“So, did you get him?”
My wife’s query carried the concern one might have for a lost puppy. But there was no puppy—just a hunter, carrying the weight of defeat home on one shoulder, his shotgun on the other. Again.
Every spring, after a winter that seemed too long, I amble into the woods in pursuit of turkey. To call myself a turkey hunter might give the reader an inaccurate portrayal of my skill set. When most people think hunter, they think killer. But this has to be the year, I tell myself. I just know it.
How do I know it? Perhaps it’s the $7 shotgun shell I slipped into the barrel that inflates my confidence, or maybe the new camouflage pattern I hopelessly crawled into, half asleep, that morning. When turkey season rolls around, I become the demographic bull’s-eye for the outdoor sporting goods industry.
Longbeard, tom, thunder chicken, swap rooster—America’s largest game bird is synonymous with anything but hard-to-kill for the majority of the American public. A turkey hunter’s pursuit is often lost in translation to the common observer or eavesdropper.
“I almost vaporized an entire flock on my way home from work.”
“My kids like to chase them.”
“You can hunt those? Like, with a gun? How hard can it be?”
Hard. Now I know there are several readers rolling their eyes as they recall the story of their uncle or cousin or granddad about the turkey they killed with the rusty pump-gun and bird shot, sitting on a stump in blue jeans, 33 minutes after sunrise. These days, this hunter is probably checking his smartphone while the turkey waddles into range.
These stories aren’t doing me any favors. But I find myself falling under this fantasy each spring before the season opens as I watch the turkeys waltz in and out of my wooded backyard, red beards swaying with a swagger few other game animals possess—how hard can that be to kill?
There are six different subspecies of wild turkeys, each carrying a different reputation for intelligence and behavior, depending who you ask. The ones in Michigan are Eastern turkeys. Their range covers the entire eastern half of the United States, from Maine all the way down to Florida, scooting about as far west as Missouri. Michigan has two turkey seasons: spring and fall. Out of respect to my other hobbies, and my marriage, I only hunt turkeys in the spring. Hunters in Michigan can only harvest one male turkey each spring.
Like duck hunters, turkey hunters fall under this enigmatic shroud that people desperately try to peek behind, and once they do, they slink away disappointed. There isn’t a secret; it’s exactly how it looks like from the outside—cold days, early mornings and failure. I don’t say this to dissuade anyone interested in these noble pursuits, but they don’t come without sacrifice and understanding spouses. Yet it is in these pursuits where the best stories are formed, the ones you’ll tell to your kids or your grandkids as you bounce them on your knee. It isn’t the triumph of success—which does happen—that excites us, but the uncertainty that unfolds in a hunt. And who couldn’t use a little uncertainty in this day and age where everyone is a winner, and you get an A for just showing up?
When we begin to dissect the sport of turkey hunting, there isn’t much you can say that won’t make people laugh. Any turkey hunter who hasn’t laughed at himself has probably killed more birds than all of us combined. (Call me.) Why would a sane adult dress in this absurd outfit to sit motionless for hours to kill something?
Turkeys have exceptional eyesight and hearing, but unlike deer, not much sense of smell. If turkeys did have a sense of smell, there wouldn’t be a turkey-hunting season—they would be unkillable. They can detect the slightest movement from aggravating distances. Swaddled in camouflage, morphing their human shape into a pile of sticks and leaves, a hunter must sit absolutely still while calling a turkey. Motionless, if the turkey is in sight. If your gun isn’t up, the game is over.
Spring is mating season for turkeys. This breathing pile of leaves must emit sounds of a female turkey to call a male turkey into range, using either a mouth call, a box call or a slate call—if you’re me, you purchased all three.
The idea, hopefully, is to make that pile of sticks and leaves sound like a sexy, lonely female turkey—to seductively wheedle the male within shotgun range, or a bow if you’re a true woodsman. Some might put out a decoy, others won’t be involved with carrying anything farther than they have to.
While we’ve arrived to our tree, found a comfortable spot to sit and begun calling, people at home are still sound asleep in their beds. All of this nonsense is for a 16-pound bird that you have to pluck yourself and dries out in the blink of an eye when you cook it.
Now if I hunted turkeys to get turkeys I would have stopped a long time ago—well before my third year without pulling the trigger. As turkey-hunting author and sportsman Tom Kelly puts it, “I do not hunt turkeys because I want to, I hunt them because I have to.”
Unbeknownst to them, turkey hunters have pinned themselves into what seems like the weirdest cult in town. Throughout the nation, this cult comes out of the woodwork every spring, to the dismay of everyone else with better things to do. Fortunately for us, we don’t have those better things. Opening day of turkey season gives hunters their first logical reason since fall to get up before sunrise and go sit in the woods without looking like a goon. And it’s just that—being in the woods at dawn—that draws many of us to sit at the foot of an oak tree while the stars still shine.
There is a peculiar zest to all that is unseen in the woods before the sun rises. The hunter is an apparition, an invisible entity, not a bumbling fool trouncing through the woods. To be acquainted with darkness, to feel comfort in its presence, is the soul of a sportsman. The stars overhead dim as sunlight filters its way through the silence. As songbirds begin to sing, the vitality of the woods unfolds: a ruffed grouse pecks for food, a bobcat pounces on field mice, coyote howls raise hairs on your neck. This isn’t the same as sitting on your porch or rolling down your car windows at this hour. This is different. A western breeze scoots through the tree canopy, carrying the fragrance of spring. Forsythia’s brilliant yellow blooms are the first to appear from the fading darkness.
Once you hear your first wild turkey gobble at sunrise, you won’t forget the sound. That thunderous, guttural echo will scare the crap out of you. Curiosity quickly replaces this fear, and so begins, as every turkey hunter recalls it, the tumultuous and obsessive journey.
Outsmarting one of these birds isn’t necessary to admit oneself to this cult, but it helps. Fortunately, failure doesn’t mean turkey hunters always come home empty-handed. Turkey season is prime time for mushrooms and ramps in Northern Michigan. There is a reason my walk back to the car takes three hours, and only one of those hours is because I’m lost. As I weave in and out of swamp, scrub and stands of hardwoods, scanning for morels, my mind is already drifting ahead to tomorrow. Where should I set up? What calls should I use? And can I find enough mushrooms to keep my wife happy?