The big bird. Photo by Bradley Carlton.

By Bradley Carleton

I watched him marching across the back field, chest puffed up like a proud warrior returning from a victorious battle. His long wings dragged on both sides, and he strutted with all the bravissimo of a young matador. Behind him he carried the flag of bravery, his tail fanned out to intimidate all who dared challenge his youthful exuberance.

He had obviously just returned from a battle to the south. His beard dragged on the verdant spring grasses as he marched to the north end of the field and into the small sugar woods where forsythias had begun to bloom. As he disappeared into the thick shrubbery, I wondered where he might roost tonight.

I tilled the garden and worked the rich compost into the soil. I broke a good sweat and drank sumac tea to quench my thirst. Soon dusk would fall, and I would put on my camo gear and sneak into the spring woods.

The fist peeper sounded off at 7:32 p.m., and from there the cacophony of nightfall sounds built to a crescendo. After the sun set at 7:57 p.m., it was a full 20 minutes before the evening gobbles began. At 7:58, he began calling incessantly, proclaiming his territory to all the hens in the area, letting them know that he was there to govern over them and keep them from straying out of his harem. I slid out of the woods without breaking a stick, using a red bulb headlamp.

It was a fitful night of sleep. I knew where I had to be set up in the dark before dawn. Again, I would have to sneak into the crisp spring woods two hours before dawn to get a good seat for the morning’s performance.

I rolled over in bed at 3:05 a.m. and muttered an expletive to myself: no use trying to sleep for another 10 minutes. I gently crawled out of bed so as not to disturb my sleeping bride. I got dressed, using the same red headlamp, and as I walked out the bedroom door, I heard my wife whisper, “Good luck!” Really? I thought she was asleep! “Thank you.” I whispered back. As I arrived at the end of the old dirt road that leads to the sugarhouse path, I was careful not to slam my truck door. I pushed it shut gently, listening for the click of the latch.

I entered the woods breathing through my nose to try to calm myself down so that I would not be out of breath by the time I arrived at my chosen hide. I set out my hen decoy and placed a young jake decoy behind her to make it look as if she were being dogged by some ambitious youngster who would challenge my boy in the tree. I cut some young native shrubs about a half-inch around at the base and placed a dozen of them in front of me. Then I nestled into the indented trunk of the maple that faced the oak with all the old white acorns on the ground.

I sat quietly for almost two hours before the eastern sky begin backlighting the pines. At the very first sign of dark blue and purple in the sky, it began. A loud thunderous scream came from the pines. Game on!

I started out our conversation with some super soft tree clucks—the kind of early morning loving coos between newly married couples. He answered back with a resounding verbal announcement. After about 10 minutes of these sweet dialogues, I got a little louder with a two-note cackle, to which he again responded with a deep throated proclamation. We carry on this dialogue for about 15 minutes, and then I decide that I need to get him out of the tree and walking toward me.

I take out my salted wing from last year’s bird and beat it loudly against my thigh, cackling at the same time in a descending vibrato. This is my go-to call: powerful fly down, no sound is returned. He is thinking about where this hen he just heard had landed 80 yards away. A minute later I hear his powerful wingbeat and branches snapping off the pine tree that was his roost.

As soon as he hits the ground he screams “Where are you?” in “Turkish.” He screams again and I answer him with a loud descending series of clucks with a finishing purr. A moment later, as if he had calculated exactly the GPS coordinates of my answer, he screams again. I answer again with a strong, loud clucking. Then suddenly, the conversation ends. There is no more to talk about. He is looking for me. He is using his extraordinary vision to detect even the slightest movement.

An early mosquito lands on my outstretched forearm, holding my shotgun balanced on my knee bent in a 90-degree upright angle. The mosquito is my nemesis in this moment. I cannot slap him away because I will be discovered by the jake looking for me. So, I quietly pump my fist, pushing blood into my forearm to feed the marauder and fill him up, so he leaves before this bird comes any closer.

Now I see him! The turkey is about 60 yards out behind a fallen pine. He is strutting back and forth, deciding on how to get around this obstacle between him and his intended love, my hen decoy. He is very upset to see another jake pursuing what he has claimed for his own harem. Finally, he gobbles vociferously and jumps up onto the trunk of the pine. He cranes his head from side to side trying to determine how he will massacre this young upstart who is chasing his newfound love.

Jumping down off the pine, he begins to run toward the decoy, intent on a fight to the death. Just 10 yards out from the deceiver he pauses and puffs up his chest again and spits at the decoy. He is within range now: 25 yards out. The bead at the end of my barrel is placed just under his bright red head collared with a bright baby blue and white. He sticks his head out to scream again but is met with the echo of my 12 gauge.

Tonight, my wife and I will honor this magnificent beast with maple and teriyaki smoked wild turkey breast. In all of nature, there is none grander than the give-away bird to bring us a sense of connection. Of a centuries-old dialogue with the Great Spirit.

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