Whether wild turkeys are dumb is a question our brightest minds should tackle. Certainly these oversized fowl look dim enough as they plod through suburbs or peck lazily along freeway roadsides. Then again, if you put a shotgun in your hand, or a bow, and try to shorten the distance between you and one of these big birds, particularly a tom, you'll learn quickly enough that wild turkeys, more often than not, are smarter than you think. Literally.
Wednesday morning, opening day of Minnesota's gobbler season, rain fell heavily at 4:15. I was hoping that wouldn't be the case, and a half-hour later, when my son Cole and I pulled out of the driveway, the downpour continued. The concern wasn't so much that we would get wet; we'd hunt from a tent-like blind. Instead, in the rain, turkeys lose enthusiasm for trotting, or moving around. Also, they often don't like to strut or pirouette for girls as they might on sunny mornings, reducing hunters' chances.
Yet, this was the season's first day. So, wipers flapping, we drove on.
When we left the truck a half-hour later still, the rain had stopped. Moving through wet grass toward the blind a quarter-mile distant, we carried Cole's 12-gauge, two small folding chairs, assorted calls, face masks, two hen decoys and, for me, a large cup of what truckers call motion lotion, or coffee. If this was father-son bonding, it would be short-lived: Cole had only an hour to hunt before he would leave for school.
Arriving at the blind, I worried over where to place a decoy, and whether to use one or two. Matters less weighty have perplexed heads of state. In the end, I followed Bill Marchel's recommendation, based on scores of mornings he has spent photographing these birds:
One decoy, a hen, is best.
Except when it's not.
Then you might try two, a hen and a jake. Or just a tom. Or whatever.
Light gathered slowly, and I sensed no real need to scratch out a first call until just after 6. Plaintive and tentative, with just a little Cartagena-like come-hither tossed in, this yelp was issued pianissimo, as was the next, maybe four minutes later.
Hearing no reply, I figured the morning might be a bust.
Then, from a tree in the far distance, gobbled a gobbler.
Not wanting to appear over-eager, I waited nearly a minute, and called back. A return gobble came quickly enough, and another followed. And another.
Among the relatively few legal ways to suspend concern completely over one's problems, or the nation's, or the world's, imagining a tom turkey working his way slowly toward you through the woods, advancing as if being pulled by a string, ranks near the top.
Each gobble issued more closely than the previous paints for the hunter an imaginary picture of the bird's location, not unlike watching a blinking icon advance on a Google map.
"Getting closer," Cole whispered.
A half-hour passed, yelp following gobble following yelp.
Then a fan of feathers appeared, or parts of a fan, along with as pretty a picture as a turkey hunter can imagine: an all-American head -- red, white and blue.
Nearly completely obscured by trees and brush, the big fellow wasn't running for the decoy. But clearly he saw her, and bore in his billowed feathers the confident flirtations of the boss tom he probably was hereabouts.
It was then that my decoy-placement mistake became apparent.
Had the bird approached from the front, or to our right, Cole would have had a clear shot. As it was, the tom would have to present himself nearly point-blank to the decoy for Cole to squeeze off a direct hit.
Which now seemed unlikely, as the gobbler alternately strutted and collapsed his feathers, tiring, perhaps, of advertising himself to a mannequin.
Soon enough, as if in a huff, the bird simply exited stage right, having had his fill of love that clearly was unrequited.
But his departure bore a fatal flaw.
He paused to fan one more time, as if to issue a final goodbye, obstructed still by low, loose brush, but appearing now closer to our blind, say 15 yards.
With a heavy load of chilled 5s, Cole took him when he cleared between two trees.
Perhaps we'll never know whether turkeys are relatively dumb, or smart.
We do know that, in the end, it's their mistakes that kill them.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org