It’s mid-May, and I’m still sitting under the same oak tree waiting for the dark purple light in the east to begin gradually succumbing to the pale green and blue of a mid-spring morning.
I’m waiting on one of the wisest old tom turkeys to give away his position by proclaiming his dominance over the foolish jakes that rush in to the first mating call of a hen and learn the most important lesson of their lives. Where fools rush in, lives come to a sudden end. But the old Boss sits in his tree and watches as his flock flies down, creating raucous thundering wingbeats, breaking branches and cackling on their descent. He knows that those cautious hens and immature jakes will lead the group with courage and a sense of strategy much like in chess. Always protect your king. Send in the rooks, the pawns and the bishops, if necessary, but protect his Majesty at all costs.
He lets the hens lead the flock toward the strangely unfamiliar clucks of this renegade bird flaunting her desire to breed. But something about that cluck and purr are not a familiar intonation. Her vocalizations aren’t in tune with the same familiar flock that communicates with him day in and day out, warning him of predators and purring to soothe the flock when it’s safe to feed. The hen he hears seems to speak with an alien dialect.
He will let the hens march forward to see if the outsider is the real deal or if those sounds are being made by a hunter with a box or slate call. Maybe a latex mouth diaphragm model.
Most of the young males, called jakes, have been fooled by the mistaken call of amore and wound up going home on a sling, slung over a hunter’s shoulder. But not the Boss. He’s seen this game played out for several years now and isn’t suckered into his demise by following the whims of his raging hormones. Like a happily married man, he recognizes temptation and restrains his impulses, even though following them are imperative in maintaining the succession of his flock.
So, he waits. When all the birds have flown down to the forest floor and begun peacefully clucking and purring, signifying that the landing area is safe, he finally launches off his bark-encrusted throne 20 feet up in the old pine. On his landing, he gives one powerful gobble, letting everyone know his Majesty has landed and they can go about their daily routine.
The hens lead the way across the flat area carpeted with last year’s acorns and fresh insects buzzing in the low forest grasses. They begin to head toward the field at the bottom of the hill, where the farmer has left silage in a pile over the winter. Hens first. Then jakes.
When they reach the field edge, a gentle putt-putt-putt comes from above somewhere in the shrubbery. The two remaining jakes race to the call, unaware of the hunter concealed in 3-D camouflage from head to toe. The Boss stays behind, watching the overzealous young birds race to their certain death.
But no gun is fired. There is no resounding “boom” from the old shotgun. The jakes look left and right, then again.
“Where is this hen that is so ready to breed?” They cluck and search, each of them desperately trying to be the one who finds her.
After five minutes of searching for the imaginary hen, they get frustrated and begin to bicker with each other. Suddenly a fight breaks out. Rearing up on their scaly legs, they jump at one another with their juvenile spurs facing their opponent’s breasts. The fight intensifies, and they begin to purr loudly as if they are cursing at each other.
The hunter sits tight, watching the show. He’s not there to harvest a juvenile. For the seasoned hunter knows that only after the jakes have been unsuccessful, without being shot, will the King saunter up to inspect the hen with the foreign accent.
The hunter waits patiently with his gun raised and aimed at the tom 60 yards away. He knows that to have to raise the gun as he is walking toward him is a big mistake. The king begins to move slowly toward the hidden hunter. He is closing the distance. The king steps up on top of a small hummock of grass raising his red, white and blue head. He thrusts his head forward, swinging his snood over his beak with authority and screams at the top of his lungs, commanding this ghost hen to show herself. The hunter sights down the raised ridge of his barrel, centering the bead on the big tom’s head, 40 yards and closing.
He slips the safety off and slides his finger to the front of the trigger. As he is about to pull the trigger back, the tom gobbles again, louder than before.
But wait a minute. Have I fallen asleep again? Was that gobble real? My eyes bolt open and a large male bird with a thick beard and a bright red head is walking away from me to join his flock at the feed pile at the bottom of the hill.
I exhale deeply and admit that, once again, I will be eating “tag soup” this season. So that the day is not a total loss, I climb up the hill and manage to harvest a good basket of ramps. On the way home, I stop by my favorite local fishing hole and pick a batch of fiddleheads for the rainbow trout I’m “planning on” catching this afternoon.
(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)