The Perfect Season
Turkey hunting is a growth sport in Missouri. Conservation Department Wildlife Research Biologist Jeff Beringer estimates the statewide turkey population at 500,000 to 600,000, and Beringer said the population is still growing as turkeys move into previously unoccupied habitat.
Beringer noted that turkeys also are multiplying to "amazing densities" in parts of northern Missouri, which already has the densest turkey population in the state. I had hunted turkeys years ago without much luck, and so I had given it up. My wife's brother, Wayne, owns timbered property in north Missouri where those "amazing densities" of wild turkeys live, so I decided to try again. I bought a spring turkey-hunting permit, found a box of Double XX magnum shells in the basement and started piling stuff in the car. The last week of April found me at the house on Wayne's property, ready to hunt.
I was alone in the house, a mile off the paved road in a part of Missouri where livestock far outnumber the people. The house is surrounded by the ghostly remains of a farming operation - a towering blue silo, a hog farrowing building where voices echo in empty stalls, and small, mysterious wooden buildings slowly rotting into the soil. Somewhere in the dark, a door on one of the outbuildings banged shut in an April breeze. I rolled over in my sleeping bag, punched up my pillow and tried to sleep. I was on a hide-a-bed in the living room of the house. I had expected that my partner would already be there.
Sitting up, I looked out the picture window over the couch. In the daytime, the window afforded a view across a wide river bottom that had been cleared to grow crops. A quarter-mile across the field rises a levee that borders an unseen river. Rolling hills edge the flat land along the river, and they are crowned with forests of oak and hickory. The woods are home to white-tailed deer and turkey. You can see it all in daylight. At 11 p.m., however, the view was reduced to a swatch of solid darkness.
The house, with two bedrooms and one bath, sits on a rise overlooking the bottoms. At dusk, I had sat on a slab of concrete at the edge of the yard, flicking ticks off my pantlegs while listening for a turkey to gobble as it went to roost. The house had long ago been converted to a hunting cabin. Deer antlers adorned the fireplace mantel. A broken, blood-streaked arrow and a variety of rifle cartridges littered a tabletop. The living room and kitchen/dining room are long and narrow. Wayne has an archery target at one end of the kitchen and actually shoots his bow inside the house. There is a woodstove in the kitchen. The bedrooms simply have mattresses on floors. It's not a place where you worry about having a little bit of mud on your boots when come in from the woods.
My experience as a turkey hunter is quite checkered. I once called up a bird, but when I lifted my gun, the bird saw the movement and disappeared in a heartbeat. Other times I had called up hens. Once, with Wayne, I had been tense as we set up on a bird that seemed to be gobbling non-stop. I was wired, and after long moments of straining to see movement in the woods, my thumb hovering over the safety in my gun, I was deflated when the bird finally shut up and moved away from us.
Later, as we walked down a lane in the woods, a bird gobbled about 200 yards to our right. We found a large tree and settled at its base, Wayne on one side and I on the other. He called, but the bird did not respond. Moments later I felt something on my boot then realized Wayne was kicking me. I pulled myself up on my elbows to see his side of the tree and there, standing 15 yards in front of us, was a large gobbler. He had come in without making a sound, and was looking for the hen he thought he'd heard. By the time I raised my gun, the bird was gone. Had Wayne not deferred to me, he could have easily put his tag on that gobbler.
I had left a light on in the kitchen. The next thing I knew, Wayne was telling me it was time to get up. I looked outside; it was still pitch black. My watch said 4:30. He said he had come in at midnight. I had been asleep and had not heard him. I sat up on the edge of the bed and dug a camouflage outfit out of my bag. We had chilled thermos coffee and a cinnamon roll for breakfast. Soon we were in the truck, driving to a part of his woods where he had heard two birds gobbling the previous morning.
Wayne says it is turkey time when the cardinals start calling just before sunrise. He has killed a number of deer and turkey here with both bow and gun. He has tree stands throughout the woods, and a camouflaged blind that he uses when hunting turkeys with a longbow. He has this property because he once stopped to help a man change a flat tire, but that's another story.
He parked the truck, and we walked across corn stubble and down a grassy field to a point of timber. I heard a satisfying "thunk" as I dropped two shells into the barrels of my gun. I gently closed it and made sure the safety was on. A whippoorwill called two or three times, then went silent. By the time we had walked 100 yards into the timber, the cardinals were calling.
It was turkey time.
The woods were beginning to lighten as we stood at the top of a ridge. April is an amazing time to be outside. The air is sweet and cool, the woods are greening up and warblers are singing their hearts out high in the trees. We soon heard gobbling turkeys, but most were distant. Wayne does an excellent imitation of a barred owl with his voice, and he began hooting to lure a turkey into gobbling.
We stood still, wondering whether to stay or go as we listened for a bird close enough to work. Finally, a bird gobbled not far away. After a moment he gobbled again. Wayne pointed in that direction, and we slowly began walking. We came to an old woodland lane. Wayne looked around, then he pointed out a spot where we could sit. He thought the bird would come to us on that lane. I sat with my back against a tree. I am left-handed, and my gun would be pointed just where it needed to be.
I'm struggling to learn to use a turkey call, but when I'm with my brother-in-law, I leave it in my pocket. Wayne made soft turkey sounds with a slate-andpeg call, alternating quiet purrs with light yelping. Our gobbler answered from his tree. Wayne continued to call, but the bird seemed stuck in the tree. Suddenly Wayne began cackling on a mouth call while slapping his arm with a gloved hand, mimicking the sound of a turkey flying down from roost. He then scratched up the leaves with one hand, making the sounds of a turkey foraging on the forest floor.
I felt relaxed until Wayne whispered to me. He thought the bird was going to come from the left side of the lane, and he asked if I could swing around so I could shoot in that direction. My turkey hunting life flashed before my eyes, and the thought of possibly spooking this bird by moving was more than I could bear. Instead, I simply shifted my gun to my right hand. I'd shoot him right handed. I lifted the gun to my right shoulder and held it there.
A moment later I saw something black ahead of us. The black forms came into focus, materializing into the forms of two turkeys walking straight toward us. Wayne told me later that he could hear me breathing. I think my entire system was going about a thousand miles an hour. I couldn't see beards on the birds, and I quickly scanned their heads for the color red but didn't see that either.
"Are they both gobblers?" I asked in a whisper.
"Yes," Wayne whispered back.
I sighted down the rib on my gun, but my left eye was fighting my right eye for dominance, making the bird on the right seem to hover above the gun. The birds were still coming toward us as I forced my right eye into the sight picture I wanted, then squeezed the trigger.
At the sound of my 12-gauge, my turkey collapsed, quivered once or twice and then died. My jinx was over, and suddenly I heard songbirds in the trees, felt the twigs I had been sitting on and smelled smokeless powder mingled with scent of oak trees and damp soil. My breathing returned to normal.
A shot from Wayne's gun quickly followed mine, but his bird was already moving, and he missed it. My hands trembled as I took my tag out of my wallet and wrapped it around the bird's leg. He was a jake with a short beard, no old patriarch of the woods, but he looked great to me. More importantly, I had learned an awful lot about turkey hunting from someone who is a master at the sport.
A week later Wayne sat in the woods next to his 12-year old son, Cody. Three birds came in to an opening unannounced. Cody shot his first turkey then quickly handed the gun to his dad, and he shot a bird, too. It was a perfect end to a perfect season, made possible for Cody and me by a generous person with an unbounded love of the outdoors and with skills I am unable to fathom.
April, and turkey hunting season, can't come soon enough.