Somewhere, there's a line when you go from client to friend. Somewhere, there's a line where you go from being guided to hunting together.
I have no idea where or when it happens. I only know it after the milestone has transpired.
Never however was it more evident than my last trip to Northeast Wilderness Outfitters a last week.. Pulling into the gravel driveway was almost like returning home when you've been away for a while.
It wasn't the firm handshake from Chip (owner) or the greetings from the long time guides who always gather to meet the incoming clients. It was more from walking into the kitchen and seeing Chip's daughter and noticing how much she had grown in a year. It was more the stark realization that Woody wouldn't be there to chat with. It was more the big hug from Chip's wife Maria and her inquiring about my wife and new grand daughter. It was my familiar seat at the family table and the easy conversations that ensued.
However comfortable that dining room chair and enjoyable the catching up conversation was, our thoughts soon turned to turkey and turkey hunting. We headed out looking to roost some birds for tomorrow's opener.
The hunters and guides all took off in separate directions looking for the ultimate, high odds, location to clobber a gobbler in the morning. It wasn't long before cell phones were pinging from all the sightings and plan making.
We were heading to my favorite spot of all. It's a beautiful farm, with a pond, orchards, and, of course, lots of turkey.
From Chip's tireless scouting, we knew where the birds would roost, and more importantly, he knew where they would head and where they would likely be at any time of the day.
Sitting under the pines listening to the Maine woods come alive was reward enough for the 3am wake up. The weather was spectacular. Clear skies. Chilly but above freezing. Before long, the eastern horizon had a glowing streak of wildfire racing across it. I wanted to take a picture of it so bad it wasn't even funny. But I dared not. The previous evening, we saw two lone toms head for their roost about 75 yards behind where we were sitting.
As if on cue, the tree talk started about 30 minutes before light. Gobbles rang out from below and above us. A couple hens were softly yelping from their perches. What really caught my ear's attention was the gobbles coming from behind us. I had my fingers crossed it was the two toms sporting those 8-9 inch beards from the scouting trip the evening before.
If there was somewhere else I would have rather been...it didn't readily come to mind. It was a production as only mother nature could script. I felt blessed to have a front row, center seat as it unfolded. I reminded myself to never, ever, take such moments for granted.
Chip was just a few yards behind me. He would call and I would shoot if it all came together. He returned those soft yelps perfectly. Not too much. Not too little. It's almost an art to work those birds with just the right finesse. It's a touch that only comes from years of calling to thousands of birds.
Legal shooting time came slowly. But it came. Slowly or not. The birds were still in the pines.
When Chip and I hunt together, it's usually radio silence. We don't talk or move. Uncharacteristically, Chip leaned towards me and whispered, " They're on the ground, be ready".
I smiled and thought, I've been ready for an hour, but I appreciated the heads up. He offered it because he knew they flew down exactly where he had hoped. All we needed to do was pull them around the point of brush to where they would see our decoys.
The periodic calling was just right. Their excited gobble answers easily gave us their location and travel route. It was as if they read the script.
They came around the heavy brush point, hit the field and marched double time down the tree line right to the decoys we had placed 12 yards in front of me.
Once they rounded that corner, I could see glimpses of the big birds through the raspberry thorn thicket. I saw long beards. My heart began to thump. The shotgun was across my raised knees. They were literally gonna walk right into my line of fire.
The closer they came, combined with Chip's louder and more excited hen calling, the more they sounded off. Double and triple gobbles rang out across the picturesque farm. I wasn't about to, but I could have closed my eyes and followed their exact location by sound alone. When they were in range ( but still no good clear shot) Chip wisely backed off on the calling.
I let them come almost right to the decoys. I picked out the bigger of the two and placed the bead steady on his waddles. The ol' pump gun barked and the tom folded. Swinging on the second bird, I couldn't see his beard. I didn't want a Jake ( or shoot an illegal bird that wasn't sporting a visible beard - which is the law in Maine) and despite having the impression they were both long beards when they were approaching, I just couldn't pull without that identification.
The second bird began walking away. Not fast. Just confused. Chip stopped him with an excited yelp. Bird number 2 turned sideways to look back at the receptive hen. In doing so, I saw that paintbrush hanging low.
First day or not, I jammed the pump like a jazz playing trombone player and drew a bead on him just above the waddles and broke the morning silence once again.
The tom collapsed in a heap.
While the gun's loud report was still ringing in my ears, I was aware of Chip offering congrats, and seconds later I felt a sincere pat on my back. Chip called the time of death at 530am. We looked at each other. We looked out in the green field at the two black lumps and took to laughing.
Giddy laughing, like two school yard kids. I glanced down across the little farm valley and noticed the sky was a perfect pinky red. I realized that the wind had picked up and I was shaking. Well, that's my story anyways.
We gathered the birds and took some photos. Before we left I just made a point to take this event all in one more time. I knew, no matter how hard we posed and placed the birds, the pictures would not capture the moment. There's not a camera out there that can capture the sounds, smells, and sights of such moments.
Sitting there, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not since hunting with family had I seen anyone as happy for me to take an animal as Chip was.
It was then I realized I was hunting with family.