Vegetarian Alexandra Brown went hunting for Indiana's wild gobblers, but found new respect for the men and women behind the camo.
We sit hunched over, masked by the bushes and our camouflage clothing. We stare into the open field as expansive clouds hover above us, streaks of early sunlight peering through the gray. We hear the occasional rustle of leaves blowing, and I rub my hands together for warmth.
Bill Keith holds a round turkey call in his left hand, guiding the wooden rod across its surface. Back and forth. Back and forth. It releases a slow screech -one, two, three, four times. Then it's silent, and we wait again for the sight or sound of a turkey. Keith's shotgun leans against a small tree, and, as a vegetarian, I can't help but worry if I'll have the stomach to shoot it should I actually see one.
People raised their eyebrows when I told them I was doing this. But I like doing things no one would expect of me, that I wouldn't even expect of myself. I wasn't always a vegetarian, but a former yoga teacher taught me the health benefits: lower cholesterol, better posture, better concentration. Staying active is important to me, but hunting was one sport I knew nothing about. I was curious about the hunter and what motivated him to take an animal's life.
Keith, 53, is an avid turkey hunter and creates his own turkey calls for sale. His face captures the innocence of a child when he says he hunts every chance he gets and rarely sleeps during turkey season. But 60 years ago sportsmen like Keith would not have had the option to turkey hunt.
As late as 1945, Indiana had no signs of a turkey population. In the early 1900s, years of habitat destruction and lax hunting regulations wiped out most wild turkey populations in North America, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation. Restoration programs began to release wild turkeys in 1956 when farm-raised turkeys failed to survive in the wild. Indiana traded its grouse for wild turkeys from Missouri to restore the population, says Nathan Yazel, district wildlife biologist for Indiana's Department of Natural Resources. In 1970 Indiana had its first modern turkey season.
It's difficult to be grateful for a healthy turkey population as I drag my body out of bed at 4 a.m. to meet Keith for my first and possibly last hunting trip.
Two hours later, I pull into a parking lot near Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. Dressed in camouflage overalls and a NWTF baseball cap, Keith stands out among the plastic Santa and candy canes.
He waits stiffly next to his red Dodge Dakota pickup truck, hands in his pockets.
"Hi. Nice to meet you," I say and we shake hands. I apologize for being a little late. To fill the awkward silence, Keith says he can't understand why his two daughters married guys who don't like the outdoors.
He hands me a camouflage shirt and pants, and I slip them on over my clothes. We drive, twisting and winding down heavily wooded roads. A few minutes later, we pull into a small grassy patch of land, a 100-acre farm he has legal permission to hunt on in Grandview, Ind. But another pick-up truck is already parked there. He calls his friend to see if he is out hunting already but then realizes it isn't his friend's truck.
"We got company then," he says.
Keith says trespassing is an ongoing issue that court systems don't take seriously enough. Trespassing is mostly an issue of safety. More than half of all shooting accidents occur on private land, and most shooters involved have more than 16 years of turkey-hunting experience, according to the DNR. It's important for hunters to know who is on the land because in turkey hunting, the turkey and the hunter's heads are at about the same level, Yazel says. Turkeys spend most of their time on the ground, feeding, breeding and nesting in open, grassy areas. While Indiana has never had a fatal turkey hunting accident since its first modern turkey season, hunters are injured every year.
Keith seems flustered by the unexpected visitor to the farm and smokes a quick cigarette before I follow him in silence to the open fields. He pauses for a while, staring into the distance as he tries to figure out where we should hide. He decides on a spot in the corner of the field, covered by bushes. I sit perfectly still, listening as he releases a call first with a mouth caller and then with one of the wooden callers he makes at home.
Male turkeys are called "gobblers" because of the loud, robust calls they use during the spring mating season, when turkeys are most active. Keith says the choice of call and caller are based on the hunter's preference. There are box calls, mouth calls, diaphragm calls, wing calls and scratch calls, but it only takes one call to hunt a turkey.
Still, even after about 20 minutes, we see and hear nothing.
"Plan B," Keith says.
A part of me is hoping we call it quits right then. My eyes dart toward the woods whenever I hear the semblance of a bird, thinking it's a turkey and that in a matter of seconds I will have to shoot. Keith cautions that we both need to be quieter, but I can't imagine how much quieter we can get. We settle on a fallen log in field number two. While he chooses to hide in the natural scenery of the forest, some hunters use pop-up blinds, which look like a camouflage camping tent. He says turkeys don't notice them. "But a deer is like, 'Who in the hell moved in overnight?'" he says.
Other hunters don't use calls because they know where the turkeys will be. But Keith lives for the chance to call in a turkey. He even argues that his own calls are better than a turkey's.
"A turkey is the worst turkey caller in the world," he says. "They sound like crap."
But a hunter can never know what kind of call the turkey will respond to. On a trip to Oklahoma, Keith hunted with a friend who was a terrible caller. While Keith wanted to take over, the turkey would only respond to his friend's call.
The most common methods to hunt turkey are with a shotgun or bow and arrow, and the hunter needs to be about 30 to 40 yards away. Hunters need to be careful because turkeys can get away fast. Their powerful legs allow them to run up to 12 mph. Sharp spurs on their legs have been known to cut hunters who get too close. Turkeys can fly short distances, but usually run when threatened. They can weigh 30 pounds, and the subspecies native to Indiana - the Eastern wild turkey - tends to be larger to survive the cold weather.
As we sit in silence, Keith taps the wooden caller rod against his knuckles. Then, in a moment of defeat, he says, "I'm afraid none of this is going like it's supposed to." I'm both disappointed and relieved. It was one thing to shoot a turkey. But then he explained how hunters have to stand on its head afterward to make sure it's dead.
We walk through the forest, stopping to taste fresh persimmons and observing wild ginseng and deer rub, the scrapes deer antlers make against the trunks of trees. I savor the persimmon's sweet apricot-like flavor. Keith tells me about how just a week ago some kids trespassed on the farm, burning tires and trashing the property. "So many people disrespect the outdoors. It makes me sick," he says. A little dirty and a little tired, we head back to the red pickup truck.
A few miles from the farm, we visit Keith's good friend Gary Ayer, owner of Ayer's Sporting Goods and winner of the Indiana Hunter Education Association "Outstanding Achievement" award. The IHEA is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to hunting education in Indiana. He says that hunters fall in love with turkey hunting because the spring season is when everything turns green and turkeys are especially active. He also says it's a mental game.
"The turkey has got the eyes of an eagle. They've got the hearing of a bat. And if they had a sense of smell like a deer, they'd be impossible to hunt," Ayer says with a laugh. "I'll put it that way. They are tough to hunt."
But hunting is also about preserving wildlife. The American hunter funds the vast majority of wildlife conservation and preservation, Ayer says. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act places an 11 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. The tax funds research, environmental improvement and the introduction of wildlife to suitable habitats.
Hunting also helps maintain a healthy wildlife population. Hunting reduces chances of starvation and disease, Ayer says, and can help remove the animals that won't be strong breeders. But he says most people just don't understand the conservation side of hunting or how animals like deer actually benefit from being hunted.
"They don't understand what all goes on. They don't understand what a cruel keeper Mother Nature can be," he says. "They haven't watched overpopulation destroy deer. I have."
And while most hunters don't process meat themselves, Ayer does, using almost all of the meat. He even makes deer ribs. "I guess I was born hungry, grew up hungry. Nothing goes to waste," he says.
As Keith talks with Ayer's wife, Barbara, a pickup truck with a deer on the back pulls into the driveway. It's their friend, Jim Hoff, a stout man wearing jeans, a camo T-shirt, sturdy boots and a smile. He boasts about a recent hunting trip he took in Menomonee, Mich., where the whole town shuts down during deer-hunting season.
"They got their priorities straight," Keith says.
Hoff sits on the back of the pickup truck, the deer draped across his lap, posing for me to take a picture with his latest prize. Its tongue dangles from its mouth and its round brown eyes stare blankly at the camera. Flecks of dry blood smatter Hoff's jeans as he grins proudly.
"Did you get the whole deer in there?" he asks.
I fumble with the camera settings and struggle to get the viewfinder to focus.
Ayer holds a summer sausage in front of him, offering me a taste.
"No, thank you," I say.
The jig was up.
"Hey, Bill, did you know she was a vegetarian?"
Keith's eyes widen and his jaw slightly drops.
"I don't think I wanna know," he says.
He can't understand because when he has a few minutes to spare, there is nothing he would rather do than hunt. He says his wife Beth is supportive because she doesn't have to worry about infidelity like other wives. She knows exactly where he is: out in the fields. She recently hunted with him for the first time and recalls when he took their youngest daughter, Sarah, hunting.
"It took her two boxes of shotgun shells to get those birds," Beth says with a laugh.
Keith took hunting a little too seriously when he first took his daughters out when they were young, he says. He wanted to make them great hunters in 10 minutes and they didn't have any fun. "I'll do better with the grandkids," he promises.
Now retired from his position as production manager at Holland Dairy, Keith has time to put into creating his calls. He describes it as a hobby that started in his garage and he's now lost all control of. When he went to a hunting show, outdoor supply company Maximum Draw approached him to sell his calls through them. He'll be compensated for his work based on sales. Every time Keith sells a call, he says it feels like the first time, and he turns into a little kid. He hopes to make 1,000 in time for spring turkey season on April 27.
Last spring, Indiana hunters harvested almost 13,000 wild turkeys in 19 days, the second most successful season in 40 years. One turkey was Keith's. As we drove back to the empty parking lot, I thought about my impression of hunters before today. I had pictured Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny - hunters killing just for the sake of killing. This day changed that. Before we said goodbye, Keith said I was welcome to hunt with him again any time, promising I would be sure to see a turkey if I came during the spring season.
A few weeks after our trip, he told me in an e-mail, "I saw seven in the field out in the front of my house this morning. Rest assured I gave them some strong language on your behalf from the kitchen window."
I may not have shot a turkey. I may not have even seen one. But I know that they're there, traveling in packs from field to field. And as they do, Keith will be sitting in the woods waiting in silence for the perfect moment to call one in.