Sit still, keep quiet, and shoot a turkey.

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Shooting the turkey in spring was a significant moment for me. It had been a few years since I had successfully hunted a “big game” animal, and although it could be argued that a turkey doesn’t count, I decided to take it as a win. However, despite ending the day with meat in my freezer, the circumstances of my success were less than ideal…because I didn’t deserve it. Prior to my successful shot, I had for all intents and purposes given up. If it hadn’t been for the landowner interrupting me literally as I was about to turn the key of my truck, I’d have been sat in afternoon traffic instead of a ground blind when that turkey wandered by.

I have always struggled with the mental side of hunting: losing focus and enthusiasm as time and lack of comfort wore on. I have read enough to know that perseverance is an important ingredient for a successful hunt, but when your backside is falling asleep in freezing temperatures, or you’re being pestered by mosquitoes, ticks, and self doubt, perseverance can be harder to find than legal game. As frustrations builds, perseverance evaporates, further fueling the frustration in a depressing cycle that definitely doesn’t lead to tagged animals. During my spring turkey hunt, my rendition of this cycle was interrupted by that timely and humbling lesson in the value of perseverance. A lesson I took well and truly to heart in time for the fall turkey hunt this October.

According to the wisdom of the internet one of the most reliable calls to use in the fall is the “kee-kee run”. This simulates a lost turkey trying to get in touch with its friends and can be useful for drawing birds in. Unfortunately it’s not an easy call to make on a slate, which is as far as my calling experience had grown up to that point. So prior to the start of the season I made an effort to learn how to use a mouth call. The mouth call consists of layers of fabric tape, latex, and aluminium, and sits in the roof of your mouth and squeaks and wails as you force air between it and your tongue. I decided quite late that I should try to learn this call in time for the season, but since the process is not known to be pleasing to the ears I decided to keep it away from home and dedicated my morning and afternoon commutes to the process instead. After I got over my tendency to gag when I put the call in my mouth, and after getting a lot of curious looks from fellow commuters at traffic lights, I eventually managed to produce sounds that might not be an instant red flag to any wild turkeys that overheard me. If there were any turkeys living within earshot of my route to work, they might have briefly considered the possibility that one of their fellows had learned to drive.

Unfortunately, while my fortnight of intensive commuter calling had helped me reach the turkey equivalent of ordering a beer in a foreign language, it was a long way short of confidently whispering sweet nothings in a barmaids ear. Turkeys don’t have the equivalent of beer goggles to tilt things in my favour however, so my “kee-kee runs” never really made it off the starting block. By the last day of my season I had effectively reverted to the deer hunting tactic of trying to be in the right place at the right time.

Based upon my previous year’s experience of hunting fall turkeys, I started the season with little hope of tagging a bird. However I found myself heading out each day with more determination than I expected. On the final day I had only planned to be out till lunch time, since there was a Formula One qualifying race scheduled for the early afternoon that I had hoped to watch and I didn’t expect my enthusiasm to last much longer than that anyway. I also knew that it would be my last day of hunting whether I got a bird or not, since I wouldn’t have another opportunity before the end of the season…but when the time came to pack up and go, my perseverance got up and stopped me. This was extra surprising to me because not only was my arse numb and the rest of me cold, but I hadn’t brought anything to eat—and I am notorious (among those who know me well) for losing enthusiasm when I get hungry. This time it didn’t seem to make a difference.

When I arrived at my hunting location on the final day of my season I was greeted by a couple of inches of snow, and a temperature several degrees below freezing. The landowner had mentioned to me that he had seen a lot of birds on top of a certain small hill feeding on acorns in the evenings, and so that was where I had decided to hunt that morning. When I arrived on the hilltop the snow I had been preemptively begrudging for its butt freezing potential instead did me a favour by displaying ample evidence of the recent movement and feeding of turkeys. So I set up my decoy and sat down to wait with my back to a pile of snow covered logs.

Despite the surfeit of tracks, there was no obvious place to set up that would cover all possible approaches, and sure enough as the morning wore on I several times heard suspicious noises behind me that I had no way to check on without giving myself away. They were probably squirrels. If you hear suspicious noises when you’re hunting in the woods, 99 times out of 100 it’s squirrels—but you never know.

Nevertheless, I kept faith, resisted the urge to sneak a peek behind me, and soon enough two creatures that definitely weren’t squirrels appeared from a direction I could actually observe. They were two jakes (juvenile male turkeys) and they approached from my left and crossed in front of me. However despite being covered from head to toe in camouflage and having a decoy to draw their attention, they were obviously unhappy about something. I kept a bead on the most likely option of the two, but neither got close enough for me to be confident making a shot and they eventually wandered off. In hindsight I suspect that sitting with my back to snow covered logs left me nicely silhouetted and exposed even the smallest movement of my head. Shortly after that, while I was still second guessing my decision not to shoot the jake, I caught sight of the birds that would eventually make my day.

The flock appeared on the far side of a field below where I was sitting. They must have come out of a group of pine trees where I know they like to roost, but is on a neighboring property that I don’t have permission to hunt on. I watched them move through the field where I did have permission to hunt but wasn’t currently sitting in, and disappear into another wooded hill that I also couldn’t access. It was disheartening to see so many birds walking away from me and past a spot where I had been sitting the day before, but it was the first time I’d seen so many birds at once in a hunting situation, and I knew that eventually they would probably head back to their roost. The question was which route would they take?

Cue another round of second guessing, this time of all the other decisions I had made that day. Then partly out of frustration for the missed opportunity and a desire to feel more proactive, I got up and moved to a new location. I set up at the edge of the field, at the end closest to the pine trees where the turkeys like to roost. I found a great spot just outside the field in a patch of brush that offered good concealment but had good views of the field and my decoy. Apart from the turkeys passing through that morning, I had also seen their tracks in that spot the day before, so it wasn’t a terrible place to be. But I couldn’t get the acorns out of my mind, and before too long I third guessed myself and moved again.

After a little break to warm up and check in with my wife I returned to the pile of logs where I had been that morning, but set up on a different side that wasn’t covered in snow and so wouldn’t leave me silhouetted. Then I waited.

As time slowly slipped away, taking my body heat and the feeling in my rear end with it, I thought about my situation. Sitting in the middle of a lot of fresh turkey sign should be a good bet, but tracks only reveal where an animal has been, not where it will go. Maybe the birds only visit that spot once a day, and that once was in the morning before I arrived. Or maybe they were indeed repeat visitors, and like the proverbial stopped clock all I needed to do was wait and time would bring them round once more. When target shooting in the wind there are two techniques: one is to attempt to continuously read the wind and adjust your sights for each shot you take, the other is to decide which wind condition is most common, set your sights for that and wait for it to come back. I aspire to do the first, but often find myself settling for the second. Sitting on the ground waiting for the turkeys to return felt like the second technique. I had decided on a spot and was hoping the winds of fate and habit would blow the turkeys my way. As with the target shooting, I would rather be the master of the conditions. However another lesson I have learnt is that if you spend too much time worrying about the wind you make bad shots. Sometimes you just need to settle down, focus on the fundamentals, and do the best you can do. So that’s what I did. I couldn’t control the conditions, I didn’t have enough experience to figure out where the turkeys were headed and get ahead of them, so I determined to simply focus, stay alert and still, and make sure that if the wind blew my way I wouldn’t screw it up.

So I waited. I watched. I occasionally texted my wife because I have bad discipline when I lose feeling in my backside. And about an hour before the end of my day it happened—the turkeys came back. But when I say they came back I don’t mean they appeared in front of me, because that would be too easy. They appeared out of the woods I had seen them enter in the morning, on the other side of a field and with lots of directions they could choose to go that weren’t towards me. As I watched them for what was without a doubt a subjectively long period of time, it became clear that they had no leader: or if they did, he wasn’t very good at his job. What I wanted was a charismatic boss turkey who would decide that the future lay in acorns, tell his flock this was the plan, and see it through all the way to my freezer. What I got instead was frustrated. They were mooching about, pecking this, scratching that, doing what I suppose turkeys do when they aren’t deliberately avoiding me. For a good half hour they followed the path of whim and want, going nowhere in particular, and then something changed.

All of a sudden one of the turkeys just had to be somewhere else. I don’t know why it went, but for whatever reason it took off running, then took off literally, and flew across the field. It didn’t head my way exactly, but it was more my way than not and the movement seemed to motivate the rest to get on with their day. Despite the lack of a strong leader to call the shots the collective bird brain nevertheless voted with its stomach, and started to mooch in my direction.

Their progress was slow, and as they got closer to me they moved under the “horizon” of the curve of the hill and I lost sight of them. I kept my fingers crossed and my gun ready, because if and when they came back into view they would be almost close enough to shoot, and definitely close enough to see me if I made any sudden moves. As soon as it became clear to me that the odds of getting a shot were improving I had been refining my position. From my usual splayed legs low energy lounging position with my gun across my legs, I moved to a more alert posture with my knees raised and my gun propped on them. I also turned slightly to my right to orient myself more towards the direction I was expecting them to approach from. I was set up behind a lightweight ground blind—a short camouflage screen attached to stakes—and in my reclined position only my shrouded head and gun were visible over the top.

Despite my adrenaline-fueled focus the turkeys still caught me by surprise. There were no distant scratching noises growing in volume, or glimpses of movement to give me warning, they were just there: first one, then suddenly the whole flock was in front of me. I am pretty much a complete novice when it comes to turkeys, and until I arrived in the US I had never seen an actual turkey that wasn’t on my plate or in a sandwich. I grew up on a chicken farm, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with poultry, but having a flock of the largest birds I’ve ever seen suddenly milling about a short stones throw in front of me is a surreal experience to say the least.

Much like other game species turkeys appear simultaneously relaxed and alert as they go about their business. At any one time there are at least a couple with their heads up eyeballing their surroundings. As the flock in front of me gradually moved closer I tried to pick a bird that was near me, had no other birds behind it, and didn’t require me to move my gun far to draw a bead. While their usual slow progress is generally frustrating, for the purposes of making a considered and careful shot it was actually quite useful. Once I had picked a likely bird, I could keep my aim on it, moving slowly, until a safe shot presented itself.

Just a few minutes after the flock appeared over the curve of the hill a bird came in range, stood with its head up, and had no other birds behind it. A few seconds after that I was alone in the woods again and there was blood on the snow.

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Epilogue

In 2017 I marked my fifth anniversary in the USA. Prior to shooting my spring turkey I had been actively but ineffectively hunting deer since November 2014, and to say I was frustrated by my lack of success is an understatement. I wanted to hunt, I needed to hunt, but every day I spent in the woods without a chance of a shot added to the pressure I was trying very hard to deny existed. My unsuccessful fall turkey hunt in 2016 did nothing to improve my mood, and I came into 2017 struggling with motivation and dreading another year of tag soup. I don’t hunt just to kill animals—I always enjoy the many benefits that come from time spent in the woods—but the ratio was starting to get a little extreme. It’s hard to think of yourself as a hunter if all you ever do is take your gun for a walk, and I was rapidly approaching the need for a new descriptor.

Shooting my spring turkey changed all that. The cloud of self doubt and anxiety that had been steadily growing over my head for three years evaporated when the feathers flew that day, and that set the tone for the year. When I set off to start my fall turkey season I carried with me a little glow of warmth and optimism that I hadn’t felt since my first American deer season in 2014. It was there every day I hunted, and from it came the unexpected determination that kept me in the woods, despite my discomforts and plans, until a turkey fell under my gun. I felt it through deer season (which is another story), and I feel it even now.

The 2018 spring turkey season is just a few months away, and I can’t wait.

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