Growing up in the south, I always felt a little out of place when the topic of hunting or fishing was breached. I had caught my fair share of sunfish on my Grandfather’s dock growing up, but I never shot a gun until my sophomore year in college. And even then, it was only for a skeet shooting contest with a few buddies.
So, when I had the opportunity to hunt turkeys the day before Thanksgiving with my girlfriend’s father, I knew it would be the experience of a lifetime.
I don’t pretend to really know too much about hunting. I had never been before—never had the opportunity. It was a new world to me. It reminded me in some ways of making my first tackle in a football game, riding my first mile on a road bike, and making my first big hit in little league. I was…beside myself.
It turned out to be a rather rainy Wednesday morning in central Florida. I was supposed to meet Mike at noon in order to head 20 miles south of St. Cloud to hunt for the different varmints on the property. And the weather, by all accounts, didn’t look too promising.
The deluge of rain was much needed in the usual dry fall and winters in that part of Florida. However, I was more caught up in my thoughts of what animals do in the rain. Do turkeys walk around in the rain and dig for grubs? What would I do if I were a turkey in the rain?
I asked a lot of questions on the way about the guns, the ammunition, the animals, where to shoot them and how to shoot them. After all, I was a hunting greenhorn. I even packed a peanut butter sandwich even though turkey and cheese was an option. I figured it to be a good hunting omen. I’d bring home the bacon then, right?
The forty-five minute drive with Mike was full of plenty of conversation. From life to work to what shotgun shells are made of, we didn’t stop talking until the scenery started to abruptly change. Fewer and fewer signs of civilization were around as the light grey skies met with green pastures and small groves of trees at the horizon.
As we entered the property, I knew I would exit with either a turkey, smaller varmint, or a slight bit of disappointment. Mike was driving and knew the spread well. He’d been hunting this property for years and seemingly knew all the nooks and crannies of the place. He killed his first turkey when he was 13. He knew how to hunt.
We stopped as we pulled in and he pulled out his two shotguns, a pair of 12 gauges. “Remember how to shoot it?” he asked. The last time I had shot a gun had been a good few months ago at the same place. He had tossed an old plastic bottle in the air a few times for me to shoot that first time since we couldn’t find any varmints on the property in the middle of the summer time.
“I remember most of it,” I answered.
“How about hitting that bean then,” as he pointed to two beans dangling down from a plant a few yards away.
Ka-pow! “I didn’t hit…did I?” I muttered. I had aimed a little south of the actual bean by lining up the top of the notch on the end of the barrel with the center of my target. A rookie mistake I suppose.
“Yeah…you missed it,” he laughed. Oh boy, I was thinking. How could I ever hit a turkey if I couldn’t even hit the stinkin’ bean plant?
I really wasn’t dressed for the occasion as I guess I should’ve been. Mike let me borrow his camouflage rain jacket to conceal my light blue shirt and we pulled up on the property looking for the small critters that run around on the large piece of land. For acres and acres heads of cattle sat on the ground or stood in small droves watching us move by with a puzzled look on their face. After all, from their point of view I guess we humans seemed a bit silly making this "hunting" thing harder than it had to be. If it was food we were looking for, they were seemingly big targets.
But hunting isn’t just about the food. Food is a part of it, but the art of hunting seems to tap into the primal instincts of every man. Maybe it’s the sneaking up on the prey part that we like, or outsmarting the critters. It could even be that we like to test our accuracy and the steadiness of our hands. For me, it was all of the above.
I’ve always loved the outdoors. I go hiking for the smell of the woods just as much as for the visual appeal. And, there was a certain smell to the place. A smell that penetrated and that was foreign to the civilized world.
I followed Mike into the slough of trees that surrounded a feeder. The property had multiple feeders on its hundreds of acres and the animals had grown accustomed to knowing the exact time of day when the food would be dispensed. Dinnertime for the critters was at 5pm every day…and it was only 1 o’clock.
We waded through the brush, aiming to make as little noise as possible when Mike turned around at the edge of the tree line and motioned to get lower to the ground. As I looked through the palm fronds, I could see two large sand hill cranes socializing next to the feeder.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
“Turkeys?” I responded.
Then he pointed straight off in the distance to the tall grass about twenty yards away.
“Hens,” he spoke softly, “about four of them.”
As I lowered my body to get a better look I had cracked a dried out palm frond on the ground making a louder noise than I had expected. I slowly lowered myself to see the hens turn about face and slowly jog off into the tall grass.
Crap! I just blew my opportunity. The sand hill cranes started squawking as we walked parallel to the tree line and exited back to the vehicle.
“Don’t worry, there will be plenty more opportunities later,” he replied as we stepped back in and drove away.
Driving across the property seemed to be the most logical thing to do, especially considering that the terrain was vast and rugged and the land so spread out. We continued to take small sand paths through the fields that connected the lines of trees and brush. In places, there was little underbrush while it appeared rather swampy in other locales.
The drizzle continued from the sky as we looked through binoculars from the left to the right. Then, straight ahead, we spotted a pack of ten or twelve hens walking in the middle of the sand path like a group of kids walking home from school. As we approached, the large birds took to the air and flew over the trees to our right.
“We’ll catch ‘em on the back side. Don’t worry, we’ll see them again later today,” replied Mike.
We continued to drive in the gentle drizzle until we saw a flock of doves congregating on some power lines above. It was target practice time.
Doves, as I quickly found out, are much harder to kill than your average animal. It not only flies left and right, but also up and down and in and out. Target practice was harder than I thought. Three shots and nothing to show for it. Mike even went behind the birds in one drove of trees in an attempt to flush them out for me to take a few good shots. They flew the opposite way and he nailed two as a clump of feathers slowly fell to the ground.
He’s a good shot and it showed. On my first trip to the property he had shot a dove driving along a path near the tree line. He was driving and the dove was flying the other way. And he still hit it square enough to drop it out of the sky.
I was able to see my first hog, though. It was a medium sized, stubby little critter with coarse, black hair. It ran off before Mike had a chance to bring his shotgun up, but he estimated it to weight about 130 lbs.
We kept traveling to different areas on the property but no to avail. No animals anywhere. As we entered a field about three hours into our ordeal we saw a pack of hens off in the distance. There were about 15 or 20. They were hard to count through the lens of the binoculars, but they were congregating and having a big party. Maybe it was a rainy day grub party.
Whatever the case, we edged closer and closer to get a peak. All hens. This was the opportunity.
“We’re going to corral them,” he said as we approached from the left. We did a semicircle until we got within about 40 yards of the hens. They were loud and having a big time.
“Your shot,” he added. “Pick one out and aim for its head.”
I looked down the barrel of the 12 gauge, slick and wet from the constant rain. I looked up as I took the safety off. There’s so many! Which one do I shoot?
I paused for a brief second before I shut my left eye and peered down the barrel again. I turned to the left as I found a group of hens mingling. All of a sudden, one hen extended its neck as if to say to its neighbor, “Hey! Stay out of my space! This is my ground to roost and dig for grubs!”
That’s the one! I waited until the hen brought its extended neck back up before I fired.
Ka-pow! Feathers flew up into the air, the flock of hens scattered off in all directions. Some flew and some bolted across the pasture like Olympic sprinters. I followed the trail of smoke and found not one but two hens ruffling their feathers and sprawled out on the backs on the ground.
TWO TURKEYS! I was beside myself. Mike finished off the paralyzed turkeys for good measure and then I let out some sort of yell. I don’t exactly remember how it went, but I can only imagine it was the type of yell that comes with killing one’s first turkey…or two in my case.
Upon further examination, I had nicked them both in the neck, right on target. Mike and I gutted the birds and cut off the legs and necks. It was a different experience, but I really didn’t mind the warm entrails of the hens I had just killed. I had just killed a Thanksgiving turkey after all. And two at that.
We drove home and shared our story with everyone else as we de-feathered the fowls and prepared them for the deep fryer the next day. It was an un-paralleled experience. As we enjoyed dinner, I then remembered my peanut butter sandwich in the car. It had been hours since breakfast, but in our pursuit for a turkey I had didn’t eat a thing. I wasn’t really that hungry, though, for lunch.
Looking back though, I didn’t have time nor a need for a sandwich. The hunt for a Thanksgiving turkey requires too much attention for one to get caught up in the details of what’s for lunch. Although I had never been hunting before, I felt like a forager of food that day before Thanksgiving.
And every time I will tell the story, I’ll make sure to say, “Not one turkey…TWO turkeys with the same shot!” A Thanksgiving to remember for sure.