I hadn’t really thought about the upcoming turkey season, and with good reason. Here in the north country, we try not to think about spring until it’s here. Otherwise, the winter seems to drag on that much longer. But yesterday, just as the sun was going down, I stepped out into my backyard and heard a woodcock _peent_ing out by the garden. Then a flock of Canada geese flew just over the treetops, and when they reached the woods beyond the yard, honking noisily, a turkey gobbled. The second the sound hit my ears, my brain formed a clear and unsettling image of the big gobbler that kicked my butt last year–and I suddenly found myself more excited for the turkey season than I’ve been in years.
In fact, I haven’t been this excited since almost a decade ago, when my friend Paulie and I spent three straight seasons chasing an old cantankerous tom that refused to be killed. The first time we saw him, he paraded all the way around us, in a complete circle, gobbling and strutting for almost an hour–but not once stepping into gun range. He was by far the biggest tom we’d ever seen. His beard dragged the ground, his spurs curled upward like hooks, and he walked with a gimpy hitch in his step. We devoted ourselves to getting him.
We scouted him carefully, put him to bed in the evenings, glassed him after the noon closings, and only set up on him when things looked in our favor. But even when we were sure we had him dead to rights, he always found a way to dupe us. By the end of that first season, the bird was becoming a legend.
“You can’t go around naming just any bird,” Paulie said, “but this one deserves it.” I agreed and named the bird Ol’ Slewfoot (after the Baxters’ black-bear nemesis in The Yearling). Paulie named it something I can’t repeat here. In any case, we chased Ol’ Slewfoot for two more seasons, usually splitting up so that we didn’t both come back empty-handed. And whoever hunted Slewfoot on a given day inevitably came back with a story.
“Ol’ Slewfoot!” Paulie said breathlessly one day, after walking up a hill to meet me at the noon closing. “I snuck in right under his roost, but he flew down behind me. Then I didn’t hear a peep for over an hour. And just as I’m thinking about moving, he sneaks up behind me and gobbles right in my ear. If I’d known he was there I could have reached around the tree and strangled him.”
On another noon closing, I met Paulie, shaking my head. “He never flew down! It’s noon, for crying out loud. How could he not fly down! He’d still be up in that tree gobbling if I hadn’t spooked him getting out of there.”
And so it went until at some point we stopped seeing Slewfoot and assumed he’d died of natural causes. And while the seasons since have been both fun and exciting, they haven’t been what they were when Ol’ Slewfoot was around.
No doubt, there’s something to be said for easy turkeys, the ones that come to your calls the way turkeys should. The first bird I hunted last year was one of these. He gobbled to my calls off the roost and flew down right into my lap. I wasn’t complaining. But the second bird that I went after I continued to hunt for the rest of the season–and he kicked my butt day in and day out. I wasn’t too happy about it then, and I spent more than a few afternoons cursing that bird. But now, with the new season only a few weeks away, there’s nothing like a nemesis to get you going.