ON THE BANKS OF THE WHITEFISH RIVER - I somehow imagined this hunt as something akin to shooting fish in a barrel. A nice sunup morning lazing on a folding seat under a tree, birds chirping, wind rustling. A single boom. A celebratory high-five, some plucking of feathers, finished in time for breakfast, on the road back to Missoula by noon.
Instead, here I sit, wondering if it's possible to get gangrene in a leg that's been asleep for half an hour, strongly suspecting that I won't be able to put weight on my tailbone for at least another week, afraid to move a muscle, wiggling my nose to try to scratch it against the inside of my camouflage face mask.
And the sun hasn't even come over the horizon yet.
Behind me, my hunting partner and default turkey guru, Bryant Ralston, sits silently with his girlfriend, Hailey Love. He begins softly scraping a slate-tipped pen against a flat piece of slate, creating a sound that, to my ears, seems more reminiscent of a whining puppy than any kind of bird. In the ambient half-light of pre-dawn, I bend my ears toward the trees lining the opposite side of the river.
Last night, we located several turkeys headed into those trees, where they would presumably roost for the night. Our strategy seemed foolproof: Arrive in the darkness before dawn, set out a couple of rubber decoys in an opening on our side of the river, hide in the trees nearby until dawn, call the turkeys over, and seal the deal with a blast of my 12-gauge shotgun.
"Roost and roast," Bryant called it.
Nobody has hunted these turkeys this spring season. We're on private property owned by a friend of Bryant's. We drove here in Hailey's Saab ("Not exactly the most manly hunting rig in town," admitted Bryant), which is parked about 200 yards from where I now sit.
Short of hunting in a fenced coop, I couldn't imagine an easier setup.
Bryant stops scraping slate against slate. A few songbirds chirp here and there around us. Two ducks glide in from the south, skidding to a stop on the river below us.
Just as I begin to wonder if we've been sitting here for an hour staring at a grove of vacant trees, Bryant pulls out his "hoot tube," a call that imitates the sound of an owl.
"Hoot, hoot, hoothoot," he calls - and the peaceful morning is shattered up and down the river by a cacophonous chorus of two dozen or more turkeys gobbling emphatically in response.
For years, Bryant had tried to convince me to join him on a turkey hunt. "If you like bowhunting for elk" - which I do - "you'll love calling in a turkey," he insisted.
But as those gobbles once again reminded me, there seems to be a categorical difference between a spear-crowned, muscle-bound bull elk bugling hauntingly atop a remote ridgeline in the fall frost, and an oversized chicken with a head that looks like it just got run over by an ATV making clown noises from a tree.
Call me an intellectual snob, but I frankly couldn't imagine this quarry would be all that hard to fool.
Oh, I'd noticed the endless turkey-hunting strategy stories in Field and Stream, and heard about the excellent eyesight of these primordial birds. But let's face it: Their brains are the size of a walnut - which, by the way, I can fit in my mouth.
Prior to our hunt, Bryant talked me through the basics of turkey hunting.
"There's three elements to the strategy," he said: "Don't let them see you, don't let them see you, and don't let them see you."
I thought to myself: That's so easy, even a turkey could probably remember it.
Bryant was careful to prep me on the tools of the hunt. I would need full-body camouflage, head to toe. No glinting eyeglasses, if they could be avoided. High-velocity "turkey load" shotgun shells, and something comfortable to sit on.
He would provide the other requisites of our ruse: his tom and hen decoys - whom he has affectionately named Adonis and Sexy Gertrude - plus various hen calls and gobblers and "locator calls" such as that hoot-owl tube.
"The psychology of turkeys is that they want to be at the top of the biological hierarchy of birds; they consider themselves the baddest birds in the woods," explained Bryant. "So when a crow or a peacock or an owl calls, they shout back at them, basically saying, ‘Get the hell out of my woods!' They'll even gobble at a door slamming or a train going by."
The psychology of turkeys. Gobbling at trains. Got it.
"The other most important kinds of calls of course are the ones that imitate the female gender of the species," Bryant continued. "So once we've located them with our locator call, then we'll be doing soft tree-yelps with the hen calls. That's the softer call in the morning where the hens are basically saying, ‘Hey, big fella, I'm over here, come get me.' It's like a girl giving you a smile at the bar."
If all goes well, Bryant explained, the male turkeys - the toms - would look in the direction of our call, see Adonis frozen in midstrut near Sexy Gertrude, and think: I can bust a move faster than that guy.
Bryant puts a lot of faith, and even a bit of humanity, into Sexy Gertrude.
"She's definitely lured in her share of horny toms in her days," said Bryant. "Sometimes when the wind blows, she kind of elegantly flows, like one of those vintage Hollywood actresses who never loses her appeal - like Katharine Hepburn. Kind of surly. Katharine was quite a character in her day, you know. She had a way of working the boys into a frenzy.
"That's one of the things about turkey hunting in the spring, it's such an emotion humans can relate to: You can't have my gal. You can go to the Blue Moon in Columbia Falls tonight and see the same thing in action."
Back at my station under the tree, my heart begins to pound at the sound of those gobbles. But still, I see nothing. A few moments later, Bryant again scrapes his slate hen call. This time, another chorus of gobbles.
For the next hour or more, he chats back and forth across the river, but no turkey flies our way. I can no longer feel my butt, and I fear that if I try to stand, my leg will simply remain motionless on the ground.
Finally, with a flurry of flapping, a lone hen flies out of the trees and lands about 100 yards to our left. She steps into the trees, and we never see her again. She's followed by three toms. Then a trio of turkeys flies across, this time landing about 100 yards to our right. They strut around on a wide, grassy bench, eventually wandering away into the woods down the river.
The immediate responses to Bryant's occasional calls have dwindled to a few intermittent gobbles. Most of the turkeys seem content to hang out on the other side of the river. I slowly turn my head to see Bryant attending nature's call under a tree. I painfully make my way to my feet.
"Doesn't look like we're going to get them to come to us," whispers Bryant. "Let's head up into the woods and see if we can surprise any of them."
We work our way uphill, past the home of our host, into a long wooded area upstream. For a while, we plant ourselves again near a clearing and set up Adonis and Sexy Gertrude. As Bryant tries his various calls, I fall asleep, only to be jolted awake when my gun slips out of my lap and clatters on the ground.
It seems we've been thwarted. As Bryant and Hailey retrieve the decoys, I mosey over to where I can see the field by the river where we last saw the trio of turkeys.
There they are again, right out in the open, pecking around in the dirt. As I watch, they make their way toward the riverbank. I retreat to where I can signal to Bryant and Hailey, then return; but now, I can't see the turkeys.
We work our way carefully down to the field, guns at the ready. I step to where I can see over the lip of the field to the riverbank. Nothing.
Bryant, about 50 yards upstream, does the same. Suddenly, he raises his gun, and a lone hen flaps awkwardly out of the brush and flies away.
Bryant fires his shotgun into the brush, and all hell breaks loose. Turkeys fly in every direction. One young male - a jake - makes a beeline across the river. Bryant fires again, and it drops, flapping loudly in the water, clumsily swimming back toward him. He fires again at near-point-blank range, and misses utterly.
The jake reaches the bank, and commences sprinting across the open field, a comical blur of bobbing neck and gangly legs. Bryant takes chase, stumbling along like Elmer Fudd, gun in one hand as he fumbles in a pocket of his jacket for another shotgun shell.
I nearly collapse in laughter at the sight of it, until I realize: Wait, I should do something.
I begin running, but the speedy bird has already made the trees. Then I hear Hailey shouting behind us.
"He just flew down the river," she hollers. "He's in that big tree."
For the next hour, we search the tree and nearby riverbank. We're about to give up hope, when the landowner returns home with his black Labrador, Toolie.
"Hunt up the big bird," he tells Toolie, and she begins nosing excitedly up and down the bank, crashing through the brush. She arrives at the tall tree where Hailey had seen the jake alight, and begins acting strangely.
"Your bird's in there," says the landowner.
Sure enough, there he is, hiding in a bush behind a stump. He makes one last run for the river. This time, Bryant is ready, and our hunt is quickly over.
"There's nothing easy when it comes to turkey hunting," Bryant pants as he ponders his river-soaked prize.
"But then, that's sort of the point."