Talkin’ Turkey

You know you’re getting old when, day in, day out, you read about baseball diamonds, football fields, gyms and most-valuable-player awards named after people who were either your coaches, teammates or opponents, also friends and folks you knew well.Which brings me to turkey hunting and the spring season that opens in a little more than a week. The thought of that, too, reminds me that my days in this place I call home are growing deep. Yes, it’s true: I remember when there were no wild turkeys here.

As unimaginable as that may seem to peach-fuzzed farm boys accustomed to shooing bold winter flocks of them away from silage piles or backyard compost heaps and students viewing them daily through school-bus windows, there was no such thing as a wild turkey in Franklin County when I was a kid. Like black bears and moose — and dare I say cougars — they started to appear on the horizon like ghosts or magic-mushroom flashbacks, the occurrences about as frequent and ridiculed as UFO sightings. But come they did and, with the possible exception of cougars, they’re now here to stay with ubiquitous presence along our roadsides, be they rural or suburban.

It was quite a success story, that of the Bay Sate wild-turkey-restoration program shepherded by scholarly Jim Cardoza, another man I knew and valued greatly as a source. Funny. As new wildlife settle into old haunts, old privileges like being able to make spontaneous phone calls to state wildlife officials for comment exist no longer. Those with the most to hide call it progress. Not me. I know it’s not that, but rather one more way to craft a response and hide uncomfortable truths concerning sensitive issues gone awry. Oh well. What can you do besides complain, which gets you nowhere? “You must just learn to live with it,” say pragmatic moderates. Well, I hate moderates, always trying to excuse the inexcusable while shaping an obedient party line and succumbing to Orwellian influences.

But why go there? I’ve said enough about that. Back to wild turkeys, which took to restoration like the true-believers wished and prayed Atlantic salmon could have. Sorry boys. Too late, no matter what the Trumpian deniers and wishy-washy middle of the roaders tell you about our warming planet. Regionally, this warming has brought turkeys to parts of northern New England where they were not found in the days when Indians called it theirs. Montpelier, St. Johnsbury and Lydonville, Vt.? Uh-uh. Lancaster, N.H.? No siree. Freedom, Me.? Not a chance. The winters in those northern haunts were just too harsh back in the day. Not anymore. My sister-in-lay reports wild turkeys wintering over in a place called Lost Nation, located between Burke Mt. and rough-and-tumble Island Pond. That’s up there, Dude, definetely no place for turkeys 100 years ago. Times have changed.

Here, I remember first getting newspaper wind of the trap-and-relocation projects of the 70s but didn’t start seeing turkeys until the early ’80s. Even then you had to go looking. I’m pretty sure I had started writing this column by the time of the first Massachusetts hunting season opened. Very few permits were then drawn by lottery and the hunting territory was limited to parts of Berkshire County. I was definitely penning this weekly column by the time western Franklin County became part of the open territory, and I vividly recall talking about turkey hunting with semifast-pitch softball teammate Gary “Bunner” Miller, an early officer of the local National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) chapter he helped found with wife Mary Jane. A field rep for Butski Game Calls, he was probably the first turkey caller I watched demonstrate calling with mouth and friction calls, which interested me enough to learn to use them myself and call gobblers to the gun. I still own the first call I bought from him, a sweet-singing Butski walnut box call that has been a productive locator call capable of breaking difficult morning silence when nothing else seems to work. I’m sure it would still do the trick if I ventured out.

Turkey-hunting can really get your blood boiling. I learned that from buddy Joe Judd, who went on to become a hunting companion of some of the world’s finest turkey hunters, most of them affiliated in some way with Quaker Boy Game Calls, for whom he was a regional rep, not to mention a longtime officer of the WMass Chapter of the NWTF. He introduced me to daybreak gobbling at a farm not far up the hill from my current Greenfield home, and I was soon off hunting the big, challenging birds.

Later, Judd encouraged me to invest in a limited-edition state NWTF chapter Governor’s Series turkey lithograph signed by Bill Weld. I bought two low numbers (9 and 14) from the limited-edition set of 50 and still own them, along with two sets of three fancy Governor’s Series Quaker Boy box calls, again Nos. 9 and 14 from limited-edition sets of 50. I have been told that those collectible box calls, illustrated by the late artist Wally Turner, are fetching tidy sums on eBay but have held onto them for posterity. They’re all functional, expertly crafted, sweet-sounding calls that are best kept as showpieces stored in their original, clear plastic-topped boxes on mantles or library shelves. Who knows, maybe my grandsons will cash in when I’m dead and gone. Maybe they’ll even learn to make them sing.

How times have changed since those first years of turkey hunting in Franklin County, the days when proud old baseball buddy Big Stosh would show up in my South Deerfield yard around 9 a.m. with a nice longbeard in tow. I think I still have a few photos around somewhere, showing my smiling friend holding up a trophy tom under my white-blossoming apple tree. His visits were, of course, always accompanied by blow-by-blow accounts of his hunt from the first gobble to the deafening shotgun roar. Those were the days when turkey hunting was an exciting new game, one that has traveled clear across this state and to the rest of New England by now. Yes, quite a success story, with turkey flocks and strutting toms a welcome addition to bucolic roadside landscapes.

I may yet get back out in the turkey woods when I find time. There is nothing not to like about turkey hunting, from walking up dark, predawn paths, to settling into a concealed spot and listening, to calling a vociferous gobbler off the roost to the gun. It’s not always easy. Sometime gobblers get “hung up,” insisting they’ve come as far as they’re willing to come. That’s the challenge: convincing a dominant tom accustomed to calling ladies to him to go against the grain and come to your calls. When the time’s right, it works. When the time is wrong, well, it can be frustrating indeed. Been there, done that. But you always seem to come back for more.

An added bonus is that the early part of the annual season coincides with fiddlehead picking. Oh my, I couldn’t count the times I came home bird-less yet carrying a T-shirt stuffed with fresh fiddleheads to rinse off. Then again, there were times when I returned with fiddleheads and a turkey, presenting more of a morning project than I had anticipated upon firing up my truck on the way out well before first light.

How could a man complain about problems like that?

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