This story comes from Thomas B. of Tomah, Wis. He writes about a hunt with his son, Andrew.
I shut the truck off and we sat in silence for a moment as our eyes adjusted to the predawn darkness. I knew Andrew was excited for his first turkey hunt but I also sensed that he was a very nervous 10 year old boy, not knowing what to expect.
I took his hand and prayed aloud thanks to Him for allowing me to be here with my son to share this hunt, safety for us and all 17 first time turkey hunters and their mentors participating in the Learn To Hunt program scattered across 2 counties, to make life long memories, and, if it be His will, for Andrew to shoot his first turkey.
I went over the "rules of engagement" one more time...mainly don't even dream about taking off the safety until I say so, once it's off, keep your damn finger outside the trigger guard until I say it's time to shoot, aim and squeeze.
"I know, Dad. Can we go now?"
We had roosted a couple birds the night before down a dirt road not far from where we were parked. We walked quietly in the dark and I stopped to hoot before ducking into the woods. The birds gobbled from where we'd left them the night before. We snuck in as close as we dared-probably 75 yards- and sat down at the base of a large oak. The birds were gobbling a couple times a minute and things were shaping up to get very interesting very quickly. I didn't like how brushy it was in front of us and we were about 30 yards off the trail. I considered they might flank us and opt to come down the trail, but figured we were close enough they'd just come straight through the woods.
Boy, was I wrong.
I scratched a few yelps on my slate call and both birds hammered back immediately. A couple more exchanges and I heard them pitch out of the tree. The next series of gobbles was obviously closer.
I realized the error of my set up when the gobbled again. From the trail flanking us to the right. Two strutting long beards bobbed into view and Andrew's breathing increased noticeably. They stopped in an opening at 25 yards and Andrew got his first up close look at a wild turkey in all the strutting glory of what the rest of us already knew.
"If I shoot right now, I'll hit both of them," he observed.
"No shot, keep your finger off the trigger."
As they kept going right, Andrew made an exaggerated movement to adjust his gun and it didn't go unnoticed. They broke strut and started putting walking nervously back and forth-knowing something wasn't quite right, but not quite ready to leave. When the lead bird came back through an opening about 35 yards, I thought there was enough space to get a shot.
As soon as the gun went off I was on my feet and running toward a turkey I knew I'd never see again. I tripped as I hit the edge of the trail and went head long, face first into the dirt...one of those full throttle face plants where the entire plane of your body contacts the ground at precisely the same moment...the only thing saving my face from road rash was the underside of the brim of my hat.
"UUMMMFFFFGG" as the wind left lungs for what I feared may be the last time.
By the time I gathered my pride and various items scattered about, the turkeys were gone. I walked back to Andrew and he asked me the question he already knew the answer to. I kicked myself for calling a marginal shot-not a the right way for a kid to take his first shot. We went back to the truck so I could exchange out some damaged clothing and equipment then headed back down another sand trail into a stand of mature mixed oaks and white pines that define Meadow Valley. We set up 15 feet off trail and had a great look ahead and in all directions. I yelped a few times and was answered by some hens 75 yards up the trail. I cut back into them and a tom gobbled 200 yards further past them. The hens answered and came into view marching toward us down the trail.
"They're both hens. Finger off the trigger. Keep your head down on the gun and just let them walk right past us."
They were so close and the air so still that you could actually see the steam coming out of their mouths as they yelped. I'm not sure I've ever seen "turkey breath" before. Andrew even noticed he could see them blink. Cool things only turkey hunters experience. As they passed out of sight over my shoulder, the tom gobbled again-half as far as his first time.
Round Two was upon us.
I whispered some hurried instructions on what was about to happen. I made one series of yelps and he gobbled obviously closer. Soon, I could see him coming on a dead run down the trail-stopping every 10 yards or so to gobble and strut momentarily before continuing on.
You've all seen it.
Legs moving, body waddling side to side like a bobble head, long beard swaying in the exact opposite direction as his body sway. Fully engaged. Fully committed. Start the music, boys, my kids' fixin to kill his first long beard. Nothing can screw this up.
"I'm not going to miss this time, Dad".
No, because you're never going to shoot. For some reason, Andrew decided to lift his head and reposition his gun as the bird was coming hard on a string. He caught the movement and locked up behind a big oak 30 yards out. I could see him perfectly from my position, but he stopped exactly behind the one tree Andrew couldn't see around. He hung around for few minutes while we traded putts, but he managed to walk perfectly straight away and never cleared the tree until he was well out of Andrew's range.
If the first scenario out of the roost was a "swing and a miss", I'd have to say this was "called third strike" or, as Bob Uecker would say "caught him looking and he's gone". Either way, my son was an hour into his first hunt and already had more stories than he should have without wrapping his tag around a leg.
We hunted the rest of the morning, but never heard another gobble. We knocked off at 11:30 to meet the rest of the group for lunch at Holiday Lodge. How could I be disappointed? Andrew had experienced an awful lot in one morning-gobbling from the roost, strutting, spitting and drumming, hens at close range. Still, it was tough to get back in the truck.
Over lunch, we listened to the stories of how four first time turkey hunters harvested their first turkeys. Even better were the stories of the "close calls" and "almost" from the other hunters. Tom Muench would have also been proud to hear ten and eleven year olds talk about the excitement of the stillness of the morning being broken by the first gobble. The beauty of the sunrise. The scatter of the sunlight off the frosty grass. How "blue" a bluebird really is. Cool things. Things you can't wrap a tag around but no less important to the experience. After lunch, the father of one of the kids who had shot his first bird approached me.
He shook my hand, and with great difficulty, tried to express how much he appreciated the cooperative effort that made this program a reality. He assured me our efforts-Warden Little, the NWTF, and myself-allowed him to experience something with his son he had been dreaming about since the day his son was born. Another father echoed those sentiments about the hunt he shared with his daughter. She didn't kill a bird, but she played the game with her dad and, for that, he would be eternally grateful. Now it was me being reminded there was more to this than simply killing a turkey.
Still, I wanted to try, but I wasn't going to push Andrew. I asked him when we got back in the truck and he assured me he wasn't ready to quit. We talked again about what didn't go right in the morning and he was ready to get back in the saddle. Funny what a couple hotdogs and some cookies will do to a guy's ambition. We headed for a different area for the afternoon hunt. My buddy had turned my attention to a couple hundred acres of a secluded oak ridge almost a mile from the nearest road. Steve and I had scouted it together and it looked as good in person as it did on paper. We parked on a gated access road and hunted our way to the south through nearly a mile of clear cuts of varying ages.
Once we made it to the mature timber, the woods opened up and it suddenly looked very good. We sat down with our backs to the clear cut and my first call was answered by a gobbler 150 to the west. I got up and moved us about 20 feet to our right facing west. He never gobbled again but I called a few more times over the next thirty minutes or so. We noticed again just how pretty of a day it had been. How quiet the woods were for this time of day- reviewing different bird noises he'd learned. Warm. Happy. Alone with my son in the woods. Alone with his Dad in the woods.
I was brought back to reality when Andrew whispered: "Do you see him, Dad?" My heart skipped when I realized I was listening to a gobbler spitting in drumming in full strut somewhere close. Very close. Suddenly, the fan and red head of a gobbler materialized through the boughs of a white pine 35 yards straight down Andrew's gun barrel.
"Take the safety off right now."
It was at that point his breathing became shallow and irregular. I leaned into him for support and wedged my hands up into his armpits. I could feel his heart pounding wildly in his chest and I kept whispering for him to try to relax. Whispering to us to relax.
For 10 minutes, the gobbler stood in full strut, never taking a step. Occasionally breaking strut to lift his head and look around, but not in a hurry to go anywhere. Andrew was having a hard time holding his gun up so I told him to keep his face on the receiver, but let the barrel down to rest on his knee. Once he did that, he relaxed and told me he could hold that position for a long time.
"Don't move. Don't pick your head off the gun. Try to relax."
Eventually, the bird broke strut and started to walk back the way he came. Only then did I let out some soft yelps to redirect his attention. He immediately broke back into strut and started quartering back toward us to the right. One lesson he learned in the morning was to anticipate where the bird was going and try to find an opening ahead of it-aiming at that opening and let the turkey literally walk into your sight picture. Andrew picked the next opening and had his gun trained there when the bird walked into it. He broke strut to stretch his neck to look around and I gave Andrew the green light.
This shot was perfect and I ran ahead faster than I needed to-but anxious to make sure.
Words can't begin to describe the moment when he walked up and looked at his first gobbler. Excitement never before experienced. Happiness. Accomplishment. Relief. But, more importantly, reality. Reality of the consequences of pulling the trigger. Ownership and responsibility for your actions. All part of the game we accepted a long time ago, but difficult for a 10 year old to digest. We talked about it for quite some time and he accepted it as part of the hunt. His final lesson was that, while killing defines some degree of success, with it comes remorse. And that will never go away no matter how many times he pulls the trigger.
Life lessons for a kid. Emotions for a dad I hadn't prepared myself for.
We had a long walk back to the truck but it was easy. I marveled at how my son had matured in such a short time. We replayed the day's events in one moment-then talked about Sponge Bob and his Webkinz in the next.
A young man carrying a gun, walking with his dad, but still wanting to hold my hand and be close to me.
How long would that last?
However long our walk was, it wasn't long enough. The moment would be lost as soon as we got back to the truck.
Suddenly it was me who was walking too slowly...
"Sons born to a man are like arrows in the hands of a warrior. Happy the man whose quiver is full of them." Psalm 127:4-5