Even when I was a little boy hunting with my father hours on end, I never wanted to come out of the woods. In later years, I never stopped to think that my sons would be different. Then around the age of 12, I noticed they were losing their enthusiasm for hunting and fishing. I could understand my wife not wanting to go out with me, but my sons?
As Zach and Luke grew older, they would go with me occasionally, but it was the exception rather than the rule. Not everyone has the hunting and fishing gene, I told myself.
Before Dad’s Alzheimer’s, we often reminisced about our hunting and fishing forays. Although they had heard the stories many times before, my sons would sit and listen intently. I told Dad that my fondest childhood memory was him holding me close, with his hand over my heart, when we paused a few minutes as we climbed up a hollow in the predawn gloom on our way to the good woods on a ridge to squirrel hunt.
“Do you know why I held you that way?” Dad asked.
“Because you loved me and the time was special?” I replied.
“That and the fact that you would never ask me to slow down or stop. Sometimes I would put my hand down your jacket and your heart would be beating so hard it scared me. When it settled down, we would continue up the mountain.”
I don’t remember struggling climbing the mountains when we hunted, although I’m sure I must have. I do remember how proud I was of my dad. In my mind the best squirrel, turkey, and deer hunter in West Virginia. The best smallmouth, rock bass, and catfish fisherman, too. I remember how the hickory and poplar looked so bright, with their almost luminescent yellow leaves, as if the sun had cast a spotlight on them even before it rose. My only regret, Dad having worked so much, was that we didn’t have a chance to hunt and fish more. I especially remember how sad I was when it came time to return home from a hunting or fishing trip.
After Dad said that, and as tears began to well up in my eyes, I noticed my sons giving each other a look.
“What?” I asked.
“Dad, us hunting and fishing together wasn’t our fondest childhood memory,” Zach, the oldest replied. “You would get us up before dawn, we would hunt or fish till after dark with hardly a word except for you showing us tracks, or some other sign, or you explaining what the fish were feeding on. A lot of the time we were thirsty and hungry. We never knew when we’d get back home. So, no, hunting and fishing for us was not our fondest childhood memory.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Luke, my youngest agreed.
Of course, my first thought after they said that is that it was their mother’s fault. She didn’t come from a hunting and fishing family and turned the boys against it. But deep down, I knew that wasn’t true. Although she resented the time hunting and fishing took me away from her, she loved the fact I was spending time with the boys. And she warned me not to keep them out so long. In fact, she was a wonderful mother and very supportive of my time with the boys. No, I had only myself to blame for their current disinterest in hunting and fishing.
My boys grew up and moved away and my wife passed away. I remarried. It seems God had been preparing Mary, my new wife, and I for each other through many of the hardships we faced. Through my first wife’s illness, God had shown me how to love unconditionally, enthusiastically, holding nothing back. Oh, to love that way again! Mary especially needed a man like that.
After her breakup with her husband of 25 years, Mary waited 7 years before even going out with another man. Thankfully, I was him. Mary’s physical beauty is only rivaled by the beauty of her heart. How is it that some rich, good looking guy, probably with a fancy fishing boat, did not sweep her off her feet?
During our brief courtship, I learned Mary and I have a great deal in common. We both love to dance, we both share our deepest feelings unabashedly, holding nothing back, and she will hang in there with me and hunt and fish till the cows came home. She has never once acted tired, although she must have been, complained, or asked to come home, even when it got late, the mosquitoes came out, and the smallmouth quit biting.
We’ve hunted squirrels, rabbits, turkey, and deer in the 6 months since we’ve been married. We’ve caught stringers of rainbow trout, sea trout, white grunts, grouper, largemouth, smallmouth, redeye rock bass, and catfish.
Now it’s Spring Gobbler Season in Georgia and we’re trying to get Mary her first turkey.
We scouted the lease we would be hunting several days before the opener and located about 4 different toms in the bottoms by the Withlacoochee River. During one of the scouting trips, one of the toms forced me to leave the location quickly because he was coming precariously close after only one series of calls. I didn’t want to risk disturbing him. He seemed to be the perfect bird to hunt opening morning.
At the first hint of dawn, we were setting up at the base of a huge live oak. There was a slight rise behind us where there was a stand of fairly mature planted pines. About 100 yds. to the left was a large food plot in a depression that became a small lake during times of high water. Huge, old oaks and sweet gums draped in Spanish moss were the predominate trees in front of us and the woods there were fairly open.
An owl hooted nearby but no gobbler sounded off in defiance as they often do.
“Most toms don’t begin to gobble until the crows wake up,” I explained to Mary.
In just a little while we heard the crows begin to caw across the river. A couple minutes later a tom sounded off on the roost. He had roosted somewhere between the food plot and the river, a little over 100 yds. away.
“He’ll come if he doesn’t get henned up before he gets here,” I told Mary, and she shifted to point more in the direction I told her the gobbler would come.
I called, talking dirty to the bird, promising him things a good Christian man should never promise. But it was in turkey talk, a language Mary isn’t fluent in, so she wasn’t embarrassed and thought no less of me.
After the bird flew down, he at first seemed to go away from us. Perhaps he was traveling around a thick patch of woods. But in just a little while, it was evident he was heading our way.
We could see through the woods a good distance, so he would not be in range when we first saw the bird. I told Mary to wait until I gave the word.
At first, only the gobbler’s big white head was visible far out in the woods. We would lose sight of him for a couple of minutes when he went behind a tree or other obstruction and we would wonder if he had slipped away unseen.
But slowly on he came, wary and regal, a few halting steps at a time. When a tom gobbles, the natural thing is for the hen to come to him. This one couldn’t understand why our hen decoy didn’t come out to meet him, especially when he hesitated to strut for a few minutes hardly 50 yds. away, about 10 yds. further than I was comfortable with Mary taking the shot.
As we watched the turkey strut, Mary whispered with her lilting Venezuelan accent, “What’s wrong with me? I feel like my heart is about to jump out of my chest.”
I smiled and whispered back, “Welcome to turkey huntin’.”
When I thought the long beard was hung up and was about to walk away, I cut loose with a fit of clucking and cutting that would make even the most jaded street walker cower if she understood what I was saying.
The tom couldn’t handle it, finally he committed and headed on in. At 35 yds. I told Mary to shoot when comfortable.
No matter what happened from here on out, the hunt was a success. We had gotten all the good out of that turkey except maybe for a few pictures.
Mary squeezed the trigger and the shotgun blast echoed through the misty bottom. I was surprised but not totally disappointed when the turkey flew. Mary threw another load of number 5’s as he took wing, the turkey like Mary, totally unsettled but equally unharmed except maybe for their pride.
“What happened?” Mary asked in disbelief.
“You missed, every turkey hunter misses eventually. You just got it out of the way on your first turkey,” I said.
She was so disappointed, she couldn’t believe she missed. I chuckled and gave her a big hug, loving her even more if that’s possible.
“We’ll get your turkey,” I promised. “It may take a couple more trips, but I assure you, I’ll be cooking you your first turkey before the season is over.”
Tune in to gregoryjustice.com to read the blogs I post of our subsequent hunts, and hopefully the story of when Mary takes her first big tom.