If winter was our investment, this April morning is our overdue return.
It’s 34 degrees without even a suggestion of breeze, so it feels warmer than that, comfortable. Sunrise is still minutes away, but we can already tell the sky will be big and blue.
We’re dressed in mismatched camouflage, sitting on dirt and dry grass on a Morton County farm that’s been in the same family for more than a century.
Behind us are two squat shelters that once provided refuge for hogs from the weather. To our left, a much bigger milking barn that was moved onto the property sometime in the 1940s, or thereabouts, rests in a chopsticks-pile of support beams, rafters and siding after ultimately surrendering to wind and heavy snow.
There aren’t any lights on in the farmhouse, which is the way it should be at this hour for people who have worked hard all their lives. This year, for the first time in forever, there aren’t any cattle on the property that need to be tended to before the day’s first cup of coffee.
Without interruption from the wind, we can hear everything – the hum of passing traffic on blacktop a mile to the east, the unmistakable low-note cooing of sharp-tailed grouse dancing in a pasture somewhere north of here, and the rusty-gate calls of ring-necked roosters announcing to nearby hens that it’s indeed the breeding season.
When the first rooster cackles from a patch of tall grass and weeds, a chain reaction of gobbles starts high in one cottonwood and works its way down the wooded draw and up another. Being mostly untested turkey hunters, we softly laugh out of nervousness, mixed with a touch of wonder at the clamor the big birds are making.
We don’t know how many turkeys we are dealing with, it sounds like a bunch, but we need just one male, young or old, to cooperate, to strut within shotgun range.
On some unnoticeable cue, turkeys start dropping from their roosts, one following the other. The nearest birds thump to the ground behind a screen of poplars, cottonwoods and other vegetation neither of us can name.
Uphill from where we sit, beyond the trees on the south side of a barbed wire fence, we catch glimpses of two groups of turkeys moving back and forth and in circles as if they can’t decide which way to go. The big toms are strutting now, with fanned tails and puffed chests.
My 10-year-old hunting partner, the one with a turkey license and loaded shotgun who has shown pretty good patience, but is growing restless nonetheless, whispers we should try calling as the turkeys dance in the distance.
While I’ve read that it’s difficult to call a turkey downhill, I’m not blaming the birds on the decline in the terrain for not responding. Every time I pull the striker across the slate call in short, straight lines just like the directions on the package instruct, my hunting partner and I look at each other with the understanding that we sounded much better indoors at home during practice.
We’ve been silent for a while now, sitting as still as the hard ground allows when, without provoke, a turkey half-flies, half-jumps a fence and heads in our direction.
According to spring turkey hunting regulations, my hunting partner can only shoot a turkey with a beard sprouting from the middle of its chest, which in the majority of cases means a male turkey. Yet, biologists tell us that a percentage of hens grow beards, which makes them fair game by definition.
As if it was led in by an invisible string tied around its neck, the turkey put-puts broadside at 20 yards through a clearing, pauses as if to rub in its beardless chest just a little, and then disappears.
The parade ends with just one bird, a young hen that has unwittingly hooked us for the remainder of the season.