Updated: May 28
High school graduation was still a few months away, which meant the end of one chapter in life and the beginning of another. My oldest son, William, had hunted turkeys a few unsuccessful times, and while he failed to draw a tag this year, I did not. By a massive stroke of luck, I had drawn a turkey tag for an area only 30 minutes from our Idaho home, so I did not hesitate to visit the local fish and game office to get my tag transferred over to William. This was, after all, the last time I could ever do this for him as he would be graduating high school and leaving home in the fall. His chapter as a minor was going to be ending all too quickly. To me, it felt as if that chapter had just begun.
As the opening day of the season drew closer, I spent more time than considered reasonable for a turkey hunt pouring over satellite images and marking spots on my onXmaps app. The turkeys near Idaho Falls live in two main areas – the river bottoms and south facing mountain slopes. Several years earlier, I had killed a turkey while on a date with my wife in the mountains. This year, due to my ankle surgery several months prior, a mountain hunt was not in the cards. When opening day finally arrived, I had about three access points identified on my app. One spot was obviously very popular. When we drove up that first evening, three trucks were parked near the spot, so we passed by that parking area and tried another access point about 400 yards away.
After stumbling through some brush, we made our way around a slough and found a wide-open grassy area with the occasional turkey scat curled up beneath a tree. Not much sign, but at least we knew they had been there recently. After placing a few decoys, we sat behind some deadfalls and began calling. It didn’t take long for a tom to respond with a distant gobble. We worked the tom for several more minutes, each thunderous gobble quickening the pulse. The tom, though, felt staying with his hens on the private ground across a branch of the slough was a better option. While no tom appeared, it was an encouraging start to two weeks of turkey hunting.
The map showed me an area which looked perfect. Some water, tall cottonwoods interspersed with some open spaces, and a long hike back to reach it. The access point was open to the public, but partially hidden and guarded by thick stands of willows. Busting through the brush and shimmying through the willows was an adventure all of its own, yet at the end of the journey was a turkey hunter’s Shangri-La.
On the first night, some turkeys busted through cover on the far side of a shallow stream and ran. We were well hidden and had been quiet, so we never really knew what caused the commotion. After waiting 20 minutes, I began to sneak across the stream to retrieve the decoys until William told me to stop. Just as I began to step in the water. He spotted the tom strutting upstream. We called, he gobbled. We called again and he gobbled some more. Yet he would not move. As they eventually filtered away, William slipped into my Muck boots and crossed the stream. Slowly, he made his way over to where the flock had been. I waited in the trees, calling occasionally to hopefully solicit a gobble and help William locate them faster. That wouldn’t be necessary. William spotted them when he arrived at their strutting area, but he was seconds too late. The turkeys were already walking into the thick brush 100 yards away.
Each outing brought us closer to the turkeys. We located a flock which was still roosted early one morning and snuck close enough to see them without being spotted. Unfortunately, they were roosted on the far side of the river. Later that morning, we were visited by a great gray owl, which followed us through the woods, hoping our yelps might lead him to an unsuspecting poult. No such luck for him or for us. Until our sixth outing. That was a hunt never to be forgotten.
We spotted the turkeys strutting in a clearing far sooner than we expected. We circled wide through the brush and when we arrived by the stream, the flock was nowhere to be seen. Unconcerned, we found a hiding spot at the foot of a cottonwood tree where some bygone flood had carved out a hollow where we could remain hidden. Eventually, William spotted a turkey about 100 yards upstream. Slowly, he worked his way up to where he had spotted the turkey. I stayed behind and watched. The turkey had wandered into the brush, so William slowly, quietly picked his way through the branches. He came through to the other side and I could see him continuing upstream. Suddenly, the turkey, a hen, flushed and flew somewhere to the north. It had waited until William had passed before leaving. After waiting a few more minutes, I quietly began walking towards William to let him know the turkey was gone and that it was a hen, which was illegal to shoot.
As I crossed a small branch of the stream, a movement to my right caught my eye. A tom and I spotted each other at the same moment. It ran, then flew off to the north. As I tried to process what had just happened, another tom emerged from the brush and flew to the same spot. I caught up to William and explained what I had seen. As daylight was quickly fading, we decided our only play was to work our way to the north. After 20 minutes of walking, we found a clearing which looked promising, but access to it was blocked by thick willows. William tried to find a way through, but was stopped when he saw the red head of a tom running away. Moments later the second tom emerged and began to run too. Shouldering his 20 gauge, William fired off a shot, a split second too late. Both toms would live to roost again while we returned home empty handed, yet grateful for the encounters.
I will never live down the hunt of the following day. That evening we worked our way back to the clearing where William had taken a shot. I stayed several paces behind William, yelping with my box call as we walked along a narrow stretch of grass between the willows and the stream. William stopped and held up his hand. Slowly, he raised the shotgun as a turkey bolted from cover and ran.
“Don’t shoot!” I hissed, thinking it was a hen.
“What?” William said, lifting his cheek from the stock in confusion.
At that moment I realized my error. It was a tom and William had had him dead to rights at 10 yards. Until I interfered. Never again, I swore to myself, would I tell a shooter not to shoot when they clearly had a better view than me. While William was quick to forgive, I could tell his disappointment ran deep. My disappointment ran deep too, only it was in how I had acted as the armchair quarterback. Never again.
Eventually, the last day of the season arrived with thunderstorms in the early morning. When the clouds cleared out, William decided to make a solo attempt while I was at work. It was not meant to be. Although he had some more close calls, his turkey tag would remain unpunched. He arrived home around dinner time, just in time to watch the heavens open and rain thrash the roof while thunder echoed through the valley.
Not every successful hunt results in a punched tag. Not every adventure requires a long trip from home. I could not have asked for a better hunt. There will never be a time when I can have such quality one on one time with my son who is leaving his childhood behind too quickly. He was able to see me as a fallible, flawed hunter, not that he ever thought of me otherwise. I was able to see him not as the little boy who loved trains, but as a man who had learned everything I could teach him. I no longer feared for him, but selfishly feared for the ache in my heart I knew would be coming. Like me when I was his age, I expect he will be too excited to look back as he leaves, in search of his own version of Shangri-La.