Words & Photography by CAVAN WILLIAMS
It's 4 am Saturday, April 14th. The shrill sound of the alarm breaks the silence of our quiet house and a coffee pot whirs to life in unison. The world outside sleeps on, for what to many is just another lazy Saturday. I hit snooze on the alarm and am tempted to stay in the warm bed, but I know that shortly, the morning’s first light will be joined by a chorus of gobbles. Plus Jared will be waiting for me, and he has no tolerance for lateness when turkey hunting. I hurried to pack my car with the gear I’d left sitting out the night before, say goodbye to my wife who barely mumbles for me to be safe and I’m gone.
My headlights offer the only light as I drive north through Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Foreboding clouds blanket the stars and threaten early spring showers, or maybe even snow. As the lights illuminate the wet road, I am reminded of dozens of opening mornings and the memories of father-son hunts. That first adrenaline-inducing gobble I ever heard and more importantly the times spent in the woods, living 'in the moment', living life as it was meant to be - outside among the green grasses and wildflowers of spring.
I arrive at Jared’s home and see his truck running and him inside, his long hair sticking out of camouflage hunting hat. His excitement is palpable, and I’m not confident he didn’t spend the night in the truck! I load my hunting vest, gun and decoy into the cab and we set off. Jared is hunting with his compound bow, me; I prefer my shotgun. A shotgun can accumulate many memories over the years and mine is no different. More often than not, the trigger never gets pulled, but I can’t imagine carrying anything else into the woods for a turkey hunt.
The highway is empty, and the glow of Missoula fades into the rearview mirror. The edge of town gives way to agriculture fields and forests. Rain begins to smear the windshield and Jared and I both grumble about the poor weather. Jared guides the truck off the highway onto an unmarked road, which soon turns to dirt. The day’s first light begins to show, and we feel the anxiety of trying to beat the inevitable sunrise. Turkeys are surely gobbling from their roosts in the trees by now. We need to get into the field before the birds fly down for their morning ritual. We are almost at our destination when the headlights turn a corner and catch the most disheartening sight possible. The red glow of another car’s tail lights parked where we should be. We curse our bad luck and wish them good luck in the same sentence.
A quick check of the map shows a different, promising section of forest a short distance away. The engine of the truck rumbles to life again, and we tear down the dirt road, racing the inevitable sunrise. As we drive on, the track has become covered in snow - a far cry from the traditional green grass and sunny days that represent spring turkey season, but at least we can see we are the first here, the snow is undisturbed.
We wind deeper into the woods until we finally stop at a pond. We leave the truck and stand with the doors open, letting our entrance into the woods settle. As the dark morning turns to a dull grey, we strain to hear the telltale gobble from roosting turkeys, but all we hear are ducks and geese splashing and sounding off on the nearby pond.
I throw on a tattered but tried and tested hunting vest, stick my hen decoy, Pauley-Anne in the game pouch, grab my shotgun and take my first step into this year’s spring turkey woods. Creeping through the wet forest, we chance upon a clearing. I let out an owl hoot to hear if any turkey will shock-gobble and there it is, the sound we have driven so far to hear. We strain to make it out, but the unmistakable gobble sounds off again, maybe a couple of hundred of yards away. The bird must still be on the roost. We try and pinpoint the call and quicken our pace. We stop again and I owl hoot once more, but this time only silence hangs in the air. Suddenly Jared points deep into the woods toward a broad set of wings flying right at us. My heart races, but the bird flying towards us is no turkey. Instead, a great horned owl perches on a branch nearby and stares at us, investigating the source of the strange hoots.
Moving further into the woods, once more we catch the sound of a hen turkey clucking from thick cover, but the clucks end fast, and we never catch sight of the bird. The sun is burning off some fog now, but a chill still hangs in the morning air. It is not long before we reach the border of the woods, the trees open up to pasture and agriculture land, and a herd of elk lay in the sun chewing grass, and whitetail deer roam the periphery of the field, but no turkeys. It’s almost 9 am now, and we still haven’t heard another gobble. Walking a deer path along a fence, we can see the turkey tracks and droppings, we know they're here, but it offers little in the way of consolation with no live birds spotted thus far.
We move down a steep, wooded embankment on the border of the pasture land, and the coveted sound finally breaks our sullen silence. As my mind races to make sure it's an actual gobble, all I need to do is look at Jared’s face. His grin is as big as it’s been all morning and his fist pumps tell me all I need to know. There are turkeys near. Silently and slowly, we walk along the pasture and hear one more set of gobbles. Multiple birds are in the field near us. Three adolescent males, or Jakes. Jared has his sights firmly set on a mature Tom, but I am more than happy to fill my oven with a Jake. The terrain doesn’t serve us well, with private land to our left and a steep incline to our right. We opt to crawl up the slope to not be seen by the incredibly sharp eyesight of the birds. All in whispers now, we set up Pauley-Anne along with Jared’s Jake decoy.
We crawl farther up the slope and find two trees perfect for the setup. We pull camouflage masks over our face to prevent the birds, better than eagle eyesight, from seeing our faces. I shoulder my shotgun and let out a series of hen clucks using my natural voice. I’m dismayed that there is no gobble response to my clucks, but my spirit lifts when I spot thee black bodies waddling their way up the hill. I control my breathing, and my anticipation as the trio march closer.
Eighty yards with no hang-ups. Sixty yards and their pace continues up the slope. Forty yards and they see the decoys and slow down. They are either wary of the setup, or irate at the outsider Jake courting the hen. Thirty yards and they veer off course, around the decoys. I don’t dare trail them with my gun barrel, knowing their keen vision will catch the movement. Instead, I wait.
I haven’t hunted with Jared for very long, but when he gives several clucks from his mouth call, I know he’s signalling me to shoot. The lead bird freezes, I swing my barrel and pull the trigger. The sound of the shot shatters the silence of the forest, and the flailing of feather amongst two confused birds signifies success. I pump another shell into the shotgun and make sure the bird is down. Jared looks over excitedly, and the two remaining birds make a hasty return into the dense woods. Hopefully, today’s lesson in survival sees them through to another spring.
Jared and I hug and celebrate our first turkey hunt together. Walking down to pick up the bird, we are already replaying the hunt to one another. I pick up the bird and can't help but admire the iridescent greens, blues and purples on the feathers. It’s not a large bird, but it's more than worthy of gracing the dinner table. After a challenging autumn of deer hunting, I was finally taking home some meat and a new memory for my headlights to reflect on for opening day next year.
Another spring in the turkey woods has provided one more opportunity for me to live life the way I enjoy it. In the woods, part of nature, with a new hunting partner by my side.
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