(Editor’s Note: Over the years, Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead has written a series of fictional outdoors stories as a Christmastime gift to readers. Considering the grim COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, he decided to write this spring turkey hunting tale to bring a hopeful reminder that better days will come.)
As he slipped out the backdoor, Jed Sullivan was glum. Even though it was the middle of spring turkey season, there seemed to be little reason to hope.
In normal years, the ranch belonging to his dad Raymond would be alive with longbeards strutting their stuff, mature toms gobbling their lovesick intentions to any turkey hen that might be listening.
But this wasn’t a normal year. Several years of consecutive bad hatches had seen to that. And then a wildfire in late winter had added to the woes, gobbling up prime trees in the creek bottom that Rio Grande turkeys had roosted in ever since Jed’s late grandfather Bill had acquired the property decades ago.
Most of the ranch was unscathed by the fire, greening up quickly as spring blossomed its way across the landscape. The bluebonnets were blooming, deer leisurely roamed about, and blue-winged teal slid onto the ranch’s big ponds most days as they migrated northward. But the turkeys on the ranch, once a numerous wild asset to the brushy landscape, had seemingly vanished.
For Jed, who had come to chasing spring gobblers after his college days, it was a somber turn of events. As he prowled about in his camouflage and snake boots during pre-season scouting missions, there were no tail feathers under roost trees, no J-shaped droppings near the wheat field, no dragging wing marks left in the powdery dust, and no sightings of turkeys roaming through the ranch’s mixture of brush and bottomland.
If the half-dozen trail cameras Jed had scattered around the family’s acreage didn’t already tell the story, the silence every dawn and dusk did. There were simply no gobbles to be heard anywhere within earshot. Hoot owls and crows beckoned every day, but no longbeard ever answered with a thunderous gobble.
But on this Good Friday morning, Jed decided to go turkey hunting anyway. It was a springtime tradition for him, a chance to slip outside on a warm morning as his wife and kids slept soundly in the family cabin behind his parent’s house. As he had done on previous holiday weekends, Jed would rise before the alarm went off, hike a couple of miles down into the ranch’s river bottom country, and see what the day might bring.
As Jed quietly slipped past the gently snoring form of his Labrador retriever, he thought that with some hunter’s luck, maybe he would still find a gobbler willing to dance. And if he could make the right calls to that turkey, perhaps the morning would produce dinner for the table and a paintbrush thick beard and a set of sharp spurs for his study back home.
As the southerly breeze picked up that morning, a gray dawn begrudgingly gave way to a mix of clouds and sunshine as the spring heat and humidity started to build. True to form, first light brought no gobbles from the roost, so Jed moved down near the Red River and sat next to a familiar oak tree.
Sorting through his vest, he tried every call at his disposal. First were the various diaphragm calls he had acquired on visits to box stores in the big city. Then there was the Cody slate call he had won at a National Wild Turkey Federation banquet a few years back. And finally, he pulled out the Lamar Williams box call, a carefully built woodsy instrument crafted out of butternut and walnut, a Christmas morning gift given to him by his dad Raymond several years ago.
One by one, each call sent out a cacophony of turkey sounds, the usual array of yelps, cackles and cuts, all bringing no response.
As his eyes grew heavy around mid-morning, Jed stroked the box call one more time. He wondered for a brief moment if he had heard a faint and far away gobble. But as the wind blew steadily, he dismissed the thought, closed his eyes, and dreamed of successful hunts from years quickly fading away into the recesses of memory.
Suddenly, Jed was wide awake, jolted back to consciousness after several minutes of dozing off. While he hadn’t heard a thing, there was a strong sense that something wild was lurking nearby.
As he fought the urge to look around, there was a faint cracking of limbs. Straining his eyes hard to the left, Jed saw nothing. Glancing hard to the right, nothing still. But then he heard a low grumbling sound, the kind made by a turkey that was drumming nearby.
Seconds passed as his heart rate accelerated to redline levels. Agonizing minutes of stillness followed that initial surge of adrenaline, leaving Jed to wonder if it was all a dream.
But then a limb faintly cracked again, and he suddenly realized that there was a turkey at full strut, only a few yards away and directly behind his position. Ignoring every urge to move, Jed could only wait and watch as he clutched his worn Remington 870 shotgun even tighter.
And suddenly, as the nearby hen decoy pirouetted in the wind, Jed heard a thunderous gobble from a tom turkey so close that the hunter could almost feel the burst of gobbled air brush across the back of his neck.
A few moments later, the longbeard slipped by and continued his slow-motion approach towards the feathered fake only 20 yards ahead. With the tom’s thick beard nearly dragging the ground and his back turned to Jed, the hunter was able to slowly raise the scattergun into position, take careful aim at the gobbler’s glowing head, and slowly squeeze the trigger on a hunt he wouldn’t soon forget.
When the shot came, the bird fell hard to the ground, quivered a couple of times, and laid still. When all was quiet, a 20-minute lone testing of nerves had ended, leaving Jed to wonder if he had ever endured a more intense and exciting moment in the woods.
Shaking like a beginner, the 30-something year old hunter smiled, pulled down his face mask, reached for his phone, and sent a text message to his dad that simply read “One more time!”
Born from a favorite line in Col. Tom Kelly’s Tenth Legion book about spring turkey hunting, a line that reads “I’m glad I lived to see it — one more time,” Jed knew that the electronic message would bring a knowing smile to his dad’s face.
As he stood up to go collect the downed gobbler, Jed could only wonder where the tom had come from. But as he reached for his wallet and the empty tag it held, he was determined not to look a proverbial gift horse in the mouth.
Kneeling next to the silent bird, Jed heard another faint gobble off in the distance, proof positive that the ranch was healing and that Rio Grande turkeys would continue to roam the hardscrabble landscape where they had lived for countless generations.
Later that morning, as he hung the bird in the barn and reached for his skinning knife, the tape measure showed the old tom’s beard stretching out to nearly 11-inches in length. Coupled with sharp spurs measuring 1 ¾-inches on each side and a weight of just more than 22-pounds, the old warrior of the woods was a spring turkey that would be remembered for years to come.
Better yet, the big gobbler would be the baked centerpiece for a memorable Easter meal and an exciting tale this Sunday as the family gathered around the dinner table following church.
As Jed considered the timeless dance of Creation that he had just enjoyed again, he thought back to the preacher’s sermon the previous weekend.
Talking about the holiest week of the year for Christian believers, the minister had focused on a Friday long ago that seemed dark as it could be, only to become a shining beacon of hope just three days later.
And then Jed remembered the sermon’s catchphrase, one that he smiled upon remembering: “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming!”
“Amen to that,” Jed thought as he got busy about the work of turning a filled tag into a meal. “Amen indeed.”