Outsmarted by Turkeys
Sometimes even the desire to hunt is not enough.
By Rick Bass
Nothing much happened to me on this year’s deer hunt. As the land ties us together, linking us and our newer stories to our elder relatives and their older stories of past hunts, so, too, does our quarry link us. And yet as we age, that chemical within us that once used to make us want so badly to shoot a deer or turkey has waned considerably.
It never waned in Old Granddad — he was a prodigious deer-killer all the way to the end, shooting two bucks in the autumn before his death, despite the stroke that had nearly killed him a few years earlier, at the age of 80 (and chain-smoking all the way down) — but it’s been several years since Uncle Jimmy (despite his own stroke, he can still shoot the bull's eye) or my father have killed a deer. They just flat don't want to any more.
They still go out into the hills, carrying a rifle — as if waiting for the inspiration, the need, the desire, to return — like retired farmers going out and looking up at the sky for rain, is how I think of it, even though the farmer no longer has any crops planted — but the feeling, urge or need, never returns, for they observe the deer, watch antlered bucks slipping through the cedar, but never shoot any more.
Perhaps they imagine that it, the missing desire, is like the deer used to be, and it is that desire they are searching for when they go out on their walks, rather than searching for the deer themselves. Perhaps they imagine that that long-ago desire is like a deer itself, seeking to elude them, always moving away quietly; though perhaps not, for they never seem disappointed when they do not find that desire, but instead, accepting, and even refreshed. Perhaps they simply keep going out from habit.
I notice it in myself, too, more and more each year. More and more, each year, I do not shoot deer that in the old days I would have shot. I have killed dozens of deer, have rarely missed, but now it seems as if they are almost all slipping away from me, escaping like sand through my outstretched fingers, flowing away, and I do not mind. I, too, am content to wander the hills with my rifle in hand — Old Granddad’s ancient .270, rebored after the First World War — and to walk quietly, and take in the world’s scent, and to listen, and to just see what happens.
It rained like stink on this year's hunt. Not the frequent Hill Country fog and mist, nor one of the brief, yet powerful, thunderstorms created by the crashing of cold fronts into humid southeast Gulf weather systems, but instead, a cold and steady toad-strangler, for day upon day and night upon night.
Still, we had come to hunt, and so on opening morning, I patched my falling-apart old boots with duct tape, and we each departed for our favorite places, our nooks and niches, where we might or might not be able to stay dry, or close to dry. We were curious, maybe even mildly anxious, to see what the land would bring us this year. There were seven of us — my father, Uncle Jimmy, myself, my brother B.J. and my cousins Rick, Randy and Russell.
Nothing happened all that first morning. No one shot any deer, no one saw any deer. I sat for hours in my camouflage rain suit beneath a big oak, the rain dripping hypnotically onto my head and shoulders, lulling me into a motionless trance. I waited and waited, believing as a hunter always believes, that at any moment a nice buck was going to come walking past.
The only thing remotely like that occurred just before I was about to stand up and stretch and walk squish-booty back to camp for lunch. A thoroughly drenched raccoon came trundling through the tall grass, head down and rump tipped way up in that car-up-on-jacks way the big ones have of walking.
He was heading straight for my tree, and it was easy to see that he had but one idea on his mind, to get out of that miserable rain, and that he had no idea I was already sitting under his big tree.
I was perfectly still and perfectly camouflaged. He kept coming on, 30 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet — stopping now and again briefly to snuffle at some rich scent beneath the rotting autumn leaves.
Finally he was right at the tip of my boots — I could have nudged him if I wanted — and, not knowing what etiquette demanded — clearing my throat seemed like too human of a thing to do — I instead merely wiggled my toes, which were less than a foot away from him.
He was so cool. He didn’t blow up like a ball of dynamite, all heart-stricken and wall-eyed, the way I would have.
Instead, he froze, reared up on his hind legs (his front paws clasped in front of him as if begging pardon for some ill-
considered intrusion), peered at me only briefly, as if to be absolutely certain of what he was seeing, but not looking too long — as if believing that staring, too, would be rude — and then, seemingly without regret, he dropped back down to all fours and ambled back off into the steady rain.
Nothing else happened all day, but it was a fine way to spend a rainy morning, and a fine thing to see, and to remember.
On day two, I almost made a kill. Once again, I sat quietly, watching and waiting, but saw nothing; and growing chilled and miserable, I rose and began walking, not really hunting but just slogging, moving through the dripping cedar as if in a dream. From time to time, I would remember that I was supposed to be hunting, and would resume skulking and scouting, tiptoeing and paying attention to shadows and wind direction, faint noises near and far, hoof prints and the like — but somehow, it was mortally tiring in the steady rain like that, and soon enough, I would slip back into the straight-ahead plod, the slog-o-rama.
Until I heard the turkeys, that is. They gobbled only once, sounding very far away, and — though I had never heard turkeys gobble in a driving rain before — they sounded very wet and very unhappy, feeble and dispirited: dejected with the world. I could see them in my mind’s eye, marching single file, feathers sodden, trudging as if on the way back from some country funeral, their once-iridescent, shimmering feathers now drooping and rain-blackened. So familiar am I with the lay of this land that it seemed to me that even from that one little distant outburst of squabble-gobble — one lone gobbler lifting his voice, perhaps, to protest the steady drenching — I was pretty sure where they were.
In my mind, I was exactly sure — I imagined I could see the tree they were marching past, half a mile away — and all the previous rain-
torpor vanished from me immediately, and the full blood of the hunt returned, this, perhaps, was the thing the older guys and I had been out wandering in the fields in search of. I galloped through the woods, wet cedar fronds swatting me in the face and knotty oak limbs smacking my forehead as I rushed toward the place where I thought I could best lay in wait to ambush them, if they came wandering my way, taking the path I had assigned to them in my imagination, and which, with every bit of my hunter’s fire, hunter’s force, I was now trying to will them to take, praying they would take. And while all this energy was being dispensed, this desire, I was, at the same time, trying to balance the negative capability of not thinking about them taking that route, and indeed, not thinking about them at all, in order to reduce the risk of alerting their keen senses to the mere heat, the nearby resonance, of my rising, clamant desire.
I was down in what we call the hollow (aka Panther Hollow, also sometimes Turkey Hollow), near where the fence divides our property from the next: cleaving the creek in two, in places, as the ancient rusting barbed wire and drill-blasted metal fence posts zigzag back and forth across the meander of the shallow, narrow creek, down in that dark hollow of hickory and oak where nobody ever goes.
I could hear the turkeys coming right down the fenceline, as I’d hoped and believed they would. I adjusted my camo, and hunkered behind a cedar, motionless. It was raining hard on all of us, and surely with their bedraggled, down-tipped heads, they would not notice me, but would pass right by me, close enough for me to almost reach out and grab one by the neck, if I desired.
I didn’t move a muscle — I emptied my mind of desire and became the rain itself — but somehow, they sensed or saw me, for I heard the first telltale “putt!,” the sound of me being busted, and then a quick scrambling, followed by a thumpy, screechy, bass cello or guitar sound, as that lead bird hopped nimbly over the fence and detoured onto the other land, traveling away from me now at a 90-degree angle.
No problem. They had to be walking single-file — the trail through the dense cedar, and along that old fence, was too narrow for them to do anything but that — and if the lead one scooched away, well, not to worry, I’d take the number-two bird, or even number three or four or five. I remained motionless, confident in my hiding spot, and waited.
But once more I heard the little alarm peep, from not 15 yards away, just on the other side of a big cedar, followed by that same guitar-twanging sound of a turkey vaulting over the fence.
Again, I remained squint-eyed and motionless — they couldn’t possibly see me — but this time, through the dense screening of cedar, I thought I saw the airborne head of a gobbler, bright blue in the rain, as he fluttered over that low fence like a gymnast mounting or dismounting the parallel bars, or even taking low preliminary leaps on a trampoline — a little 3- or 4-foot leap in which he ascended, wings still tucked to his side and legs paddling the air heroically — just enough of a bound to clear that fence — and then descended, on the other side, the safe side, as he watched me — or the precise place where I was hiding — all the while.
The third turkey vaulted the fence in the same spot, in this same manner, as did the fourth and then the fifth. I continued to refuse to believe they were seeing me, even though as each one floated over that top strand of fence, I could see the beady eye of each lone jumper fixed on me — or where I was hiding — with an eerie intensity, scowling stern as a judge.
Maybe the number six bird will be different, I told myself — trying to pretend that with all their fretful and concurrent gobbling and purring and putting and fussing, they weren’t broadcasting the word to each and all: 5-foot-7- inch Caucasian male/blue eyes/balding/gap-toothed/kind of lecherous-looking/12 o’clock sharp, 15 yards out — but at that same fence-side place, the number six bird made his little vault, and I thought, maybe number seven will keep on coming on, but there was no number seven, only absence after that.
I could see them, scattered here and there, wandering confused and nervous, unsure of what to do next, and trying to regroup: a blue head here, a long beard behind a cedar there; long drumstick legs, the scuttling silhouette of a body, a snakelike head peering out from behind an oak tree before putting and ducking back behind the tree.
In the old days, I would have been agonized at so near a miss, and at the unfairness of an invisible boundary — would have howled at the arbitrary nature of luck — but this day, I just sat there in the rain and watched them, and smiled at how incredibly close it had been, and at the waning of desire, though not pleasure.
And after they had hurried off into the woods, and I rose to leave, I looked down at my soggy boots and saw then what surely each of them had been seeing: the solid band of duct tape, as brilliant as the gleaming aluminum fuselage of an airplane, with which I had repaired my old sole-flapping boots that morning; and I laughed, marveling at how it must have leapt out at them, back there in the dark hollow, shiny as a new beer can on that gloomy day, and at the luck of those turkeys and how they just weren’t meant to be gotten, that day.
I was just pleased to have wanted one. To have wanted one pretty badly.