Playing By Ear

Tom CarneyHunting Stories & Adventures

The walk through the darkness and silence was eerily exciting, like when you step into a lake and something unseen brushes past your leg.

The cool rain wasn’t falling hard enough to discourage the adventure but just hard enough to make zipping up the jacket a good idea.

In so many ways it was the same. Yet in several ways it was different.

About 20 years had elapsed since my previous wild turkey hunting in northern Michigan. For a couple of reasons I stopped, mainly the nuisance of interlopers sneaking in hours after I had arrived and setting up near me on public land as I called to hot toms. 

This time was guaranteed to be different.

As part of the annual conference of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association held this year in Lewiston, Gary Morgan of Wild Game Dynasty offered to guide interested members on turkey hunts. That caused an itch I just had to scratch. I let him know I didn’t need a caller, just a spot to set up, and he trusted me on that.

Two days before the hunt, we scouted two different spots on private land — music to my ears after my earlier negative outcome experiences on public land. He gave me a choice. I settled on option #2 where the trail running past the hunting blind had been tattooed by so many turkey tracks you couldn’t spot a patch of smooth sand.

Two days later, all the old muscle memory and feelings returned, from rising early and shaking out the cobwebs to  arriving at the spot by 4:30 a.m., to gearing up: gather the backpack; add a notebook, pen, pocket camera, and some treats; load my gun as quietly as possible; lean into the vehicle’s doors to muffle the sound when I shut them; and step as silently as possible onto the trail hoping I wouldn’t need to use my headlamp.

Once I arrived at the blind — a new aspect to the hunt for me — I set the gun and the pack on the ground, removed my foam decoys, and just like in the old days set them up at the perfect spot. During our scouting trip, I had stepped off 12 yards from the blind, roughly the maximum distance from which I felt comfortable attempting a shot. For the first time, I carried a .410 shotgun loaded with tungsten shot. I didn’t want to risk wounding a bird by shooting at a longer distance.

Next came the wrestlin’ match between the blind’s narrow entryway and my wide-bodied … err … body.

Once inside, though, another new feature presented itself: a cozy, padded, sturdy upright chair with a high back against which to lean my head. I adapted immediately. …

Not long after I awoke, the raindrops landing lightly on the nylon blind uncorked those same old feelings of serenity that they had by pitter-pattering on the tent when we camped along the Rifle River or tapping on the hood of my rain jacket as I stood amid the cornstalks during a managed duck hunt on Harsens Island.

About 45 minutes before shooting time, in the distance a great horned owl got things started, and in less than half a minute the entire woods screeched awake, crows, other birds, a barred owl and then a sound I’ve never heard before, like a plaintive light-toned yodel. No gobbles. After maybe ten seconds of uproar, everything fell silent.

When I next awoke and got back to work, the only sounds came from the rain on the blind, a bit of truck traffic on M-32, and pages being flipped in my notebook.

I awoke again, ten minutes before shooting time: still no gobbles.

And then … was that an engorged, ardent tom sounding off in the distance? Or was it my stomach gurgling in closer proximity, a fine imitation of a male turkey’s call? It was hard to tell for sure. Either way, I guess, it was coming from a nice, fat tom. Well, if it were a turkey, he’d have lots of opportunities to gobble again on his way to me. I went back to thinking about things.

It was the cranes that awakened me. The glorious sandhill cranes with their ancient ka-roooking, what Aldo Leopold describes as “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” Their voices simply erupted in the sky and summoned me to attention as they flew overhead, and some landed nearby. Certainly, 20 years ago there hadn’t been enough around here to squawk up a storm.

Lovely crane calls. But no gobbles.

In between naps, I scoured my iPhone for news, mail, messages, Words With Friends updates, memes and GIFs, you know, the important stuff. No gobbles. Good thing I had planted those treats in my pack. They helped me maintain focus on the job at hand.

Before long, nearly seven hours had elapsed with me in that chair doing what I do best. And still no gobbles. I decided to worm my way out of the blind, pull up the decoy stakes, and mosey back to my vehicle. The rain had erased the earlier tracks from the trail, and it now was a blank slate. As I was walking, Morgan’s truck appeared on the trail heading toward me. Turns out, he had checked out three other spots before coming to me. Nothing.

“It’s just a quiet morning,” he determined.


Except for the cranes and my tummy gobbles.

Tom Carney
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