The Real Gift of Spring Gobbler Hunting

A version of this story appeared in the Pennsylvania Game News Magazine, April 2011 www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/pgc/pagamenews…/index.php?startid=2

My friend, Hoppy May, has a 140 yard long wooden suspension bridge that leads to his home on the far bank of the First Fork. The cabin nestles in a cleft of the mountains, just upstream from where the First Fork topples into the Sinemahoning. Thirteen miles farther downstream, it dumps into the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

To reach Hoppy’s, you leave your car on the far side by the road and carry your belongings across the bridge, gripping the steel cables. Instead of swinging, the bridge undulates, in waves, with each step. Long minutes after you’ve reached solid ground, your legs feel as though they are still bouncing. This crossing is a rite of passage into Hoppy’s wild life, his sanctuary.

This particular spring evening, the turkeys are gobbling across the hills. Their lusty voices echo and bounce from one side of the drainage to the other. Spring peepers, shrill and loud, compete for center stage. Apple blossom petals stir by me in the breeze. Hop’s two horses spot me and gallop across the pasture. It is the welcoming committee and I feel embraced.

I’ve left my husband and two children behind back at our home in Schuylkill County, as well as responsibilities and packed schedules. I can only get away for one day this Spring Gobbler season; it’s all I can spare.

The fog hangs low over the First Fork at 6 a.m. I rearrange my shotgun slung over my shoulder, and pause on the swinging bridge. I raise my eyes to the sky, lift up my blaze-orange baseball cap and notice the morning brightening.

,..

We climb the steep mountain and listen to the staccato of the ovenbird’s song, her voice often described like a sewing machine. Lime green, striped maple leaves make a low lacy curtain that I duck under. Hay-scented ferns push fiddleheads through the leaf mold all over the forest floor. Their tops tightly curled, like fairy scepters, are back lit by the low morning sun. I place my feet methodically on the spongy earth, last year’s buff-colored ferns cover every rock and fallen branch like matted hair.

As soon as the sun beams across the landscape, the wind kicks up. Sound doesn’t travel well this morning. Our calls won’t reach the gobblers’ ears. Not a single bird answers us. They are quiet. “Not a good day for hunting,” Hoppy announces. It is my only day to hunt. I have to make the best of it.

We walk the deer trails and pause to call, not just with our cupped ears but with our whole bodies, sensitive to vibrations. When a gobbler finally answers, we calculate his path, climb to the ridge and get set up. I sit motionless, gun poised, heart pounding, waiting for him to pop over the horizon.

Then I spot the magnificent bird. The colors of his head are blinding. The top of his head is a cottonball white, like a skullcap. Brilliant cobalt blue surrounds his beady eyes and travels down his neck. The rest of his head is a cherry red. He stretches his neck, looking for his babe (that would be me), trying to pinpoint her in the woods. Then he goes into a strut, dragging his wing tips, fanning his tail, making himself look bigger and more desirable than any bird, he hopes, I have ever seen. His whole body surges with hormones, quivers with excitement, over the possibilities that await him. I am smitten.

In a split second, he is before me, so spitting close I can almost smell his mustiness. I fire, miss, and Hop hisses, shoot again.”

I am so shocked I don’t even consider shooting twice. Shot two is a joke. I take it just for show. The bird flies out of range and I am overcome with disappointment. I feel like such a failure. Twenty yards, perfect shot. I should have gotten him. I disappointed Hop who could have had the bird himself, had he not given me the chance. We got up so early (4 am), worked so hard to climb this mountain, raced like nimble mountain goats, for nothing. I doubt if I’ll ever get a chance like this again.

It is over so unbelievably quick.

My spirits drag and I stumble down the mountain in disbelief. This surprises me because I’ve always felt that hunting is not about the kill, but about being out here in the wild world. Hoppy, however, is delighted. He chatters on about what a great hunt it was. “A poor woodsman would have heard that bird up high, said forget it, was too much work. But we hustled and climbed like goats, tried to figure what the bird would do, where it would go, set ourselves up and figured right.”

He was not disappointed but thrilled to have called him in so close and to see him in his finest wild moment – what a gift. So he analyzes it. “You need to shoot your gun more. Get more comfortable with it. Practice shooting clay birds at a range. Get good at ‘in flight’ shooting.”

I think to myself: What can I cut out of my life to become better at hunting and shooting? The kids’ dentist appointments? That walk with my girlfriend who is having marital problems? I am so many things to so many people. As a writer who is also a mother, I have to resort to “writing around the edges of my life” as it is. No, today was it. One chance only to go spring gobbler hunting. To be out here with the spring peppers and the earth bursting with new life and the gobblers and a friend that I love, is enough.

Tonight, over bowls of steaming chili, we sit on Hop’s front porch and witness the graying of the world as the earth revolves. He places his dulcimer on his lap and plays me “Soldier’s Joy.” I sway gently in the rocking chair and feel at peace. It’s all part of this ritual of spring gobbler hunting for me. It is much more than bagging a bird. It is about returning to my life and feeling as though I am still bouncing.

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