Friday, May 25, 2018

Turkey Manifesto

Editor's note: This is a guest post from my good friend Tommy Baranowski. In a way his story is different than others shared here because it's the first one about hunting to ever appear on The Connecticut Yankee. In many ways, however, Tommy's story is very similar because it's about his passion for the outdoors, an appreciation for putting time in and achieving success, and making memories with family and friends.

First off, I must admit that I've only been hunting for a few years. I never really gave it much thought or attention when I was younger, even though my father is an accomplished lifelong hunter, and my younger brother is no slouch either, whether with a bow or any sort of firearm. I didn’t get sucked in until a good friend Justin Benvenuto started upland bird hunting and took me to a spot I was extremely familiar with along the Farmington River. It was MDC-owned property that I had been fly fishing for years fittingly named The Boneyard. My love for hunting started right then and there.

Ever since that day I’ve been completely engrossed in the sport, though it’s not easy putting down in words exactly why. Maybe it’s the challenge of something new. Maybe it’s the adventure of the whole thing. Maybe it’s the interaction with nature and seeing animals in a different way. Maybe it’s the thrill of going out there and coming back with food for the table. Or maybe it’s just spending more time outdoors with friends and family making new memories. Whatever it may be, I truly enjoy doing it and the spring of 2018 has been a memorable one with some significant milestones under my belt.

This story starts in early spring 2017 when I got a bug up my ass to go turkey hunting. My father and I talked it over and got permission to hunt a large, private piece owned by one of his sporting clay partners. So we set out one May morning and long story short, it didn't go as we had hoped. In hindsight, some birds were around but we were sitting in the wrong spot and calling way too much. More importantly, we flat out went into the whole thing blind; no scouting all, just waltzed in and sat down. While we weren’t able to get out again that season, I told myself the following spring would be different.

If duck hunting has taught me anything over the past few seasons, it’s the importance of putting time in to scout. I extended that same line of thinking to the turkey fields this year. Before the season started, I drove up to the property one morning for first light. I parked, started walking and right on the dirt road there’s a Tom staring at mea good sign! As I walked the cornfield, its edges were littered with turkey tracksanother good sign! 

The next scouting trip was an evening trip. It was a bit windy, but I called a few times with a box call and could have sworn I got a gobble back. I walked over to the edge of the field and about 30 yards away were two big Toms walking off into the woods to roost. Right then I knew it was those birds gobbling back to my call. I was amped! I picked out a couple of trees to sit at the base of and cut a clear shooting path through the briers between this spot and where the decoys would go in the field. The stage was set.

The 2018 spring turkey season started on a Wednesday, so like all other weekend warriors I had to wait until the following Saturday to get out. The day finally came and I met my father at the property for 4:45 a.m. After a quick walk to our spot and decoy setup, we dug in and the waiting game began. As the sun crept up there was a light layer of fog hanging over the field. We soon started hearing the first birds gobbling from their roost and on the ground. From our vantage point, the turkeys were off to our left.  After a few calls from my dad’s box call, we had a nice exchange going but could tell they were heading away from us. The next call he made got a gobble back and while still out of sight, it seemed the birds had changed direction and were looking right at us. Not a moment later my dad whispered, “There they are. Look at the tails!” Thanks to the fog that’s all we could see, two big fanned-out turkey tails moving towards us. Holy shit this is happening…

I sat at the ready with the gun resting on my knee. After a few more light calls, the birds’ ghostly whitish-blue heads came into view. It was surreal how well they stood out through the fog; that scene is one of the more vivid memories from the entire hunt. The turkeys were in a small group of about six moving in our direction when the two Toms in full-strut broke away and headed directly toward our decoys. Directly is not the right word—they were actually zigzagging in front of one another cutting off each other’s display. That was something cool I hadn’t seen in person until that day. Holding steady with my check on the buttstock and staring down the barrel, I could see that one of the birds had one distinctly long beard. The other had two beards that stuck out against the background of the field as vividly as their heads. My game plan was to take the double beard first and if the other bird hung around, take him next.

At this point, the pair of Toms were just beyond our decoys. While trying to control my breathing so my goddamned glasses didn't fog up any worse than they already were, I squeezed off the first round. The bird was stone dead from a perfect shot. I moved the barrel over to the second bird, squeezed the trigger and the gun didn't fire. Since I was using a ridiculously large 3.5” 2 ¼ oz. shot shell, the gun didn't cycle the next shell all the way. I looked at the ejection port, touched the bolt and it guided the next shell right into the breach. I then zeroed in on the second bird that only walked a few yards away and took my next shot. Just over an hour after sitting down, two large Toms lay in front of us on a misty field. Now you must keep in mind, my father next to me has probably forgotten about more hunting trips than I have been on. That being said, this was the first time I had taken an animal in his presence. It was a rather special moment for both of us and as we were getting up I said to him, “It only took me 33 years to do this!”

Approaching the first bird I could now see that what I thought was a double bearded Tom was actually a triple with the longest of the three beards being 10 ½ inches. The second Tom that I thought had a single beard was actually a double with the longer of the two also at 10 ½ inches. What absolutely amazing animals! It wasn’t until I was face-to-face with a wild North American turkey that I could truly appreciate how stunning these animals really are. Their features left me in awe—the sheer size of the birds, their almost fake looking iridescent feathers, giant spurs on the back of their legs, the beards and wing tips that drag on the ground when in full strut. My father and I shook hands, took a few photos and began to haul the harvest back to our trucks.

It was too early to be making phone calls to any sane person, but as soon as it turned a decent hour I called my boy Dustin, the foodiest foodie I know, and told him we had some work to do. Dustin had been perfecting his smoking skills for a while and smoked turkey is just what I had in mind. I got home, cleaned the birds, put the breasts in a simple brine in gallon Ziplocs, and drove to Dusty’s place. We then tied up the breasts, set a timer and put them in the smoker, which was already fired up with golden delicious applewood. About two and a half hours later we took them out and coated one in honey, one in maple syrup, and one with butter and herbs. We then wrapped the breasts in tinfoil filled with bone broth to finish.

It was a goal of mine to harvest my first turkeys and eat them in the same day. The end result was incredibly good and it was truly special for me to be able to share a meal like that with close friends. There's an almost indescribable feeling that comes along with hunting and gathering your own food—a sort of sense of pride and accomplishment. Just knowing that I went out there, put the time in and got this meat myself, not from a store. I plan on turkey hunting for a long time to come and continuing to learn along the way.