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The Hunt

Our Nebraska spring turkey season is about to wind to a close.  It was several weeks ago that I blogged about one of my hunts this spring (Turkey Down!).  I was by myself on that hunt; according to my spring turkey hunting scrapbook it has been twelve years since I took a tom while hunting by myself.  A lot of feelings and thoughts run through my head, especially while hunting alone, I want to get some of them down “on paper”. . . .

Oh sure there have been many other hunts in the past twelve years when I have been solo, but none of those hunts concluded with a big tom flopping on the ground.  No, in the past twelve years one or both of my kids have been with me when the primer was cracked and a tom got jelly-headed.  I have often mentioned that my kids and I usually restrict ourselves to one spring turkey permit a piece.  In Nebraska, we could legally have up to three permits per person during the spring, but we usually only have one each.  The exact reason for that is that we do not love the hunt, honestly we cannot get enough of those big, beautiful, gobbling birds during the spring, but by restricting ourselves to one permit each, we more often get to share in each other’s hunt.  The outdoors, hunting, fishing and trapping, have always been about, and will always be about FAMILY for us.  I love slipping out by myself, it is nice to be alone, but I also love sharing those times with those closest to me.  We will continue to do that every chance we get, but when we cannot, we will just have to tell really good stories.

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My time on the water and in the field is filled with memories, memories of the times I have spent in those places with a variety of partners.  Unfortunately, some of those companions have passed.  Often when I am sitting listening for a distant gobble, those memories flash through my mind.  The cedar canyons where I killed a tom this spring are a place where I used to spend time hunting with my Dad.  Back in those days, there were no turkeys roaming those canyons, just lots of deer, coyotes, bobcats and mourning doves.  Naturally, I think of Dad when I am in the quietness of those canyons, think of the rough spring a few years back when Dad passed at sunrise one morning, a spring when I just could not seem to figure out how to fill my turkey tag.  When I am in canyons and turkeys are gobbling, I often think of my Uncle Ivan too; he passed a few weeks before spring turkey season just a couple of years back.  Man, did I have some great times hunting turkeys with those guys.

It is appropriate my Dad is buried in a little country cemetery just a couple miles up the road from where my butt was sitting when a big tom walked up to my decoy this spring.  It was dark by the time I drove by, so I did not stop; he had been with me earlier anyway.  Uncle Ivan’s ashes were spread over one of our favorite fishing spots farther to the north, but I could feel his presence too.

We never did talk a lot when we were hunting or fishing together, just enjoyed each other’s company, hunted and fished.  Other than missing their physical presence, the conversation really hasn’t changed a whole lot.

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The bird I killed that night a few weeks ago was standing a mere 10 paces away when I tipped him over.  He never knew what hit him.  Decoys are just a tool to use for spring turkey hunting, they are not magic, nothing works all the time, but in the right place at the right time, they can work very well for getting birds close and presenting an easy shot.

Isn’t that what it is all about?  Getting them close and making a one-shot, quick, humane kill?  It bothers me that so much of the turkey hunting media and advertising pushes products that will help you kill your bird at farther and farther distances.  All those products do is encourage hurried, poor shots at long range.  Oh sure, those shots can be effective, and everyone who has made one is sure that it saved their hunt, but maybe the quality of the hunt would have been better with a closer shot?  Maybe our respect for the birds should be at a level where we will settle for nothing less than an easy shot well within range?

The tom I harvested last spring was standing in the open, head in the air, right down the end of the shotgun barrel when I took him.  The shot was clean, the bird flipped over on its back, dead, but I still felt a little bad when I paced the distance and it was longer than I thought.  I was back-lit and did not want the bird to see me, so when I had a good shot, within range, I took it.  Still, I could have waited, let him strut a little bit closer, and been even more sure of my shot.  I tried to make up for it this year.

My Dad and I went together and bought a Browning 16-gauge semi-automatic shotgun from Young’s Sporting Goods in downtown North Platte years ago.  Every turkey I have ever killed has been taken with that gun.

Now you know why I make sure they are close enough.

I am glad for that, it has made me a better hunter, and has made my hunts better.

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If you have ever killed a turkey, you know they commonly flap their wings, kick their legs, flop around immediately after they are dead.  Same thing as a “chicken with it’s head cut off”.

I hate that they do that.  I hate seeing those big beautiful birds flopping around knocking feathers off.  As much as possible I try to keep them from flopping.  Ideally, I do not want a single feather to be out of place.  I want those birds to look perfect, just the way I will remember them.  Many of you will think I am nuts, I am, do not care, but as much as possible I like to get on my toms right after the shot, hold them down and keep them from flopping around knocking feathers off.  Yes, those wings and legs can abuse a person, and that is why most hunters will just leave ’em alone until the flopping stops, but I have discovered that I can flip ’em onto their belly, hold their wings against their body and straddle them until the flopping and kicking is done.

Done right, there will only be a breast feather or two resting on the grass where I harvested a bird.

Then it is time for pictures.

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I love everything about wild turkeys.  They are big, beautiful, at times very vocal, entertaining, challenging, can be frustrating, and are a perfect trophy when taken.

They also taste great.

I have prepared and eaten wild turkeys a variety of ways.  Sure, you can just roast them, but there are an infinite number of other preparations, and they are all good.  Recently, my family’s and my favorite way to prepare our turkeys has been smoked.  Yes, I have smoked some myself, but it is a day-long chore and I discovered that letting a professional do it is much easier and the results are much better (I would highly recommend Stoysich House of Sausage!).  We chow down every bit of our turkeys including legs and thighs, not a morsel is wasted!  Again, I believe we owe it to those big, beautiful birds to utilize everything we can–feathers for fly-tying and entertaining our cats, spurs, beards and fans for trophies, every ounce of meat.

When we get birds back from the smoker, we spend some time de-boning them and after that chore have bags of tasty smoked turkey to enjoy, white meat and dark meat, it all tastes great.  It disappears fast (just finished some for lunch!).

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How do you explain the emotions of “the hunt”?  How do you describe that feeling when all the hours and hard work of scouting, preparation, and hunting culminate in that magical moment when the game presents the long-awaited opportunity to take?  How do you describe the adrenaline rush, the jubilation, the victory, and yet the solemness, melancholy of that moment when a tom is taken?

Lord knows you cannot look to Hollywood to depict hunting in a favorable light, to depict the emotions we experience at the climax of a successful hunt.  However, I can recall one scene from one movie that began to get it right:

Do not know about all the running through the woods, and a one-shot kill on a sprinting Wapiti with a flintlock rifle is phenomenal (yes, I am sure Hawkeye was every bit that good of a shot), but notice especially the reverence as the hunters first approach their downed game.  That is what I am talking about, that begins to capture some of the feelings of the hunt.

Hunters of some native cultures will grab a handful of grass and place it in the mouth of game right after it has been killed; they believe it is a last meal for that animal as it departs.  I do not necessarily believe that, but I do believe the respect that is shown in that action is entirely appropriate.

One thing I appreciate about fishing is being able to make the decision to release a fish after it has been caught, after “the hunt” has been successful.  Those of you who know me, know that darned near all the fish I catch, and especially the large specimens, regardless of species, go back in the water.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing those fish are still swimming, that I can catch them again.

Again, you might think I am crazy, but I have the same feeling after running my hands over the smooth feathers of a big tom I have just taken.  At that moment I am thrilled with the success, with the excitement of the hunt, but I ponder the beauty of the bird and the life he lived.  As I admire that big, elegant bird, often the thought that flashes through my mind is that I wish I could snap a few photos and then turn him loose.  Oh sure, I just described how tasty wild turkey can be and how much I enjoy eating them, but as my life and that of my feathered quarry intersects briefly and I fulfill my role as a predator, I have the utmost respect for my prey, even to the point where I wish I could experience that moment and then watch him walk away.

I have heard it said that the game we take becomes immortalized in our memories rather than living and dying a forgotten existence at the cruel hands of “mother nature”.  That I do believe is true, and I hope I never forget a detail about those big, beautiful toms I have been privileged to take during Nebraska’s spring turkey seasons.  If you do not hunt, you do think I am crazy, but if you are also a predator, you know exactly how I feel, and that I can never get enough.

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About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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