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Half-Hour Before Sunrise

The last time I hunted with Mike, he wore a crisp, creased hunting jacket and pressed trousers. I never saw him dirty, not a speck of mud, even on his boots. I, on the other hand, think mud makes pretty good camouflage.
I don’t think I’d fit in well at Mike’s lodge. No matter. He didn’t invite me anyway. Last turkey season, he and his wife were going to Piney Ridge, a kind of wildlife spa — guided hunts, sumptuous meals, rubdowns. The works.

He did show me his take-along list though.

“Tripod?”

“Yeah, for my camcorder. You know, in case I don’t like their video equipment.”

“Oh, right. Latex gloves?”

“Of course, I always take protection,” he said with a wink. Mike enjoyed his own jokes. What a time they must have at the club.

“What about you, what are you taking?” he asked.

“I have what’s known as my half-hour-before-sunrise list,” I explained.

“It’s a list of things that if I don’t have them a half-hour before sunrise, I can’t hunt. I break it down to basics: shotgun, No. 5 turkey loads, hunting license, turkey permit, turkey call. If I don’t have that stuff, I might as well not go out in the woods. If I do have it, anything else I might forget, I’ll still be able to hunt.”

He studied me for a long moment.

“All right then” he said. “Have a good season. I’ll see you in about a week.

Get a big one.”

“Yeah, have a good rubdown.”

Flashy vs. Fishy

Mike and I are polar opposites. He is flashy; I am, fishy. He is designer; I am, well, not. He likes rubdowns; I don’t like strangers touching me. He dreams about the big job; I dream about the big tom.

I wait all year to hunt for a few precious spring days, and considering that the seasons I have left are considerably fewer than seasons past, those days become even more valuable. I don’t hunt Easterns in Iowa, Merriam’s in New Mexico or Osceolas in the Okeefenokee. I make the most of what comes my way, and this past season that was to be a mere three days in the hills of southern Ohio, a place I know well. I camp. It’s primitive, it’s private and it’s wonderful.

The day before I leave I usually whirl around the house like a cyclone of toothpaste, beans and weenies, turkey calls and extra socks. It takes me three times as long as it should, according to my wife, but I’m OK with that because turkey hunting is way more than squeezing the trigger on a bird.

For me it’s like the build-up to Christmas, but it drives her nuts.
Meg could have organized the Third Reich, but all she has is me. I think it chaps her because every hour I spend gearing up is an hour not spent painting, cutting grass or carrying things up to the attic. By comparison, gathering hunting gear is quite a pleasant ritual indeed.

I would need a tent for this trip, but all I could find was the rainfly. My pop-up blind would have to do. My mini propane catalytic heater might come in handy. I saw it during my last lap through the garage and planned to pick it up the next time through. Food? It couldn’t hurt to grab a couple of cans of something, although I remembered there was a hamburger stand 45 minutes from my camp, just in case. I would not starve.

In addition to my half-hour-before-sunrise items, I didn’t figure I needed much else. As I said, I do it bare-bones primitive. Mike probably has a satellite turkey locating system, but I would have something he didn’t. I would have predator-focus, oh yeah!

Cold Front

I didn’t have a chance to scout, but it didn’t matter; this was turkey heaven. I knew the hotspots and where to set up, and I would play the percentages to get some quick trigger time somewhere among the broken ridgetops.
But turkeys are mysterious birds. I arrived late in the day and didn’t even set up camp before heading into a prime roost area. I sat a long time without hearing a single roosting gobble or wing flap. As dusk became dark, I owl-hooted into a very lonesome night and then  headed back to the truck.

Supper was tailgate-style. I huddled in the ring of lantern light over steaming hot soup, fresh from the can, and topped it off with a banana. The night was turning colder, and the banana lay chilled and heavy in my stomach, cooling me from the inside out and reminding me of my missing tent. At least I had my propane heater. Or did I? I rifled through my gear in the truck, once, twice, three times, but alas, no heater. I could picture it sitting in my garage, right where I failed to pick it up.

About now my wife would be snug in bed. My dog would be curled up alongside, snoring comfortably. At the lodge, Mike would be finishing his after-dinner drink and then laying out his clothing for the morning. And I? I lay fully clothed, freezing on a blanket of pine needles in my very sheer pop-out blind, my head popping out one side and my feet popping out the other. This cold front wasn’t included in my pre-season dreams. Never mind. One-half hour before sunrise, none of this would matter.

Well, I froze my keester one-half hour before sunrise, trying to coax the sun to hurry up and rise already. When it did, not a single turkey greeted it. Unbelievable. As a thin sunlight gave shape to the woods, I scoured the leaf litter for turkey scratchings, but it was undisturbed. No feathers, no droppings, nothing. It was like the mystery of the ancient mound-builders. Where did they go, and why?

So by a few minutes after sunrise, I was on to Plan B, glad to at least be moving. I knew that one ridge over was an overgrown hedgerow between two pastures. Anyone who wants to see some turkey traffic would do well to sit there, and sit there I did, still shivering. I put my chattering teeth to use on a gooey breakfast bar, hoping the chewing action might warm me up. I thought of a real breakfast of sausage and eggs and hot tea, the kind Meg would be making right now, the kind Mike would be served at a mid-morning break. I gave a few pathetic yelps, and then worked my jaws on the goo, staring like a cow.

Soon a hen with a jake in tow strolled over. She caught me in mid-chew and eyed me carefully as she and her friend angled away, clucking.
A stupid chewing cow! That was me. Hang the cold, and the breakfast! I yelped and cutt with renewed vigor, tightening my predator-focus like a laser beam. As the clock crept toward noon, it looked like I had missed my one opportunity. Sigh. Still, I was in the ballgame, and I had enough motivation to get me through another sub-arctic night.

The sun lulled me into thinking the weather was improving, and I called my wife to get an update. As usual, Meg cheerfully snapped me back to reality: Tonight would be colder yet.

“You’re crazy, honey. Love you. Bye,” Meg trilled into the phone. She had to go. She was baking cookies.

Colder?

That evening, while sipping my steaming soup — or was it my frozen breath I saw in the cold lamplight? — I found out I had company.

Rowr!

What?

ROWR!

I held my breath and listened.

RROWWRR!

I jumped into the truckbed, holding my breath and listening.

The visitor was cat-like, very large, and way too close. Probably a bobcat, maybe Bigfoot, but it was obviously a professional, full-time predator. If only Mike were here with his night-vision goggles. I waited in the dark, as my predator-focus, oh yeah! became prey panic, oh no!

After a long while, the cat moved off, and I crept to my blind and slept fully dressed, stuffed inside of two worn-out sleeping bags, another cold banana weighing me down. Drifting off to an uneasy sleep, I thought about two things that could warm me up: my space heater and a bobcat raking my face.

It can’t really be called morning when the only difference is that the stars have changed position. It was colder yet, and it hurt my hands to hold my Mossbergsicle. At one half-hour before sunrise it was just as silent as the day before. The sun needed more coaxing and seemed slower to do its work, but after a long morning of frozen torture, it produced a pretty nice day about noontime. One hen came by to squawk at my dekes, but hey. Where there’s a hen there’s a tom, right? Maybe I should stay another day, I thought.

I checked in with Meg, ever the bearer of good news.

“Colder,” she said.

“No way! How much colder?”

“Below freezing.”

“You mean like below 32 degrees, frozen-water freezing?”

“Yep, that kind.”

May in Ohio. And so, I had a decision to make. I am no country club hunter, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I dress my own game and wear the camouflage off my pants before I’ll buy new. I go out in the rain, wind and cold, knowing I’ll probably not see anything, but hoping I might find a tom crazier than myself. I’ll go if you’ll go. I’ll stay out if you’ll stay out, and maybe I will even if you won’t.

Turkey hunting, though, if nothing else, is supposed to be fun, and the last two nights were anything but. It took some soul-searching, but in the end I accepted defeat. I indeed became as much a creature of the woods as the turkeys I hunted, just one of the old, weak ones that die of exposure and get picked apart by the crows. It was a long ride home.

Real Lists

Mike got his bird, and his rubdown. I got to watch the video (of the hunt, not the rubdown). He did not, however, have a story to match the one I told him about fending off a rogue panther while armed with nothing but a frozen banana. 

There is one less season left to me now, and that is the real tragedy. The days are dwindling, so no more half-hour-before-sunrise lists, but real lists with everything I might need. No more running around the house playing snatch and grab, and heading out to the woods asking for trouble, but real preparation, so that when things turn sour, I can handle it. 

Meg likes it that way, too. Don’t tell her I said this, but that’s cool with me. Wait! Did I say cool? Let me fire up my heater. I’ve got it right here.

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