Thanksgiving: My First Turkey Hunt
by Mike Schut, Program Director, Farm Table Foundation, www.farmtablefoundation.org
“To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.” Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace
It’s dark and chilly at 3:30 AM in April in northwest Wisconsin. But I alighted from bed that morning without trouble.
I was going hunting for the first time in my adult life. Unlike those times as a boy when I closely followed my uncle Rog along rural Iowa fence rows as he hunted pheasants, this time I would be carrying the gun.
I met my mentor, Cody, at 4:30 at a park-n-ride just over the Dunn County line. Cody has been hunting since before he can remember. He works for Pheasants Forever. Fewer people are hunting these days, so groups like his are investing in educating new hunters like me. Licensing fees support the important conservation work done in the state.
Cody had permission to hunt on a farmer’s land—said he’d been seeing turkeys out in a certain field. Cody had already set up the blind, which we approached at about 5:20. We set out two decoys (one hen and one male, or tom) and sat back to wait for turkey season to open at 5:58 (a time set based on sunrise). As if on cue, from a ridge maybe 300 yards away, a few toms started gobbling from their tree roosts at about 5:50.
A few minutes later Cody started calling, mimicking a hen with a device made of slate and wood. April is breeding season, so toms are out daily, looking for hens.
At about 6:05 we noticed that three toms had flown down to the field, landing about seventy yards away. Cody called periodically.
Soon all three toms were walking directly toward our decoys; they approached aggressively, ready to fight this new tom. Cody continued to call.
Of course, now they were in range. The 12-gauge shotgun was at my shoulder, safety is off; I was sighting down the barrel. Trying to breathe easy.
When strutting, turkeys tuck their necks down close to their breasts. You don’t want to shoot them in that position as the meat would then be riddled with gunshot. You want a clean shot at the head.
The three toms were bunched together, about twenty yards away. Two of them strutted a few feet straight toward the blind, necks tucked. One stepped to the side, but his neck was also tucked. Cody whispered, “Shoot the one on the left; no, now the one on the right.” I was just trying to wait until one lifted its neck….
Ah, one turned, slightly in profile, neck raised. My sight looked on; breathing slowly, keeping my head down, cheek against the stock, I squeezed.
The other two toms moved slowly away but Cody got up and out of the blind quickly. The tom was flailing wildly in the snow, but Cody assured me he is totally dead, was when the shot rang out. He stepped on the turkey’s head and skillfully grabbed the shank above the sharp one-inch spurs so the meat wouldn't be bruised from the flailing.
Cody couldn't believe it. He had never been on such a short turkey hunt. They gobbled. Cody called. They flew. Cody called. They strutted. Cody called. I shot.
I knelt down by the tom once he had fully quieted. We both stroked his feathers. I said thank you. This was not an expected start to his day.
Hunting feels very serious to me, and very honest. Serious in that I am deciding if I will take a life, a life that has a right to go on, a life that would very much like to find a hen. Honest in that it’s a direct confrontation with the truth that we cannot live but that others die.
But what we eat, how it’s grown, where it’s from…all can either move us toward eating sacramentally (knowingly, lovingly, reverently) or eating in a way that, as Berry writes, desecrates the complex set of relationships on which our lives depend because it is done ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, or destructively.
Eating locally, whether that be an animal whose life you’ve taken in a hunt, or vegetables grown by an area farmer, is one of the best ways to honor the truths in Berry’s words.