This has been—and many will agree—one of the strangest, most difficult, patience-testing, humbling turkey hunting seasons ever. Sure, it was it a late spring for many states, but there was also something "in the air" that I just can't quite put my finger on.
When it comes to skill, even the "best" hunter can only get so far when pursuing wild animals. At the end of the day, luck needs to be on our side. Most importantly, we don't get the final say—the game does. My skill and luck were rigorously challenged for 100 hours in the field this spring. As always, I trained hard. But this year I failed.
I spent three rounds in the ring. The birds of southwest Wisconsin got the first crack at me. They hit me with a left hook. Then the South Dakota Black Hills birds brought their fury for a round. They delivered an uppercut. Finally, I revisited Wisconsin (further north from my first trip). The birds pummeled me with a final knockout punch.
After each round I was ready to throw in the towel, but only for a short time. The thrill of the fight kept me in the ring time and time again ... as it always will. Truthfully, there comes a time when every hunter needs a true, put-you-in-your-place humbling. For me, it was difficult at first because I invested so much this year. I spent 10 days, 100 hours, thousands of miles and hundreds of dollars on a turkey season that left me without a single shot.
I was dying to introduce my new Remington Versa Max to a hot gobbler—yearning to watch it deliver its first kiss of death—but it wasn't even a season of close calls. I flicked my safety off once, on my second-to-last day of the season while I was hunting with the diehard boys (Jeremy Dersham and Seth Miller) from Ridge and River Running Outfitters.
They had several birds in the area patterned prior to my arrival. The first sunrise was unsuccessful. We took a short break and jumped in the truck to glass nearby fields. "What's that on the road up there," Jeremy asked. There stood a strutter on the road between two strips of public land. We parked a quarter mile away from the old boy, doubled back through the woods on the opposite side of the road, and scrambled to set up with the hopes of calling him across and into our laps. As we decided where to plop down, Jeremy waved at Miller and I from the top of a small ridge; he was screaming without uttering a sound. He told us to get into position on top of the ridge. Apparently, the rustling leaves from three hungry hunters sounded like hens to our tom—Jeremy spotted a glimpse of his tail fan hot on our path. I crawled to a nearby tree. Miller found his seat to roll film just 10 yards to my left. Jeremy proceeded with the "buddy system" and began walking away, calling and employing his turkey wing for added realism.
Within minutes, I spotted movement; it was a turkey (later determined to be a hen) ducking through the heavy cover in front of me. Then, there was the tom, walking from right to left 30 yards down the ridge. I saw his white head and swinging beard, but within a second he disappeared behind a small pine tree. Clearly he was following the hen. At that point I shouldered my shotgun, flicked my safety off and prepared for him to walk out. Five steps was all I needed to end my turkey season on a bird-busting note.
Gone. Like a ghost, he was gone. He said "goodbye" with one last taunting gobble from the distance as we stood up to walk away, defeated.
As I look back on the turkey season that has broken my 8-year kill streak, my passion is built much stronger. One vision graces my memory: the strutting tom on the side of the road, radiating life into the woods. One feeling warms my soul: the adrenaline rush as I prepared to end a gentlemanly duel.
I never pulled the trigger, and it was a blessing. My respect for the wild turkey has deepened, and I tip my hat to each and every longbeard that's strutting as I write this last word.