Lord Byron Had Something Going
"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods," wrote Lord Byron in a poem.
It was sight to bring out the poet in the loan officer, not to mention Lord Byron. It was enough to make sinners think of angels and to bring tears to the eyes of a renegade.
I thought of that line because the gobbler was tacking methodically back and forth in the little green field, like a well-fed Oxford don pacing as he read Lord Byron's poems. He had a ponderous grace, an absent-minded elegance, as if his mind was among the planets.
Nearby, a couple of jakes jostled and giggled like pimply teenagers, as if providing low comedy.
Three weeks before the season and I was playing with someone else's turkey. That's what they tell you--practice on someone else's turkey. I was photographing and practicing my seductive calls.
He must have known I was there, but didn't respond to what should have been a threat. Maybe he read the hunting regulations and knew the season wasn't open. Maybe he could tell the difference between Nikon and Winchester.
I rewound one roll and popped in another. The glaring green of the film box and my flashing white hands should have semaphored "Danger!" to the turkeys but the jakes scratched absently at the dirt and looked bemused. The gobbler strode his measured watch.
I've visited the little glade a half-dozen times since that first morning and not once has that scene repeated itself. Once, the gobbler slipped past me at 30 yards and stopped, his feet visible under a cedar tree. My soft clucks left him unmoved.
The gobbler answered my calls on the morning after the first one, but refused to come to the camera. Maybe he had an early date elsewhere. Or maybe he'd lost either his stupidity or his magic.
That was then, but this is opening morning. The redbuds have come and gone; the mayapples are a green rainforest over mouse runs; the morels (so they tell me) are out.
I have traded my camera for a shotgun. Those who don't hunt say photographing an animal should be as gratifying as hunting it, but it isn't. I am a predator and a different set of instincts kicks in when I sling my shotgun.
So, I struggled into my hunting gear this opening morning at 4:45 after a restless night. I had tousled dreams of woods and turkeys, like a little kid on his first turkey hunt. It happens every year.
Long underwear, then camo pants and shirt, camo jacket, camo vest stuffed with collapsible decoys, an orange vest for travel safety, a half- dozen mouth calls, camo gloves, a camo headnet and a handful of granola bars.
They soothe hunger and also give me something to do when the morning drags. One granola gar is guaranteed to occupy a half-hour: two minutes to eat it and 28 to pick the oat fragments out of my teeth.
My hunting ground is several miles away by car and one mile by foot, back on a ridge so far that other turkey hunters will not venture there. Or so I hope. But I have been wrong before. I'm not the only dedicated turkey hunter in Missouri.
In fact, another hunter is in the parking lot just ahead of me and I see his dim flashlight bouncing through the night. I follow it for the first half-mile, hoping he'll turn right where I want to turn left. Obligingly, he fades right, into the woods and I hug the fence down a hill, up another hill, though a dense sprout thicket and into large grove of trees.
Probably walk into a roost. Perfect spot for it. I have a wonderful talent for finding where turkeys spend their nights, but I always manage to get 50 yards too close. Several times I've watched what I thought were squirrel nests become waking turkeys that then looked down on me the way Thor looked down on mortals that ticked him off.
It is cold and turkeys seem always ahead of me. I set up 200 yards from a roosted gobbler and call until past fly-down time. He becomes silent, then I hear him far over the ridge, heading away from me. Once I hear the rusty squawk of a jake in the brush behind me but even as naive as he is, he refuses to come in.
Finally, I move, lured by another distant gobbler. This happens several times. Each time I set up and call, but get no answers and the gobbling dwindles and dies with the morning.
Finally it is noon and hot. I'm layered just right for the chill of dawn, but about three layers beyond noon heat. I peel down to a T-shirt and stuff the rest in my vest.
Halfway to the car, a woodcock hen flutters into the air, a picture of disabled agitation. She is, she tells me with emphatic body language, one sick bird. She flutters to earth, quivering, her large eye fixed on me. "Follow me!" she urges with her flittering.
I know there are babies at my feet and, sure enough, they flee for the tall grass, long, unfledged wings held above their heads like awkward cheerleaders running onto a football field waving pompons. I laugh at them and leave the flustered family to reunite. It hasn't been such a bad morning after all.
About 35 years ago, I hunted wild turkeys for the first time. It was the second modern season and I was so excited I drove to the hunting area and slept in the back of a station wagon so I could get an early start.
I caught a terrible cold that made me whoop like a tugboat and heard nothing, no gobbler, no hens, just the rattle of my wheezing breathing.
How far we've come. I still call like a lovesick anhinga. I still don't shoot turkeys... But I hear them and see them everywhere. From a piddling handful of birds in 1965 to turkeys everywhere. It's not the birds' fault if I don't score; it's mine.
It is a tremendous wildlife success story. When the restoration program began, they estimated that Missouri would have huntable turkey populations in half the 114 counties. But all counties are open and most have excellent hunting. Everyone I know kills a gobbler except me. Many take a second legal bird. Thanksgiving dinner is no problem for most hunters. We have ham at our house.
Missouri's turkeys might have made it without the cooperation of landowners and the Conservation Department. But you never know. Landowners pledged to protect new stockings and did so with ferocious pride.
The Conservation Department painstakingly trapped birds in all kinds of weather, often terrible, to provide seed stock. Turkeys spread slowly, then more quickly, until they covered the state.
And 35-odd years later, I can sit on a ridgetop and hope that this time my call will start a fire too hot to ignore. It happens often enough to keep me going.
Even if I don't kill a bird, there are compensations. I can figure on walking into a roost at least once every season. I will call up at least one hen who will stand, head cocked, looking at me as if I were Mt. Rushmore and she were a tourist.
I can see woodcock mothers dithering about my threat and watch mated Canada geese flying overhead and listen to barred owls and whippoorwills yield to the cardinals and jays.
There is much to be said for not killing a turkey the first morning just after sunrise. Lack of success doesn't always translate into lack of success.
There are, after all, pleasures in the pathless woods. Maybe I'll write a poem about it.