...at least I saw a lot of stuff

By Joel Vance | April 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 1998

Remember the old saying "If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all"? That was coined to describe the average Vance turkey season.

I won't say that I have bad luck turkey hunting, but consider this: in the past three seasons other hunters have shot more birds that I was calling than I have.

My shotgun shells have tarnish on them that brass cleaner couldn't touch. It is the tarnish of utter defeat. You can't swab that off with chemicals. It goes right to the soul of those No. 6 turkey loads. They are ashamed to be seen with me.

There is no logical reason I don't kill turkeys, other than a curse laid on an Irish ancestor in the prehistoric days. I am not superstitious-knock on wood-but I won't discount the possibility that some Hibernian witch got ticked off at my grandfather 100 times removed and I suffer the results.

St. Louisan T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Let me count the days..." So here they are:

Four days of hunting doesn't seem like a long time if you are the featured guest at a hanging or trying to scrape together enough money to pay your taxes, but in the turkey woods it's a lifetime.

First day: High hopes, that eternal optimism that leads me to believe that I will drop a gobbler slightly larger than a Cape buffalo five minutes after sunrise.

I bound from bed at 4 a.m., two hours before first light. This gives me time to throw on my clothing, drive gravel roads like James Bond running from bad guys, jog 1.5 miles over uneven ground through sprout thickets laced with thorns so I can find a lumpy spot under a cedar tree that leaks itchy needles down my neck and then wait in the dark for more than an hour.

I know that a gobbler is roosted 60 yards from my clever hide. This gobbler will come to my call like Teddy Roosevelt going up San Juan Hill, and I'll have to shoot in self defense.

I am determined to stay in the woods until the last tick of the clock. I will outwait them. I have an orange and a pocketful of breakfast bars that taste (as I try one) like something rescued from the dog's dish. But they stop the stomach rumbling that threatens to become louder than my plaintive love starved hen calls.

My love-starved hen is becoming increasingly petulant as no one answers. It's as if Michelle Pfeiffer walked into an Army barracks and asked if anyone were interested in a date and they all said "Naah, we'd rather spit-shine our boots."

A great horned owl drifts across the field ahead of me, and meadow mice cower as if the Angel of Death were close by which, for them, it is.

A stately squadron of five great blue herons floats past, flying as precisely as the Navy's Blue Angel aerobatics team. But no turkeys.

Ten o'clock comes and goes, then 11 o'clock comes and I go. I feel like Joe Dimaggio practiced his swing on my lower back for the legendary 56-game hitting streak. I go home and vow that tomorrow will be different.

Day Two is different; it is worse. I took a 2-mile hike listening for throbbing gobblers on opening day. Today it's three miles, and most of it is uphill. It is an axiom of hunting that if you're tired, the vehicle will be uphill for the last mile, even if you parked it in the Grand Canyon.

I jump two deer and one stops to look at me as if it can't believe its eyes. This tottering wreck is a hunter? I am walking hunched over because my back feels as if someone is playing "Dem Bones" on my vertebra, using a jackhammer.

A box turtle, covered with dried mud, looks up at me with a suspicious eye. What a way to greet spring after a long hibernation in the ground-dig out and the first thing you see is a shambling creature right out of 1950s horror movie.

A woodcock flushes at my feet, and I track him with the Model 12 and mutter "dead bird." But he isn't, and neither is the imaginary turkey that I expected to call in front of the elderly gun.

Day Three: "Okay," I mumbled to the Kingdom of Turkeydom in general, "if that's the way you want to play it..."

I rise in leisurely fashion (5 a.m. rather than 4), have a cup of coffee, yawn until I hear the bones cracking in my jaw, then drive to a new area.

This is the first day that the sun actually comes up. The first two were cloudy and drizzly, and if the sun came up I sure didn't see it (possibly because I was asleep). I find a soft rock and sit on it, my back nestled against a tree with stobs as sharp as a mother-in-law's tongue.

I loft a call into the simmering dawn: "I am here for you my love," I intone on the mouth call. The call wafts into the gentle light, and it begats an immediate response from a nearby gobbler.

"I have waited all my short and eventful life for such as you." He gobbles. "A moment, my love, and I will be with you!"

Two seconds later there is a shot and I hear him no more, though I do hear human voices, indistinct except for the phrase, "Got him." I sigh and move up the hill through the golden morning light. It's good to be alive, unless you're the gobbler I'm calling.

Fourth day: A friend, who knows how to hunt turkeys, says you have to listen for the little noises turkeys make-putts and perts and purrs and stuff like that-so they don't sneak up on you. "But don't ever puck," he says. "Puck is bad. Putt is good." I can't tell the difference, but apparently turkeys can. I have heard "Puck!" many times, mostly when I moved after two hours of immobility and a trophy gobbler, standing five yards behind me, gave the alarm call and vanished.

I am sitting in the woods, bathed in sunlight, about two ticks from falling asleep (ticks on the clock, not on me), when I hear muted sounds that must be perts and putts and purrs. I tense, ready to leap into action.

I listen for a while, then realize my stomach is making those sounds. An orange at 5 a.m. isn't enough.

A turkey expresses mild interest in my calling about 9 a.m. It is a long distance call, station-to-station, but at least it is a conversation. He gobbles, I yelp, get all scrootched around, finger on the safety ready to shoot.

An hour later he goes away, perhaps to the turkey tavern to tell the boys how he made fool out of another hunter.

A pair of Canada geese rumbles past, like two jetliners coming in for a landing. They are noisier than a convention of hog callers and I hear them splash into a nearby pond, still yelling. Canada geese talk more than our kids did when they were supposed to be going to sleep.

A Cooper's hawk flickers through the trees like a skittery ghost and the little woodland birds become quiet. Then the birdsong renews. A cardinal putters in the leaves near me and a red-bellied woodpecker hammers a nearby tree.

I struggle to my feet, another day in the turkey woods winding down. No turkeys, nothing even close, but as I flounder toward the truck I realize that I have seen just about every creature in the Missouri woods except a turkey.

Memories make for thin soup, but a rich life. And they sell turkey at the supermarket but they don't sell memories.

So, maybe I've come away with the better prize after all. I have those rich memories, even if I don't have turkey soup.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer