My first hunt, Part I: ‘You’ll hear turkeys in your sleep tonight’

May 2, 2014

In the soft light of sunrise, fog rolled off the hills. Birdsong filled the fields, and a cool mist floated in the still air.

“It’s hard to wake up so early, but it sure is pretty,” I said to my father as we descended into the fields behind his farmhouse.

“It’s my favorite time of day to be outside,” he replied and hoisted a mesh bag on his back. Turkey decoys peeked through the material, jumbled together with other supplies we’d need for the hunt.

The gun felt heavy and awkward in my hand as we walked down the hill, side by side. Dead grass, matted down by a long snowy winter, crunched beneath our boots.

My dad, Stanley M. Sarnacki II, talks with me about placing turkey decoys on May 2, 2014, in Swanville.

My dad, Stanley M. Sarnacki II, talks with me about placing turkey decoys on May 2, 2014, in Swanville.

By an island of trees in the middle of a field, my father set down the mesh bag. With permethrin, a tick-deterrent, he sprayed down a patch of ground at the base of two trees. (We’d already treated our clothes.)

“This is probably overkill,” he said. “But I don’t like ticks.”

Counting his steps, he walked out into the field and staked the decoys into the ground. The two rather realistic plastic turkeys — a hen (female) and jake (young male) — teetered and turned ever so slightly in the breeze as we took our seats and blended into the landscape, cloaked by camo and trees.

It was time to call the birds in, and my father was prepared. Taking a turkey box call in hand, he dragged the hinged-lid over the wooden box, producing the odd screeching sound of a hen, followed by short yelps, which he produced by quickly striking the lid on the box.

“You’ll hear turkeys in your sleep tonight,” my dad teased. And I did.

I sat on two thin cushions, my 20-gauge shotgun rested on my bent knees. I’d loaded both barrels and made sure the safety was on. My dad told me to lean back against the tree, to get comfortable. Turkey hunting required patience.

My dad and I sit at the edge of a field in Swanville on May 2, 2014, during my first turkey hunt. My dad is calling in turkeys with a box call that produces the sound of a hen (female turkey).

My dad and I sit at the edge of a field in Swanville on May 2, 2014, during my first turkey hunt. My dad is calling in turkeys with a box call that produces the sound of a hen (female turkey).

Time passed in a series of screeches and yelps. To entice male turkeys (and perhaps to fend off boredom), my father used a number of different box calls, slate calls and diaphragms (mouth calls). My foot began to tingle. I shifted my gun to another spot on my leg and strained my ears, listening for a male to gobble back at us. Nothing.

Then came the sound — eerie and insistent, excited and curious. One gobble, then another, reverberating through the damp air. They were behind us, below us, and moving closer.

“They must be coming from the bottom field,” my dad said in a hushed voice between calls. “Get ready.”

All of the sudden, my seat wasn’t just right. I was off balance. My gun was heavy. Should I set my camera up better? I couldn’t stop fidgeting. The gobbles were louder, and then came the yelp of a hen, closer still, and I watched as she emerged from the fog to my right. I sat still, taking in her muted brown feathers, her long swiveling neck.

A gobble burst out directly behind us, and instinctually, I turned my head. The head of a jake, adorned with blue and bright red, peaked through the foliage behind us. We were surrounded.

“Don’t turn your head,” my dad, whispered.

I slowly turned back to facing forward. The hen was still approaching, drawn by my father’s calls.

“She’s going to give us away,” he whispered, continuing to strum the lid over the box.

Instead of approaching the decoy, the hen had honed in on my dad’s calls, and she was walking straight toward us. I sat wide-eyed.

She paused, perhaps sensing something was wrong, then turned and retreated to the edge of the field.

Meanwhile, the three jakes rounded the edge of the island of trees to my right, puffed up and gobbling. Though not as big as toms, they were an impressive sight to behold, and they were heading straight for the decoy.

I raised my gun and clicked off the safety, trying to fix the metal bead at the end of barrel on a jake, aiming at his neck, right below the head. But it wasn’t the same as the paper target. They were moving from right to left, a group of fanned out feathers and color. The one I was aiming at scrunched up his neck and puffed up, then turned. So I aimed at another.

“Shot any of those three,” my dad, urged, not wanting me to miss out on my chance.

I aimed and fired. But they just kept walking. I’d displaced not even a feather. I gawked in amazement.

I missed my first turkey. I shot and I missed.

“How did I miss?” I whispered to myself as I watched the three jakes quickly retreat into the forest, unscathed.

“That’s OK, honey,” my dad said right away. I can only imagine the look on my face. I’d been so confident after doing well on the targets.

I was flabbergasted. I was disappointed. And then, I got over it. Which is astonishing, really, for a person that has a “Type A” personality. Sometimes it’s as if I actually enjoy beating myself up over things. But after I missed that shot, the hunting continued and it wasn’t necessarily about shooting turkeys.

It was about spending two days with my dad in the woods.

We hunted for the rest of the day, calling for turkeys in four locations, but we only saw turkeys (two jakes) one more time, and they approached us from behind (again) and noticed us before I had an opportunity to shoot.

“That’s why they call it turkey hunting, not turkey shooting,” my dad said after a long morning sitting on the ground.

During those hours, I was reminded how alike we are, how at ease we can be together, and how absolutely hilarious my dad is. We laughed and admired pileated woodpeckers and talked about the people we love. Our legs fell asleep as we sat at the base of trees and listened to the sounds of the forest.

“You didn’t seem to have any problem shooting at that turkey,” he said to me during one of our long sits. And I realized that he had probably been worried about me choking up, being upset about killing the bird. He knows me well. But I wouldn’t have asked to hunt with him if I hadn’t thought it through. I eat meat every day, so it seems right to me that I should be able to hunt my meat. Besides, I’d already looked up recipes for turkey chili.

But I wouldn’t be cooking it that night.

So I didn’t get a turkey on my first hunt. I was excited, I didn’t put my cheek down to the barrel of the gun like I should have, and I shot too high. Or maybe I had a problem narrowing my aim to one jake because they were walking in a group. I’m not really sure what happened. All I know is that it’s not as easy as I thought — but it’s just as fun as I imagined.

Tomorrow, my dad and I are hunting again. Wish us luck!

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.