A Survivor's Tale

By Randee Wahlgren | March 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2004

On March 24, 1999, I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. It was the day before my 31st birthday. Some birthday present, huh? I lived in New Orleans at the time, far from all of my family who live in Missouri and Illinois. My family and my husband's family took turns coming to New Orleans to take care of me and help with our two little boys, who were then 6 and 3. We all became closer as a result of my illness. Over a period of six months, I received eight rounds of chemotherapy, followed by 35 sessions of radiation. I am proud to say I am now a 5-year survivor.

During my battle, something clicked between my father and me. We both understood that we only have a short time on earth, and we wanted to spend more of it together. When I was getting one of my treatments, I mentioned to my dad that I would like to go hunting with him sometime. He was surprised, but excited. He talked about turkey hunting and described its challenges. I was interested and suggested going with him on his next hunt.

Without hesitation, he said yes and flew me up a few months later for the 2000 spring season. I enjoyed the looks on my N'awlins friends' faces when I told them that I was going turkey hunting. Being a self-proclaimed "city girl," I don't fit the description of a typical turkey hunter. I like living in the suburbs where a shopping mall, movie theatre and great food are only minutes away from home. This was a real departure from my normal life.

My father had scouted a few locations and was confident we would find turkeys on his friend's property. For three days we heard birds gobble, but we were unable to bring them in close enough. Of course, my inability to sit still probably kept them away.

In my defense, I was cold and tired, and I wasn't used to being so quiet. I also was still trying to get my strength back because chemotherapy had done a number on my stamina. In fact, I spent a few hours each morning sleeping with my head on my dad's seat cushion. Dad just stroked my head while I slept. Veteran hunters would probably call that season unsuccessful, but for my father and me, it was just the opposite.

I came back the next year physically stronger and a bit wiser. My dad had warned me about a turkey's keen eyesight and that it would be able to see me before I'd see it. I also learned about their mating patterns and how turkeys roost at night. I found everything my dad taught me fascinating and developed a new respect for the birds.

I started to really enjoy the hunt. What had begun as a way to bond with my father had turned into a new passion. Unfortunately, I didn't bag a bird that year, either.

In the spring of 2002, my dad enlisted the help of his long-time friend, Mike Christensen, a Conservation Agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Mike agreed to take me out hunting. On the first morning we heard a few gobbles, but nothing was close.

The following morning, Mike and I watched at least three gobblers and four or five hens. One of the toms moved away from the flock and came toward our decoy. When the gobbler moved behind a tree, I positioned myself and aimed the shotgun. Mike whispered to take him when I was ready. When the turkey came out from behind a tree, I pulled the trigger. Well, I tried to pull the trigger, but nothing happened because in my excitement I'd forgotten to take the safety off.

I still had the bird in my sights, so I waited a few seconds for another good shot. The gobbler continued heading for the decoy, and I got another great opening. My heart seemed to stop as I steadied myself and pulled the trigger. The gun's recoil threw me back against Mike, who yelled, "You got him! Turn the safety on." Dazed, I just handed the gun to Mike. He quickly engaged the safety, laid the gun down and ran to the bird. I was right behind him.

I couldn't wait to tell my dad. When we reached the truck, I called him and relayed the whole story. I flew back to New Orleans the next day and told my husband, kids and friends the entire story. I couldn't wait for the next spring season to come around.

In August 2002, we moved to St. Louis. Leaving New Orleans was difficult, but living close to our families was important. We also wanted our sons to spend more time with their grandparents.

When I realized that I would be in Missouri for the entire spring 2003 turkey season, I got excited. I wanted to purchase my own gun, so I did a little research and bought a 12-gauge semi-automatic Baikal. It isn't fancy, but it's a good gun with mild recoil.

April couldn't come fast enough that year. I was excited about using my new gun and eager to hear those gobblers. My dad was confident there were turkeys on his property, so we hunted behind his house on opening day. We decided to split up, and I went to where we had spotted turkeys the past year.

In my previous hunts, I had relied on Mike and my dad to call birds, so I was unsure of how I would do on my own. I started calling, and it wasn't long before a tom appeared. I wasn't sure of the distance so I waited for him to get closer. I waited too long because when he got closer to my decoy, he saw something he didn't like and quickly trotted over a hill. I knew I had missed a great opportunity and mentally scolded myself for waiting too long.

I soon heard other gobblers and started calling again. There were at least two birds, and they were approaching fast. They went silent for several minutes, and I was afraid they had lost interest. The next thing I knew, two beautiful toms stood about 10 feet behind my left shoulder. I was backed up against a tree, so I just watched from the corner of my eye.

They strutted for the decoy, which was about 20 feet in front of me. Then, the larger one opened up his wings and spread his fan. I'll never forget that sound. I was in awe. I had to wait and hope that he moved forward because I knew I couldn't turn quick enough to shoot. At times, it's a disadvantage to be left-handed.

They both stopped about 5 feet to my left, and their wings came down. They started putting and then trotted away. I knew they wouldn't be back.

My dad and I decided to hunt behind his house again in hopes that those same turkeys would be back. When I walked into the kitchen early that morning, I could tell my dad didn't feel well. He asked if I would be OK hunting alone, and I bravely said yes.

I left the house, determined not to come back without a turkey. This time I positioned myself so I could shoot if a turkey came from either direction. I started calling, and gobbles came from all directions. I kept calling and heard a pair of turkeys approaching. They weren't in a hurry, so I stopped calling and waited.

After about 30 minutes, I started calling again with some soft yelps. The same gobblers answered me before I had even stopped. They seemed closer, so I continued with a few more eager calls and then put down my slate. I heard nothing for the longest time, but just when I was ready to start calling again, I saw movement in the distance. The brush was tall, but I was pretty sure I saw red. I watched as the tom paced back and forth in a zigzag pattern moving slowly toward my decoy and me.

When he was about 40 yards away, he moved behind a tree. I raised my gun, turned the safety off and aimed. I couldn't believe this was happening. I had actually called in a turkey all by myself! I followed him with my gun, and when I was sure he was within distance, I squeezed the trigger. My shot was true. The turkey was down. I proudly wrapped my tag around his leg and headed for the house.

As I laid the turkey down on the deck, I called for my dad. When he came out the door, his jaw fell open. He started laughing and hugged me. I hadn't seen him that excited in a long time. We drove to the check station, and as men were admiring the turkey, my dad said, "That's my daughter's turkey. She got it all on her own."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler