Outdoor Adventures: Choices in the hunt
Three o’clock in the morning; lightning flashes, thunder rumbles deep to the invisible horizon. I hear the fall of rain. Thor growls, low, against the threat of storm. I open my eyes and look out as the sky comes to light, falls to dark; flashes again with lightning. I’m agitated, heart beating faster; how can you wake to storm without agitation as a companion?
I lie there while the storm blows and the rain falls and I begin to relax. I think, “A good storm, we need the rain.” Then I pull the blankets up, Thor shifts and lies against me; outside thunder rolls and lightning flares. I try to fall back to sleep.
But sleep is difficult. The alarm is set for 4:15, but now my mind is working, sorting out the rain and the impact on the turkey hunt at dawn. I doze off then wake, then do it all again. I finally give up and get out of bed, shut the alarm before it rings, and go downstairs. I turn on the computer, bring up the radar and see that the rain has nearly passed through.
I make coffee, load the truck, drive through light drizzle. I walk to the place where woods meet field, set two decoys, slip back in the shadow of trees and settle in. It is quiet; no turkeys gobble. There is a light rain. I wait for dawn. It will come slowly on this morning shrouded with cloud.
The first bird is a hen, hunched over, feeding as she moves into the open. Then more movement in the shadow of pine, indistinct and then clear; three birds, no, more; five, and they come at a trot toward the decoys. I slide the shotgun up, hand finds trigger, eye finds sights; birds come closer. I look for the beards, the sign of a legal bird. Nothing. No, there’s one, and there, and another. All five males.
All are jakes, year-old males, they of short beard, legal game but small birds. Decision: Take one or not? I’d seen three big toms near here. It was early and things were looking good. What were the odds of a tom coming? A bird in the hand is worth what? A good eating bird; take one or not?
The five stood near the decoys, curious, looking like five gangly teenage boys loitering on the street corner, unsure of what moves to make, working, as the old song goes, on mysteries without any clues. I waited and considered things; they were so close together I could have killed three with one shot. I shifted slightly; I’d made up my mind.
The birds saw the movement and walked toward me, curious now, on edge, ready to flee, yet drawn by the unknowing. I lowered the shotgun and watched them. After a while they walked away. I settled back in.
I hunted three hours in the rain and never saw another bird.The next day was a repeat; check the radar and assess the situation. There was an ugly smear of orange on the map, west of here, big weather coming in. I did a rough calculation and figured I had a couple hours, maybe more, before it hit. I drove out again, set up, settled in.
I did not see a bird that day, and all the time the thunder rumbled faintly to the west. The wind blew steady from the east, a wind that would bring rain. I sat it out as the sky grew darker. Then in a minute the wind quit. Dead calm. Heavy air. I had the passing thought-calm before the storm?
Then the wind, hard and powerful, now from the north and west and the tall trees swayed, and I could hear the sound of the wind in the branches. There was a crack of lightning; I counted as I waited the thunder and when it came it was booming loud and with it came hard rain, rain driven by the wind and in a few minutes I was soaked.
I gathered the decoys and walked in the rain to the truck and thought to myself that I was glad it was a warm morning, for if it had been colder I’d have been in trouble, wet to the skin and with a hard wind.
It blew through, the big storm. Blew through and left a world soaked and green, spring green, that special green that is a different shade than you will see the rest of the year. Flowering trees were in bloom, white and violet and beautiful. The sun came out and it warmed up and in the late afternoon I went out again.
Same place; same setup. They’d been coming out early this year, well before sundown. I was on the ground and ready by 4:30. I could hunt until 8:15. Afternoon birds always come from my left, and I positioned myself accordingly. My left shoulder pointed toward where the birds would come from. I arranged my camo clothing, set calls close to hand, lifted the shotgun to make certain it would not hang up on anything. You work the odds and hope for the best.
I sat there on that beautiful May afternoon and counted myself among the fortunate people. A great day doing what I wanted to do. Who could ask for anything more?
I heard a turkey gobble, distant, faint; I could not locate it. Behind me? To the west? No idea. I picked up the call and worked it. Silence. After a minute, another gobble. I called again. The bird gobbled a few more times then quit. It was not close. I had no idea if my calls reached that far, let alone if a tom would have any interest.
I sat, back to a pine tree, legs stretched out, and waited. That’s what hunting is for the most part, waiting. A good hunter is a patient hunter, and I say that knowing that I no longer have the patience required to sit for the long hours. I used to; I no longer do.
I saw a turkey in a space between trees, one bird, then another, and they were moving with an assurance, a fast pace of birds who knew where they were and where they would go. And where they were was to my right, off my right shoulder, in the one place that I could not get a shot, not unless I swiveled on my butt to put the gun it the right position for a shot. And the birds were too close for that.
I’ll never know if they were the birds that had gobbled. I do know that they were toms, for I could see their beards off their dark chests. The closest was 20 feet away when he stopped. He stood there in the golden light of that afternoon with the sun behind him and the sun lit him up as if he was afire, lit up the red on his head, lit up the iridescent on his back. He stood there stock-still and I could do nothing.
Then he turned, nervous, away from me, and I turned my head and saw the second bird and then a third; the three toms I’d seen days earlier, come back to the field, but come from where I least expected them. They moved away and I swung around and they saw me, of course they would, and then they ran faster into the thick cover and were gone.
I sat there and thought it all over. I’d done what I should have done, given what I knew. I could not second guess things. The birds came where I least expected them and that’s how birds, or bucks, get big; by doing the unexpected.
I’d hunt again, but I’d finish the season empty handed and wondering if I should have taken a jake that first time. Choices we make. That’s hunting. There is more to a hunt than a full game bag at the end of the day. Had I taken a jake, I’d have missed seeing those big bruisers standing in the afternoon sun, full of life and full of beauty. I’d have missed that, and in missing that would have been the poorer and the hunt would not have been the success that it was.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.