General Vance's Charge

By Joel Vance | April 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2001

In past seasons, I have concentrated my efforts on a single area. I figured if I kept coming at them, I'd ultimately overwhelm them. By "them" I mean the mythical eastern wild turkey, a bird that apparently has been extinct since the day before I started hunting them 35 years ago.

They say a new broom sweeps clean. Time to clean out some new woods. I know every tree in my usual forest, mostly by running into them in the dark. And I know all the brambles by touch. And the sharp rocks by sitting on them. And I would know the turkeys if there were any. This has gotten to be old hat, no fun. Time to seek new horizons, vistas yet unseen. I want to fall into new ravines, run into new trees, embrace new barbed wire!

I had four areas available. Surely one would contain a caution-disadvantaged turkey.

First Day: I hunted on a nearby farm. "Sure, go ahead," the farmer said. "Love to have you."

I know why. I was keeping his woods safe from turkey contamination. And I did a great job. No turkeys slipped past my stern defense. Somewhere off the farm I heard a distant gobble, and then a distant shot. My woods were alive with wildlife, if you can consider dog ticks as wildlife.

On my way out of the woods, I met an aggressive loose-wire gate that attacked me like a rabid bobcat, leaving a half-dozen rips in my camouflage pants.

"What happened?" my wife exclaimed. "You look as if you'd been attacked by a rabid bobcat!"

"Never going back there!" I growled.

Next day, the farmer's son, home from college for one day, killed a turkey in the same woods.

Second day: I decided to hunt my own place. If I'm going to sit in a tick infested, turkeyless woods, I might as well be close to the coffee pot. I settled next to a tree and gazed across the pasture toward the distant woods where all the turkeys were. Perhaps if I were persuasive enough, I could call one across a half-mile of open space to my woods.

And when pigs grow wings they'll be farrowed at McDonnell-Douglas.

I called lovingly into the stern void, pouring my soul into those raspy yelps. I promised passion, endless love and thrills beyond experience. I sent a Hallmark card to the gobblers.

I heard the approach of a lusty male and my heart hammered with excitement. And then a lusty male surveyor walked across the pasture, shouting at his teammate, "Hey, Freddie, you hear that awful noise? Sounds like a goat with its nose caught in a corn sheller!"

I slunk back to the house.

Third day: It stands to reason that "Wildlife Areas" are called that because they have wildlife on them. That's why I decided to hunt a nearby conservation area.

It's no more than a 12-mile hike from the parking lot to where I hunt. The mountain I climbed isn't listed as a "K-2" on the map, but I know what I know. A yeti growled at me in the dark. How come when it's uphill all the way from the car to the woods , it's also uphill all the way back? It's one of life's enduring mysteries (like where were the turkeys?).

Fourth day: I woke to a howling wind and numbing temperatures. It was the kind of night that makes Stephen King another billion dollars. It's so easy to roll over and dream of killing a big gobbler. It is established that turkey hunters are nutty, but none would be so self-destructive as to trudge through a woods of wind-heaved trees, limbs crashing to earth, blowdowns falling like God's wrath.

None, that is, but me. I put on my camo outfit. It had begun to smell like a hobo's tennis shoe.

Predictably, I had the entire woods to myself. It was unencumbered by other hunters or, as nearly as I could tell, turkeys either. I yelped into the teeth of the wind, an effort akin to putting out a forest fire by spitting on it.

At 10:30, six hours after I got out of bed, I began the long walk to the truck, knees creaking, lower back spasming, breath like a vulture that had been snacking on a dead polecat.

Four gobblers strutted in various fields along the gravel road en route home. I think one waved at me. I gestured back, never mind with what gesture.

Day eight, nine, I don't know - Jeez, I'm tired! Spent two hours in the woods, 1.75 hours of which I was asleep. Might have had turkeys in front of me. Might have had turkeys in my hip pocket. I was asleep. I was so tired because I went paddlefish snagging yesterday. Paddlefish snagging is dragging a one-pound sinker ceaselessly for six or seven hours until your lower back screams like a gutshot catamount and your arms feel as if you had been bench-pressing brood sows.

Well, dragging in that 74-pound paddlefish was a lot of work and I got really tired, so it's no wonder I fell asleep in the turkey woods the next morning.

There were more days in the season, of course, but as the old saying goes, "Why beat a dead-beat hunter?"

It is the American credo that if you work hard enough you will be rewarded. Horatio Alger wrote of pluck and perseverance being rewarded. His poor, persevering, plucky kids became millionaires. If he'd written about plucky, persevering turkey hunters, they would have taken trophy gobblers at story's end.

Horatio Alger obviously never hunted the eastern wild turkey. Not with me, anyway.

I worked hard. I was plucky and persevering. I went up the hill every morning, rain or shine. I had grit (especially in my eyes). I was true blue, made of the right stuff (some of which leaked out every time I fell over a fence).

So why didn't I kill a turkey?

I discount the possibility of incompetence. I call the way Maria Callas sang "Norma." I am as wily as a red fox in the woods. I know turkey natural history the way Ben Franklin knew lightning.

Maybe I don't kill turkeys because I am out of synch with the universe. When it goes left, I go right. Basketball players felt that way when they guarded Michael Jordan. They did everything right, and he still scored points.

If I go up the hill, turkeys are in the bottom. Or, if I'm at the bottom of the hill, they're at the top. I think they're probably at the top today.

Well, nothing else to do but go up that hill one more time! C'mon, Gen. Pickett! Duty calls.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
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