Confessions of a Turkey-Hunting Addict
Has your spring pursuit become an annual descent into madness?
If the Surgeon General knew anything about turkey hunting, he would apply this label on every turkey call: warning: this product can be hazardous to your health. frequent use causes obsessive distraction, nervous disorder, sleep deprivation, weight loss, irritability, paranoia, and occasions of extreme euphoria.
It’s the euphoria that gets you hooked. Experience the electrifying thrill of a gobbler coming to your call just once, and you’ll be driven to seek that jolt again. If it happens twice, you’ll be addicted.
I got my first jolt 30 years ago. In those early years I was able to hold my growing addiction in check. I limited turkey hunting to just one week each year. Since there were no turkeys at home in New Hampshire back then, I had to travel to hunt them; that made it easier to keep a lid on my desire. I hunted in the plantation country of Georgia, the Alabama flatwoods, the mountains of Arkansas, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the rolling farmland of Missouri, and the oak ridges of Pennsylvania, but when each hunt was over, I returned home to store my turkey-hunting paraphernalia and to try not to think about birds until next year.
Then turkeys spread into the New Hampshire-Vermont border country where I live and became numerous enough for both states to establish seasons that lasted the month of May. That was my undoing. I started hunting turkeys in distant states in April, then set aside May to hunt them close to home.
A couple of years ago I made an attempt to kick the habit. I figured that if I hunted turkeys hard enough and long enough, I’d get sick of the whole thing. Not enough to quit, certainly, but cut back to a degree that would make my addiction more acceptable.
“I’m going on a turkey-hunting binge,” I announced to my skeptical family. “When I come home I’m sure I’ll be burned out.”
I left home in early March and drove straight through to the big mossy oak forests and alligator swamp country south of Ocala, Florida. I hunted with a retired Florida sheriff and cattle rancher who was making a fortune selling land for cemeteries where people were buried in layers to save space. (I forget how many graves he said you could pack into an acre of ground?at $1,000 per grave?but it was a lot. “I can turkey hunt forever, now,” he said. My kind of man.)
The sheriff fried up the plump Osceola gobbler I had killed, and his wife made hush puppies and cole slaw and cookies and gallons of iced tea and gave me a haircut in the sheriff’s office before the folks arrived for the best down-home dinner I ever ate. Then I split for Georgia, where I met friends at a rustic cabin in the mountains beside the Chattahoochee National Forest, where the Eastern turkey population was strong. We saw deer and bears and some nice trout in the streams, and one morning I called up a pair of longbeards that walked in shoulder to shoulder. For a minute I thought I could kill both with a single shot (that’s legal in Georgia), but then they split apart, so I just shot one.
Next I went to Arkansas, where two turkey-hunting cronies took me under their wings and swore we wouldn’t worry about eating or sleeping until we had “filled us some tags.” I never heard so many turkeys. It was jake heaven. Every time we called, a jake or two or three would come in. We had to shoo them away to call a mature bird.
I spent a week in the Texas Panhandle calling up turkeys for the camera, then calling them up for the gun, and then calling them up just for the hell of it. From there I headed north to Nebraska, where Merriam’s turkeys thrive in the steep forested canyons and windblown alpine parks of Pine Ridge country. I had to get up extra early to climb into the high country, but it was worth it. Trouble was, there was never time to eat. I was out too early and came home too late to ever get a meal in the little cow town where the only restaurant had a small ssign in the window that said steaks and a larger one beside the door that said cowboys?scrape dung off boots before entering.
I was in the turkey-hunting groove by now, five weeks into the trip. Food and sleep no longer mattered. The only thing that was important was being in a good place deep in turkey country 45 minutes before sunrise every day.
One long day I roared across the plains, heading east from the Wyoming border all the way to Missouri. I got there in time to hunt both sides of that state’s split season. My Missouri friends helped me unload my cooler’s accumulation of frozen turkey meat into their freezer. They looked over my mud-spattered truck, eyed the rumpled sleeping bag in the back, and said it looked like I was hitting the turkey hunting pretty hard. “You want to watch it,” they warned. “Turkey hunting can get to be all you do.”
“You sick of it yet?” I asked.
“Hell, no,” they said. “Our wives are sick of it, but we’ve still got New York and Pennsylvania to go. You?”
“I’m trying hard to get my fill of it,” I said. “I’ll hunt here with you guys for five days, and then I’m going to Virginia for one more hunt. When I finish up there, I’m headin’ home. Oughta be home about the first of May.”
“When’s the season open up there?” one asked.
“Second of May.”
“Ain’t gonna be much left of you.”
When I loaded the truck at the end of that Virginia hunt and headed home, I felt satisfied. I had overdosed on turkey, and I was feeling apologetic and ready to act like a normal man again. And I tried. At home I didn’t hunt for three days. But I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up at 3:30, flop around in the bed, and wait for dawn.
“Go ahead,” my wife finally said. “Just try to get one quickly.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t kill a turkey. I worked a gobbler every morning, but I couldn’t get everything right. I passed up a couple of jakes. Then, later in the month, when I decided that I’d better kill a jake and call it quits, the darned jakes disappeared.
It wasn’t until May 25 that I filled my New Hampshire tag with the big old longbeard I’d been fooling with day after day. “At last,” my wife said when I brought him home. “I was afraid you were going to drag it out until the end of the season.” I didn’t say anything. I took the bird behind the barn and started picking him.
Out there, alone, I couldn’t resist. I pulled out my wallet and found my unused Vermont license. The Vermont border is only a few miles from my house, and over there the turkey season was open for five more days!