Henry’s First Turkey Hunt. Part II
By Steve Bellrichard
When the April 7th youth season opened, we were ready. We hunted hard that first weekend, getting up early and staying out late, but the birds nor weather cooperated. I was impressed by Henry’s patience and stick-to-itiveness. He was a real trooper, especially on Sunday. Sunday started in the upper 40’s, but the temperatures dropped during the day and by midafternoon it was snowing so hard we could barely see. I broke out the hand warmers and showed him how I like to use the ones designed to warm toes, which have a sticky side, inside mittens to keep fingers warm. Even with the hand warmers we both were getting cold and I asked Henry if he wanted to go home. To my surprise he said no but was agreeable to warming up with a truck ride. To my disbelief, the second field we checked had a Strutter on it doing his thing in near white out conditions. We watched him through binoculars and between the snow squalls we could see him in full strut. Even more amazing was that Henry wanted us to go after him, despite the near blizzard conditions. I talked him out of it, and we called it a night after doing a little more scouting. I will always wonder if we could have made the stalk in all that snow.
The next opportunity we had to hunt was Wednesday evening. Wednesday’s are early out from school, so in the morning before school we packed the truck, so we were ready as soon as school was out. I took a blind to work that day and at noon I placed the blind with my buddy Joe. Joe had me place the blind a few feet in the woods from a field edge near a known roosting area. The thought was that we could catch a bird headed to roost for the evening. I got Henry from school and he dressed in camo as we drove. While he was dressing, I made him repeat the 3 hunting safety rules. I also quizzed him on shooting mechanics (squeezing), his aiming point (base of skull), and shooting distance limit (30 yards).
We parked the truck and grabbed our gear. Henry loaded the shotgun and we started in. I had him lead the way reminding him to keep his muzzle pointed in a safe direction. As we approached the field we were going to hunt, I stopped him and showed him how to use binoculars to look through the trees and brush before we broke cover. By focusing the binoculars on the field, we could look right thru the brush to see if the birds were already on the field. The field was empty, so we moved quickly to the blind.
Before getting into the blind we placed 2 decoys in the field. The first we placed was my 30 plus year old hen decoy made by Flambeau. It is hollow and ridged and makes a horribly loud sound if you hit something with it, but boy does it fool them. The hen was placed directly in front of the blind at 15 yards. This distance was not a guess. In Boy Scouts Henry had learned how to measure distance by counting strides. Henry knew that his stride measured 5 feet and those 15 yards, or 45 feet, would take 9 strides. From the decoy, I had Henry pace off another 15 yards away from the blind to establish his shooting limit. He marked this limit by shoving a stick in the ground. We then placed the Funky Chicken (a skinny Jake decoy) at 15 yards near the field edge and then paced and marked his shooting limit by bending a branch. To help him visualize his 30-yard limit, at home we had drawn up a typical hunting scenario on paper. We drew the blind, decoy at 15 yards, and then an arch around the blind at 30 yards. Any bird within the arch was shootable, any bird outside was off limits. We were ready to hunt.
It was in the upper 70’s that afternoon and I could feel sweat running down my back as we entered the blind. I was positioned on the right side of the blind and Henry on the left. Henry’s area to watch was to the right and I was responsible for watching the left. I had him practice raising the gun, placing his finger above the trigger, finding the safety, and aiming. When finished, I asked him if he was ready and he returned a calm confident smile that told me yes. Despite this reassurance, I felt uneasy as if I was forgetting something. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw Henry make the Sign of the Cross. Tears welled in the corner of my eyes as I knew I had done my job preparing him. After my quick prayer of thanks, a feeling of joy swept over me as I realized there is no place in the world I would rather be at this moment. I made a few turkey calls and finally relaxed. My mind started to drift with visions of Henry’s childhood playing like a movie in my mind.
I’m not sure how long the movie lasted but it ended abruptly as I realized I had let a hen and gobbler walk to within 30 yards of the blind. They had apparently walked down the field edge to the left of the blind, my area of responsibility, but just behind the blind’s wall so I could not see their approach. There was enough brush between the blind and the birds so I told Henry in the calmest whisper I could make that 2 turkeys were approaching and that he needs to raise the gun. Shortly after the gun was set on the edge of the blind, the hen walked past the blind headed toward the Jake decoy. It was then I was glad Joe had me place the blind in the woods a bit and not right on the edge of the field. The gobbler took a few steps away from the edge of the field toward the hen decoy and as Henry moved the gun to aim, the bird stopped at 10 yards. I heard the safety come off and saw his finger move to the trigger. I looked for the gobbler and he was still frozen in place. I whispered, “Shoot him when you’re ready”.
Time almost stops at moments like these, or at least it becomes very hard to measure or comprehend. That said it seemed like minutes had passed since I had told Henry to shoot. I could see that he was struggling with his aim and realized the barrel was much too low. Still, the gobbler remained frozen in place. I placed my hand under the stock and lifted the gun telling Henry to tell me when to stop. After what seemed to be more than a minute, he finally said, “there”. Again, the seconds past with no shot and the bird remained frozen in place. I said as softly as I could, “Take a breath and squeeze the trigger.” I saw Henry take a breath and turned toward the bird as the shot was fired.
We were both momentarily stunned by the loudness of the shot. Apparently with all the trouble he had with aiming, the barrel was only a few inches outside of the blind when the shot was fired, and the resulting boom rattled both of us. When the smoke cleared, however, it was obvious his aim was true. I had Henry put the gun on safe and hand it to me. He quickly exited the blind and when he was feet from the bird it started doing the death wing beat, which startled him. Must be some sort of nerve thing because nearly all the birds I have shot do this. I told Henry later it was the Turkey’s Spirt taking a last flight to heaven.
I exited the blind and congratulated Henry as he admired his bird. All turkeys are beautiful, but none more so than your first. Not only was this bird beautiful, he was a limb hanger. To be a limb hanger, the spurs must be long enough so that you can hang the bird from a tree limb by its spurs. This bird’s spurs were in the one and ½ inch range, one a little more than and one a little less.
We took pictures and just took a moment to let things soak in. I asked Henry to say a prayer of thanks and we bowed our head and gave the Lord his due. Nearly emotionally spent, but physically invigorated, I unloaded the gun and gathered our gear for the hike back to the truck.
Henry insisted on carrying the bird stating proudly, “A man has to carry his own bird”. “Where the heaven did he get that from?, I thought with a sense of pride and amusement. We had to stop several times on the way back so he could readjust the heavy bird, but I could tell from look on his face that I need not ask if he wanted me to take a turn carrying “His” bird.
On the ride back home, I asked Henry if he had ever heard the saying, “God favors the prepared.” He hadn’t so I explained to him that our preparations for the hunt allowed us to safely and ethically harvest his first turkey. These preparations included hunter safety education, gun familiarization, shooting practice, knowing his and the shotgun’s limits, and practicing safe hunting techniques. “Anyone can get lucky and kill a bird”, I said, “but those who properly prepare, are rewarded by God more often than those that don’t.” The concluding thought I wanted to leave him with this day was that killing was the least important thing of any hunt. He looked doubtful, so I explained that the most important thing is being safe. If you’re not safe you might not get to go again. The next most important thing is getting outside and enjoying the pursuit of God’s gifts of wildlife. I told him that the preparations he had made demonstrate to God that he appreciates and respects these gifts. I could see I was getting a little deep for him, so I ended by telling him how proud I was of him and how lucky I was for getting to spend this time with him and sharing my knowledge.
I started writing this story shortly after the hunt but did not finish it until more than a year later. Even after all that time I still don’t understand why the gobbler froze at 10 yards for such a long period of time, which I estimated was a good 3 minutes. This might not seem like a lot of time, but I’ve never seen a turkey stand still for more than a few seconds. The only explanation I have is that God wanted to reward Henry for his hard work and his invisible hand held the turkey in place until Henry was ready to aim small and squeeze the trigger.