By Katie Voelker

I got my first turkey this week and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best days of my life.

I worked so hard last year, my first attempt at turkey hunting, and failed. And with only two and a half weeks left this season, it was looking like this year might turn out the same way. It wasn’t for lack of trying either — turkey scouting and hunting is really the only thing I’ve done with my free time for the last few months. Morning after morning of 4:30AM alarms and stumbling around in the dark to sneak up on roosted turkeys had led to some close calls, but it just wasn’t working out for me.

So I showed up on public land Wednesday knowing it might be one of my last chances, since turkey hunting only becomes more difficult the later in the season it gets. I set up in a wooded area where I had seen turkeys before and I waited. It was an especially nice morning, and even though the first hour went by without hearing a single turkey, I was happy to sit there watching the sun rise through the trees.

Then I heard it — a gobble, far off. Was that a gobble? Your ears play tricks on you when you’re surrounded by a whole forest of critters waking up.

And then I heard it again. Okay, that was definitely a gobble that time. From the sound of it, I guessed this turkey was a couple hundred yards away in a private agriculture field just north of the public land where I sat, probably feeding and strutting and warming up in the sun.

Here’s where I had a decision to make: do I stay where I’m at and try to call him to me, or do I go to him?

One of the more challenging aspects of hunting is the mental game. There’s a sort of decision fatigue that sets in after second-guessing (and third- and fourth- and fifth-guessing) yourself at every turn. There are any number of choices you can make in a given moment, and the unfortunate fact of the matter is most of those choices will lead to you going home empty-handed.

The choice I made in this moment was to take a gamble, abandon my decoys, and go and find this turkey.

I approached the fence between the public land and the private ag field cautiously, but not cautiously enough — I stumbled on a hen turkey and she went running. I thought I’d blown the hunt right there, but by some stroke of luck, she didn’t spook the other turkeys as she ran off. I could hear two males gobbling in the field on the private side of the fence now. They were close, maybe 50-60 yards away.

I noticed a game trail that led from the field into the wooded area where I sat, and figured that might be my best opportunity to coax a bird over onto public land. I set up facing the trail, propped my shotgun on my knee, and yelped softly with a mouth call, trying to imitate the sound of a hen.

Through the thick foliage I was hiding in, I could catch the occasional glimpse of the turkeys milling around the field. The two males were strutting, gobbling like crazy, but they wouldn’t budge from their spot — they had real live hens with them already and weren’t paying my calls any mind. After an hour though, the hens must have wandered off, because my calls finally caught the attention of the two males. I could just barely see two red heads slowly making their way towards me, still on private land, but closing the distance.

Then one of them — I could see then he was a jake, a young male turkey — suddenly poked his head through the barbed wire fence, looking for the mystery hen. This might be my chance. I was aimed right at him but couldn’t pull the trigger since he was still on private land. I just needed him to take a few more steps forward. Just then, the other turkey gobbled loudly and I jumped, startled. The jake spotted me and made some confused sounding chirps. He didn’t go running, but was weirded out enough to head back towards the ag field where he came from. Again, I thought I had blown the hunt.

In a display of dominance, the other male kicked at the jake as he retreated. Even though the jake was spooked, this second male didn’t seem to be, so I thought I might still have a chance with him. I yelped softly on the mouth call in a last ditch attempt to convince this other male to cross the fence.

He fell for it. He marched slowly but purposefully right down the game trail, past the fence onto public land, into a tiny clearing in front of me. Exactly where I needed him to be. And even though I was no more than 10 yards away, sitting out in the open, he hadn’t seen me yet, his head obscured by a branch. My heart rate was off the charts at this point. I made a tiny sound on the mouth call. He turned, looking for the source of the sound. That gave me the shot, so I took it. The force of the gun blast slammed my shoulder back into the tree behind me. When I saw him go down and knew the shot was good, I nearly wept out of sheer relief.

It was only when I approached him that I saw what a beautiful, mature tom he was. I knew turkeys to be stunning birds, but up close, they’re another thing entirely. My husband’s reaction when I brought this bird home sums it up best: He isn’t the type of person that is ever at a loss for words, but when he saw it, he was speechless for a long moment before saying, “it’s the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen.”

Although my primary goal of hunting is getting meat — I wouldn’t kill animals if food weren’t the endgame — that doesn’t fully account for why it’s become such an obsession for me. It’s a lot of things.

I love how the conservation model we’ve developed in this country has allowed native species like wild turkey and deer to not only come back from near extinction, but to thrive, and that the fee for my turkey tag and hunting license go to further that mission.

I love that even though I’ve learned so much about hunting over the last year, that I still barely know anything at all, and that I can spend the rest of my life learning and still be outpaced, outsmarted, and outmatched by the animals I hunt.

I love the extremes of human emotion hunting brings out: the deep, meditative calm of sitting still in the woods; the maddening frustration of failing over and over again; the mortal dread of walking in an unknown place in the dark, the head-swimming, dizzy feeling of closing in on an animal you’re pursuing; the beaming pride of self reliance walking out of the woods with a hard-won turkey on your back.

I think more than anything though, I love being surrounded by evidence of innumerable lives playing out in the wild. The tracks in the snow, the beaver-felled tree, the deer carcass, the spiderweb, the nest full of eggs. I wish I knew of a less cliche way to express it, but being in the midst of it all makes me feel like a part of something greater in a way that nothing ever has before. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing when I’m hunting.

I say all of this because it can be easy to dismiss the type of “grip and grin” trophy photos I’ve posted here as some sort of glorification of killing or violence or dominance over nature, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. My aim here is to honor this beautiful animal and its place in a system that we all play a part in — one that I have a newfound and intimate appreciation for, and one I think is worth preserving.