May 28, 2023
By M.R. Thompson
I walked alone in the dark toward the roosting tree, blood trickling through my veins with the viscosity of cold river mud. Reaching the top of the butte, I vowed to consult WebMD about hangovers and whether they could be fatal.
The previous night’s tailgate dinner had offered a menu straight out of a field to table food blogger’s fever dream — crusty homemade sourdough, wrapped around a slice of bear meatloaf from last spring’s boar, coated in a glaze concoction of Gochujang and honey from my first attempt at beekeeping. The eccentricities of the recipes would have made me roll my eyes in contempt if I wasn’t the one who assembled the feast. But I had felt a premature celebration was in order, and along with that spread I cracked open a growler of a friend’s home-brew. A true slave to the process, he grows his own hops. It was indeed a hoppy red ale but looked more like a barley wine and tasted like a mixture of pine needles, garlic, and some industrial cleaner, but in the best possible way. So I drank the whole thing.
And why not?
Hours earlier I had located one of the last active roosting trees in the area, late in the season and on public land to boot! My tag was as good as punched in the morning. Earlier, at dusk, the Tom had floated about like a shiny black mylar balloon low on helium, giving false promises to the two hens in his proximity. They didn’t look too impressed, as I am sure they had heard it all before, but he ushered them to his chosen tree in the fading light and with a clamorous uproar roosted for the night, safe from skulking varmints like me.
It was past legal shooting time when I found them. Otherwise, I would have made a move, as I am not above guerilla tactics when hunting these absurd ruddy-faced birds. Twenty years ago, shortly before I notched my first turkey tag, I called a very lonely, very passionate Merriam’s into the clearing I was hunting. I did the very thing you aren’t supposed to, overcalling and not pretending to be a hard-to-get hen walking out of his romantic life forever with a few indifferent yelps. Instead, I answered him call for call, yet he closed the distance all the while sounding off with his “rusty tin roof in the wind” gobble from what must have been a mile away, only to stop at the edge of the clearing and take flight. I swung on him like so many pheasants and grouse before and watched him pitch into a gully not far away from where I was this very morning. The bird collapsed at the bottom, body broken but head still upright, black eyes watching me as I approached.
He was such a magnificently bizarre creature, a specimen of vulgar beauty. I want to say there was something in his eyes that wasn’t in other wild birds’; something not so much intelligent but calculating, a certain kind of instinctual wisdom. I despatched him much more awkwardly than he deserved and marveled at the gasoline-like chatoyance of his body feathers and tail fan as the colors in his beautiful bald head faded like the light of dusk.
Twenty years later, the layers of dawn peeled away minute by minute in shades of silver through the pines until the roosting tree erupted with morning life. The gobbler, red-faced, like some hypertensive politician expounding his plan to save the country, pleaded to his constituents until they dropped from the tree and moved away. The Tom followed, completely disinterested in my own poorly delivered lies.
Dawn broke fully, the turkeys were gone, and I had no plan. But I did have a hangover blossoming into a migraine as no less than a five male ruffed grouse drummed persistently within acres of me. To quote Dorothy Parker, “What fresh hell is this?” Perhaps it was divine retribution for all the years I spent chasing ruffs in the fall.
As the heat of the day settled in, the grouse kept drumming and my head kept pounding but I decided to stick things out. At my feet, amidst the layers of pine needles, lay a white twisted rope of coyote scat, not much left besides hair and bits of bone. A chickadee flitted over, pondered the spoor in the thoughtful way chickadees do, and pulled a tuft out of the chalky white rope to add to its nest. The part of me that lives in the modern, sterilized, plastic-wrapped world recoiled, then immediately felt embarrassed at how easy it is to forget the wild is always giving and taking. Nothing goes to waste in these cycles of begging or choosing.
The grouse drums in the spring to attract mates, in the fall, to push away rivals. The coyote kills a late fawn in the winter and the chickadee builds a nest in the early spring. There is no way to connect the dots fully. You aren’t supposed to anyway, even if it all does add up to some powerful tableau.
Later in the evening after some ibuprofen and a nap, I put a tag on that gobbler. He picked his way back into the field with his two hens and spent the afternoon meandering closer and closer. He ignored all my calls again and acted as if my budget foam decoys, looking more pensive than lustful, didn’t exist. But the hammer fell and the semi-auto’s action retraced the path it has a thousand times before. Another circle closed and another opened as I walked back to the truck, thinking about making turkey carnitas in the slow cooker, anticipating serving them at chukar camp in the fall.
About the Author
Michael R. Thompson is a professional knife maker and Sporting artist who lives in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley with five bird dogs and a very patient wife. If he isn’t hunting or fishing he is crafting functional artwork to honor those pastimes and where they take place.