Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Fondly Remembered"

I wrote this on February 21, 2008. I remember it being a rainy day, and I was sitting in my home office thinking about the upcoming turkey season. For some reason, I kept thinking back to this hunt, and how the next year, my friend Harden left this earth so suddenly. I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. I was in the middle of grading the final evaluation of one of the best pharmacy students I've ever had, but something told me to stop and take the call. That day, I cried.

The 'prose' such as it is, leaves a lot to be desired, but instead of edits, I'm gonna leave it 'as is'...I hope you enjoy.

I can't get that hunt off my mind. Why I don't know. Blame it on the pending springtime, the rain today, having nothing to do but chores around the house, or just flat out wanting to be out in the turkey woods right now. In fact call it all the above, and be done with it. But every so often, never more than this time of year, I think about a hunt I shared some several years ago with my friends Busky, Harden, and Harden's son, Patrick.

One thing the internet has bestowed upon us is the ease at which one may afford a quality hunt among new friends. Nowadays, you simply write a "PM" or email the person versus the old way of writing a letter or picking up the phone. Harden for his part, was always better via the internet than phones because quite simply, once he started talking rarely was it that he stopped by his own volition.

Busky and I had been planning an onslaught of the Toms of Jeff Davis county for quite some time. Busky has a really good lease down there, and my daddy has some nice land as well, so we were planning on pooling resources for a weekend hunt. Harden, either by way of Busky or myself became privy to the situation and wanted in. Actually, wanted him and his son in on it. Neither had been turkey hunting before (at least to my knowledge), and Harden wanted his son to experience South Mississippi turkey hunting at its finest. After several conversations via the net, and yes even a phone call or two, the hunt date and time were set - Saturday, April 9, 2005. Due to everyone's obligations that afternoon, we all ended up driving separately and meeting at the "Shell" downtown in the thriving metropolis of Prentiss, MS.

From the first seconds of meeting up with everyone, I knew it was gonna be a special hunt. The sheer excitement that Harden and Patrick exuded was palpable, Busky was his same ole ignorant self, and heck, I had even become one Delta hat richer. Harden, always pushing that stuff - go figure.

I can't remember how we decided to try my dad's place first, but when we pulled up, we were greeted with the typical spring morning. It was cool, but not cold, the sweet smells of flowering dogwoods were intoxicating, and even the pine plantations seemed to have a little color. For the sentimental among us, you might have found yourself lost in the color and wonderment of it all, but that's not why we were there. We were in a rush mainly because Harden had to A) take a leak at the gas station, B) get a candy bar and drink, C) talk our ears off, and D) take a leak when we pulled up to my daddy's gate. Not really a problem as I know the birds and had a plan, but I knew we didn't need to be caught crossing a certain rye grass patch in the coming rays of daylight. Realizing this we walked briskly to our destination. The plan was simple, cross the rye grass in that time before darkness and daylight that seems a corridor between this world and the next, slip into the pines and locate a bird. Simple enough, but we never made it.

With Busky and myself leading the way, Patrick just a bit behind and Harden making sure no Indians or German paratroopers were gonna sneak up from WAY BEHIND us, he hammered. And, I don't mean no "well, I'm a jake and ain't sure bout this whole thing" sissy gobble, I'm talking a full fledged, four fire alarmed, "I'm the monarch of these here woods" gobble. It flat out stopped us in our collective tracks. Longbeards and their thunderous morning ritual have a way of doing that, ya' know? I'll never forget the look Rip and I shared upon hearing that first gobble. It was a look of "my God, did I just hear what I thought I did?" Fifteen seconds later, he left no doubt.

Like almost every turkey hunt I've been on during my lifetime, plans quickly changed. I knew where the bird was, but getting there was going to be one difficult sonavagun. Ya see, in accordance to what I can only assume is a covenant taken among all longbeards in this part of the country, this particular bird was roosting about 200 yards deeper into the bottom than he had all year. At the exact time I didn't need him doing such, he was roosted fully up a ridge and down in the bottom of another from our position. Given the topography and knowledge of the land, I knew that this bird sat down in a bottom that was basically a bowl, forcing the hunter to come to the bird from above. This angle of pursuit would allow that arrogant sucker sitting on that white oak limb, gobblin' his head off, ample opportunity to pick our silhouette out and spook, changing from heart-stopping gobbles to ball, 'see ya tomorrow' putts.

Relaying this info to Busky, we collectively decided NOT to play that game. We'd sneak and crawl as close to the ridge top as we could, get his attention letting him know some hens were around, and wait that sucker out.

Well, true to form and longbeard covenant, plans changed again...and again. That ol' Tom, that sorry, no good, spittin', drummin', struttin' turkey would walk alllll the way up the ridge, and hangup just below our line of sight keeping himself or his head rather, out of view. Then, he'd walk down the ridge, and back up the other one, doing the same. Seesawing that bottom, we could tell his approximate location by way of the decibel strength of his gobbles.

We musta gone through three or four position changes that morning, and all the while, that gobbler never stopped gobblin'. And, just as truthfully, never came any closer than he absolutely had to. My guess, he was resolved to have the hens come to him down in his protected lair.

Given the hours spent in the woods that morning and being somewhat of a sentimentalist myself, I had ample time to look around at the crew I was teamed up with that morning. Patrick, a young boy on his first turkey hunt was being afforded and experiencing a show that many might have to wait years for. Harden, his dad, was on his first turkey hunt as well and just as excited at what he was witnessing as his son. Watching the two of them sitting side by side on that oak tree brought back many a fond memory of me and my daddy. I could hear my daddy's voice in my head, whispering quietly through his face mask, "relax, it's just a bird, be still and get ready, he's folded up and...running at the decoy!" I'd venture to guess that much the same conversation was being had five yards ahead of me and Busky's, what times!!

After a couple of hours of this though, quite frankly, I was beginning to hope that if that bird didn't die by gunshot, both lungs would rupture due to the stress he was placing on them. Busky musta been feeling the same way because he leaned over and in my ear, stating, "you stay here with them, I'm gonna walk away from that sucker through this timber calling."

I nodded in agreement and gave some hand motions equating to, "I'm gonna crawl up and sit behind them so I can help them if that bird comes."

Again, Busky nodded.

He walked, and I crawled.

Now, before I go on, please understand that it was getting close to ten o' clock, the bird was beginning to cool down and hadn't gobbled in several minutes. That is, until Busky started calling from further away.

That bird, that cocky, arrogant, conceited bird that he was, started acting like a high school senior who just got snubbed at a party. Simply put, he went stark raving mad.

He gobbled, he spit, he strutted, he drummed, he gobbled some more...he went full bore jealous with rage. But, once again, he kept his head, staying behind a bank of impenetrable privet hedges. I always say during turkey season "I hate a turkey", but never more so than that moment.

After several minutes and over Harden and Patrick's breathing, I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Busky crawling back to us, and every time that sucker would gobble, I could hear him snicker under his breath.

Upon making his way back, and realizing that wasn't going to work, we did some quick figuring. We had both come to the realization that it was either now or we'd let him have the woods until next time. My vote was to wait until he hammered on the other side of the ridge, risk moving as close as we could get to the top of the ridge on our side, let him know where we at, and shut up. Our only hope was his arrogance would get the best of him, and he'd come looking to flog the hen that told him "no."


I relayed our plans to Harden and Patrick. The emphasis was placed on the need for speed, but the absolute must for stealth...a tough combination to be sure, especially when concerning four folks.

We proceeded to a group of pines, and honestly to my great surprise, we hadn't knowingly spooked this bird...yet.


Busky positioned himself behind Harden on the same tree, looking over his shoulder so he could see the action and direct Harden. I did the same with Patrick. And, we waited.


On that fabled Saturday morn', things began to unfold, and they began doing so in a very rapid fashion. By way of my journal, at 10:37 that ol' Tom fired off, unmolested by the crew of friends that had been trying to outwit him all morning. Yep, at 10:37 that ol' boy decided enough was enough, and he was coming courtin' himself a hen.

Within seconds, I could see the tips of his fan as he strutted just behind some low sitting bushes. You could hear his wings dragging the ground as he spit and drummed in his strut zone. The only noise you could hear from us was the breathing of Harden. I honestly thought he was going to stroke on us right then and there. Peering through what little bit of cover standing between Patrick and the bird, I could see that bright red head, white on top with a hint of blue. This boy was fired up I tell ya!

Quietly whispering to Patrick, I found myself saying something I hadn't heard in a while, "relax, it's just a bird." Then, milliseconds later, "shoot him."

Then, several seconds later with the bird in full view, "Patrick, take the shot."

Then, several seconds after those several seconds, "Patrick, shoo...........................................BOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!"

Busky, realizing something was wrong, told Harden to shoot. And, he did...........and killed the nicest sweet gum tree ever to grace J.D. county.

At the shot, Busky took off in a dead run for the bird, which, by all accounts should have been dead...I wasn't far behind him. At the realization of four plus hours of work being a wash, Busky turned around red faced with a crazed look. For those that know my bud, he's not one to be trifled with. He didn't mean anything by it just reacting to the disappointment I suppose, and after me whispering, "don't say anything Busky, it was his first hunt," he calmed and we turned to face the downtrodden twosome.

Patrick was standing up, looking around...Harden hadn't moved. The first thought I had was he truly had keeled over at the stress. But he was sitting there on the tree, looking green, and mumbling to himself, "What happened???? How??? Why??? Did I miss???"

At this, the woods came alive with laughter, and we (Busky and myself) set in on Harden as only we know how. Harden for his part took it well, as he shoulda. We talked about getting the sweet gum mounted for him, cutting shirt tails, how we would plaster him on MSDUCKS if he didn't come clean first. Throughout all the ribbin' and jokin' something was nagging at me - why hadn't Patrick shot?

Walking out I couldn't stand it anymore. Turning abruptly to the group, I asked rather matter of factly, "Patrick, WHY DIDN'T YOU SHOOT?"

Patrick's response just as matter of factly, "Mr. Justin, all I could see was his head!"

At that, Busky and I became quite ill as neither of us had thought to let Patrick know that the head and neck area is what you should aim for.

That day a bird didn't die. That day we all saw and heard one of God's greatest creations thundering in the South Mississippi hill country. That day friendships were forged through the fire and flame of a spectacle and hunt that few can lay claim to. That day Harden almost had a stroke, missed a monster of a bird, missed a kill of a lifetime..........but, he caught a friend.

That I think of it often. But, mostly, I just miss my friend.

 (L to R) Patrick, Hardin, me, Busky

Hope you enjoy, Justin

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