A Turkey … and a Prayer
By Dr. Harold C. Lyon, Jr.
As I came into the back yard, the big bird slung over my shoulder, still warm from his last quest, I heard a door slam, and the woman of the house, followed by her cat, came running out to me with a look of tragedy on her face. “You’ve shot the wrong turkey,” she cried! “That one was my cat’s friend!”
How did I get myself into this dilemma? Even more pressing, how did apparent disaster transform into something good?
This last spring I was up at 4 AM each morning for the last week of the New Hampshire Turkey season, having to travel 5 miles by boat from the Lake Winnipesaukee island cottage where I live and then a short car drive to Gunstock Mountain. My work began at 8 AM and I had to get my turkey in time to get off the mountain with him by 7:30 AM at the latest. Though I had several adrenalin pumping duels with big gobblers that week, each hung up out beyond 40 yards, strutting just out of range. 30 yards is my absolute max range, even with my 12 gauge Magnum 32 inch Browning goose gun, which I have used for turkey hunting for over 30 years.
Last season I dueled in vain with the “Swamp Gobbler” for a week. He’d always roost in a tall pine along the edge of a big swamp, never gobbling until on the ground at sunrise. He’d faithfully answer my calls, but skirt the swamp in the other direction from me as if ignoring me. I finally set up on an ambush route along the swamp, and he’d go around me by 100 yards or so, as if he knew my plan! To go two years – or longer -- in a row without shooting a gobbler should not be humiliating, giving the wariness of wild turkeys, but some friends who know I was once a State turkey calling champ, kept asking me with smug looks, “Haven’t got him yet?” And the fact that one of their 12-year old daughters bagged a 22 pounder on her first day out, didn’t help me feeling like a “has been.”
Beautiful exhibitionist that a mature gobbler is, each one who responded to my sweet diaphragm hen mating yelps this year, seemed to find a sun-lit stage in the forest, stop, strut, spit, and gobble to me, pleading “Come this last 50 yards to me, my little hen! Aren’t I a gorgeous hunk?” Yes they were golden bronze beauties! And a sight like this is often all the reward I need. Like fishing is not about catching fish, neither is turkey hunting all about the kill. They had not been gobbling on the roost at all at night, when I would go out to locate them, and they seemed not to gobble in the mornings until on the ground.
The abundance of wild turkeys is one of the great wild game management success stories in New Hampshire, thanks largely to New Hampshire biologist, Ted Walski, a wise and dedicated man who practically lives and breathes for this magnificent big game bird. Ted has been responsible for the New Hampshire wild turkey restoration program since its inception in the 1980s and has worked tireless in behalf of turkey transplants from then, when only small flocks existed in the south western corner of the State, until now where turkeys are plentiful even much farther north than anyone expected.
Having successfully hunted them for many years in Maryland and Virginia, I also know that hunting them in New Hampshire is more difficult than it is in the southern states, where they gobble more frequently while on the roost. I often ”roost” a bird in the south by going out at dusk and owl-hooting or crow calling to stimulate gobbling and to locate where they are roosting. Unless someone disturbs them on the roost, you can count on them being in that same tree the next morning. With a little luck and good camouflage, you can sneak in a few hundred yards from them to set up and call them to you once they do their morning fly-down off the roost.
Sure, sometimes in the Granite State you can get turkeys to gobble from the roost – especially younger ones who have not learned better. But the incidence of roost gobbling in New Hampshire is significantly less than it is in the south. It’s just not usually as easy to locate roosted birds in New Hampshire as it is in Virginia! Why?
My theory is that we have an abundance of “Fisher Cats” who are able to quietly climb a tree at night and take a turkey right off the roost. Pound for pound, the Fisher is a ferocious predator and I’ve heard it said that if they were 20 pounds heavier, they’d likely attack man. I believe our New England wild turkeys have adapted to this danger and learned not to gobble on the roost – which is not a danger from predators for “red neck” birds from the south.
This season, all my coaxing with sexy yelps, putts and purrs would not get their egos to cease playing hard to get enough to approach that last 20 yards. Were they vain, wanting the hen to come half-way? Or was my set-up and calling not exactly to their liking? I never know the answer to these kinds of questions, though they often plague me on reflective sleepless winter nights.
It was the last day of the season, a Tuesday morning before work, when I finally had success. I had asked the older couple for permission to hunt their land on the mountain behind their house, where I had heard some gobbling several mornings. After some cautious interrogation of me, my background and habits, they granted me permission.
Two days later as I hit my car auto-lock remote at 5:30 AM and it beeped, I heard an answer with a clear, “GOOOBBBBLLLE!” I pussy-footed it fast in a big quarter-mile circle behind where I thought him to be, set out a decoy, settled in against a pine wide enough to protect my back-side, pulled down my camo face mask and waited for the sky to lighten. Birds began their good mornings and I softly tree yelped and he thundered an answered from high on the roost, much closer than I expected, about 100 yards away. I was lucky not to have spooked him coming in so close to his roost! I kept quiet for some time, knowing that he had already shot an azimuth to me and then softly “putted” a few times. I noted a small open area to my left and figured that would be his landing strip... and it was, within minutes.
I heard his wing beats and like a big chopper, he glided in, hit the forest floor 100 yards away, gobbled again, and started toward me. One more soft series of yelps and he was definitely on the way. I mounted my shotgun when his head was behind a tree and when he stepped out, aiming at his head and neck: KERBOOM! That was it. He went right down.
I scrambled to him, fast, like a line-backer on a fumble, a practice I had learned from losing several gobblers which flopped around looking fatally shot, but which had resurrected and sprinted away to freedom. But he was mine, and after admiring his golden plumage, modest beard, spurs, and giving a little thanks to him and our Maker, I quickly performed a last rite I always used with big game which I learned in Germany where I have hunted since passing their formidable license exam 53 years ago. I cut a small sprig of fir and inserted it into his mouth – the last bite or “Letztebitzen.” This seemed a perfect ending of the season!
I packed up my gear and tossed the warm twenty–pound bird – a comforting feeling – over my shoulder and headed back toward the couple’s farm and my car. As I came through the back yard, the old lady came dashing out in her night gown, crying that I had shot her favorite one! I was taken aback, not sure what to say. She looked at the Tom and said, “You shot him while he was eating!” I stammered and tried to explain about the “Last Bite.” “It’s a last rite to show him final respect…” as I explained how I had learned to give the last bite. She looked at the turkey and then at me. I didn’t know if she was going to attack me…or run away. Suddenly she asked, “Will you pray with me over him?” Some what relieved, I stammered, “Of Course….”
I laid my hands on this beautiful bird and she put her hands on mine. While honoring the turkey, I prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for this magnificent bird and for providing him for me. Thank you for giving us dominion over all your wondrous creatures that we might use them to nourish our bodies. Amen.” She immediately brightened up and even smiled, and began stroking the turkey’s “friend,” her begrieved cat. She told me she had a premonition the night before that he was going to be killed this day and her cat knew it too! When she heard my shot, she knew her premonition had come true. She's not anti-hunter and told me she grew up on a farm and was always in tears when they killed the calves she loved. She is a lady who knows the importance of grieving a loss – a wisdom few of us possess!
I got to work just in time, still in my camos and my boss spotted the turkey. He showed him off to everyone, even bringing his 2 yr old son and wife down to see it. I put ice in his body cavity and hung him in a cool building until after work when I took this holy bird back to the island to pluck and smoke on my smoker, to serve as a delicate offering for my family who visited a few days later. The delicious firm meat of the wild turkey, fattened up from acorns, seeds, grasshoppers, and other natural foods, instead of hormones – especially accompanied by the story of the woman who prayed over him with me – was a much more memorable feast than a “Butterball” bird from the supermarket!