“Well, city slicker, don’t blow this,” I thought, loud enough for the trees to hear.
What was potentially my first turkey, a tom strutting through the morning sun, started to poke cautiously through cover. With a tightened grip on my Beretta Xtrema2 12-gauge, I cleared a line of sight through the Nikon scope.
“Here goes something, I hope,” I thought.
My hunt had started about a month earlier at my office desk in Houston, Texas. An associate from a nonprofit board on which I serve called with an invitation for a turkey hunt.
Since moving to Houston for a new corporate position about six years ago, I had taken a latent interest in guns and hunting. I had proudly served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam in the 1960s, putting in way too much time on the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun. But after I was back in the states, and with my work centered in urban areas, guns and I never got together.
But things were different in Texas. Most of my new friends hunted. Soon, I started to receive invitations to join hunting groups, and it wasn’t long before I was getting off the plane for my first turkey hunt.
“Kind of pretty, isn’t it?” our host said.
What an understatement. The Empire Ranch covers some 13,000 acres of Missouri bluffs, caverns, streams and woods. And we were told there were turkeys behind every hill.
My expectations soared. Dinner that night was splendid, including introductions around the table and tales of big gobblers. When it was my turn, I simply said the obvious.
“This is my first time out,” I said. “I’m hoping for one chance, one good shot.”
Up long before dawn the next morning, I was filled with that anxious energy only hunters know. At 5:15 a.m., we were dropped off at our blinds for the day’s hunt. I could hardly contain myself. Pausing just long enough for the tire sounds of my guide’s pickup to fade, I took a deep breath, stayed calm and scratched out my first turkey call. I listened for a response ... and heard nothing. So I tried again. Again, nothing came back.
And so it went for a very long time. When my guide returned six hours later, it was more of a rescue than a retrieval.
People returned to the lodge with smiles and many stories. No doubt, I was envious. But the next day, words of encouragement showered me as I headed out with my guide.
Situating myself in the blind, I again waited for the sounds of the truck to die. With silence all around, I scratched my slate call. I was ready to settle back and again listen to silence. However, to my amazement, the woods on all sides filled with gobbles. I scratched again, and more gobbles followed.
My heart was pounding, and I had first-time confusions. How do you handle multiple toms answering your call? I positioned myself for a good view down a slight road track descending to a pond. That’s where I thought I heard the loudest gobble. Crouched and waiting, I waited about 10 minutes before anything caught my eye. Then, I heard some rustling and saw movement 90 degrees to my right. A coyote — ouch.
Thankfully, it left. I took a deep breath, sighed and tried to get comfortable again. I began going through my mental checklist when another movement in the distance caught my eye.
There he was: a tom strutting out from the woods, almost precisely where the coyote had emerged minutes before. Head bobbing and weaving, he walked a tight, straight line about 30 yards away, and then started to angle off.
Cradling my gun carefully, I made a slight scratch on the slate. The tom stopped, and stretched out, giving me a perfect target about 40 yards away. Squeezing the trigger, I was pleased to hear my shotgun blast fill the air. The tom went down in a flurry of kicking leaves and dust, so I knew I had hit him well. He rolled and flapped about 20 feet and then halted.
Yes! I had done it. I was a bit overwhelmed.
When the dusty truck arrived to pick me up later, I greeted my guide with an ear-to-ear smile. On the bumpy ride back, I gleamed.
The lodge crowd was gathered at the weighing station as we arrived, and I eased slowly to the side of the assembly.
“Well, how’d you do?” someone asked.
Taking my time, I replied in the affirmative, as though it had been an everyday occurrence.
“Carlton, that’s one big tom,” my host said. “Way to go.”
The scale weighed the gobbler at 29 pounds, 4 ounces, with a 9.5-inch inch beard and 1-inch spurs.
“I don’t know whether you’ll ever see a bird that large again, let alone shoot one,” he said. “You’ve set a very high bar.”
That I realize. I also realize the pleasures of turkey hunting can be like a roller-coaster ride, with amazing highs and grimacing lows. It’s a pastime I’m looking forward to again.