The new shotgun had leaned in the back of the safe unfired for three years. I had given it to my wife, Kristen, for Christmas just before she became pregnant with our first child. In the weeks that followed we talked about shooting clays and hunting ducks and killing turkeys.
But priorities change. Two kids in two years saw to that. Now conversations revolved around diapers instead of decoys, and although many mornings we were wide awake long before dawn, we greeted the sun with our backs against a rocking chair rather than a red oak. I still managed to find time to hunt amid the whirlwind, but in Kristen’s mind the responsibilities of motherhood ruled out forays into the field.
That bothered me a little. Kristen was a great mother, but she was also an avid hunter—or at least she was before the kids came along. Her choice to stay at home instead of occasionally joining me in the woods, even when grandparents were quick to volunteer for babysitting, made me worry she was losing interest. Would we ever hunt together again?
The answer came one morning last April. Maybe it was the soft spring air or the redbuds flaming in the sunrise that stirred something comparable to maternal instincts. Or maybe Kristen just knew all along when the time was right.
“Think we could hunt turkeys next week?” she asked.
During the next five days, Kristen finally got to shoot her new Weatherby, shredding gobbler targets at 20 and 30 yards. I marveled at my wife’s marksmanship skills despite the fact she had not pulled a trigger for some time. She found satisfaction in discovering the camo clothes she wore before kids were still too baggy.
Ours was not to be the classic, call-him-off-the-roost turkey hunt. By the time we dropped the kids at daycare and drove to the woods it was already 8 o’clock. We had just 20 acres of a ridge that ran for miles on which to find a bird. Barring a gobble, the plan was simple: Get real comfortable, call and stay put. The only options we had we carried in our vest pockets, and over the next three hours we worked through just about all of them with nary a response. During the early part of the season in Virginia, noon is quitting time, and it was coming fast.
“There’s a high point a couple hundred yards over that way,” I said to Kristen, nodding my head to the north while glancing at my watch. “We only have 45 minutes, but let’s run up there and rip out a few calls.”
“Do you think it’s going to matter?” she asked. A hint of laughter mixed with the words to poke fun at my obsession. “We haven’t heard anything all morning.”
“It might,” I said, trying to sound hopeful.
Ten minutes and a series of loud yelps later, a rattling gobble below us surprised me as much as her. But it was a long way off, across the valley and a dirt road, on the facing hillside. I scratched the slate a second time, just wanting to hear the bird gobble again. He obliged, and the eternal optimist in me said he was closer. Then there was another gobble, this time on his own.
“He’s coming,” I told Kristen. “This might happen. Let’s go.”
We hurried down the slope, pausing once when the gobbler let us know he was serious. A hundred-yard dash brought us to a wide-trunked oak. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Kristen, I mouthed a few soft yelps, and the longbeard immediately told us he, too, couldn’t wait to get together.
“I see him!” she whispered a couple minutes later, trying to stifle her excitement. My eyes found the bird as well, in full strut maybe 75 yards out. I watched the barrel of Kristen’s shotgun quiver as he gobbled again.
Twice more the longbeard stopped to strut, spitting and drumming, breaking his repertoire each time with a throaty gobble that made my toes twitch. At 30 yards, he disappeared behind a blowdown. I saw Kristen shift her gun slightly, anticipating the angle of the tom’s approach. When his head popped up in front of the overturned root ball, she smacked it with a load of 6s.
We admired his beard and felt his spurs and stroked his breast feathers that sparkled in the late-morning sun. The big bird was probably a 3-year-old, hatched the spring before our son was born.
I hugged my wife and suddenly felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had given her a shotgun and a morning in the springtime woods. She had given me the assurance we would hunt as a family.