Bagging a holiday bird, part two

Editor's note: This is the second part of Raskin's two-part story on her first turkey hunt. See last week's Xpress for part one.

Dowler warned me there was a good chance I wouldn't get a turkey. The difficulties of turkey hunting are compounded in the South, where thick forests compromise visibility and birds have been evading shotguns for centuries. Our guide, Nibert, was taking us to his friend John Fisher's 12,000-acre hunting club in Greenbrier County. Unlike many of the turkeys in West Virginia, those we'd be stalking had never been restocked: Their ancestors had lived on that very patch of land since long before European settlers started elbowing their way onto it.

Photo by John Ford, courtesy National Wild Turkey Foundation

"It's like going into someone's grand-daddy's grand-daddy's grand-daddy's house, and trying to convince them you're a turkey," Dowler sighed.

Killing a turkey is contingent upon fooling a turkey. In the spring, turkeys play along. They persuade themselves that the sweet call they hear belongs to a pretty little hen, and almost reliably come bopping along when they hear a hunter's clicks, grunts and bellows.

In the fall, when turkeys aren't looking for love, the strategy's different: Hunters will "bust up" a flock, startling turkeys so they fly off in different directions. The hunter then hunkers down and — when he hears a lonely bird — begins to call, hoping the turkey will mistake him for one of the birds from which he'd become separated. As Dowler explains, fall turkey hunting exploits the birds' need for companionship.

Set in print, it all sounds rather cruel. That's because it's almost impossible to imagine the imbalance of power at work: For the course of a hunt, the turkey's in control. I'd never seen a group of men think so seriously about a single animal, its behavior, its wants and its needs till I went hunting. For three straight days, Dowler, Nibert and Fisher — whose wife kindly made us egg biscuits each morning at her roadside restaurant — talked incessantly about turkeys. I can't imagine many non-hunters, even self-proclaimed animal lovers, devoting that much contemplation to a common wild bird. By the time we reached the woods, just before 5 a.m. on a windy Thursday morning, I'd learned how turkeys feel about fog (it scares them), the pros and cons of using decoys and, again, how hard it was to shoot a turkey in the fall.

"This is definitely fair-chase hunting," Nibert declared.

"I guarantee it," Fisher agreed.

"We ain't got them penned up," added Nibert, who goes by the nickname 'Redneck' when he leads rafting trips on the New and Gauley rivers. Nibert relishes playing the stereotypical West Virginian for his Yankee clients, to whom he never mentions his college degrees.

Dowler had told Nibert, who in turn told me: "If we get out there, it will be a good hunt. If we get a turkey, it will be a phenomenal hunt."

The first morning

Hunting isn't as popular as it used to be. Hunters blame video games and other electronic distractions, as well as the sport's rising cost. The idea of harvesting one's own meat may be romantic, but it's not cheap: Between the travel, missed work, license fees and supplies, any turkey we killed would probably have cost about $37 a pound. The price of ammo has skyrocketed this year, thanks to nervous gun owners buying up bullets they feared Barack Obama would soon deny them, so it now costs $3 just to shoot at a turkey and miss.

To be fair, attention spans and economics aren't the only reasons hunting hasn't caught on with kids. If I was seven years old, I'd probably rather spend my Saturdays playing soccer in the warm sun than walking for miles in the dark, cold woods. Then again, maybe turkey hunting isn't for kids.

Different personalities gravitate toward different kinds of hunting. While few dedicated hunters will confine themselves to just one animal, most of them have a season they say they'd never give up. Extroverts like to hunt ducks. Those who covet trophies hunt bucks. Turkey hunting attracts careful, reflective, solitary sorts who accept that, as Dowler says, "You can do 99 things right and one thing wrong and you won't get a bird. It can be as simple as a glint off a zipper."

After I read that turkey hunting involved sitting motionless for hours, I joked that it sounded like yoga with a gun. I was surprised by how right I was. As we hiked a short stretch from the truck that first morning and settled against a tree, I realized the sport required a very active stillness, a stillness I recognized from every Warrior pose I've ever held. It's not called "warrior," for nothing, I thought, waiting for a turkey to approach the ridge before us.

That's the kind of thing you think about when you're hunting. It's surprisingly easy to have incredibly mundane thoughts with a gun in your hands. I thought about vacation plans. I thought about movies. I thought about what to wear to Thanksgiving dinner. As in yoga, the challenge is to keep your mind empty while staying completely connected to the present, which is a fancy way of saying that hunters often fall asleep.

The first turkey

I was fully alert when we heard our first turkey. I'm not sure exactly how the turkey's call is rendered in songs like Old McDonald's Farm, but it's an unmistakable sound, throaty and insistent. According to plan, Nibert immediately engaged the wayward gobbler in an involuntary call-and-response, starting with a deviously tentative yelp, which is turkey for "Henry? That you?" and building to a confident crow that — to a bird's ears — sounds something like "Come on! We've been looking all over for you!" Just after daybreak, the gobbler poked his head over the ridge.

I can still see him. He had a bluish head, white beard and red comb (no wonder Ben Franklin was so infatuated with the species), all silhouetted against a dawn-flushed sky. He's pressed in my mind like a penny.

This was, clearly, "the moment."

"Shoot him if you can," Dowler whispered. But could I? It wasn't morals that prevented me from pulling the trigger: Not knowing exactly what the turkey might do next, I suspected he might wobble still closer, and I didn't want to risk upsetting the better shot. By the time I decided to start fumbling with my safety, he was gone.

We didn't see another turkey all day. Dowler and Nibert heard birds a few times, but we spent most of the day sitting quietly, seeing nothing and hoping to repeat the early morning vignette with a better ending the next day.

A second chance

Nobody spoke of superstition, but we stuck to a similar script the following morning. "We're going to kill a turkey today," Dowler sang as we drove up the primitive, coffee-splattering path to the hunting site. We were back in the woods before sunrise, leaning against the very same tree. The only difference was that this time, Nisbet wasn't with us. He and Fisher headed to another spot on the ridge, hoping to bust up some birds and send them our way.

But there weren't any turkeys that morning. All we saw was one reckless deer, so impervious to the threat of gunfire that Dowler scoffed that a self-respecting hunter wouldn't even shoot him. I'd taken one practice shot the previous afternoon, aiming at a yellow Styrofoam cup Nisbet and Dowler had stuck on the end of a stick, approximating a turkey's throat. "That's a dead turkey," they'd cried, examining the poor cup's corpse. It didn't look like I'd ever get the chance to put my newfound marksmanship to use.

The day went badly: Nisbet lost his front tooth, undermining his protestations that he wasn't really a hillbilly. Dowler kept drifting off. And even with an extra layer of socks, I was cold again.

We were sitting on the opposite side of the ridge when a turkey finally showed up. Strangely for a turkey, he didn't call first. He somehow perched himself on the edge of a path without any warning.

"Brian," I said, mustering all the calm I could, "there's a turkey over my right shoulder."

It was exactly the wrong place for a turkey. The slightest leg shift or a fidgeting finger can spook a turkey. Swiveling my gun all the way around — without the turkey noticing — would be downright impossible. Moments later, he flew off.

"Ninety-seven percent of expert hunters couldn't swing around and make an ethical shot there," Dowler said, which was halfway comforting.

For many turkey hunters, shooting is secondary. They find their thrill in calling turkeys, coaxing them ever closer. Dowler, who's been with the NWTF since the day he graduated from college, told me some older hunters don't even take a gun when they go into the woods.

Those unarmed hunters know how hard it is to kill a turkey in the fall. They understand why more than 90 percent of turkeys bagged in South Carolina, where hunters are allowed to take up to five birds, are claimed by just five percent of the state's license holders. But, more importantly, they've already gained the respect for turkeys that hunting invariably teaches.

Since I didn't kill a turkey, my mother went to Whole Foods for her centerpiece dish. She left the house around 9 a.m. and had a turkey in her refrigerator within the hour. I'd spent nearly 20 hours in the woods and had nothing. More so than seeing tomatoes on the vine in late summer or helping butcher hogs, my hunting experience made me think deeply about the origins of what we put on our plate.

Even though our Thanksgiving bird came from a grocery store, it was delicious. And I can't help but think it's because I ate it with an added bit of gratitude.


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