“The Oath”

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Wikipedia defines an oath as “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future actions or behavior.” 

While not divine, I was recently a witness to such a promise.

I have a “turkey hunting” friend. He probably isn’t too difficult to imagine if you know someone similar. You are probably thinking of him (or her) right now, in fact. I would wager they are cut from the same cloth – yours and mine – and would get along swimmingly should they ever meet in the real world. (Unless they are the competitive sort. We should pray for the opposite, in that case.)

My turkey hunting friend’s name is John and nothing winds his clock more than a 6 am fly down or a gobble on the roost. John lives for these scenarios. You can see it in his eyes when he’s on a bird, and in his voice when he talks about the one (or two) that got away. There is nothing he’d rather be hunting than the bird, even when he’s hunting something else. I’ve heard too many blasphemous statements in the deer woods to believe otherwise. “Man, I’m seeing turkey scratch all over. If I hear a gobble, its game on, deer be damned!”

“Damned” indeed for making such a statement on a Michigan morning in October. “Beards before bucks? Surely, you must be joking.” But he isn’t. Turkeys are the most sacred of creatures to John and hunting them is the closest to God he could ever be on this Earth. When he isn’t hunting them, he’s reading about hunting them. When he isn’t reading about hunting them, he’s building his own calls. When he isn’t building his own calls, he’s navigating forgotten gravel drives in a rusted out Ford with a watchful eye on every field and hollow.

He loves to eat turkeys too, but that goes without saying.

It was his passion for the pursuit of this bird that made John the perfect candidate for longbow recruitment. He liked to do things the way I liked to do things, only he was using a shotgun. I would send him photos of bows and arrows. He would send me photos of calls he was working on. It was only a matter of time before our addictions crossed. John started shooting a longbow and I started hunting turkeys.

We mentored each other that first year. John made his first bow and I acquired my first calls and shotgun. We were both equally awful at the other’s endeavor. I was making horrible noises in the turkey woods and John was shooting groups the size of a hay bale into his hay bale. Still, the seeds had been planted. Improvement was inevitable. I gave up the shotgun a season later. It felt wrong to be in the woods without my bow. John wasn’t quite there, but a gun was feeling less-and-less “right”. He started the season with his bow, reserving his 12-gauge for a sudden death scenario. He ended up shooting a nice bird that season, but those closest to him could see it didn’t make him feel the way it used to.

What John was feeling, is actually quite common. Once you’ve spent time afield with a stick-and-string, it is very difficult to be in the woods with anything else. It eventually becomes a part of you and everything you do, see, and feel. I was privy to all of this. And I was there when the aforementioned oath was made.

“I’m going after turkeys again this year. And I’m doing it longbow only. I don’t even care if I get a bird.”

“Really…” I said, raising my eyebrows in astonishment. He shot me a look as serious as death, then he nodded. “Oh yes. Longbow. Wood arrows. Public land. Boots on the ground. Going after ’em!” It was a gem of a promise. Something you might hear amidst the inebriated blustering of one of the turkey elite following their 100th kill. But he meant every word and I found that infectious. “I suppose I’d better go with you then.” I sighed. “Can’t let you have all the fun, can I?”

“Sure thing.” He said. “I’ve got just the place. I hope you like to get up early and I hope you like to walk.”

“The Gobble”

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It only took one gobble to make me a “turkey hunter” and I heard it on the morning of May 24th, 2013.

It all started with a wife’s request.

Jessica loved that I put food on the table with my longbow, but (due to her body’s intolerance of red meat) hated that she couldn’t partake. This posed a problem, as I was a deer hunter with little desire to mess around with poultry. Plus, I knew nothing of turkey hunting save for what I’d read in magazines. Still, Jessica held firm in her opinion that a wild turkey would be the epitome of table fare. She insisted I shoot one that spring.

I’ll admit the “know-how” wasn’t my only hang up. It was also a matter of pride. I worked hard to be an amateur deer hunter and took my lumps on a regular basis. An ass-whooping beneath the talons of yet another species wasn’t all that appealing. But I loved my wife and was willing to try.

Several months later, I had a late-season license, a pot call, and a flock of turkeys discovered on my morning commute. The latter was dumb luck. I’d just dropped my girls at daycare and decided to take the “long way” to work. This particular “long way” bordered the Rogue River and included several hundred acres of state hunting land. I’d scouted it for deer in the past, but had little interest in the turkey population. Things were different now and I was ecstatic to see 8-10 birds flocked up from the road.

The “long way” became “my way” for the next several months and the birds remained. Something peculiar happened while seeing these birds. It began as an itch of sorts. Something unreachable in the back of my head and creeping ever forward as the hunt approached.

I read about turkeys. I watched videos. And I discussed turkey hunting with those who shared the sickness I suspected I had. The night of the 23rd, I dreamt the most vivid of hunting dreams I’d ever experienced. I saw the birds flocked up in the field. I saw myself giving chase – playing the part. I watched my hands put striker to pot and arrow to string.

I didn’t get up when the alarm chimed 5:30. Exhaustion was only part of the cause. Deep down I knew the events of the day couldn’t compare with those in my dreams. And I couldn’t compete with the hunter either. Jessica, who’d awoke to my alarm, rolled over and shot me a quizzical look.

“You getting up or what?” She asked, mid-yawn. “Late season turkeys aren’t like early season turkeys.” I lied. “They cruise around a lot. No need to get up too early.” She wasn’t buying it. “Okay, then why did you set your alarm for 5:30?”

“Wishful thinking I suppose.”

“Well, if you don’t leave by the time your daughter gets up, she isn’t going to let you.”

The short ride to the Rogue was completely silent. I needed to adjust to the quiet and would have nothing distract me from the task at hand. My knees bounced with excitement. My hands fidgeted on the wheel.

I pulled into the gravel lot to find it absent of competition. It was just light enough for me to see the river and the path that ran along side it. This was one of three paths that lead to the killing grounds and I figured it the safest. The churning river would mute the shuffling sound of boots to the previous year’s leaf fall and there was plenty of timber to keep me hidden.

The air nearest the river was damp and cool. It reminded me of Sunday afternoon fishing trips with the rest of the Viau family. I wasn’t much of a fisherman, but always enjoyed these trips. Mom promised baseball cards or comic books to whichever of us boys caught the biggest or most. Little did she know, watching my father lose his mind over frequent snagging would’ve been enough to get us out of bed.

The road lay to the east. The river began to drift to the west, forcing me to abandon it. The turkeys were somewhere in the middle, but I didn’t know where. There was a barren cornfield to my right and a plot of hardwoods in front of me. It was dead calm, so navigating the timber absent the noise of the river seemed foolish. On the other hand, so did walking across an open field. It seemed like a life or death decision – one I wasn’t about to rush. I took a seat on an old hickory stump to avoid doing so.

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As soon as hickory met hind-end, everything changed. A gobble shot through the timber and straight into my chest, which thrummed in its wake. I held my breath, vowing not to take another until he spoke again. A second gobble ripped through the trees, this time from a different direction, and was immediately answered by the original. This went on for several minutes and quickened in frequency as the two converged. It was quite the racket. Even a rookie like me could imagine what was happening – and what was about to. I sympathized for the hen that had their attention.

The air seemed to buzz with an energy I can only describe as supernatural. I slipped into a trance of sorts – unable to move or think – until I noticed a tapping sound. I glanced at my lap and realized it was the arrow dribbling against my riser. My legs had a tendency to shake when excited, but never to this degree. It reminded me of John Voight’s deer encounter in Deliverance. I’d mocked that movie’s ridiculous portrayal of buck fever for years, yet with the possibility of a turkey looming, was doing my best imitation.

“Not today.” I chuckled to myself. “That’s not going to be me. I’m not going to end up like John Voight.” I took a deep breath, stood up, and dashed off to claim my destiny.

This was turkey hunting. And I was hooked.