I didn’t understand the fanaticism surrounding turkeys until I was in the thick of it. In fairness to myself, I could hardly be blamed. I spend most of my time in a part of the country with such decrepit turkey numbers that NWTF population maps just show a white void when it comes to my stomping grounds. I don’t see turkeys when I deer hunt, rarely find feathers, and until last year, when I spent a couple of weeks pursuing the primeval beasts, I had never heard a gobble outside of a barnyard environment.
Now, I comprehend the cult of personality that they inspire. I was already indoctrinated into the obsession of avian pursuits as I’ve given a good portion of my life over to the chasing of ducks and geese, but these birds are different. Yes, they are able-bodied in flight, but they seem to inhabit a space between the sky and the ground in a way specific to themselves and wholly separate from waterfowl. Heavy boned and sturdy, the peculiarly nimble way they move through the woods and across fields appears to be contradictory to their form and I’m a man who loves a good contradiction. Turkeys are a strange conglomeration of inconsistencies I feel pulled towards. Iridescent feathers and dragon-like lower limbs conspire to make a creature all its own, unable to fit neatly into any simple package.
This is to say nothing of the sounds they’re capable of making. Spits and squeaks reminiscent of rusty hinges or creaking gates coupled with thunderous declarations that seem more pachyderm than passerine. Being able to engage in that auditory dance with an animal so wary and skilled is a privilege. While I’m not even good enough to be embarrassed when it comes to turkey calling, I understand the desire to communicate with a revered animal in its own language and on its own terms.
Like many of the things that have come to consume my time and attention, my first forays into turkey hunting were punctuated with failure. On a trip to Kansas, I found myself clumsily trying to take aim while my heart pounded solidly in my ears. My inability to calm my nerves and focus my attention resulted in a missed shot from a distance so close I could have told you what the gobbler’s breath smelled like. I left that camp several days later, the only unsuccessful hunter of the bunch and with my ego slightly bruised. As I put distance between me and the absence of success, a creeping sense of giddiness began to focus my perspective. After years of hunting, I was still able to have novel experiences and be so consumed with anxiety and excitement that I fell flat on my face. There was something heartening to the confirmation that there were still many mountains to climb and corners to peek around.
Days later I found myself waiting for the sun to rise, huddled by the base of a large, craggy oak tree after having accepted an invitation to hunt the Oregon central valley with a new friend. A bit of conversation and a bottle of Pendleton whiskey had facilitated our access to a lush and vividly green grass farm with a population of turkeys that could only be described as stout. That first morning my friend Jimmy and I listened to a cacophony of deep, guttural gobbles move from one end of a tree line to the other like a felted mallet drug across the lower register of a xylophone. We tensed our muscles and bided our time as the sky warmed and a flock of birds some 30 or so strong materialized 100 yards from our decoys just on the other side of a cattle pasture.
In short order, a mature tom took notice of our decoy set and we watched it strut back and forth in all of its puffed, ruffled glory as it tried its best to entice the stationary hen away from the amorous, but equally unflinching jake decoy. After ten minutes or so it looked as if the tom had had its fill and become suspicious of the lack of movement it was seeing. As it started to sidle away a line of enthusiastic jakes began hurriedly rushing towards our rouse, single file and highly motivated. This was more than the weary old bird could take and like a middle-aged man in competition with a college lacrosse team on spring break, he turned and headed towards the object of his original passions in an attempt to beat his younger competitors. It was a fatal mistake and seconds later the former of the bunch lay dead, victimized by the intersection of lust and gunpowder.
After, there were the expected exclamations and wide stretched smiles resulting from a plan brought to fruition, but even more, there was a realization. This success would not have been near as potent had it not been juxtaposed with the reservations stemming from my failure the week before. I missed the first gobbler I ever had a shot at and I find myself glad that the first one got away. We aren't meant to nor do I wish to be successful all the time. Failure teaches lessons and guards us against the complacency that leaves us stagnant and plateaued. Better to be like a turkey, a conglomeration of seemingly incongruous truths. That makes you harder to kill.