Mar 10, 2016

Spring

I believe spring is God's way of reminding us that no matter what has happened in the past, with each sunrise life begins anew.  From the first blooming daffodil to the first monarch leaving its cocoon and the chirp of the first hatched robin, spring reminds us of the glorious life that awaits each of us every new day on earth, and in heaven, where eternity promises to be a perpetual spring day.

Spring is also a time for many of us to take to the woods and fields to match our wits against the elusive spring gobbler. Last year, while Wisconsin was still encased in snow and ice, I experienced the glory of the spring woods in Georgia during my annual turkey hunt with six of my closest buddies. It was the best turkey hunt I've EVER experienced.

Our hunt began the Friday before opening day, when we met at Dual Creek, a 4,000-acre nirvana owned by my buddy, Tony Loop.  After hugs, back slaps and trash talking about who's going to kill the biggest bird, we settled down for what could be one of the South's greatest traditions -- a low country boil. 

Last year we welcomed a new hunter, Hugh Sales, who serves as a doctor at the Otolaryngology & Facial Surgery Centre in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Hugh is an accomplished duck hunter, but this was his first turkey hunt. The anticipation and excitement he exuded was greater than the rest of us combined.

The low country boil was, as it is every year, a joyous time of dining on shrimp, sausage, onions, corn and potatoes -- all boiled in some secret concoction that only southern folk have mastered.  We also imbibed in another of God's sweet libations -- beer. 

But then Hugh's phone rang and shortly thereafter, the mood turned from festive to melancholy.  The rest of us sensed something was horribly wrong and Hugh confirmed it as soon as he hung up the phone. Sam, a close family friend, long-time boyfriend of Hugh's daughter, and first year medical student, had just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called urachal carcinoma.   The prognosis was not good, as the median survival rate for this form of cancer is one to two years. 

The evening ended earlier than normal, and we all went to bed not with anticipation for the hunt -- instead, we all went to pray for Sam ... and Hugh.

Although the morning hunt wasn't successful from a turkey harvesting perspective, it was a success from a nature buzz perspective. That morning I hunted with Hugh's brother, David, and what we witnessed was nothing short of spectacular.  After a long walk through the towering pines, oaks and fields, we stopped on the edge of a swamp along Reedy Creek to listen for the first sounds of gobblers waking up on the roost.  This was at the magical time in nature when the nocturnal birds and animals are transitioning to their nests, lairs and bedding areas, and the diurnal birds and animals are just waking up to begin a new day of frolicking, feeding, and, for some like the gobblers, seducing and mating with the opposite sex.  We heard whip-poor-wills, barred owls and other night birds. We saw raccoons, deer, coyotes and other night critters. 

And then it was like someone flipped a switch.  In an instant we heard the whistling wings of mallards and other ducks leaving the ponds and creeks to search for food.  We heard cranes, great blue herons, robins, warblers and an untold number of other avians. We also heard hen turkeys begin to cluck and gobblers begin to gobble. When it was light enough to see, we saw wild daffodils, dogwoods in full bloom, red buds exploding and a landscape adorned with every color imaginable. It was magnificent.

Dave and I returned to the lodge around noon to meet up with the others.  They too had experienced the brilliance of the spring woods but also didn't harvest any birds.  Since everyone was sluggish from the low country boil and the overindulgence of the aforementioned libations the night before, we all decided a nap was in order before we returned to the woods a few hours later.

As I was headed to my bunk, I looked at Hugh and couldn't help but notice the palpable angst he was experiencing from the news about Sam.  There was no way he was going to nap.  So I said, "Hey, Hugh, do you want to go back out and chase some birds?" He replied, "Yes ... I think I do."  So we gathered our gear and headed out to a blind that overlooked a chufa field the turkeys had been frequenting.  I didn't bring a gun, as I planned to call for Hugh in the hopes that he would harvest his first bird, and I would be there to film it with a GoPro. We set up a few decoys and then hunkered down in the blind.

Years ago, when I was going through a tough medical challenge, I learned not to ask God for healing but instead to ask Him for peace in whatever I was dealing with. In Phillipians 4:6-7, the Apostle Paul writes:

"Dismiss all anxiety from your minds.  Present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude.  Then God's own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus."

This is my favorite Bible verse.  I not only reflect on it when I'm in need, I also pray on it when others find themselves in a dark place where they too need to find peace.  So the very first thing I silently did was ask God to please, please, in the midst of the darkness, send Hugh some light in the form of His gracious and merciful peace.

In a well hidden blind, Hugh and I sat and talked for a few hours about Sam, our families, sports teams, God and pretty much everything else two guys in a turkey blind can talk about.  It was great bonding time, and I wouldn't trade that time with Hugh for anything -- even though the heavy cloud of Sam's illness was present the entire time.

And then the trophy gobbler stepped out of the pines: He was 70 yards to our left and moving quickly across the chufa field. I began a series of calls hoping to entice him to come 20 yards closer.  But he didn't even look at the decoys and he never gobbled.  As he disappeared into the woods I thought, "Come on, God! This could have ended really well for Hugh."  Little did I know what was in store. 

Twenty minutes later a hen appeared 50 yards to our right.  She came in to check the decoys but then headed off in the same direction the gobbler went.  When that happened, I figured there was now NO chance of bringing that gobbler back in.  Who was I to call a mature tom into a few hen decoys when he had the real thing?

I continued to call but really didn't expect a response -- and never got one. Fifteen minutes later I saw the hen running for her life just inside the treeline on the far side of the chufa field.  The gobbler was far enough back that he didn't see her jump into a tree and hunker down on a low hanging branch. When he got to the same tree, he stood there gazing into the chufa field, probably wondering where the heck his future mate had gone. Had he just looked up, he would have seen her hiding a mere 6 feet above him.

This was my chance.  I gave him a few soft purrs, but still they were to no avail. Then I grabbed my box call and gave him a series of loud yelps.  That did it.  He must have thought his girlfriend had crossed the chufa field.  He immediately puffed up in full display and then made a beeline across the field to the pines on the same side of the field we were on. He was now 100 yards to our right and gobbling loudly every few seconds.

Over the next 20 minutes we went back and forth.  I would yelp loudly, and he would gobble even louder.  He was coming closer -- but at a snail's pace.  The pines were very thick, but periodically we would catch a glimpse of him in full display. 

Finally, he began to close the gap.  When he hit 70 yards, I began to think this might actually happen.  When he hit 65 yards and then 60, I was sure.  At 55 yards he stopped in a small clearing.  Hugh was sporting a .20 gauge with 4 shot and although I didn't think he had the range, I trusted Hugh given his extensive experience duck hunting and his familiarity with what he referred to as his favorite gun.  I was whispering, "Wait ... wait ... wait" when all of a sudden I heard "BANG" and then Hugh saying, "Sorry, man. ... I just couldn't take it any longer.”

Now if I could somehow attach the GoPro video to this column, you'd see a mad scramble to get out of that blind. At 55 yards, I thought at best we'd be chasing a wounded bird from Georgia to Arkansas, and I wanted to get on him as fast as we could. 

But there he was, expired, 55 glorious yards away. 

When we were finally standing over that beautiful gobbler, I looked to the heavens and said, "THANK YOU, LORD!"  He had delivered.  During that one-hour period we worked on that tom, and for a good bit of time after, Hugh and I experienced a peace that "surpassed all understanding." That gobbler could have popped out of the pines 20 yards closer and Hugh could have shot him immediately.  Instead, I believe God intentionally placed that bird out of range and gave us that intense hour -- so that all we would think about was getting Hugh his first gobbler.

And God continued to display His amazing grace. In December I joined Hugh and the rest of the boys for a duck hunt in northeast Arkansas.  Not only did we harvest several limits of ducks, the greatest blessing was meeting a cancer-free Sam and a peace-filled Hugh. To top it off, Sam has now returned to medical school where he is working hard to catch up on the semester that cancer took from him.  I know I will continue to pray for Sam and my hope is that you will too. 

Our wish at Badger Sportsman is that each of you experience "the peace that surpasses all understanding."  Whether you're chasing a wily old gobbler, hunting for mushrooms, or just enjoying the rebirth of life on a long walk, we pray that you, too, forget about the past and focus on the glorious spring days that await you.

Peace.