The soft sizzle of a turkey nugget bubbling in a hot grease bath livens up the cold evening air. The scent of flour and salt are whisked to a house down the street as the soft wind flutters across the porch. A distant dog is barking downwind, and I bet he’s trying to tell me he wants some. Although, his bark isn’t the only reason for my smile. There’s a delight about cooking something you’ve personally acquired that I have yet to find elsewhere. Every pride laced bite tastes wilder and purer than anything at the grocery store. The nuggets even seem to relax in the grease, like I’ve granted them an acceptable fate. It’s a conclusion to the battle of life and death, moreover, an ending to a romance.
It’s 4:50 A.M. I’m late. The wind is rocking the truck and if it weren’t for my camper shell, I’d be damn cold. My alarm is screaming, but I’m clinging to the warmth of my sleeping bag. I couldn’t have slept more than two hours last night, and I’m already exhausted. The shade of night is beginning to lift as I fumble to find my phone which won’t shut up. I cuss myself when I see it’s almost 5. I don’t even have my boots on, let alone a lunch packed. So, in order to get back on schedule, I skip the good parts of an early morning. I forego coffee, packing a lunch and munching a quick breakfast. Instead, I round up my turkey calls, jump into camouflage and sift through the truck to find my shells. In that time, something incredible happened. The wind died. It completely stopped in five minutes. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I wasn’t going to second guess a blessing. Over the years I’ve learned that when God gives you lemonade, you drink it. I hustle to a high spot and halfheartedly let out a hen yelp. Astonishingly, I hear a response.
I hate mornings when I have to be somewhere, but I love mornings when I choose to be somewhere. After hearing that distant gobble, I start sprinting toward it. The Merriam’s turkeys up on the limb are flat gobbling their asses off. It’s a million-gobble morning, and those don’t come around too much for a public land hunter like myself. As I close the distance, I hear the batting of wings taking flight from their roost. So, I promptly sit down and set up my decoys to begin calling. After five minutes, I’m sick of waiting. I haven’t put on 60 boot miles this season to sit and wait around anymore. I’ve finally found them, it’s time to go after them or die trying. I pick up my decoys and creep in closer. I sneak in to where I’m about fifty yards of where they ought to be. I’m up on top of the ridge while they are down over the edge out of eyesight. I hadn’t heard any gobbles since they hit the ground, so I really don’t have a clue where they are anymore. I thought I spooked them somehow, but I figured I may as well let out a yelp to see if they respond. I no sooner start a call sequence, when yards from me does the thunderous roar of at least five gobblers’ boom. I hit the dirt, with no tree to lean up against, and no cover to conceal myself. I instinctively try to slide my pack off to use as cover, but midway through, seven heads pop up over the ridge to see where the yelp came from. One gleaming red head sticks out from the rest and in a reactive whip, I yank the gun up and squeeze the trigger. Birds from over the edge of the ridge shock gobble at the sound of the shotgun blast. I skim through the heads from left to right with my shotgun barrel trying to determine if another one has a beard or not. I can’t tell. They’re running back and forth, and it feels like hours of combing through heads, but I know its only seconds. Every head I put the bead on is blue, and I don’t dare shoot a hen. I crawl forward looking for another gobbler, but they take flight and I don’t have another shot.
As I walk up to the flopping turkey, I’m sick. I knew it was a gobbler when I pulled the trigger, but when I get up to it, it doesn’t have spurs. I don’t see a beard either. The scenario pours through my mind over and over and I can’t believe what I’ve done. Why did I pull the trigger? Maybe I missed the gleaming red head in the excitement and hit a head beside him. I drop the gun and sink to my knees in tears, when the bird flops over. A tiny, maybe an inch-long beard protrudes out from the iridescent feathers on the bird’s chest. It’s a juvenile tom, or jake. The adrenaline surges back into me in a wave as I pump my fist into the air and try to keep from jumping up and down. It’s my first Montana turkey, and even cooler, it’s my first Merriam’s turkey and he’s gorgeous. The black of his inner feathers runs up to a chestnut color that immediately switches into glowing white tips at the edge of his fan. The iridescent greens and blues on his fan reflect in the shine of the morning light. Through the steam of my breath, I can almost see the gleam of my teeth against his feathers, he’s perfect.
I glance at my watch, 5:58 A.M. It’s by far the earliest I’ve ever killed a turkey. I sling him up over my shoulder and head toward the truck where the one bar of cell service and my camera lens take up the next hour and a half. Cleaning a turkey doesn’t take long, if you’ve ever spent any time with a knife and have any clue what you’re trying to accomplish. I quickly pluck the feathers and gut the bird, keeping both the heart and gizzard for a specialty treat. After the dirty work is done, I carry the Thanksgiving meal to the cooler in one brilliantly crimson stained hand, and a turkey fan for my wall in the other. I toss the bird in the cooler and slink back into bed for a well-deserved nap.
There’s something raw about sitting around a grease bucket that someone can’t quite understand unless they’re a hunter. It’s something people have been doing since we started acquiring food. It just feels right. Sure, it’s now hooked up to a propane tank and lit with a handheld lighter, but the concept is still the same. We’re brought together over something as simple as an animal, a hot meal and fire. It’s the art of being human.
Be a Good Predator.