Rabbits, Turkeys, and Dads
Helping my son and daughter achieve "firsts" as they were growing up was one of the biggest joys of parenting, and it happened regularly. But this spring I got the rare chance to help my father add to his list of firsts, and the experience had echoes of a November day we shared more than 30 years ago – with a twist.
I should preface this by saying that my dad is not an avid turkey hunter. He gets a landowner's tag each year, but has only chosen to go when I offer to take him, and then only if my son and I aren't actively trying to fill tags of our own. He has interest in turkeys, but he wants the rest of us to get our birds first and I think he worries that an extra person will hinder our progress.
With my second season tag filled on the first day and with extra days available to hunt, I convinced my dad that we should see if I could call in his first turkey for him. That Tuesday found us standing on a hill above his property well before sunrise, and to my delight, there were birds gobbling everywhere. We marched down the hill and entered the woods through a hollow at the eastern end of a bluff, using the low ground where the bluff concluded to keep from being silhouetted. We had gone just a short distance when I realized that there were gobblers roosted at the western end of the same bluff, no more than 100 yards away.
"They're right over there on the other end," I said. "I think we're going to have to try them from here, because if we try to walk into the creek bottom they're going to see us from the roost. I'll slip in and set some decoys where they can see them from the bottom. We can stay back here at the end of the bluff and the rise to our left should hide us until they cross in front."
I ducked low and quietly set out the decoys about 20 yards in front and to the right of where we would be hiding; tight quarters for trying to fool sharp-eyed turkeys, but considering the forest's understory and the 2 ¾" chamber of Dad's old shotgun, a close shot was what we needed. Upon my return, he asked me where I thought he should sit.
"You could sit right here," I said, gesturing as I spoke, "and when he crosses in front of you, you should have an open shot at him between that big tree and this other one on our right."
Those words had a familiar ring as I said them…
"You stand right here," my dad had told me, gesturing as he spoke. "I'm going down to the other end and I'll kick around as I come this way. When I kick up the rabbit he should run right through here, and when he crosses in front of you, you'll have an open shot at him between this edge and the weeds over there."
It was a full three decades (plus change) ago when he said those words and then left me – a fidgety pre-teen with a single-shot 16 gauge – to stand guard over a narrow opening between an overgrown cemetery and a brushy drainage. I had no idea how my father could know just what the rabbit would do and I was beginning to lose faith when a fat rabbit finally came hopping to the edge where Dad had indicated it would.
Perhaps it saw me raise the gun or maybe it was just the nervous type, but the rabbit stopped next to a yucca plant and seemed hesitant to cross the opening. But at that point it didn't matter; I had already gotten a bead on him and was pulling the trigger to collect my first game animal.
"Birds, birds, birds," I hissed as two gobbler heads came into my view beyond the grade of the bluff. They were still hidden from Dad's view, and as the strutting gobbler moved on a line toward the decoy set, the other turned to climb the incline and head directly at Dad from his left. I just knew the one to his left would end up walking into Dad's lap and then spook, potentially blowing the whole thing.
By the time the strutter entered the left end of Dad's shooting window it seemed to be getting a sinking feeling that something was up. It deflated, extended its neck and swapped ends to leave, but it was too late. I couldn't say a word with the other gobbler right on top of us but the voice inside my head was screaming, "SHOOT HIM NOW," as the old 12 gauge spoke and dropped Dad's first turkey in its tracks at a distance of 16 paces.
As I considered the parallels of my first rabbit and my dad's first turkey, I felt as if I had somehow managed to at least return the favor on one of the countless things I owe to my father. But then I realized that while I'm the guide when we go turkey hunting, I'm still just taking concepts I learned from him – such as reading terrain to orchestrate shot angles – and then applying them to turkeys.
Few of us will ever repay our parents in full for what they've done for us, but few parents expect it – they just want us to do the same for the generation behind us. So here's to all of you rabbit kicking, turkey calling dads out there who are lining up shots for the up-and-coming hunters of tomorrow. I hope your Father's Day leaves you with another great family memory.