Being a short history of why we hunt, more or less.
by Shauna Stephenson
From the February/March 2010 Issue
I sit on the side of the embankment, overlooking a lifeless form. My hands shake. My arms shake.
My ankles, knees, and legs shake. Even my internal organs must be quivering a bit, as though they’re ready to come unglued at any moment.
Everything is quiet. The canyon and all its inhabitants observe a moment of silence for this form now lying at our feet, this joker of the forest. Cole Sherard and I follow suit, absorbing the enormity. Silently, we regard this moment, letting it sear itself into our memories.
And then we celebrate.
I leap into his arms.
“We did it!” I say. “We did it!”
His feathers gleam, changing from blue to green to purple iridescence as we move around him. His tail feathers are tipped in white. The colors of the forest dull in comparison to this Technicolor feast for the eyes.
The adrenaline begins to wear down, and I lean over to stroke his feathers. It’s 9:30 on opening morning of spring turkey season, and we stand in the road, unable to wipe the stupid grins off our faces.
How the hell did we pull that off?
Our friends gave us skeptical looks when we told them our plan. “Good luck,” they said, but what they really meant was, “You two really think you’re going to get a turkey? You must be morons.”
In 2007, Wyoming resident hunters in this area had a success rate of 34 percent with an average of 7.7 days per harvest. Today, we’re the blind leading the blind—a harebrained idea turned into reality: two first-time turkey hunters, the first with little patience and the other with an inability to sit still. Add that up, and the odds of being struck by lightning are better than our chances of success.
Somehow, we have stumbled onto dumb luck. Or a dumb bird. Either way, we don’t care.
Turkey snobs the world over may turn their noses up at our small jake. But right now, we feel like we’ve won the lotto.
The previous night I had hit my stress limit. I was fumbling around in the basement, trying to pack everything, when Sherard came downstairs.
I had spent the previous week printing out rules, fact sheets, and tips, highlighting, reading, rereading, and memorizing every detail. Yelp, cluck, and purr had all become part of my vocabulary, and my stuttering translations on a new slate call had gone from “kind of cool” to, dare I say it, annoying. I realized I had become totally consumed when Sherard jolted me out of my turkey haze, saying something like, “Would you listen better if I gobbled?”
“It’s supposed to be fun,” he said as I obsessed over my gear. He was right. It was supposed to be fun. My “want” to go had turned into my “need” to go, and then my “need” to go had turned into a “need to succeed.”
Beginning hunters—well, adult beginners; I can’t speak for the kids—have a lot to consider. The learning curve is steep and painful. And when you have to stumble through that curve publicly, when every triumph, failure, and mishap is neatly packaged and delivered to 17,000 Wyoming doorsteps daily, those stakes become even higher, so much so that you sometimes lose sight of the point.
As an outdoor editor for a newspaper, I’ve done my share of learning within the public realm. When I was hired, my experience was confined to the outdoor-recreation world. Hunting simply wasn’t something I grew up with.
But it has become something I’ve grown into in this still-wild state, taking readers along with me, and hence my own loudmouthed conscience sits on my shoulder like a turkey vulture, waiting to pick at my remains. Each time I embark on a new facet of this new world, it leads to an internal examination, a sort of tribunal of personal morals, ethics, and values. And tonight the judge was definitely squawking questions.
Was I ready to open myself up for failure again? What if I make a mistake? What if I wound the animal? Was I ready to have my practices publicly scrutinized? Was I up to speed on all my literature, rules, and regulations?
Was there room in my freezer?
And then the inevitable: Could I deal with taking another animal’s life? I think this is a question many hunters fail to address, or at least fail to acknowledge out loud.
For me, growing up in an agricultural community in southeastern Iowa, it was never a secret how food got to the table. 4-H projects were fed, petted, halter-broken, groomed, and then served medium-rare with a side of baked potato and vegetables. Still, the step between scratching Bessie’s ears and stacking her neatly in the freezer was rarely discussed. I think it’s important to acknowledge the killing aspect of hunting, but I can’t say that I really struggle with it very much. It’s natural and, frankly, nature is wild. It’s unforgiving. It’s brutal, unfair, and sometimes utterly horrific. Dying slowly of disease or starvation is awful. Dying quickly and painlessly is less so.
And I suppose, in a way, that’s the steepest learning curve for beginning hunters.
We leave as the dawn is breaking. The air is cool and moist. I take a deep breath and stare at the mountains.
I will never get over mornings.
The newness of other things may wear off. But not morning. It is the starting place for all possibilities.
The sun peeks over the horizon, and yellow light races across the plains until it hits the peaks of the Laramie Range. Antelope graze near the road, and a small buck puts on a miniature rodeo, spinning and kicking as the truck drives by.
In a few hours the range will appear dull, dusty, and desertlike, boring for the traffic on I-25. Let them pass. This place is a jewel, brilliant yellow, minty green, and royal purple. Leave it unspoiled.
We pull onto a dirt road lined with ponderosa pine, sagebrush, and bony shrubs. Descending into a canyon, we see a streak of brown, red, and blue flash across the road, head down and feathers tucked into a streamlined body.
It’s an omen.
We sneak into the brush and peer down into a grassy opening. A small stream runs through this rocky canyon, and it echoes off the surrounding rocks. Our tom hasn’t gone far. He struts at the bottom of the hill, scratching in the dirt with his claws.
E. W. Nelson originally named Merriam’s turkeys in 1900 in honor of the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriam. Typically, they’re found in western mountain regions. Their original range is suspected to be farther south, in places like Arizona and New Mexico.
They were first introduced to Wyoming in this very range and now make up the majority of the state’s population. In the 1930s, the state swapped a few sage grouse for a small flock of turkeys, nine hens and six toms. By the 1940s, there were more than a thousand in the Laramie Range area.
Tucking in behind a few boulders, Sherard calls to the bird. Instantly, he perks up, fanning out his feathers and strutting like a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. His neck juts out, and he lets out a gobble.
Puffed out and ready for love, he struts around his circle a few more times. But his suspicions get the best of him. Wary of what might be lurking, he deflates, sends out a few cautionary clucks, and heads out of sight.
In my time interviewing sources, I often ask the same questions: Why do you like to fish and hunt? Why do you like to be outdoors?
Many people respond with, “Well, my family always hunted,” or “We played outside a lot when I was a kid.”
I usually press them again.
“Well, yes. But at the core of it, what makes you an outdoorsman and not just someone who likes the outdoors?”
This usually elicits a long and thoughtful silence, a painful expression, and a fumbling for words. But usually the same six words, so simple yet so filled with passion: I don’t know. I just do. People often turn this question around on me. Truthfully, I don’t know that I can answer it any better.
No, my family didn’t hunt. No, they didn’t really fish. No, I didn’t grow up here. No, I don’t have an ulterior motive. No, this doesn’t make me a circus freak.
The feminist in me thinks they wouldn’t ask these questions were I a man. The Iowan in me thinks they wouldn’t ask if I were from here. The realist in me knows it doesn’t really matter.
I’ve always had a notion that some people are genetically predisposed to being outdoorsy. It’s not that our families made us go, although it’s certainly an easier explanation. It’s something deeper, something unspoken that made us go one direction and not another. It’s as if evolution and urbanization somehow forgot us, and we cope by seeking clarity in the wild. But then there’s always the emotional side of it. Some are just called by the wild.
Allow me to diverge for a moment. I once met a very drunk man at a very small bar in a very small town in Wyoming. We shared a couple of beers and got to talking. T-two, he said they called him, although it’s hard to say what his name really was through the slurring. He had grown up in Chicago, he said. At the age of 17, he moved to Wyoming.
“Seventeen?” I said. “What brought you clear out here?”
And while he couldn’t keep his seat on his stool, slipping off the side or sometimes missing it completely and crashing to the floor, his statement carried a strange degree of clarity. “I don’t know,” he said. “I always knew I would come here. It was just always in my heart. You have to do what’s in your heart.”
So why do I like fishing, hunting, the outdoors?
I don’t know. I just do. It’s in my heart.
A few close calls come and go. They rush in, fully fluffed, and decide to turn back at the last minute. A few more yelps, and we’re faced with the real thing as a bird comes over the ridge headed directly for us.
We crawl through the brush on the side of a steep hill, looking for an opportune spot to wait. As he approaches, Sherard switches to the push-button call, which clucks and purrs.
A loud gobble erupts only yards away. We can’t see him now, but we know he’s close. I begin to shake, trying to run through the possible scenarios in my head.
All has gone silent. We have frozen in place, like statues rooted to the base of a tree, becoming one with the tree, thinking like a tree, being the tree.
Be still, I think. Just be still.
But be still my heart, for I am practically on top of Sherard now, crawling with adrenaline, gun shoved up steadily against my shoulder. I don’t know it, but behind me Sherard has wrapped himself around the trunk, trying to avoid detection. He cannot see what is happening in front of me. I’m glued to this place, holding my breath.
And then something else takes over. Be it evolution, be it my heart, be it my medulla oblongata, I don’t know, but something else clearly has taken hold here. The shaking ceases. The nerves subside. I see the forest in its entirety. And wait.
This must be the moment they talk about, that moment where everything stops. You stop analyzing, stop worrying, stop hesitating. Natural instinct kicks in and you simply act, all within the longest second of your life.
A red head pops up through the brush. I see it now in great detail: the whiskers on his chin, the brown in his eye, the wrinkles in his skin. Maybe this is what true clarity feels like.
“There he is,” I whisper.
Slowly, my finger wraps around the trigger.
Shauna Stephenson is a writer and photographer for a small newspaper in Wyoming. She resides in Wheatland with her fiancé, Cole, her mountain dog, Jack, and the newest love in her life, her bird dog, Scout.