I will not be busted.
I am like Rambo with ballerina slippers. Well, that doesn't sound right. But the point is, I'm part of an armed, camouflaged group, cutting its way through the dark. And I'm doing it all with such graceful footwork and movement to make nary a sound.
There is a simple reason why: I cannot be busted.
No, I don't have a police officer on my tail. He's actually in front of me: Capt. Dan Affalter. Well, he's retired from the Lawrence Police Department after a nearly 33-year career, but, make no mistake, we're still here to apprehend a subject, so to speak.
His name is Tom. Tom the Turkey. It is turkey hunting season in Kansas, and on this early morning in northern Franklin County, Tom is as good as gone. We're doing this right, you see. We began the operation at "dark thirty," which apparently is another name for 4:30 in the morning.
There's a bright moon above, dark outlines of a hedge row in the distance and an abiding thought: Thou shall not wake up the turkeys.
"We have to get close to their roost, but not right in their bedroom," Affalter had explained earlier. "If we get too close, we're going to get busted."
In other words, the turkey will see us. But don't worry. Despite waking my wife approximately six times while leaving the bedroom at 3:30 this morning, out here I am like Casper the Ghost in camo.
Dang, that doesn't sound right either. But you get the picture.
Tom is in trouble.
At the moment, I am trying to be a female turkey. (I'll let you insert your own joke here.) The Kansas spring turkey hunting season — which runs through May 31 — only allows you to shoot male turkeys. Technically, you can shoot a female turkey if she has a beard, which some do. (Best be careful about the joke you insert here.) So, what's the best way to attract a male turkey? A female turkey, of course.
We've planted ourselves in the hedge row on padded seat cushion devices. It is still more than an hour before sunrise. Affalter has placed a plastic decoy of a female turkey along the edge of the pasture we are surveying.
Now, we wait and partake in an activity that seems rare these days: We listen to the world. The songbirds are among the first to awake. A few quail can be heard as well, which causes Affalter, a longtime bird hunter, to briefly break his silence.
"Ah, that's a good sound to hear," he says.
The next sound is more jarring than beautiful. Tough to describe too, other than sharp, shrill and sudden. Affalter says it was the sound of a small rabbit as it was caught by the claws and beak of an owl. A good early-morning reminder of how the world works.
A bit before sunrise, we hear the sound we have been waiting for. A male turkey gobbles from the roost of a tree limb. Now, what tree limb? Affalter sees a dark mass in a tree top across the pasture. He thinks that's our bird, the dominant male turkey.
We start to hear the female turkeys talk as well. That's both good and bad. We've found turkeys, but we need Tom to get interested in our decoy before he finds one of these female turkeys.
"It is tough to compete with the real thing," Affalter notes.
That's where the art of turkey calling comes in. Affalter has a variety of devices designed to mimic the sounds of a turkey. There are many to imitate: There are yelps, clucks, putts and purrs. They all mean a different thing to a turkey. Affalter has one calling device that is dowel rod that slides through a small box. It makes a turkey sound as it slides. Another is a "squawk box," a box with a lid on a swivel. As the lid scrapes against the edge of the box, it makes a turkey sound. There's also a call to blow upon. This one happens to be a "shock call" that mimics the sound of a crow. You try to shock the turkey into making a noise.
Affalter tries all these things. Our turkey needs to be about 25 yards from us for a good shot, although up to 60 yards could work. Tom is on the ground now, but he's not headed our way.
"There are more ladies than guys," Affalter says as he watches Tom head to a group of females in the distance.
More ladies than guys. Sure, now that's the case. I can tell Affalter is getting worried about how an article may read if we don't get a turkey. I tell him not to worry. I understand what is wrong now. It is me, not him.
You see, I was in a high school class of 21: 14 boys and seven girls. And one of them was my cousin. I've never been on the right side of this ratio.
Turkeys are not very smart creatures, but let's not say that too loud at the moment. It seems that Tom may be an outlier.
What really happened here is that Tom surprised us instead of the other way around. Part of the fun of turkey hunting is scouting your area beforehand. Affalter did that several times prior to this trip, and he had a good idea of where the turkeys made their roosts. But on this morning, Tom roosted in a different tree. It was one with a glorious view.
"He probably saw us get out of the dang truck," Affalter says.
In other words, we were busted from the beginning.
But Affalter is not ready to give up yet. After all, as a detective, he once made his living tracking men.
"Critters are more predictable, and they don't shoot back," Affalter says of the difference, in case you were wondering.
So, Affalter says we'll go on foot to get a little closer to Tom. Fantastic. I'm like Captain Ahab with a face mask. Oh yeah, you wear a camouflage net over your face when turkey hunting because a turkey's eyesight is that good. (The mask must be a good look on me. My wife suggested I keep it.)
We get within binocular view of Tom. For a brief moment, I get to see him strut for the females. Male turkeys are interesting to watch, if not pleasant to know. The dominant male spends all his time fighting and being amorous, Affalter says, although in slightly different terms. When you shoot the dominant tom, it's not usual for the other turkeys to gather around him after the echo of the shotgun has subsided.
"They've been picked on and pushed around, and they want to make sure he is really dead," Affalter explains.
We don't get the chance to see that today. Tom's eyesight and hearing were too keen for us to get much closer.
"We could shoot the decoy," Affalter finally says.
We don't. We don't shoot anything on this day. But that's OK. This day wasn't a disappointment in the least. It had been too long since I walked through a thicket concerned about every branch that was bent and every step that was taken. (As Affalter noted, unless you are a felon, you don't get a lot of chances to sneak around much as a grown man.)
And it had been way too long since I had let a bright moon be my guide and a sunrise filtered through the hedge row my only time piece.
Affalter explains it best.
"It is a thrill to be in nature," he says. "A thrill to watch the world wake up."
Sometimes to remember how the world works, you have to wake up with it. And even if you don't come back with a turkey, you have to figure it sure beats working.
Oops, did I say that? I guess I'm busted.