The maestro talks turkey; the triggerman delivers.
Story by Terry Wieland. Original illustrations by C.D. Clarke.
IT’S AN ODD THING, but my dominant memory of two days’ hunting turkeys in Missouri with C. D. Clarke isn’t the intricate game of cat and mouse we played, nor the horrible weather turned to good, nor even the actual kill—but let’s be straight up front: We did kill two large old toms.
No, the thing that springs to mind is a split-second glimpse of two bobbing heads, red as fresh blood, hanging in midair beyond the fringe of trees down by the creek, and C.D.’s hand flashing urgently in front of my eyes as we froze solid.
It was Game Six, Fischer versus Spassky, and the champion blinked. The next half hour had such an aura of inevitability that missing the shot when it came would have betrayed a virtuoso performance in turkey psychology.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Likening turkey hunting to a world-championship chess match may seem a bit much, but there are many parallels. For example, once the matchup itself has been agreed upon, many decisions remain. First, the venue.
In our case, a year earlier, C.D. had insisted, over my protests, that one taste of turkey hunting would turn me into a turkey hunter. Because I live in Missouri, and Missouri has become one of America’s foremost turkey states, and because C.D. had yet to collect the scalp of a Missouri turkey, it seemed natural for us to hunt here.
Missouri may be renowned today, but as recently as 50 years ago its wild-turkey population was measured in hundreds. As with the bison and the pronghorn, once spread across the country in the tens of millions and then reduced to a tiny fraction before bouncing back, there were an estimated 10 million wild turkeys in 19th-century America. By 1950, there were a mere 300,000 birds, total, across the entire country.
In 1900 in Missouri, turkeys were too numerous to bother protecting. Fifty years later, there were only 3,000, most of them hiding out, like Jesse James, in remote parts of the Ozarks.
The game department tried closing the season and releasing 14,000 game-farm birds, hoping they would propagate, but it didn’t work. It then bought a tract of land near Arkansas with a small resident population of wild turkeys. By 1954, its 9 turkeys had increased to 32. Three more years of protection and procreation, and there were enough to begin trapping and transplanting, a process that Missouri pioneered and perfected. Today, all 114 Missouri counties have huntable turkey populations, and the state has become a major source of wild birds for transplanting elsewhere.
The turkey regeneration program coincided with a general change in Missouri farming. In the 1960s, Missouri had many small mixed farms and abundant quail, but few turkeys. By the 1990s, cattle ranching replaced the small holdings with wide pasture planted to fescue. The quail were gone, but turkeys increased at a rate no one could have foreseen.
Ideal turkey habitat is a mixture of woods, fields, and crops, preferably with a creek nearby. That perfectly describes my friend Ralph’s acreage in central Missouri. He invited us to hunt there, and stay in the cabin down by a small lake on the edge of his farm.
AS WITH A CHESS MATCH, the next considerations are dates and conditions, and here we had no control. We were, of course, limited to the spring turkey season, which spans a couple of weeks from mid-April into early May, and we would have to endure whatever weather came our way. We set aside three days for the hunt, because C.D. is a turkey hunter of the obsessive sort that plans spring campaigns spanning several states, and must accommodate the dates and requirements of each.
“Three days will be enough if there are turkeys,” he assured me. “Don’t worry about that.”
Normally, late April in central Missouri is sunny, with trees budding in balmy breezes. As if to throw C.D. a curve, however, the weather gods decided that heavy rains and cold winds, followed by an overnight fall of snow, would make a nice change, and C.D. drove in from the airport on an interstate resembling a duck pond. Nothing dismayed, he settled in with Ralph and me at the kitchen table to discuss where we could hunt, and what approach to take.