The truck bumped through the high Montana grass into the setting sun. "You feel like you're ready for this?" quizzed Hazel Creek Outfitters' Cally Morris from the driver's seat.
"I hope so," I answered. "I've never hunted turkeys before."
"You did fine patterning today," he replied. "Just aim for the base of that wattle."
"I'm just going to do what you tell me," I affirmed. Had I stopped with that statement, I may have been able to maintain my dignity for the remainder of the hunt. Alas, Cassandra had her curse, and I bear mine-The Curse of the Ill-Timed Joke. So immediately after humbly informing him that I would do as he told me, the following popped out of my mouth like an inane Jack-in-the-Box: "Savor the flavor, because I rarely say that to men."
Then I realized what I'd just said. To one of the foremost names in outfitting. To someone that most hunters would remove a limb to hunt beside.
I sat, cringing. I was going to richly deserve whatever response I got.
This, thankfully, was a roar of laughter. "Savor the flavor!" chuckled Cally, slapping the wheel. "We're gonna have fun!"
Two: Turkey hunting is really easy.
The truck was a tiny island of light and warmth in the chilly predawn. As we eased along the deserted road, Annetta Morris murmured, "Turkeys down there." I peered through my Weaver binoculars, seeing nothing.
"Two toms, maybe four hens," agreed Cally. I adjusted my focus, seeing more nothing.
Cally parked, then got out. Facing down into the river bottom, he let out a ringing call. All I heard in reply was the sough of wind, but the Morris' trained ears both agreed-at least two gobblers. We stalked quietly down to a lone tree standing sentinel in the grass. "This is perfect," whispered Cally, and he was right: One wide trunk with a long, deadfallen branch would allow us all to put our backs into shadow.
The Morrises make their own taxidermy decoys from real turkeys, and they efficiently hustled three of them into the earth about 25 yards in front of us. It was agreed that I would have the first shot; Federal Premium's Erika Mussett would have the next. Once my back was to the tree, my Franchi 20-gauge set on sticks with the butt resting on my shoulder, Cally began to call. After no more than four clucks, we got a reply-and this time, I heard it. "Here he comes," whispered Cally.
And sure enough, there he was. Nearly spherical in his rage, fan twisting this way and that, the tom burst through the high grass and strutted straight towards us. Incensed, he struck violently at the gobbler decoy. When he lifted his head up, I put the bead on him and shot him, dropping him immediately. My first turkey, a beautiful Merriam's.
From start to finish, it took no more than 20 minutes.
Three: Turkey hunting is really hard and frustrating.
May in Montana may be chilly in the mornings, but the afternoons warmed up to 80 degrees and more. I felt every one of them in my layers of camouflage, but I couldn't take them off-the flock of turkeys was 80 yards away. Four big, beautiful toms and a gaggle of hens lounged, fed and strutted. Erika and I hadn't hunted turkeys before, but we knew that those birds would see even the tiniest movement. So there we sat, playing "Statue" as the humidity rose from the nearby stream and the sun baked us. Sweat ran down my nose, which itched madly behind my mask. Increment by increment, I snuck one gloved hand up under the mask to scratch. Cally called. Paused. Called again. The turkeys ignored us with magisterial indifference.
Undaunted, we sallied out the next morning. There was another beautiful tom, showing off for a hen in a field no more than 100 yards away. "We're going to have to sneak up on him," murmured Cally. "You up for that?"
"Let's do this," I whispered. For the next 40 minutes, I crept. I used cover. I did a 30-yard elbow crawl with my shotgun cradled in my left arm. Closer and closer we came. Just as we got within 45 yards-just outside the range I'd feel comfortable using my 20-gauge-the tom opened his great wings and flapped across the stream after the hen. Now he was 60 yards away, on the other side of an oxbow that ran chest-deep with rapid water. I wanted to cry.
Four: Always be ready, because it might get easy again.
"You really like that mask," grinned Erika. "You don't even take it off in the car."
"What can I say?" I replied. "I've never felt so pretty." The mask, which covered everything but my eyes, was actually kind of hot and annoying. But it was easier to just leave it on.
"Turkey!" hissed Cally. "Over there! In that field!"
We piled out of the car. "He's moving fast, no time to set up decoys," Cally decided.
"Let me get the fan," whispered Annetta, referring to the detachable fan from the gobbler decoy.
We ran, stoop-shouldered and comical, using a ditchline to hide our motion, and tumbled into the shade of a tree. "Erika, get your gun loaded, he'll be here in a few seconds," whispered Cally. Erika sidled into position, pushing shells into her Franchi with a practiced economy I envied. And then...there the turkey was.
"I didn't have time to get my gloves on," murmured Annetta. "Wendy, will you hold the fan?"
I eased it out of its case, then brought it up. "Just move it side to side," she coached. "Higher." Just then, Cally burst into a series of clucks and purrs. The tom's head purpled with violent jealousy as he made straight for that fan...and for me. I really hope Erika shoots soon, I prayed, because that turkey is about 30 seconds from beating me up.
BOOM, roared Erika's gun. And just like that, Erika took her first turkey. From start to finish, it took no more than 5 minutes.
Five: Choose great gear, and be confident in it.
I shuddered inside when I heard people saying that no turkey hunter worth her salt should even think about trying to hunt with anything less than a 3½-inch magnum load, preferably out of a 12-gauge. I'm one of those people who just doesn't handle recoil very well, and I was dreading the patterning process. However, when I got beautiful patterns from Federal Premium's Heavyweight Turkey 2¾-inch in #7, I started to relax. Sure enough, this soft-shooting load took care of both Erika's and my turkeys.
I'd also been more than a little worried about ticks. Although the distinctive bullseye rash of Lyme disease is considered a red badge of courage among my colleagues, I'm more than happy to skip that experience. Despite five days of elbow-crawling through high grass, I never found a single bloodsucker, which I attribute to my GameHide Elimitick outer layer.
Six: Savor the flavor.
Need I say more?