Don is over 60 and was smoking a cigar when I picked him up one afternoon this past spring. He smokes cigars to relax, something he does not do much of as a medical specialist. He does not need much sleep, and he does not talk much either, unless there’s something important to say — the woods always have something more important to tell us. These all put him at the top of the heap as a turkey hunting companion.
Besides being quiet, intelligent and otherwise sort of weird, Don is a sophisticate. This is the man we tease about his Belgian fowling piece, who has his side-by-sides custom-fitted, who orders his hunting boots made according to the tracings of his feet, and whose idea of a holiday with his wife is a bicycle trip through the wine districts of France.
Don is also fastidious; he likes to get things right the first time. No fault in a doctor, but in a turkey hunter? I’m not sure if anyone had informed him that turkey hunting is about humans trying their best to look like stumps and other dull, inanimate objects in a sometimes brilliant attempt to fool what — randy wild poultry with brains the size of subway tokens?
We had walked our hunting property only once before, but this time we were armed and full of the knowledge that hunting videos bring to talent and intelligence. We set up on a ridge side by side, and I stroked my box call. (I am a beginner; it is the only call I use with any confidence … yet.) Immediately from the woods below came a gobble that sounded oddly similar to the noise I had just created. Don had not heard the bird answer, but he heard it coming as it fussed its way toward us, gobbling once again.
“Do you see it?” I asked as Don remained silent and intent. “It’s right in front of me! Does it have a beard?” The bird stopped at about 35 yards and just looked at us. Silence. “Can you see a beard? I can’t see a beard. Don, can you see a beard?”
“No,” he calmly replied.
We let the jake walk, and 10 minutes later we left the woods. The mosquitoes were killing, and Don was worried that his old pump gun was too shiny. He’d left his others at home — lovely Italian and Spanish double-guns. He had tried to buy some camouflage tape, but turkey hunting has become so popular in our area that it was all sold out. The next day at 4 a.m. Don informed me that he had a solution for his shiny gun. While I had been digging up mosquito ointment, Don, the sophisticate, had been at Wal-Mart buying pantyhose to act as a gun sock. I’m sure he received more than a few looks.
We entered the woods just before 5 that morning, and about 100 yards down the trail, I hooted and a gobble came from a tree not far away. We quickly stuck the decoys in a clearing and sat back in the trees. I called. Nothing. We could hear the birds on the ground, so we waited. I called. Nothing again.
After an hour or so, we moved on, and around 10:30 we found ourselves on the ridge we’d hunted the evening before. We staked the decoys in the same hollow, but this time, heeding intuition, we elected to sit back to back. I called, and five minutes later Don said, “Look at the coyote.”
Out of the corner of my eye, the tall gray creature trotted toward our decoys, circled and then made a rush at the jake. When he came within 10 feet of our setup, his hackles went up, his front end stiffened, his tail went between his legs and he was off like a scalded cat. He had not seen us, but he’d made our scent.
When the excitement died down, I resumed calling, and we heard two gobblers. They seemed close, but closer still was a hen clucking between them. I lost out to the competition, and as the gobbles subsided, Don and I simply sat and waited in the warm, summery woods.
Ten minutes later, I looked over at Don. He seemed to be nodding off, but then quietly said, “We’re in business.” The pantyhose-clad pump went up on his shoulder ever so slowly and stayed there for the longest time before the report rumbled through the trees.
I carried the gear, and Don carried his turkey back to the truck. His smile was trying to break his face apart as we drove to a buddy’s house to take pictures. He did not talk about it much, but his first turkey was, for him, a victory of sorts. “You know how it feels,” he said. “It’s like I’m not just a nobody anymore!”
And somewhere in our conversation it came out that he’d had no real expectations of even seeing a turkey. He even referred to me as a friend with whom he had just shared the experience of a lifetime, and he thanked me.
What more can I say? It was an experience of a lifetime for me, too, and I had to share it.