Okay, I think we’ve really had enough of the April showers thing. I’m ready for the May flowers, and turkeys, and ramps, and fiddleheads, and nettles, and dandelion greens … and turkeys.
As I write this column, I am fighting to stay awake. It is now 12:30 a.m. and I am hosting my friend, Jesse Lawyer, of Burlington, who is a 100 percent Native Abenaki (which I am sure he will correct me when he sees this piece, that the politically correct spelling of his tribe is “Wabanaki” but I am only recently educated so, for you, my reader, I will “fall on the sword” for both of us.)
Jesse is the chef at Sweetwaters restaurant in downtown Burlington and is one of the most talented wild-game chefs that I have met. He will be in my driveway in just three hours. I have offered to take him turkey hunting tomorrow morning, which seems odd, that an old white man with a bad hip will be guiding a Native American who hasn’t ever hunted “His Majesty, the King of Spring.” We are both a tad out of shape having a bit more in our paunches than we should.
We will head up the mountain, watching each other carefully, monitoring our breathing and taking as many breaks as we need to catch our breath. It will be pitch black as the moon will be at 7 percent waxing crescent with heavy cloud cover. We will reach the top of the ridge around 4:15 a.m. and camouflage ourselves with 3D “leafy-flage” suits, supplemented with small shrubbery clippings stuck in the ground in front of us. We will have our backs to a wide tree. And then we will sit in complete silence for the next 45 minutes.
Having scouted the property for the last three evening and mornings, the two full fan mature toms should begin their proclamations of dominance at about 5:05am — if they gobble at all. I have prepared Jesse by letting him know that even with all the scouting, studying and practice calling, we should curb our optimism to accommodate the reality that none of this plan may work. This isn’t the supermarket where you can walk to the meat department and order up your “free range” bird. This is the real thing. The Hunt. The pursuit of something much deeper than just shooting a big bird.
Hunting the eastern wild turkey tethers us to the land, the sun, moon, planets and the spirit of the bird itself. We will sit quietly (likely my eyes will be closed, and I will be “hunting with my ears”) listening for that first valley-shattering gobble of a boss gobbler screaming on the roost.
From that point on, we will begin a series of calling, starting with a gentle “tree yelp” of the hen still on the roost. When, and if, the tom answers back, we will begin the dialogue that will attempt to convince him that this hen we are imitating is sexy enough for him to consider leaving his harem to come to us. This is exceedingly difficult. The nature of the wild male turkey is to call his hens to him.
He will fly down with a loud cackle and when he hits the forest floor, begin to gather his girls around him. The way nature is supposed to work is that he calls the hens to him. But we are trying to convince him to leave them and visit us. For the next 45-60 minutes we will communicate with him, trying to seduce him away from his flock. Our decoys will be out in front of us, off to one side, so that when, and if, he does come in, he will not be staring at us just beyond the decoys.
If it works as planned, he will try sneaking up and strutting to get our hen decoy to come to him. This is where the jake, or immature male, comes into play. We have a jake decoy set up behind the hen, which portrays the illusion that the tom has competition. If it works according to plan, he will become infuriated at the young jake. His head will burn fire red, with a robin’s egg blue around his neck and a white at the base. His “snood” (that is the dangly piece of flesh that hangs over his beak,) which depending on the length of this horribly ugly appendage, determines his dominance in the flock. Jakes will recognize his superiority and back down, submissively letting the tom breed the hen. Sometimes, if there are a few jakes in the flock, they will try rush in before the tom gets there. But Jesse and I will wait this one out.
I will call aggressively until I get no return answer. That means he is on his way into the spread. The most effective call at this point in the game is silence. This strategy will aggravate the tom, because he must search out this ready-to-breed hen with his eyes, and as she won’t answer him, it drives him to madness. This psychological game is played out until either he spots us and turns tail to go back to his flock, or, if we’re lucky, he will come running in. He will stop in a few yards to strut, spit and drum. These are breeding sounds that I have witnessed fully grown men use after too many cocktails in the bars of downtown Burlington many years ago.
But for now, Jesse and I will keep a clear head and watch this magnificent bird dance to the ballad of amore that has played out for centuries. And if, the native “give away” bird presents himself to us in a manner that the Great Spirit would offer to us as a gift, we will participate in the most ancient relationship between man and Mother Earth and accept this gift with honor and gratitude. Blessed be the beasts of the Earth.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.