When the phone rang at 4:15 in the morning, I knew it was bad news. Those phone calls mean someone either passed away or that someone had just had a baby. I didn’t know anyone who was pregnant.
What I did know, however, was that my mother was approaching the inevitable end of a four-year battle with bone cancer. With recovery not an option and treatments being more than she could endure, she had recently chosen to cease treatment and had been admitted into a local hospice center, where things were certainly not looking good. When I heard my father’s voice on the other end of the phone, I knew to expect the next words. Mom had gone in the night, peacefully and with Dad at her bedside. We talked briefly about the plans for the day, and agreed to meet later in the morning as a family. I presume Dad then called my brother and anyone else he was going to relay the news to while my wife and I shared a quiet cry.
Later that day, after collecting all of Mom’s personal items from her hospice room and thanking the staff at Hospice Simcoe (an organization that by the way should be top priority for any and all charitable donations going forward…they are simply amazing) we gathered back at the house as a family and just reflected on the past and future. I can’t recall if it was me or Dad that broached the issue, but somewhere along the line we agreed that a turkey hunt the next morning would be therapeutic; if for no other reason than to have some solitude in the woods to reflect on everything we had been through both individually and as a family. Mom had been adamant in her final days that life should go on, and like most in her situation I presume, she only wanted the lives of the people she loved to be full of joy and the things they loved. She was a miracle that way. Although she never hunted, she made it a top priority that her husband and her kids had every chance to partake in the tradition, primarily because (as she said) she saw that we loved it and she saw how close it made the family.
So with that it was settled and I pulled into my parent’s driveway at 4:45am the next day. Dad was already outside waiting with his gear and we hustled down the road to where we going to hunt. The faintest sliver of dim daylight was starting to creep across the eastern horizon, but it was as dank as possible under the canopy of hardwoods and evergreens. I had heard some gobblers in this chunk of woods twice before in the season, and I had laid eyes on the two long-bearded culprits the week before when they appeared out a misty, drizzly morning and skirted my decoy and calling at 100 yards. They had been with two hens, and even though I pleaded with them at first and then subsequently tried to start a fight with the boss hen, they weren’t having anything to do with me that day. Now I was back, and although in a completely different frame of mind, I was still hoping to take one of those tom gobblers back to my oven.
In the pre-dawn I set up facing north and with a gentle breeze blowing across my face I watched the field and forest edges in front of me turn from grey to silver to gold as the sun crept up to my right. It was a calm, still morning and even though there was a slight breeze, there was nary a leaf to rustle: much of the forest was still in the early stages of budding green. At a quarter to six in the morning, I snapped a nice photo of my setup before starting my tree-calling and fly down sequence.
The whines, purrs, clucks, and yelps from my slate wafted out over the field and the acoustics of my set up were near-perfect. As I stepped up my calling into fly-down cackles and some plain yelps, I could hear the slightest echo from the trees in front of me, and as though my calling was nature’s alarm clock, the woods around me sprung to life. Almost on cue the crows hammered in the distance, mallards chatted and gabbled on an unseen pond, red-winged blackbirds serenaded me, a pair of geese circled low in front, and then to the right and far back behind me I heard a gobbler. Then I heard the other. I couldn’t stifle the smile: those two longbeards were still in this block. Ten minutes after that I heard soft steps on the trail twenty steps behind me, and I put both hands on my gun, hoping to shortly be drawing a bead on a red turkey head. I purred and softly yelped to my unseen quarry and was shocked at the response I received. Instead of a chorus of gobbling turkeys, a deer began snorting to my left. This was coincidentally my downwind side. Seconds later two deer popped out into the field at thirty-five yards and continued to look my way and snort at me for a full two minutes. At the same time another deer popped up on my right and trotted out to stand broadside in one of my shooting lanes, where the handsome animal stared directly at me and stomped its foot repeatedly. Eventually the trio of whitetails grew bored of this and moved off down the field, but I was certain that I was ‘made’ to any turkeys in the area. I cutt hard on my mouth call and did some aggressive yelping. Not hearing a response, I was sure that the deer had spooked the birds and that I was just pissing in the wind…figuratively that is.
Feeling busted, I just sat there listening to the wilderness and thinking about Mom. Life had already changed so much since she had been diagnosed in 2009, and my oldest son who had been born that same year had grown up into a boy that had known a grandmother that couldn’t play with him, couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t even bathe or put him to bed. That she loved him utterly was obvious, and she spoiled him even more as a way of compensating…which was fine. For me, I was struck by the unfairness of the whole thing, and not feeling sorry for myself but for the life’s potential that the disease had taken from my mother, I admittedly went rapidly through several stages of grief all at once. Simultaneously I was sad, angry, and utterly exhausted. I shed a few soft tears, and tried to make sense of it all, the whole time knowing that at the very least my mother’s suffering, which at times had been intensely difficult, had come to an end. Life going forward was going to be even more drastically changed; my youngest son, just barely a year old, would not have any impactful memories of my mother at all, and knowing that had torn her up. She had often in the last weeks of her life ordered me to make sure my youngest son knew how much she loved him, knew what kind of person she was, and knew her story. Both my wife and I had promised her over and over again that we wouldn’t shirk our duties on that front.
Now I can’t pretend to know how long it was that I sat there like that or where in my mind I was when it happened, but I casually looked to my left and was shocked to see three turkeys running, or more accurately, sprinting across the field at a distance in excess of two-hundred yards. They were making for the tree line opposite to me, and instinctively I just cackled and yelped as loud as I could on my Woodhaven Copperhead mouth call. All three stopped like they had hit a wall and two of the three gobbled. It was those longbeards, and at first glance they seemed to be accompanied by a hen. I yelped and cutt again and the toms went into strut. Instantly, all the anger and grief went onto a shelf and all I could think about was drawing those tricksters in to my gun barrel.
But again I was to be outwitted by a bird that is utterly perfect in its wariness. Despite having a brain the size of two almonds, both of those birds did not like the looks of the setup. Maybe it was that my decoy wasn’t moving, maybe it was because the calling was emanating from a thicket twenty yards away from the fraudulent hen, or maybe they had just played this game a couple of more times than I had. Whatever the reason, the two toms strutted and gobbled and spun perpendicular to my shotgun bead at a distance of eighty or ninety yards, and once they reached a hilltop directly opposite me they just stood there hammering double gobbles and looking gorgeous in the rising sun. They shone like iridescent beacons on top of that knoll and for a few moments I was oblivious to the other turkey that was with them. But then I caught it moving and with a slow tilt of my head I could see that it was not a hen. It was a jake that had been running with the two toms, and he was sneaking in closer and closer to my decoy. Each time the gobblers would hammer out a call the jake would stop and look their way before taking another three or four slow steps my way. Deciding that the gobblers would soon run this juvenile pretender off, I resolved on the spot to lure the jake in. Yelping and clucking softly I coaxed him to within sixty yards, at which point he gobbled like a donkey and broke into a half-strut run for my decoy. I took my eyes off him and looked in anticipation to the two toms…surely they would be making a beeline for my set up now. Shockingly they hadn’t moved from their spot on the knoll.
The jake meanwhile had made a large circle around my setup and was now approaching from my left at a distance of what I thought was about forty yards. He was alternating between half-strut and full periscope and I made his stub of a beard out against the background. Four steps later he entered my shooting lane with his head upright and angled slightly forward. My 870 barked and I saw his head whip back around behind his left wing as the load of Federal #6 shot carried out its assignment. He began to flop and shed feathers and as the longbeards made a cackling, hasty exit to stage left I strode out to retrieve and tag him. It was a longer walk than I had anticipated and at forty-eight steps I had my boot heel on his neck. My trusted 870 had sent the Federal Mag-Shok #6’s through an HS Undertaker, and that trio had more than done the job. I counted more than a dozen holes in the bird’s head and wattles, and when he was plucked there were another dozen pellet holes under the feathers in his neck. I slung the bird over my shoulder, went back to my seat under a tree, and affixed my tag to the turkey’s leg. I sighed and exhaled a deep breath. Did I feel better? Not really. Killing a turkey doesn’t bring my Mom back. But the kill is the measure of success that for better or worse all hunters are gauged against, and I was certainly satisfied with the hunt. To say there was a maelstrom of emotions would be an understatement. I still don’t understand everything I felt in those moments after tagging that bird.
Now before I go any further, I can hear all sorts of scoffing experts and purists preparing diatribes and emails, but let me pre-empt you by saying the following. I hunt for meat first and the fact that I have some wild turkey meat to enjoy more than offsets your misgivings that I shot a juvenile, or that maybe I further educated those two cagey longbeards by whacking their pal while they watched on, or that I could have been more patient and perhaps those two strutters would have come in after all. I don’t hunt for ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybes’…I hunt turkeys. A legal gobbler is just that, and now he resides comfortably trussed and picked in my freezer. You go ahead and write your objections down and send them my way…I assure you I’ll give them all the due diligence I afford to the other baseless objections forwarded by the critics in my life.
I met up with Dad and although he said that he had hoped it was a longbeard over my shoulder, he was still smiling and eager to take pictures and hear the story. Dad has never been above shooting a tasty jake either. He had heard the gobbling, heard the shot, and had eventually made his way towards me when he was sure that the gobblers were not headed his way. We took some pictures and in half-whispers recounted the story before heading home. Dad was still itching to do some more hunting but I was done for the day. We can only shoot one bird a day in Ontario, and my son’s pre-school fundraiser was less than hour away. Dad planned to head out to the county forests of Tiny Township, but I needed to get back to a shower.
I dropped Dad off at home and called my wife to let her know the story because like most hunters’ wives she delights in hearing the embellished recounting of my exploits in the wilderness. Now my wife could be described as more ‘spiritual’ than me, or whatever term you want to use to describe someone who believes in heaven and the after-life, and she is utterly certain that everything that happened that morning was orchestrated by my Mom. Now I don’t know about that, but then again I don’t know everything either. Arguably it was one of the best hunts I’ve ever been on. Everything was essentially perfect from the setting, to the sights and sounds, to the unlikely appearance of my quarry, down to the ultimate pull of the trigger. All will be etched on my memory so long as I have one. I suppose the question remains; will it be memorable because Mom made it that way, or will it memorable because I make it that way to honour Mom? I guess it doesn’t matter because as with all matters of faith and spirituality and like all things associated with life and death there is a mystery in it. And usually by the time you get to know the secret (if there is one) you’re gone and you are unable to share it.
But for all the moments, both timeless and bittersweet, that lead up to that jake turkey lying at my feet, the most important is that I was there because before Mom died she told me I had to keep doing what I loved above all else. Because oftentimes doing what you love and honouring the wishes of those who went before you is the only way to get through the hard times.