First Bird

Gal’s Turkey Hunt 2022 was a great weekend of tracking and snow sitting with evening feasting, wine, and games. During the early afternoon of the first day out, I spotted a flock of Merriam’s Turkeys from the truck as we were driving to another hunting location in Northeastern Washington. Our mistress of the hunt checked her online mapping ap to make sure the land these birds wandered was public, and indeed, a square of state land surrounded our sighted quarry. We planned a two pronged approach and began a deliberate stalk towards nearby ponderosa pine grove. The trees would offer shelter and hiding from the astute birds. Turkey are difficult to sneak up on, and an ambush setup is often more successful- especially in the fall. Spring turkey season is another routine all together, but back to our hunt. Two of our party were not hunting that day, and took a walk around the power line road to block a potential escape rout for our targeted flock. Then the chaos began.

I’m an experienced deer hunter, and usually approach the hunt quietly, sitting in one spot waiting for the animal to walk by. In theory, turkey are similar, and you scout tracks in the snow during fall hunts to locate high traffic areas the birds are accustomed to. Turkeys love routine, and stick to it, if you avoid disrupting their flow. We had set down in the middle of the birds’ larder, and tracks were scattered everywhere. This was reflected in the flock’s movement, they had already circle around behind us, crossing the power-line road and out maneuvering us. I watched birds running behind our non-hunting “beaters” as they motioned to us where they were heading. We’d reached the grove of pines, but had to retreat back to the truck and road to cross over in pursuit of our flock. Birds were running all around, and it felt like total chaos. It was also the first time I was hunting with a group of people, which meant a lot more communication and distraction.

Our new grove of trees across the power-lines overlooked a hillside covered in kinnikinnick- a ground cover with evergreen leaves and red berries in the fall. The snow was still shallow enough to reveal much of the ground plants, which also invited the turkeys in to feed. Deep snow inhibits the birds’ movement, and the hunter’s. We lucked out that weekend with no fresh snow, but enough on the ground to track, and relatively warm daytime temperatures in the 20s with shining sun. It was heavenly hunting weather, and great foraging for the turkeys too. By now, the flock had regrouped in the thick forest just to our left. We took up sits against trucks and made sure to all be a safe zones of fire from one another. As we sat, my hunting partner began calling the birds in. I call using my own voice, but most people use a calling tool. The call should interest the birds and encourage them to come over and see who’s calling, but it’s no guarantee.

For us, the birds didn’t call back, but the began flocking towards us, seemingly indifferent to our presence. That was strange, as turkey are infamous for being shy and running away from strange changes in their routine. These birds were caught up in the feast of berries, and kept inching towards us without a care. My hunting buddy whispered- “Take the shot if you’ve got one.” Well, I saw a bird coming out of the brush and pulled the trigger. Chaos ensued. Birds exploded up in all directions. My hen popped up too, but came down again and I stood to get another shot off before she could fly. Even then, the turkey got into the air once more and took off towards the thick cover beyond. I followed her flight path with my eyes, noting trees and fallen logs as markers till she was out of sight, then I turned to check in with my hunting partner. “Should I run after it?’ I asked. “Yes.” She answered. It was an important safety check in. Never run out in front of fellow hunters- that would be in violation of your zone of fire.

With renewed tracking drive, I took off towards the direction my bird had flown. Second really did count in getting to where the animal might have landed. My shotgun was empty, so I unloaded the empty shells and picked them up out of the snow as I slowed to enter the brush. The visibility was low, but I put a new load in my gun to make ready in case I came upon my turkey unexpectedly. Approaching steps from behind told me my hunting buddy had caught up. The dense brush went for only a little bit, then I stepped out into what looked like an old logging road. Across the clearing, I could see another line of trees. Heading towards them, I saw my bird moving and raised my gun again. Pulling the trigger, nothing happened. I thought maybe I still had the safety on, no, it was off, so I took aim again- nothing. I was beside myself now, wanting to finish the hunt and claim my bird in a good way. Then my hunting partner was at my side, offering me her gun after watching my struggle from behind. I took her shotgun and took careful aim one last time. The turkey dropped, and I ran to it in gratitude.

As I stood, surrounded by other supportive women in the field, the harvest felt very special in so many ways. It was my first successful bird hunt, my first turkey, and my first ladies hunt. A group dynamic is so different, and great for turkey hunting. I would not like having a group involved with my deer hunt, but without the group support in the turkey pursuit, my success would not have happened. I ended up being the only successful harvest in that two day hunt. Turkey hunting is hard, unpredictable, but a lot of fun and good learning. Turkeys in Washington state are introduced, and out-compete many native species of ground bird like grouse. Hunting them helps to reduce this impact, and graces our table with wild meat. It meant a lot to have the additional support and expertise from my fellow hunters in the field- and an extra gun. Why had my shotgun not fired properly? Well, when I reached in my pocket to grab a new shell, I grabbed one of the empty ones I had just picked up when I unloaded. Classic mistake- and an important lesson not to repeat.

When I got back to the house and plucked the bird, I also took out the crop for a better look and what the turkey had been eating. Sure enough, the organ was full of kinnikinnick berries, which I’ve brought home and planted in my garden. The carcass weighed in at 7 1/2lbs dressed. That was the perfect size for our modest Thanksgiving. What an honor and pleasure to enjoy wild turkey! Brined and baked with so much care and gratitude, the meal was delightful and the turkey sublime. Gratitude to the bird nation and all the gifts and gentle lessons it offers. Grateful still that our hunt was safe and fun, that I received a bird for my work, and that we all shared experience in the field. We’re hoping to make this an annual tradition for women to gather and hunt together sharing love and support in harvesting wild food.

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