Morning sun illuminates fall foliage and warms the air as my daughter, Jennifer, and I bump and jostle down the rutted farm road in my old pickup. A youth model, single-shot 20-gauge, muzzle to the floorboard, lies cased between us.
I glance at Jennifer: 12 years old, slender, not quite 5 feet tall, decked out in camouflage and brimming with enthusiasm. Our target is turkeys-reason enough for high spirits-but there's more to this day. Though Jennifer has accompanied me on other hunts, this is the first time she has been the hunter.
As I ponder my hopes for this hunt, thoughts drift to a photograph I have of my great- and great-great grandfather. Taken before the first world war, the studio shot captures a memory shared by father and son. Great-great grandfather, then in his fifties and sporting a broad, handlebar mustache, stands tall and vigorous next to great-grandfather, then a young man. Both men, in hunting clothes, cradle shotguns-guns still in the family. Great great grandfather holds a Parker double-barrel; great-grandfather, a Winchester Model 12. Behind them a triangular game rack hangs heavy with quail. In front, lying on a rug, is their red setter, head up and eyes alert.
Hunting has been central to my family's close bonds, molding generations of fathers and sons, granddaughters and grandfathers into lifelong friends.
With Jennifer I've hoped and planned for the same, nurturing her interest in animals and the outdoors since she was a toddler.
Thoughts return to today as I pull up and park next to a rusted hay rake overgrown with weeds. Jennifer, wearing a broad smile, hops out and is standing on my side of the truck before I have a chance to open the door.
"Do you think I'll get a turkey today, Dad?" she asks.
"No guarantees," I respond honestly as I step from the truck. "But last week while scouting I saw a flock of 17 young turkeys right over there on that hill." Wide-eyed, Jennifer carefully studies where I point.
With gear assembled and double-checked we head in that direction. The farm, a 200-acre mix of fields and woods in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks, offers good turkey hunting, but it can prove a strenuous walk.
"Keep it fun for someone whose legs are half as long as yours," I remind myself. I let Jennifer set the walking pace, and I keep a sharp eye on her firearm. Though she carries her hinge-action shotgun open with no shell in the chamber, I want to make sure she practices what she's been taught, keeping the muzzle in a safe direction.
At the top of the hill it's time for a rest. I compliment Jennifer on her gun handling.
She smiles, then something catches her attention. "Hey, Dad!" she exclaims, pointing to a patch of asters, "There's a monarch butterfly!"
Sure enough. We walk over for a closer look. Though it's mid-October, a few monarchs are still migrating through Missouri, adding their color to the rich reds and golds of fall. With quiet interest we watch one as it probes for nectar. Since my childhood I've been fascinated by butterflies.
Having thoroughly explored several flower heads, the monarch moves on. And so do we.
Hunting strategy for the day is to try to locate birds visually, using binoculars to search fields, and by sound, through setting up in the timber and calling to turkeys that may be out of sight. As we enter the first wooded ridge where we'll set up, I motion Jennifer to be quiet. We both move cautiously, taking care not to snap sticks.
At the base of a large post oak I kneel and scrape away leaves, making a space large enough for both Jennifer and me. We sit, shoulder-to-shoulder, and from our day bags pull camouflaged gloves and headnets. Jennifer pulls hers on, strikes a silly pose and whispers jokingly, "How do I look?"
"Beautiful!" I retort.
With calls arranged at my side we settle in and get serious. I instruct Jennifer to carefully place a shell in her shotgun and close the action. She does so but has trouble snapping the action shut. It's stiff and requires several tries.
With safety checked, we're ready.
I tell Jennifer that after I call, a bird might answer or might not, and that sometimes turkeys come to a call without answering, so we need to listen carefully for crunching leaves that might betray an approaching bird.
I call. Nothing answers. We wait quietly for a few minutes. Still nothing.
Jennifer leans my way and whispers, "Are you sure there are turkeys here?"
Her question reminds me that most young hunters want fast action.
I tell Jennifer that I'm not sure if any turkeys are close enough to respond to my calls, but that I have killed several turkeys over the years right from this spot. What we need to do is sit quietly for 15 minutes or so and wait to see what happens. Maybe we would see other wildlife. I had told Jennifer to bring a book along to read if action was slow, so she reaches into her day bag and pulls out a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. We wait.
Fifteen minutes pass. Nothing shows-not a squirrel, not even a titmouse or chickadee. Enough of a wait for a young hunter. I lean over to Jennifer and whisper, "Let's move."
We gather gear, but before leaving the woods, I motion to Jennifer to wait while I sneak to the edge of the field to see if any turkeys have come in from behind us. None have. We quickly walk to and set up at calling site number two-a wooded ridge about 300 yards from where we have just been. Flanked by two fields, the ridge intersects a 60-acre patch of cut-over timber on the south side. We don camo gloves and face nets and check the shotgun's safety. To our right, I detect the rustle of rapidly approaching footsteps, not turkey-deer. A mature doe bounds by in front of us at 30 steps, tail held high.
"Cool!" Jennifer exclaims.
"Don't move!" I whisper. "Others are coming!"
More rustling follows, and a mature doe and two yearlings trot into view. Stopping 25 yards from us, they turn heads and check their backtrail. Something has spooked them. The mature doe turns and looks directly at us.
"Don't move!" I warn again. "The wind is blowing from them to us, and they can't smell us. If we sit stone still they won't know what we are." The doe stares hard at us then bobs her head once, then twice.
"What's she doing that for?" Jennifer whispers.
"She's trying to figure us out. Keep still, we'll fool her."
Crunching leaves to our left catch my attention. Over a small rise, the doe that had first run through comes sneaking back. She sees the other doe and two yearlings and trots over to them. A round of tail flicking follows.
"Why are they doing that?" Jennifer asks.
"I'm not sure, but I think it's an everything-is-OK signal. Watch."
One of the yearlings relaxes and begins nibbling acorns, moving slowly our way.
"Don't move, Jennifer!"
The young deer continues feeding our way, nibbling here, nuzzling there. Overhead it spots a leaf suspended by a strand of spider silk and playfully twirls it several times with its nose.
At 12 steps the deer finally spots us and stops, bug-eyed, ears erect and muscles tense. Instinctively, it raises its right front leg, then stamps.
"What's it doing that for, Dad?"
Jennifer whispers, "Is it mad?"
"No. Just watch-and don't move."
Having had all it can stand, the yearling throws its tail in the air and bolts toward the other deer, which also spook. With white tails high and waving, all bound out of sight.
We peel face masks. For a moment Jennifer stares in silence where the deer had stood, then she turns to me, eyes full of excitement and exclaims, "Dad, that was one of the neatest things I've ever seen! Those deer were right there and didn't even know we were here. The little one that came so close, I could see its big, brown eyes-even its eyelashes. It was beautiful!"
We collect gear and move to the lower part of the ridge, talking of deer and deer sign. We find tracks, rubs, scrapes, beds and deer droppings-lots of deer droppings. I kneel by one of the beds we find and touch the flattened leaves. Jennifer does the same. The leaves are cool but still tight to the ground
"Dad," Jennifer asks. "All the deer droppings we've been seeing-why do they come out in little pellets when deer are big like us?"
I smile and nudge her shoulder. "I don't know. But you've been mulling it over, haven't you!" We both laugh.
We hunt for another hour or so and find no turkeys. Though Jennifer wants to stay longer, I think it time to head back-best to save some enthusiasm for next time.
As we crest the last hill on our way to the truck, my mind is drawn again to the near century-old photograph of great- and great-great grandfather after their successful quail hunt. Jennifer and I today shared the same love of the outdoors, time together and friendship.
For that, I give quiet thanks