Turkey Bonus: A Sense of Place — Experiencing the Places Turkeys Live

Turkey hunting 3

I’m a turkey hunter through and through, yet I’ve discovered I hunt not so much to kill a turkey as to experience the places they live.

I’m getting worse at remembering the turkeys I’ve killed. I became aware of this a few springs ago, when one of my buddies recounted a hunt we’d shared recently.

By Scott Bestul

He detailed with enthusiasm the specifics of the gobbler I’d shot that day, right down to the tom’s spur and beard length, and the abnormally funky snood that drooped like an oversized banana down the bird’s beak. And I sat there, my mind spinning in feverish and failed recall. I simply couldn’t remember the turkey. I was feeling like the village idiot and nanoseconds from confessing as much when I made a miraculous recovery. My head bobbed in relieved recognition as the flush faded from my cheeks.

Where Gobblers Roam
That was the first instance of gobbler-forgetfulness, but there have been enough others recently that I no longer lump them into my mental folder tabbed “isolated lightning strikes.”

The easy assumption — that I’ve racked up a body count that challenges my memory — is also laughable. Sure, in 30 years of chasing turkeys, I’ve killed a few, but the number wouldn’t impress anyone with similar experience. In fact, there are plenty of much younger folks who’d get quite a chuckle from my modest total. Heck, I’d probably laugh right with ’em.

The next-logical assumption, of course, is that my once-active brain cells have migrated into my graying sideburns. Fair enough. I forget all kinds of important stuff that once perched at the ready in my frontal lobe, so why not a turkey or two?

But here’s the thing: When my buddy suddenly described where I shot the banana-snood gobbler, the hunt came back to me like a high-definition video. As soon as he switched from gushing about the bird and morphed into a memory about the gorgeous copse of red pine from which it emerged, a flood of detail washed into my head: the raven that croaked from a foggy sky that dawn, the dewy brush of goldenrod against my pant leg as we walked and the bobcat track we’d spotted just moments before we’d heard that first gobble. It was all there before me, as the old saw goes, in living color.

That has happened enough that I know it was no fluke. Now, I’m a turkey hunter through and through, and I begin each spring full of evil intent toward gobblers. I celebrate every bird that falls to my gun or bow. I oversee hero-shot photo sessions that border on the ridiculous and keep a collection of beards and spurs to commemorate each trophy. And I relish turkey meat with gusto and deep salivation.

Yet I’ve discovered I hunt not so much to kill a turkey as to experience the places they live.

TURKEY Zink call hunter

Across Turkey Country
There’s an interesting philosophy that says, basically, “A turkey is a turkey is a turkey.” I assume that means you could grab a gobbler from Vermont and stick him in Wisconsin, and he would act like any other Badger State bird. Typically, I need to stare into a campfire for a long time before pondering such deep questions, but my gut reaction to this one is imme- diate: I don’t want to know how the Vermont turkey behaves in a Great

Lakes state. I want him to stay home so I can go visit him.

I’m lucky enough to have traveled some for turkey hunting. I kill the odd bird on safari, but I always return home with a larger, more important trophy: a set of memories about the place I wouldn’t trade for the biggest gobbler going.

Take, for example, Florida. Lots of gobbler nuts adore the Sunshine State because it represents a chance to shoot the black, leggy Osceola subspecies, which is the toughest notch in the Grand Slam. I love the place because it’s freaking surreal. I’ve grown up in country where armadillos and alliga- tors would freeze out by Halloween. But down there? I spent the better part of an afternoon one spring trying to photo- graph a pair of armadillos cavorting around my blind. For the longest time, I mistook them for two males arm-wres- tling about territory. Eventually I real- ized I was witnessing a courting ritual that made me blush. A string of Osceola longbeards could have paraded within 50 yards of me that afternoon, and I’d have missed the show. However, I doubt I’d have been as fascinated or laughed as hard seeing the turkeys.

My first trip to the Black Hills happened many springs ago, and of course, I went there to tag a Merriam’s gobbler. Instead, I left with an appreciation of that country that bordered on the reverential. Walking the Hills — jade-colored spines that sprout from the prairie like a piece of origami tossed on a sandbox — I learned why the Lakota worshipped the place. Yet for all the beauty and game — we were into turkeys regularly and saw deer, elk and antelope — there is a harshness that’s the hallmark of all wild places. One evening, after trekking for hours in 70-degree heat, I bathed in a trout stream to revive my weary carcass. The next afternoon, we were hastily breaking camp and blitzing east, racing the front edge of a storm that would blast the Hills with 18 inches of snow.

Federal turkey ammo1I’ve been to Texas a few times, and I must confess to real problems hunting that place — not because of any lack of turkeys, mind you. In fact, I have lucked into two spring hunts where gobbler numbers bordered on stupid. No, my trouble with the Lone Star State is that as soon as I set foot on a ranch, I want to play cowboy. Again, I credit this to the landscape, with a healthy dose of blame directed toward my childhood dreams. How can a Midwestern boy — one who’s been nursing a cowboy fantasy so long he thinks Lonesome Dove is not only the best Western but best movie of all time — expect to focus on turkey hunting when he’d rather be checking fence on a horse?

During my last Texas hunt, I was toting a dead gobbler down a dirt road when a warden, wearing a white cowboy hat and a big silver star on his chest, stopped to check my license. I was so thrilled to converse with an actual Western sheriff that I wore a huge, goofy grin for the entire interview.

Of course it’s nearly impossible to hunt Texas without encountering another Western institution: the rattle- snake. I’ve long prided myself on not being paranoid about snakes, a comfy fantasy I had harbored since my child- hood, when I captured dozens of the creatures. Then I hunted the Lone Star State. During my first day afield, I was walking toward a yodeling Rio when I heard a shaking sound. I stopped to listen, and then walked toward a little green bush, the leaves of which were not only quivering but buzzing. I was 6 feet from the shrub when a primordial queasiness overtook me. Of course the bush was not rattling on its own, and I was suddenly backing away with exag- gerated steps, looking over my shoulder just often enough to ensure there wasn’t a similar bush behind me. I actually killed a gobbler on that trip — an act I recall distinctly because of the paranoia I felt when I plunked my butt on the ground to call him in.

Joy in Familiar Spots
Of course, it’s a mistake to think you have to venture far from home to gain a sense of place. In fact, some of my most stellar memories were etched into my psyche in spots I can walk to from my house. There’s a stand of gigantic white pine — one of my favorite trees, yet rare in my region — near my home that I long ago nicknamed “The Cathedral.” I’ve found few prettier places to kill a turkey, yet in two decades of hunting there, we have shot only two gobblers. Typically, I would kick such an unpro- ductive spot to the curb, yet I return to The Cathedral each spring and spend a morning or two yelping beneath the towering pines. I suppose my ritual is a lot like attending Sunday worship. Some mornings, you don’t feel much like going, but you always feel better after you’re there.

I’m the proud dad of boy-and-girl twins, and I would love nothing better than to grow them into turkey hunters.

To that end, I have dragged them on several outings with me since they were old enough to fit into Kmart camo. I have taken them to my best spots and called to the limits of my ability, and I have yet to show them the thrill of an incoming gobbler.

Memories are created with family and friends whether a bird comes home in the hand or they stay in the woods gobbling for another day.

Memories are created with family and friends whether a bird comes home in the hand or they stay in the woods gobbling for another day.

But just the other day, we were eating lunch when my daughter, Brooke, said, “Dad, remember that morning in the Garden of Eden?” I nearly choked on my sandwich. She was recalling a day in which I toted a blind into a gorgeous valley bottom near our home; a place so idyllic it earned a biblical nickname. Of course, I didn’t yelp up a tom there, but three seasons later, my children still talk about the place where we bailed out of the tent, ate lunch in the grass, climbed over logs, hunted mushrooms and had rock-throwing contests. Sometimes, young children have a sense of place as keen as any adult.

One spring, not long ago, I shot one of the prettiest turkeys I’ve ever seen. The bird was a 2-year-old that, as it roared its way to the call, had me convinced it was a much older turkey. After the shot, I was surprised on several levels. Not only did the tom wear the spurs of a young adult, but his wings and back were a lustrous bronze. Even the quills on his primaries sparkled, as if someone had sprayed them with golden paint. My father and good friend Tom were with me that morning, and as we knelt and admired the gobbler, Tom smiled and said, “Well, this is one turkey you’ll remember forever.”

I grinned and nodded. I had no doubt I could muster total recall for that hunt. Just that morning, we’d seen a timber wolf trotting down the road in front of us, and the day before, we’d walked up on a sow black bear that drove her three tiny cubs to the heights of a 60-foot spruce tree.

Sure, I was elated that a golden gobbler had responded to my feeble calls. But as I slung the bird over my shoulder for the short walk back to the truck, I knew the primary reason for my gratitude ran much deeper than a punched tag and a unique trophy. Again, a gobbler had taken me to a place I might never experience without him.

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