The day dawned clear and cold as the hunter prepared to leave on his first wild turkey hunt. His mind was spinning with visions of large tom turkeys strutting in front of a hen decoy.... Looking down from his stand in the trees, the muscles in his upper back and arms strained as he ever so slowly raised his Matthew's bow and drew the string. Seventy pounds of pull seemed like a hundred as the adrenaline of the moment took its toll. His breathing came fast and hard and his heart pounded like the beating of wings as he waited for the right moment. At full draw, a slight breeze blew across his camo-clad face and a tear slipped from his eye and down his cheek, causing a cold sensation over his face and an uncontrolled shiver through his body. The tom was doing his thing, courting this synthetic hen with sex on his mind. Finally, he turned and the hunter began to squeeze his bow release. Surprised by the snap of the taunt string, the hunter blinked as the arrow sped towards its mark.....
.....if I didn’t stop this daydreaming, I’ll never get out of here. It was time to leave for my first turkey hunt over in Eastern Washington with my good friend and hunting partner, Gale Palmer. Gale called early that morning, encouraging me to get there early enough to do some scouting. I hadn't seen a wild turkey in at least twenty-five years and needed a crash course in proper identification. I finished loading and pulled out about half past twelve. Setting the cruise at 75 mph, I let'er fly. Three and half-hours later, I turned into Gale's driveway on the banks of Crab Creek out in the desert near Sprague, WA.
Gale was waiting with his little red Ranger fueled up and rarin to go. I snatched my binoculars and we were soon on the road towards Davenport. About five miles north of town, we turned off the paved highway and headed down a gravel road lined with evergreens. Gale was just telling me what to look for when he said, "There are two right there". Sure enough, two hens were filling their gizzards on the side of the road. Less than 100 yards further I saw another bird and by the time Gale got stopped, I spotted four more. Being clueless in what to look for, Gale gave me a quick lesson on wild turkeys and how to tell a tom from a hen. At least two or three of the birds were males. By the way, Washington is one of only a few states that has three species of wild turkeys; the Reo Grand, Eastern and the Merriam. Harvesting all three is known as the grand slam of turkey hunting. (That will soon become an obsession of mine.) Needless to say, by the time we got home, I was as anxious as a kindergarten kid on the first day of school.
That evening, after a scrumptious meal served up by Gale’s culinary talented wife Mary, we watched a turkey hunting video and Gale gave me two mouth diaphragms that he’d picked up but couldn’t use. I’ve tried these things before as elk calls and they made me gag immediately. I watched the experts show how to position them and how to make various sounds, and they made it look so easy! To my total surprise, within about five minutes, I actually had one of those little suckers tucked in my mouth and was making noise. By the time the video ended, I was determined that I would use one the following morning.
Four o’clock rolled around quickly and Gale hollered that time was a’wastin. I scrambled out of bed, did my morning biological chores and dressed in total camo. We sipped a cup of hot coffee, filled our thermos and ate a cookie before leaving. We were on the road by 4:30 AM for the hour drive to Davenport, a small farming town in Eastern Washington. Gale parked about half a mile from where we had spotted the birds and we got ready. I would hunt with my Mathew’s bow while Gale carried a Remington 870 12 gauge loaded with three inch turkey loads. This was my first turkey hunt and I was oozing with anticipation.
After a walk down the hill, we climbed the bank, stuck Gale’s new hen and jake decoys in the ground, and separated about thirty yards to either side. Our plan was to ambush some lovesick tom by sweet-talking him into range. As the first rays of light seeped through the forest, Gale started teasing with his little slate box, and I intermittently let out some yelps with the new mouth call. I had never heard a turkey gobble and didn’t know quite what to listen for. Off in the distance, I faintly heard it, and an irrepressible grin smothered my face. This was it.
After half an hour of periodic calling, the silence was broken only by the occasional singing of birds or the sound of tires on gravel as other hunters cruised by. We gathered our decoys and moved up the hill. Three hundred yards further, we again set the decoys and settled into the secrecy of branches and shadows. A series of lonely chirps and yelps were answered by an excited gobble off in the distance. Gale and I looked at each other and a silent communication passed between us.
Fifteen minutes later I saw them coming; four birds moving through the trees, stopping only long enough to extend their necks in a passion-filled gobble. At seventy-five yards I motioned to Gale that they were coming in behind him. Four lovesick hen-seekers were closing fast, but I was pinned tight and Gale couldn’t see them. As they shrunk the distance to thirty and then twenty-five yards, they came into Gale’s view and he slowly raised his camo-covered shotgun and silently slipped the safety off. A young tom, called a jake, stuck his head up and was looking for the hen. My blood pressure rocketed. On my first morning of turkey hunting, we had actually called in and were going to harvest a red and blue headed turkey. It doesn’t get any better. I held my breath, waiting for the shot. I visualized how it would happen and waited. I waited…. Hello out there, is anybody home? The toms were looking for this needy hen and weren’t hanging around for pictures or idle chat. Soon they disappeared and we never saw them again.
The excitement that had built in the past 15 minutes was let out like water behind a broken dam. My excitement had been nothing more than a severe case of “premature jake-elation”. But boy, what a thrill!
That evening we scouted some other areas and saw more turkeys. We actually saw turkeys every time out. On day two, we returned to our original spot, but were about fifteen minutes late. We saw a tom, but several sensual hens were escorting him and he just wasn't interested in what we had to offer. I guess he figured a hen in hand was worth more than several in the bush.
That afternoon, a neighbor stopped by to tell us about his turkey hunting adventures. He and some friends from Western Washington had secured permission to hunt on private land and were sure they had found the motherload. They had killed two turkeys and saw lots more. He gave us his blue permission slip and a parking permit, and we left like a couple of kids headed for a candy store. The area was spectacular and full of birds, but required a pretty exhausting hike up a mountain to the trees. We spent the evening skulking through the pines unsuccessfully trying to entice a tom with whispers of love.
As we drove home that evening, we knew we’d found the honey-hole of gobblers and would be back before daybreak. At dinner, Gale checked his pulse and blood pressure and things didn’t look good. His pulse was up twenty per minute and he was skipping some beats. By morning he had made the decision not to climb that mountain. He volunteered to take me but would remain at the bottom. Not a chance! We returned to our spot of the previous two mornings, only from a different direction.
Gale kept the jake decoy and I the hen as we split up to cover as much area as possible. I slipped down over the edge, poked my sweet little hen on the crest of a ridgeline, and settled under a large pine tree. I was armed with a borrowed 12-gauge shotgun and opted to keep my mouth shut this morning. Before dawn, I could hear the birds as they woke up and started their communication ritual of clucks and gobbles. They were still in the roost and I listened as they flew down. From their volume, I guessed them to be about fifty or sixty yards below me and a little to my left. I got up, sneaked about fifteen yards to the left and tried to blend into nature.
I could hear them coming before I saw any. There was movement and pretty soon it turned into a turkey. I saw his red head and knew it was a male. Gale did some sweet-talking up the hill and the tom fanned his tail and did a little strut for “her”. Pretty soon there were several turkeys in front of me. They headed up the ridge but off to the right. Does anyone have any idea why I moved from my first hideout? Time went into slow motion as I watched these big, beautiful birds feeding their way up and over the crest of the hill. I heard Gale call, the tom turned and strained his neck towards the sound, and I was ready. I realized it was pushing the limits of range, but we had patterned the shotgun the day before and I knew its capabilities. Before he could lower that stretched out neck, I squeezed the trigger and birds flew in every direction. I scrambled to my feet, chambered another shell and walked in his direction. The young tom was bidding his final farewell to the world as I approached.
I stood looking at this magnificent bird with mixed emotions. I was elated over my success and the overall experience, but it’s always tinged with the remorse of watching a beautiful creature die. I gathered my prize and headed up the hill towards Gale.
As I approached, he stood up, took off his right glove and with a smile that crinkled the sides of his eyes, he extended his hand in a congratulatory handshake followed with a big bear hug. We sat under a tree, marveled at the beauty of these splendid birds, smoked a couple of stinking old cigars, and strengthened the bond of friendship that has been built over the past twenty-five years.
You see; hunting is not just about killing. It goes beyond that. It’s the dreams that give sparkle to some of our lives. It’s reading books and magazines. It’s endlessly going through catalogs finding new and exciting toys we just can’t live without. It’s digging out, arranging, packing, unpacking and packing again; the items you know you’ll need on a trip. It’s talking to friends on the phone for hours. It’s going into the woods on scouting trips. It’s seeing God’s wonderful creation in silence. It’s the strong, quiet bond between friends and family. Hunting is a part of life.