophobia (darkness), ambulophobia (walking), amychophobia (being scratched), arachnophobia (spiders), entomophobia (insects), and herpetophobia (reptiles). Unfortunately, turkey hunting can also lead to fears, namely atychiphobia (failure), decidophobia (making decisions), and, most notably, dementophobia (insanity). It is unimaginable what it must have been like for hunters who needed to kill a bird for food. Unimaginable how much hate accumulated in the hearts of men whose survival was predicated on whether they could convince a bird to coming within gun range.
Watching Nebraskan Richard Johnson take his 6-year old son Nolan last spring for his first turkey hunt, it was impossible not to think about the treacherous road that a father was introducing to his son. Nolan skipped through the woods like only a child can, with camouflage clothes too large for him and the inability to see the heartaches ahead in his life.
The birds are on the ground. I still cannot see them, but I can hear them. Multiple “peeps” fill the woods as an occasional gobble echoes through me. I call, first with my slate and then with a box, and one tom responds. I scratch again, he returns my advance. Repeatedly we talk to each other, me asking if he would like more companionship. He affirms, yet his replies grow fainter, regardless of what hand-held hen I use.
A grunt call, a bleet call, and an occasional set of rattling antlers. What is a deer hunter. A rarely blown to practice but too often blown call in the field. What is a duck hunter. A mouth call, another mouth call, a third mouth call, a slate call, a second slate call, two strikers, a gobble call, and your son’s push-button hen yelp. What is a turkey hunter.
Two chest pockets, two shell pockets. What is a duck, quail, deer, and pheasant hunter. Two large chest pockets, two shell pockets, two inside pockets, two interior pockets within two shell pockets, two thin, long pockets between the chest and the shell pockets. And velcro. And buttons. And zippers. Lots of zippers. What is a turkey hunter.