I go into most hunts with high expectations - you know, TV-inspired visions of abundant game stumbling right in front of the well-hidden huntress who makes a stunningly perfect shot - and often I'm disappointed.
But this weekend's long-awaited turkey hunt in a Napa Valley vineyard exceeded my expectations because it was just plain surreal, from start to finish.
Boyfriend and I arrived at our destination late Saturday afternoon to scope out the lay of the land. As we waited in the driveway for the winery manager to meet us, I noticed something delightful where we'd been walking moments before: a three-foot-long rattlesnake. Yikes, had we missed that?
When the manager arrived, he was not pleased to see Mr. Snake.
"Want us to take him out?" Boyfriend offered helpfully.
"Do you have your guns with you? Sure!" he said, picking up the owners' 16-year-old cat.
I was fine with that. Out in the wild, I leave rattlers alone - they really don't bug you if you don't bug them. But in my family, we draw the line right around the house, because if a snake takes to sunning itself on your front steps, you could get bitten pretty quickly.
When Boyfriend and I got back from the car with our guns, the snake had curled up next to a tree. Boyfriend took a shot. The cat exploded out of the manager's arms. "Guess I should've expected that," he said.
When boyfriend walked away, I went back to inspect the damage. The snake had been blown in half, and the half with its head was still quite interested in biting something. Housepets are really vulnerable to this, so I warned the guys and took the final shot. Yup, that did it.
"Hi," I said, extending my hand to the manager. "I'm Holly."
Next on our agenda was dinner and drinks with Ashley, who works for one of the owners of the vineyard. We met Ashley at the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa. It's this cool new place that houses locally produced food and a few other odds and ends. One of the places on our list to see was The Fatted Calf, an artisanal charcuterie, where we were to take a little tour. Mmmmm... curing meats...
"Do you mind if I bring my camera?" I asked Ashley. "I'm ... I'm sort of a meat photographer," I said sheepishly, explaining that I do freelance food photography on the side.
"Really?" she said. "I'm a meat photographer too! And I paint meat."
Cool, a meat artist! I picked up my camera and in we went.
Things got even weirder after that ... but I know, I know. Get to the hunt, Holly!
We parted company with Ashley after trading an ice chest full of game meat for some abalone she happened to have and headed back to the winery, where we would spend the night in a building that could've come straight out of Dr. Seuss - vivid colors and precious few right angles.
I didn't sleep much, but when I slept at all, I dreamt of a hunt perpetually postponed - we lost the directions, got lost in a maze of urban warehouses, forgot to wear our camo ... on and on and on until our alarms went off within seconds of each other at 5 a.m.
We groaned, donned our camo and headed out with our guns under the light of a quarter moon.
We didn't talk much, because we'd set the plan the night before. Boyfriend would head up to the northeast corner of the vineyard, which overlooked a fold in the hillside where we'd seen five turkeys the day before. I would head higher up to the southeast corner, where I would position myself at the top of a 50-yard-wide strip of oak woodland where the owners had seen turkeys roost. Then we'd see what would happen.
The day before, as we'd headed west on Interstate 80, Boyfriend had told me, "You probably know more about turkey hunting than I do," to which I'd responded, "Well, I don't know squat." Truly, we were totally winging it, going on a little bit we'd read, a little bit we'd seen on TV and what little I'd learned on a single failed turkey hunt last fall.
After moseying around a bit in the oak forest, I positioned myself at the base of a tree that would give me a solid seat and probably a 110-degree shooting radius, and waited.
When shoot time came, I couldn't see diddly. I was under tree cover, and I was wearing my new Foxy Huntress jacket with black netting that zips across the hood. If a turkey walked by at that point, I don't think I could've seen whether it had a beard or not. Soon enough, though, I was grateful for my beekeeper-like get-up, because an enormous herd of mosquitoes swarmed around my face, and they couldn't touch me - nyah nyah!
Twenty minutes later, I heard gobbling down the hill. Showtime! I hit my box call lightly to try to pique the gobbler's interest and waited. Then I saw movement: About 80 yards down the hill, a hen was crossing through the oaks.
Oh no, I thought. This isn't going to be like one of those duck hunts where I don't see legal targets and they never come in range anyway, is it?
As the sky lightened, I saw movement in a lone oak tree about 40 yards away on the hill to my right. Turkey. In the branches. Hadn't moved when I'd come tromping through at 5:30 a.m.! Should I get up and try to move toward it?
No, stay put.
I heard the gobbling again. Closer this time. Higher up the hill. I tried to have my gun close to ready. I knew I couldn't hold it in shooting position indefinitely, but I knew it needed to be close to mounted, because the turkeys would bolt if they saw me moving.
I looked down the hill. I looked to the right. Down the hill. To the right. The mosquitoes swarmed. My hair got all messed up in the hood, tangling across my eyes. I raised a hand to try to push it away through the netting and that's when I saw it, off to my right: a red sticklike thing poking up through the grass.
It was wandering through tall grass, so I couldn't see whether it had the requisite beard, but I slowly shifted my head to the right to watch.
The turkey came closer, so I could see its full body, but I couldn't yet tell whether it was at least a jake.
Crap! My hair was in my eyes. My hood was twisted around. Dammit! I didn't want to miss what might be my only opportunity.
Just then, the turkey helpfully walked right behind a triple-trunked tree. Ahhhhh! It was like getting a chance to fix your wedgie when no one's looking. I shifted my body to the right, reached up, mushed my hair back, pushed my hood into place, mounted my gun and waited for Mr. Turkey to appear on the other side of the tree.
He did, but I couldn't see whether he had a beard. Then I thought I saw a beard, but I wasn't sure. Then, unbelievably, he walked even closer to me and turned to the left, giving me the perfect silhouette of a short but distinctive beard. He was 20 yards away.
I put his head right behind the muzzle and pulled the trigger.
Crack! The shot broke the morning stillness. Two more turkeys that had remained hidden bolted up the hill. The one in the tree exploded from his perch. And the one I'd shot at somersaulted down the hill.
I jumped up and saw he was dead. I grabbed him by the neck and blood soaked my gloves as though I'd squeezed a big sponge just soaked with it.
... perfect shot to the head...
He kicked and kicked and as I held him up, I saw that gorgeous tail fan out. As if that weren't good enough, I double-checked the beard. It was short, but it was there...
... wow, it's like elephant hair...
I looked up, jubilant. Before me was a spectacular Napa morning, sun streaming onto the valley below me. And above that valley was a colorful hot air balloon, doing the first of the morning tours.
...I wonder if they heard the shot? I wonder if they have binoculars? Not what you'd expect to see on a wine country tour...
As planned, I waited a while before heading over to Boyfriend. The turkeys had gone uphill, not back down toward him, so I knew I wouldn't be spoiling a shot. As I crested the hill, I saw him - a vague lump of camo at the end of a row of vines. I carried the turkey by his feet, his body slung over my shoulder, tail fanned out. He was heavy!
Boyfriend finally turned around and saw me. I could see when it registered that I was carrying a bird. His thumb shot up. Mine shot up in return. I'd finally gotten my first turkey.
After we changed, we joined the vineyard owners in their house, which looked like something straight out of Sunset Magazine: clean lines, rooms bathed in light, gorgeous art everywhere you looked - sculptures, paintings, the bathroom sink. They served us cappuccinos and lattes and farm-fresh eggs and slices of ethereal jamon iberico, Spain's take on proscuitto, made from hogs that dine exclusively on acorns.
We thanked them profusely for letting us hunt on their land. They thanked us profusely for taking out one of the turkeys who'd been preying on their vineyard, eating grapes when they were in season, and just plain destroying vines the rest of the year.
And off we went. Where one job had ended, another had begun - the one that would transform this bird into dinners for weeks and months to come. But for that story, you need to go to Boyfriend's blog.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008