There are days best spent sleeping late. Early mornings when the best course of action is inaction, when you should turn the alarm off, all the way off, not to the half commitment of “snooze” (is there anything more of a cop out than the “snooze” button?) but all the way off, and pull the blankets back up and go back to sleep. Lie in the dark warmth for a minute or two, and then drift back to the comfort of sleep. There are days like this. Trouble is, you don’t know it until you look back.
The alarm went off at 4:15 a.m., and I asked Sally if she still wanted to hunt, and she said that she did. So I got up, made my way downstairs, bleery-eyed, turned on the coffee, let the dogs out and assessed the weather. It was cool, but stars shone overhead: Clear and cool, and birds were starting to sing. It looked to be a good day to hunt turkeys.
When things go off kilter, they often do so in small ways. The course is altered in what would seem an insignificant manner. A small thing here, a tiny detail there; the unraveling begins, the implications of which are yet to be seen.
Sally needed to find an extra hat, for it was colder than the forecast. A minute lost, perhaps two. The dogs stayed out longer, knowing perfectly well there was a hunt afoot (they can tell by the pants we wear, battered old camo seeped in the scent of wood duff and dirt and game.) More time lost, just a bit, not enough for concern. We coaxed them in with treats of cat food. Minutes lost as the eastern sky showed the pale orange-yellow of sunrise.
We climbed into the truck and left home behind us. We were running late, but did not realize it; little things adding up.
I drove highway, then town road, blacktopped and dry, past unlit houses and dark woods, past lakes that shone softly under the waning moon. Then to dirt and mud; parked. It was lighter than I’d expected, and only then I knew we were late. So more haste now, a brisk walk burdened by pair of decoys and shotgun and small blind, folding chair and camera tripod. A woodcock spiraled up ahead of us; birdsong echoed from scrub popple trees; daybreak was near.
Then the gobble of turkey ahead of us, not too far off. Another answered. Then a third. High above the ground they were, roosting in tall, thin red pines. We moved faster in the dawning.
Sally’s low light vision is poor, and as we turned and angled into the woods, she turned on her head lamp, its small beam bright in the dark under the pines. We were close enough to the turkeys that they could see it, the unnatural beam of light in the dark shadow. I asked her to turn it off, and we moved more slowly. If we had been earlier, on time, we’d have walked in the more open area, been able to take our time. But we were late, just a few minutes late, but enough that we had to hurry, enough she needed the light. The small missteps were accumulating, the damage being done.
We reached the area we’d hunt. I crouched low and moved into the field, set decoys on stakes in the soft dirt. Sally stayed back in cover, unloaded gear. The turkeys gobbled. Were we too close? Get too close and they’ll fly, but just off that too-close range they won’t fly, but still see you and go on alert. Were we in that zone?
I unrolled the small blind, no more than a sheet of camo nylon held taut by six fiberglass poles. Four poles attach to a hub in the center, hold it upright, two act to hold the edges down, and we hunker behind it. Simple but effective. But not on this morning. On this day two poles came loose, and the blind did not hold. Instead it lay flat on the ground. I fumbled trying to put it right.
It was on my shoulders, this mistake. I’d not checked the blind at home. It was not ready to go; not ready at all. Another misstep; another mistake. I struggled with the blind as it flapped like the wing of a large bird and made a muffled whoomping noise as it fluttered. The toms gobbled but tentatively. I got the blind set up after a brief but spirited struggle.
Sally meanwhile was trying to get situated on the small folding chair. Three weeks earlier she’d broken her arm, a bad compound fracture that required lengthy surgery and now rehab. I thought the chair might be more comfortable for her, but try as she might, she could not make it work. More wasted time, more movement, more cause for turkey alarm.
Then the camera tripod, a sturdy device that I’d fitted with a V-shaped rest for the shotgun. With only one good arm, she could rest the shotgun on the tripod, take the pressure off her bad arm, have some comfort. More time spent readying the tripod on uneven ground.
We were, finally, set. It was a few minutes past legal shooting time, and the toms were still gobbling from their roost. We sat in the chill of dawn and waited as we do every spring season, waited for the birds to fly down, to land and gather themselves up and begin their day. Waited for them to gobble, to answer my call, to come closer, in range.
Not on this day. On this morning we heard the beat of heavy wing as they left their tall roost and flew to the ground, and in that moment of wing beat we found hope. There was a minute or two of silence after they flew down, then one of the birds gobbled and Sally whispered, “He’s going away from us” and yes, the call was fainter than it had been when the bird was on the roost. Another minute, another call: farther away. Minutes later a last faint call off to the north of us. Then they were silent.
It was, we know now, the accumulation of small mistakes on that spring day. It was not one major, catastrophic blunder that turned the tide, it was little things: dogs too long outside, a missing hat, a too-slow walk to the hunt area, a blind that did not work, too much movement in getting comfortable. And on those small mistakes, the hunt turned.
We did not see a turkey that day. We hunted less than two hours before we gave it up as a lost cause. We walked back to the truck under an April sun on a fine spring morning. It was not a bad day, not at all.
It would have been, all things considered, a good day to sleep late.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.