By Jeff Kurrus
For those of you who have been keeping up, or to you who are new to this blog, I am just finishing up a turkey hunting essay that I need a title for. I’m entirely open to ideas, and would rather use yours than my own because like the rest of these words, I’m tired of looking at this piece of writing.
Below you will find the essay in its entirety at this point. Do not expect it in polished form yet, for I will now send this to editor Doug Carroll and hopefully not receive too much wrath from the red pen. Some, even a lot, is expected - I just hope he doesn’t tell me to completely start over (Yes, it has happened to me before…more than a few times for sure). But I like the general direction of this piece and hope you do too.
Now, if we could just find a title. If you come up with one, or more than one, send me an email at email@example.com and entitle the message “Turkey Title” or respond via the Comments option within this blog.
Thanks for your help.
WORKING TITLE: UNTITLED
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, the one location where fish and fishing is always paramount, 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 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. At least not yet. 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, and 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.
I continue to call, even though I have seen this act before. I will receive an occasional over-the-shoulder call that will bring a brief feeling of hope, but every other reply will continue to be fainter. I lean my head against the tree, for the first time tired, and remove a wet mouth call from my lips. “Damn,” I say, “you got to be kidding me.”
Then I catch a glimpse of my birds, at least five toms and fifteen hens, already two hundred yards away. I have no idea which way they will go from here, so any advances toward them are for naught. I must now wait for the midday, hoping that one of these birds finds his way back across a creek, through a patch of woods, and into my open area. I am sure these grounds have more birds than this flock, but my own exasperated breaths convince me otherwise. So I remove my facemask and continue to shake my head.
Unless one is a green beret, a member of forces, a sniper…or a turkey hunter, one probably doesn’t own a ghillie suit. Yet for those whose springs are spent trying to entice what seems to be nature’s smartest animal, ghillie suits are only an option. Face painting and head-to-toe camouflage also provide confidence to the turkey hunter until a bead of sweat crosses the tip of the nose, forcing an itch so inviting that the hunter’s eyes start to water, which then forces a scratch. “You can be as camouflaged as you want,” a turkey hunter once told me, “as soon as that camouflage moves, you’re done.”
A non-turkey hunting friend, one whose hunting choices in life I often envy, recently relayed a story about a turkey encounter he had during archery season for deer.
“I saw some turkeys the other day when I was hunting,” he said. “I almost got a shot, but they just slowly eased away from me as I watched them in the field. It was strange. They were walking right toward me until they started fading. I mean, they didn’t see me. I know that. They must have just wanted to go in that other direction.” I didn’t have the heart to tell my friend that he had been made.
As I contemplate my next move, continuing to watch the flock feeding in the field, I notice one of the hens running back toward the creek. Then I see another hen following suit, legs comically moving away from some fear I have yet to see. A coyote appears in the distance, running full sprint toward the flock with a running mate close his side. The running mate, however, is not another coyote. Instead of the sleekness associated with this predator, I watch a short, round-bodied sidekick that resembles a badger, pursuing alongside the coyote.
The turkey flock busts completely as birds fly across the creek back into the woods, many moving the top of the tallest tree in the woods. With newfound hope, I lower my mask back over my face and ready for a second round.
Yet this round in short-lived. I once again call, and toms once again respond, yet when I hear them fly back down, their calls go fainter once again. I curse one call and try another. Then another. Then another. I curse myself, convincing me that I should never blow a call again, that the birds I had seen walk to my call in the past were anomalies and should not be considered constructors of current of future confidence.
I see the group fly across the creek again. I pocket my call and pick up my .870. and begin to crawl through the woods toward the creek. It is at least 100 yards to the creek, then across the creek, and then to the edge of the field where the turkeys are feeding. Logic still says that there is no particular direction that these birds traditionally travel. Logic also says that there is no possible way I can move that far without being made. The hell with logic. I will crawl regardless.
I crawl because I have seen turkeys peck at their own reflections in windows, watched them feed on the median of Interstate 80 as vehicles pass in both directions, and heard them gobble after the slam of a car door. How can something this disillusioned, this _______, this _________, evade me repeatedly? So I crawl, stinging nettles now and poison ivy later itching my skin, with shotgun in my hand.
Turkey hunting is the closest comparison most people will ever have going to war … or playing war like a child. The shotgun market has picked up on this phenomenon in recent years, as “turkey” guns look much more tactical than before, appearing more like a home intruder piece of weaponry than a turkey gun. With pistol grip handles, full camouflage details, and an occasional scope, turkey guns are unlike any other shotguns on the market. Needs at least one more line.
I continue to crawl despite feeling supplies empty from my pockets. I do not care. I can buy more supplies. But I may never get a shot at a turkey again. I think I am close to the creek, but I dare not look up. I’m not even sure if the turkeys are still in the field. But I will crawl across a highway if I think it will keep me from being detected.
I reach the creek, slide down its muddy embankment, fill my boots with water, and attempt to crawl up the other bank. My gun, my clothes, and my facemask are covered with mud. I care not. I only care about getting to the edge of this field.
When I arrive, my face falls to the forest floor as I swear again. The group of birds are at least 200 yards to my right. From my angle, there is no way I can maneuver through the woods and get ahead of them without being made. I am tired, I am frustrated, and a combination of sweat, mud, and creek water is already making me smell. I am done.
But as I move to stand up, I catch a glimpse of something black to my left. I turn, and a lone tom is hustling across the cut corn field, displaced by the earlier coyote interruption and quickly making his way back to the group. Within range, I shoulder my gun, click the safety, and “baah” like a sheep. He stops, I shoot, and my hunt is over.
With bird in hand, newfound smile on face, and an empty vest, I follow my patch through the woods and slowly begin to recover one box call, two slate calls, three mouth calls, a dozen heavy load 4s, camouflage gloves, an extra facemask, and a can of bug spray from my earlier crawl. Then I make the long, but enjoyable, trek back to my truck, already wondering when I might be able to do this all over again.