Archive for Sunday, November 19, 2000

Turkey hunter sometimes resembles prey

November 19, 2000


Many a man has found himself transformed into a jackass on account of some act of folly. Not a few princes have been turned into frogs. But nothing prepared my wife and daughter for discovering the man of the house transformed into a turkey a female turkey at that.

They might have been less disappointed if I'd changed into a peacock or a bird of paradise. But even though Benjamin Franklin advocated the "respectable" turkey for national bird, instead of the American eagle "a bird of bad moral character" turkeys remain synonymous with losers and duds.

"How many turkeys have observed me with amused contempt as I crouched amid the branches of a thorn tree and written me off as another ignorant human being?"

All the same, more and more men are attempting the transition to turkey each spring when the redbuds bloom like purple smoke in the black woods. The hope of bagging a wild tom turkey inspires them to paint their faces like bark and leaves, to crawl out of bed before sunrise and sit on the cold damp ground clucking like a hen.

My girls had caught me practicing my turkey call. Huffing into the diaphragm held against the roof of my mouth, I was producing the kind of yelps and coquettish purrs that are supposed to drive male turkeys crazy. My dogs were howling at their master's unfortunate metamorphosis. It wouldn't have alarmed them any more if werewolf's hair had begun to crawl over my face.

The return of the wild turkey from the brink of extinction is one of the great comeback stories. The legendary woodsman Nessmuk described an encounter with an "army" of turkeys in the early part of this century, predicting that "the like of it will never again be possible on this continent."

But turkeys have rallied from rarity in the '50s to commonplace today. Last spring on a drive from Illinois to Kansas I saw at least a dozen huge flocks along the edges where fields and woodlands meet. I spotted a majestic tom with his tail feathers flared in mating display not 20 feet beyond the Kansas Turnpike and another holding two hens in thrall in the middle of a field outside of town.

Turkeys have become so plentiful that some quail hunters consider them no better than vermin, accusing them of eating quail eggs and young quail, blaming them for the decline of their favorite bird. Nevertheless, a good many men would rather pot a wild turkey than hold a fist-full of diamonds.

I have had dreams about them, multiple scenarios in which a 20-pound giant propelled by a pair of massive drumsticks finally comes in range. I have spent many hours scarcely breathing in the woods, deceived by the sounds of wind in trees, my face ridiculously hidden behind a camouflage veil. On a couple of occasions I have heard the heart-stopping gobbles. But I have yet to fire a shot.

Turkeys have a reputation for stupidity, but the wild version is as wary as any creature. It has the keenest eyesight and will spook at the twitching of your nose. How many turkeys have observed me with amused contempt as I crouched amid the branches of a thorn tree and written me off as another ignorant human being?

I had almost accepted that I was not destined to shoot a turkey. I consoled myself with the thought that what counts in life is trying rather than getting and that being out in nature is its own reward. But sometimes success comes precisely when we stop craving it and the prize simply falls in our laps. Sometimes it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Not long ago, almost at dusk, I was driving west out of Baldwin when I saw turkeys flying low out of the woods across the road. So low that I said to myself: One of those birds is going to get hit. Just at that moment, one collided with the car ahead of me, folded up its wings and sailed into the ditch like a sack of flour.

My heart began beating as furiously as it does when the snap of a twig convinces me that a monster gobbler is sneaking up to bite me on the ear. I slammed on the brakes, parked the truck on the shoulder and ran down the hill, terrified that the bird had recovered and was making its escape. But there it was, eyes open, patiently awaiting its doom.

I grabbed my trophy, administered the coup de grace, trotted back to the truck and tossed it in. I had my butterball after all. My luck would have been greater only if the bird had fallen from the sky already dressed and wrapped.

When I returned after cleaning it, I held it up in triumph before my wife and daughter. I felt connected to generations of hunters who've come home with meat to their family's cheers, before men became desk bound neurotics forced to vent their masculinity in parlor pursuits like fantasy football.

"The proud hunter returns," I exclaimed. "Am I not a good provider?" My astonished girls looked at me as if at some lunatic, covered with feathers and blood.

"Wonderful," said my wife at last. "Roadkill for Thanksgiving."

George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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