The farmhouse and the barn are clustered atop a hill pocked with clumps of cedars that angle out as if demanding a rope swing into some absent river. Expanded many times since the 19th century, the house seems to exist in multiple dimensions at once. Its interior space vastly exceeds what the exterior suggests is physically possible. Halls ramble about on multiple levels with no obvious terminus; décor changes at each turn; there are at least two more staircases than are strictly necessary. On the fridge, there is an encouraging photo of a turkey in the back garden.
Winding obliquely away from these buildings, a path of matted grasses slices through an overgrown field dominated by the browned, empty-torch stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and clumps of yellowed milkweed. That afternoon, Liam and I followed the trail through a line of trees to a barbed-wire fence marking the edge a ridge on which the home quarter is perched. From there, with binoculars, we gazed down godlike on the killing field—a roughly rectangular pasture bordered at the narrow ends by fences and on the long edges by woods. We knew turkeys roosted in the trees on the far side of the field, so we settled in to watch.
Mist seeped out of the forest and pooled in the shadows as the sun set in front of us. Two young does slipped out of the woods to browse, untroubled by a coyote that emerged as if conjured, loping along the fence line while they foraged. Geese honked and chased each other on a distant cow pond.
The long silence was shattered by a cackling jake launching himself over the border fence from the neighboring pasture. He careened into the high branches of a dead poplar, as if hurled from a siege engine. At the same time, downfield, the unmistakable undertaker silhouettes of at least six turkeys materialized from the woods, tracking smoothly into the field as if hovering. We followed them with whispered joy as they heaved themselves into their roosts, knowing they would likely fly back down into the field the following morning. Marking their positions, we headed back to the farmhouse to do one of my favorite hunting things—look at a map and plan.
The best part of a night before any hunt is the unspoken understanding that screen time is anathema. Phones are pocketed in favor of better, analog things like cheap beer and cribbage. This is part of the timelessness that rests in the interstices of a hunting trip done right. They offer an increasingly rare and remarkable sense that it could be 1952, and some alternative version of Liam and myself might still be found, yellow lamp-lit, excitedly poring over a crudely drawn map.
We decided that the best option would be to set up in the tree line from which the turkeys had emerged, positioning ourselves roughly in the middle of the pasture so that we could cover most of the obvious egress to the forest and fields behind us.
At 3:30 a.m., shaking off the odd, autopilot feeling that always hits me when I get up at that hour, Liam and I knocked down some scalding-hot instant coffee, flicked our headlamps to red light, and crept across the cow pasture to the near fence line. We paused. There were no stars. Steamed breath drifted through the headlamp glow. After clambering over the locked gate without spooking every animal in the county, we paused again to listen. Nothing. Good. We set up together at the base of a tree on the long side of the field nearest to us, each facing a different quadrant, and settled in to wait.
The shock of a first gobble at dawn is one of those little things that I cannot adequately explain to non-hunters. Liam and I glanced carefully at each other, eyes only. Minutes later, in a flurry, the first bird flew-fell to the ground 75 yards away. The jakes and toms were still gobbling, their calls echoing through the forest behind them. Then another dropped down, and another and another, coming down to earth mid-field with all the grace of a halffull duffel bag thrown down the stairs.
Our plan was perfect, but by then it had started snowing. A lot. I hadn’t noticed this initially, because I was nearly popping my eyeballs out of my head, trying to make out bird forms in the trees as first light grayed in the field. The turkeys lazily milled out of gun range, globular snowflakes swirling across our vision. We tried a few soft clucks. Nothing. We waited. A couple of yelps. Nothing. It was no use; the turkeys wanted out of the weather. Lined out as if to mock us, the lead hen paraded the birds across our field of view, about-faced, and then plunged into the far tree line with jakes and toms in tow.
We waited a good long while as the snow swirled about the field, resolving into phantom shapes that formed, twisted, and tore apart as the first breezes of the day whirled in the valley. But as surely as we had known we were going to kill those birds, we now knew it was over. Our calls went unanswered.
Liam finally turned to look at me, pulling his face mask down below his beard, ice forming at the edges of his moustache. “Looks like we’re skunked.”
And we were.
This important thing about hunting—that it is shot through with failure—has become something I like to raise with non-hunters after they learn that I haven’t managed to get myself a turkey. The point doesn’t really register. Most people half laugh, amazed that I would bother to get up at such an ugly hour and go sit still in the cold “for nothing.”
I make the point anyway, because it isn’t for nothing, and to know this is to understand hunting itself. The inherent lack of guarantee amplifies our depth of emotion in the field. Each element of that experience is sharpened by one’s focus on trying not to fail; stillness and cold, the fall of light, wind in leaves, the crunch of gravel underfoot. I note all these things with particular acuity when hunting because each movement or sound could have import.
In any event, it has become clear to me that guaranteed victory has the same paradoxical awfulness as the prospect of eternal life. Would you really want it? I sure don’t.
So when the city talk turns to hunting, I still lead with turkeys. It really is a persuasive technique. And this spring, I will yet again shuffle into darkness to try to kill one, something that I know all too well is routine for many hunters. Until then, failure is most certainly an option, a fact for which I am grateful. When I finally do get one, if I don’t order an outright parade in my honor, I’ll certainly tell anybody who will listen all about the hunt, and about the joy of the forest, and just how good wild turkey tastes. I have always assumed it is excellent.
Michael Finley writes from his home in Toronto, Ontario. He maintains an outdoors blog at www.anurbanoutdoorsman.com, where any turkey success will be promptly reported