Fall Turkey Hunting: Success at Long Last
I’ve always made a point to mention that I did not grow up hunting and fishing. I immigrated to the backwoods because living in the city is just not for me. As a boy I grew up on my grandfather’s stories about the great outdoors. I wanted to live in his stories. I probably have more Field & Stream magazines than anyone you know. I’ve been archiving them since I was about ten years old. They were like bibles to me, and the images contained within the pages of those magazines were the closest thing I had to the outdoors for the first 20 years of my life. I mention this so that the situation can be stated clearly: I had no idea how to hunt turkey. I had to learn and this learning process was painful.
Wild turkeys are not native to Oregon however approximately 50,000 of these birds now make their home in the “Beaver State.” The first subspecies, the Merriam’s turkey, was introduced to Oregon in 1961. Then, in 1975, the Rio Grande turkey was introduced to southern Oregon. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) reports “more than 9,600 Rio Grande turkeys have been released during 584 releases in Oregon since 1975.”
At present, both species roam the state but the Rio Grande turkeys have flourished. In short, turkeys are everywhere in Oregon. From the wet coastal range of the Siuslaw unit, to the steep abyss of Hell’s Canyon on the “dry side,” you can hear gobbling.
Blaxican vs. Bird
The turkeys of Oregon hold a special place in my heart, a place where blazing frustration meets frigid resolve. I see turkeys as cackling arch villains, dark-winged Houdini-esque escape artists high-stepping their way out of every ambush attempt I have made upon them. I’m kind of a hater.
For four years I’ve attempted to bag a turkey. That’s four long years of coming home empty handed, four years of setbacks, close calls and disappointment. My other hunting buddies gave up on it altogether. Some of them just turned their attention to the local spring salmon run, claiming it was a more fruitful endeavor. A couple of them turned to gardening. One of them signed up for salsa dancing lessons with his wife and was never heard from again. Turkeys did this to them. They quit, but I did not. I kept hunting, alone. However my persistence only earned more disappointment. I became the butt of cruel jokes at family gatherings, particularly thanksgiving. Then, a couple years into my miserably failed attempts, it got so bad that those same family members who snickered and sneered at my lack of success started to feel sorry for me. They offered support. They said things like: “maybe you’ll get one next year,” or “there’s always next season, mijo.”
So, this year, to say it took a lot for me to buy my fall turkey tag and face the chilly, rain-spattered evenings of November in Western Oregon, would be an understatement. I did it on principle, because I refused to let them beat me. Them … the thunder chickens, the long-beards, the swamp roosters whose gobbling has invaded the peace and sanity of my waking hours as well as my dreams. I could not let them win.
I had to put the early years behind me. Those years during which I attempted to marry theory and practice, season after season where I attempted to unite the many articles and expert advise columns I’d read with the bald-faced reality of a wild turkey dinner. I put it behind me and set off once more, into the woods.
Getting the Gobbler
I am sitting behind an overturned stump. The cool fall evening is beginning to set in and I fidget with the shotgun in my lap. Visions of an unsuccessful deer season dance through my mind. My craving for wild meat has reached a threshold. This lonely hillside I am setup on is more than just a lonely hillside … it is my statement against the gobblers. I will not surrender to them.
A year prior, my friend Donny Adair pointed me in the direction of this particular Oregon hillside. Donny is the president of the African American Hunting Association, his dedication to hunting and mentoring younger hunters is nothing short of exemplary. His prior scouting and patterning of the turkey flocks that frequent this hillside has put me in the position I now sit in—cross-legged with shotgun and turkey call. Two different flocks of birds creep alongside the hill almost every night; the flocks eventually roost in the taller trees on the crest of the incline. I tell myself that this evening will be the evening that one turkey will not make it home to roost, but rather home to roast. I am staying positive despite the waves of taunting I endured after telling my friends and family that I was going back after turkey, again.
Thirty minutes pass and I begin to hear the calls. The first flock is at the bottom of the hill, the hens are clucking and purring. If you’ve ever hunted turkey, you know the feeling these sounds evoke. It is something like the way a person feels just before they make the active decision to jump into a cold body of water. There is excitement, anticipation, and volition. The clucking continues and I steady myself against the overturned stump. I wait and the sounds grow closer. I keep waiting, moving my eyes but not my head… these birds have excellent vision… if they see movement they will scatter in a heartbeat. Not only am I covered in head-to-toe camouflage with a facemask on, I have placed twigs and branches in my hat in effort to further break up my human form. I am trying to become one with the stump I’ve chosen to hide behind. This overturned stump is positioned next to a thick oak, providing both cover and concealment to the right of me. I hear the birds but I can’t see them. Then, the sounds stop.
With this silence comes doubt, followed by a sincere sense of bewilderment as to where the birds are. I wait for what seems like twenty minutes but is most likely five. Then comes more doubt. The silence continues and everything below my knees feels tingly, in a bad way. The lower half of my legs has fallen asleep. I wiggle my toes and cannot tell if they still exist. I try to wait it out a bit longer. The silence remains. I stand up, sigh and start to shake my legs. Then, while craning my neck to look behind me I notice the unmistakable silhouette of a turkey standing thirty yards away. It is the lead hen of the flock that somehow materializes all around my position. This is it.
The shotgun is still in my hands. Moving my eyes to the right I see a turkey within range, it is staring right at me. There is another turkey behind it but the one staring at me is big Tom. Locked in this Mexican standoff, I realize I have to act quickly. I lean against the tree, slowly. I raise the shotgun. Time is standing still. So is the turkey. So am I.
With that “bang” came fulfillment. With that “bang,” some bizarre form of inner peace came over me. With that “bang,” the turkey fell and this year’s Thanksgiving was pretty epic. I am most thankful for the guest of honor… a fine-looking bird.
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.”