Fathers and sons compete from the day the son thinks, "I can whup him!" My son, Andy, and I never have come to blows, but we've had our share of basketball and one-on-one fishing skirmishes.
When it comes to hunting, though, Andy and I haven't been so competitive. Maybe that's because I've gone out of my way to help make sure he has a good hunt.
For example, on opening day last year, I bequeathed our 40 acres to him, a magnanimous gesture that should have had him in tears. True, I had a better place lined up--400 acres of prime turkey woods--but I was sharing, and that's a good thing when it comes to your children.
Of course, Andy would have to call a bird off the neighbor's land because we had not heard any in our woods. He went to the fence the night before opening day and yelped into the twilight, hoping a gobbler would trot across the pastures to roost in our woods.The next morning, I arrived early at my 400-acre paradise and settled in next to a tree that has spent 75 years growing knobs just to jab me in the back. My decoys, several years old now, looked fit for a Salvation Army clearance sale.
It was opening morning, though, and I optimistically waited for the morning rush hour traffic of turkeys, that thundering herd of 22-pound gobblers that will race to my call, crazed with lust, fighting and jostling for the chance to stand in front of my gun. I wore myself out thinking about it and quickly fell asleep.
I jerked awake, thinking I'd heard the first gobble of the morning, but it was only a truck downshifting on the distant four-lane. I yawned, slurped the mouth call into position, fought down my rising gorge, then lofted a mating call into the gathering light. It was so seductive that I pictured gobblers fainting off the roost, overcome by slobbering passion.
In response, a cardinal called, another truck downshifted, and two crows that roost in a tree at the other end of the field sniggered.
A bit later, the largest gobbler I've ever seen stood in front of me. I raised the gun and it turned toward me and became a fearsome dragon, breathing fire and snarling like a thousand tigers. I jerked awake, my heart thumping.
Otherwise, the morning was peaceful, calm, quiet. Deadly quiet, I thought. I heard a mounting rumble--it was my stomach. I pulled a sloppily-made sandwich out of a side pocket, unwrapped it and gulped it like a bird dog.
About mid-morning I passed the limit of posterior patience and rose, groaning like The Ghost of Turkey Season Past. I know that good turkey hunters are rewarded for being patient, that gobblers first serve their harem, then run to calls from a sexy lady under a distant cedar tree. I know this, but good advice is easier to take when you're not starving and bottom-weary. I gimped toward the truck. There's always tomorrow.
I figured I would go home and commiserate with Andy over our mutual defeat. The disappointed father comforting the disappointed son.
Andy had come and gone. "Without a bird," my wife reported. My spirits lightened a bit.
Poor Andy. Well, when he gets home from work we'll share our stories of woodland wipeout.
I was home, moodily munching dry toast, when Andy appeared like the Angel of Good Tidings:
"What are you doing home?" I asked, thinking he should be at work earning an honest living. He merely smiled and beckoned me to follow. I knew instantly that I was one behind in the turkey harvest.
He told me about his hunt, which took place ten miles north of me. It was somewhat different than mine.
Early in the morning, Andy had slipped through our home woods to the far northeast corner, where there is a cedar glade. He set his decoys and settled in beneath the spreading limbs of an old cedar. It was a perfect hide--concealed, yet open enough for a wide field of fire.
Andy said he'd spotted a big-bodied bird well out in the pasture early and called. The bird wasn't interested and remained where he was, pecking and feeding, before wandering off down the hill. Andy stayed with it until 8:30, when he decided it wasn't going to happen. (We Vances recognize futility quickly.)
He returned to the house to eat breakfast. For whatever reason, he decided to postpone work and go back out. As soon as he sat down, he saw the same gobbler down the hill. This time it started right for him when he called.
Andy said the gobbler came halfway and stopped and strutted and gobbled once. Then he disappeared down a little ditch. Minutes went by that seemed like hours while Andy kept his gun up and ready. All of a sudden he heard a spit and drum less than 15 yards away. The gobbler strutted then turned and spotted Andy's jake decoy. He immediately slipped under the fence and took about three steps onto our place to show the jake who was boss.
Andy swallowed his heart and fired.
I looked at the 26-pound gobbler. It was several pounds larger than the biggest I've ever killed and probably bigger than any one I've ever seen. I've always told Andy, "Don't do as I do, do as say!' This time it paid off. If it hadn't been mixed with my desire to clobber him, the pride I felt for my son would have been overwhelming.
Andy had done what I should have done--spent time in the woods after the magic hour of sunrise, waited out the gobblers, preying on their throbbing desires that, later in the day, go unrequited because the hens have gone to nest. W
"I'm through for the week," he said. "You should hunt our place." I bristled at his fatherly tone. If he had patted me on the back I would have decked him.
I pouted a little, like a little boy who has been told that he can't have his Flexible Flyer sled for Christmas, but it took only a moment for that fleeting nasty emotion to jab me like a wild rose thorn and then the pride returned. I have loved this child since he was born, and he has been my hunting buddy since he was old enough to appreciate gunfire and wild creatures.
He is my tomorrow, and I still have tomorrow to get my bird!
The next morning I rose at 5 a.m. and stumbled through the woods of our property in the dim grayness of pre-dawn. I was able to see the big trees, but the invisible sprouts whipped me like old-time grade school teachers with their rulers. Finally I topped out on the ridge and looked for a place to set up.
There is a fringe of woods inside our place. I put the decoys close to a fence and backed off five yards to a comfortable redcedar tree. It was comfortable enough that I immediately dozed off.
I was startled awake by a whomping gobble not that far off. My gluey eyes struggled open and I sucked spit off the caller. The mating yelp I emitted didn't sound bad at all, considering it came from a mouth that tasted like a sump pit. The gobbler instantly answered.
We engaged in pillow talk for about a half-hour, then I heard a gobble that obviously was closer than the roost. The bird was coming.
I shut up, mainly because my caller was stuck to the roof of my dry mouth. I tucked my knees under my chin and propped the old Model 12 on my knee. I was ready.
I heard a gobble so close that the ground shook. The gobbler's white head snaked up from a slight declivity, no more than 20 yards away, across the fence. He was on parade, like a Coldstream Guard honoring the Queen. I silently urged him to spot the decoys, cross the fence and become mine for all time.
Instead, he wandered mindlessly away, the way gobblers do. They have the attention span of a fourth grader.
I had nothing to lose. I remembered a lesson learned from my calling mentor, Lincoln County's own calling champion, Leroy Braungardt. He named it the Tantalizer, and it's as far from traditional turkey calling as manic hysteria is from a satisfied chuckle.
It's a wild assortment of yelps and cackles that sounds like a hen caught in a corn sheller. I yelped frantically and double-cackled and yelped again.
The gobbler charged over the rise like John Wayne in a WWII movie. I fired, almost in self-defense, when he was about 12 steps away.
The bird weighed 23 pounds, three less than Andy's bird, but he had two beards, one more than Andy's. According to my figuring, we were even: father and son, son and father.
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