Jive Turkey

The Urban Dictionary defines "jive turkey" as:

One who speaks as though they know what they are talking about...though they do not.

Which is a pretty good definition for me, at least when it comes to turkey hunting.

Late in the spring turkey season, which typically runs from mid-April to the end of May here in Washington State, I ventured out to the far northeastern corner of Washington, some 25 miles or so south of Kettle Falls. Wild turkeys are plentiful there, and two years ago I managed to bag my first turkey ever. It was such a thrill! Using a wooden box-call, I produced a call mimicking that of a hen turkey. Out in the forest, pretty far off, I was answereed by the loud gobbling of a mature tom. I called, he responded, each time a little closer. Finally he and two cohorts came running up to my two decoys. From where I sat, close by and fully camoflauged, I watched one of the large male birds go into full display, fanning his tail feathers, puffing his chest, and strutting around in a vain attempt to impress the decoys. I was able to dispatch him with my shotgun quickly. That hunt had gone down the way that many online articles and videos had promised, and I felt like I had the hang of this turkey hunting thing.

The next year I struck out, but blamed it on a short duration hunt.

Back this year, I had arrived on a Friday, and had been in the field, watching my decoys and making calls, for probably 10 hours over the course of two days. 10 fruitless hours. Up at 4:45am the last morning, I had set my decoys before daylight, and was sitting on the ground, in the dark, with my back against a tree, my gun laid across my legs, listening to the world wake up all around me. And it struck me that I had no idea what I was doing. I had talked up how much fun turkey hunting was, based solely on that first successful hunting experience. In reality, I had been pretty lucky that first time. I was a jive turkey.

So sitting there, my back against the tree as the dark sky began to lighten, the first color of a coming sunrise, I remembered that this hunter-gatherer thing doesn't work well on a "one weekend a year" basis. To hunt successfully means to have a deep understanding of place, seasons, and patterns. What really did I know about turkeys in general, and what did I know about these turkeys in particular? Not much. In fact, as I listened to the growing chorus of first-light bird calls, I had to admit that I couldn't identify much of what I was hearing. A few birdsongs I knew: the chickadee-dee-dee of the chickadee, the wik-wik-wik-wik of the flicker, the whose-awake?who who of a great horned owl. But most I could not identify. As I sat there this struck me as a pretty serious shortcoming for a hunter-gatherer.

So I listened. And listened. Hours passed as the sun slowly rose. Deer approached my position, unable to see my camoflauged presence. Once they caught wind of me, however, their tails would go up in alarm, the would stomp and huff, and finally issue a high, breathy horn blow of warning as they sprinted off. Ants crawled noisily across the coarse canvas of my jacket, crickets chirped, and squirrels chattered. Birds called, even occasionally a turkey. Dogs barked in the distance, answered by horses from even further away. Cattle lowed and walked an unseen fenceline. Turkey calls again -- a hen making a short locating call, answered by the distant gobble of a tom. The hen call was different from that first year, I realized -- shorter, with fewer repetitions and a lighter inflection. The conversation between the hen and the tom was also spare, compared to the rapid back and forth I had experienced two years ago.

No great breakthrough happened that morning. I didn't realize what I should be doing differently, make some just-in-time adjustment, and achieve success. I did get a turkey that morning, but what actually happened was that I fell asleep, awakened to find a group of young male turkeys (jakes) in front of me, and I managed to get my gun up and make a good shot. I was lucky, again, not particularly skilled.

But afterward I spent some time reading about turkey calls and behaviors. Hearing the difference between one year's calls and another made me think that maybe there were different sets of behaviors for different times of the season. I learned that my first season had caught the brief "early season" behaviors, in which the birds are loud, anxious to pair up, and will aggressively approach decoys and respond to artificial calls. The rest of the year, hunters can expect much more reluctant behaviors from turkeys: short and quiet calling, lack of response to artificial calls, reluctance to pair up (they're already paired up!). Hunting tactics have to change, and mine will the next time I try this.

I realized I tend to think of getting out to find mushrooms, or hunt birds or deer, or gather greens, or orienteer or canoe as "the activity." Given a limited time to do these things, they get crammed in on a weekend here or there. I don't book the time to spend in a place to just listen and observe. Listening to and observing the natural world, as an "activity" of its own is something a hunter-gatherer would be good at, so we've got the predisposition. Listening and observing don't take any specialized equipment or particularly robust athletics. It's a good thing for improving my hunter-gatherer efforts, and it's a good thing to develop a real sense of a place, maybe even your own back yard. And that probably means it's a real thing, too. No jive turkey.

#huntandgather #forestbathing

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