Bradley Carleton

The big bird. Photo by Bradley Carlton.

I woke up late, exhausted by another week of slogging through the mire as a slave of commerce. My heart and my mind were already in the woods, but my body required extra rest. I’ve never been one to sleep in when it comes to hunting or fishing, but this time was different. My wife had been out riding her horse the day before and told me of a big turkey that flushed out of the field in front of her and flew up into the trees, spooking her and her equine partner. Rousting out of bed at 9—late for a hunting expedition, since all hunters know that peak encounter times occur most often at dawn and dusk—I lazily dressed myself in camo and headed to the woods.

I clucked every 100 yards to see if I could elicit an answer. Nothing. I hiked back into the swamp and set up my decoys to sit and listen. I crawled under a wild tangle of shrubbery and leaned uncomfortably against the base. I let out a loud series of clucks, and far off in the distance I heard him. He gobbled viciously but must have been about a half mile away. I picked up my decoys and packed them into my turkey vest. I hiked through a wet swamp, my feet getting wetter each time a hummock gave way to the water underneath.

Turkey hunting is a fascinating means of dialoguing with an animal. In nature it is the hen that calls out to the tom, “Where are you?” The tom will gobble back giving away his location, to which she is obligated to pursue him. In hunting turkey, the goal is to get a tom to do exactly the opposite of what nature has taught him. The hunter has to convince the tom that he is a hen ready to breed and is not going to seek him out but begs and pleads with him to come find her. This makes the whole pursuit quite difficult.

This particular bird was on posted property, across a small stream, up a hill and all the way to the end of a long field. I had to call very convincingly to attract him past these obstacles—which, by the way, is also against their nature.

I found some dry ground on the edge of the swamp and stopped. I looked at my watch. 11:30. I called again and knew I had but a half hour to complete my mission because the closing time each day in May is high noon. I could feel my heart beating heavily in my chest, blood pulsing through the veins in my arms. For the next half hour, I gave it all I had. I clucked, purred, putted and screamed my romantic desire to the whole forest. Each time, at the end of a monologue, he would vociferously reply that he wanted very badly to meet me. This dance went on for 20 minutes and each time he answered he was a little closer.

I looked at my watch again. 11:55. This game was nearly over. Just like the old Westerns, this drama played out with the deadline approaching quickly. Then suddenly he stopped communicating. This meant one thing. He was seeking visual verification of this hot young hen.

Then, behind a fallen pine, I saw the full fan. This was a big bird – monarch of the woods. He strutted back and forth behind the tree when a hen popped out from behind the root ball. She took three steps forward and turned to the fully fanned tom. He took one step toward her. The hen took three more steps forward, putting inquisitively. Again, she turned to him and he took one more step forward. He was now behind the root ball of the fallen pine. I lowered my head to the stock of my shotgun and took a deep breath. I cocked my wrist to one side to look at my watch. Being legal is in my nature. This could play out either way. 11:58. I looked back up at the hen as she took three more steps and turned to the tom to give him the okay that the coast was clear.

His bright red and blue head thrust forward from behind the tree and I placed the bead of my shotgun on him. For one moment, we were hopelessly entwined in the dance of life. He, the monarch, and I the peasant in his kingdom. We joined breaths as I pulled the trigger. The echo of the shotgun bounced off the distant hills in the valley and the king lay still on the forest floor. I looked at my watch. 11:59. I walked over to him and kneeled to pray. “Great Spirit, thank you for presenting me with this beautiful being. I promise to honor his life and share his grace and majesty with those deserving of his glory. Thank you, Great Spirit. Thank you, God.”

The walk home was a long one, and at one point a tear of remorse and gratitude rolled down my cheek. I let myself feel it track down my cheek to the side of my mouth, where I touched it with my tongue and felt its salty sweetness. This is life and I am a part of all that is.

Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.