Talking Turkey: the Joys and Sorrows of Spring Hunting in Montana

Bridger Mountains in Spring

Spring is a time of unbalance. One would say the proverbial breaking of the ice has us fretting in a frenzy to abnormally clean, organize our stuff, join gyms, start vegetables from seeds, or if you are like me, sequester yourself in the produce section of your local grocery store just to observe colors. For some of us living in Montana, the seemingly unending winter simply drives us insane. We have watched every show that Netflix has to offer, we have scoured our collection of books and completed all indoor projects. Now we simply stare out the window, taunted by every drip off the icicles - nature's hourglass.

I have always been a hunter. Like many Montana boys my age, my father, like his father before him, schooled us in the teachings of the wild. Some kids spent their weekends playing sports, but my family were always sitting beside a lake, camping or adventuring the dirt roads with a small-caliber arms and a packed lunch in the back seat. 

Of all our adventures, the most challenging the Pryanovich family experienced was one that that would greatly influence our perception of hunting; we began participating in the Mountain Man Rendezvous.  This historical reenactment of the pre-1840's fur trade was a wonderland of muzzleloaders, canvas and buckskin. 

So I cast away camouflage and rifle as tokens of a former life. I started spending time with unsavory outcasts with names like Mad Dog, Whiskey Man and Lone Wolf. Yes folks, I was a walking, talking, Jeremiah Johnson-lovin' leather-clad titan.  

After an unsuccessful attempt at becoming an English/History teacher, I found myself pursuing a career in the Outdoor Industry, and found to my surprise, that the traditional ways appeared unseemly to many colleagues who did not understand. Their idea of a "mountain man" was something different, and usually ended the conversation with "you hunt bro?" I knew if I had any chance of a career move, I would have to assimilate: I would have to wear Patagonia.

Meriwether Lewis in Buckskins

I admit it took a while, but I learned to love gear; I love talking gear, I love buying gear, I love researching gear and despite all these existential changes, I never forgot my roots. Speak softly, wear the name-brand clothing and always carry a buck knife. I became a walking, talking, outdoorsy dichotomy, whose clothing and gear spanned 200 years. 

It was around this time I stumbled upon a podcast called Meat Eater by Steven Rinella. I had previously read all the books the author had published and had soon discovered he hosted a podcast and had a successful show on Netflix. At first, I was a little hesitant to go down the podcast rabbit hole as it seemed like something that no self-respecting mountain man would do, but, lo and behold, I became addicted.

In particular, the podcasts about turkey hunting intrigued me. It seemed like the perfect prescription for spring fever, a solution for my manic longing to be outside that came with an unexpected bonus: the gobbler hunt allowed me to hunt as traditionally as I wanted.  

I started small, by purchasing a Phelps turkey call and watching YouTube videos for various tips of the trade. What started out as practicing somehow evolved into subtle compulsion. I practiced turkey calling at work, practiced in the truck driving home, practiced at home, on my hikes, and a few times, I'm not ashamed to admit, I practiced in the excellent acoustics offered by my shower. Curiously enough, I observed that the mating call that would presumably drive the turkey into a libidinous reverie had the opposite effect on my saintly fiance. She may not have been impressed but remained supportive of the possibility of food in the freezer.

What they do not tell you about going turkey crazy is that you will begin hearing turkey calls in the most bizarre situations: old windshield wipers, the mating ritual of your upstairs neighbors' overly exuberant bed springs, or even the squeaky wheel of a grocery cart. This was the point I knew I was ready to start scouting places.

Turkey shopping cart

Before opening the season, I took the afternoon to scout areas where a co-worker said he had seen the birds. The spring day was divine, a subtle breeze offered a reprieve to my fevered body. The woods felt alive with a carnal energy I had been unaware of before I took the time to notice it. Every step was quieted by the spongy ground. I wandered around the woods with nothing but my .22 and binoculars. Stopping occasionally to glass and look for any sign of scratch marks on the ground, I found a perfect spot to sit in between the roots of a cottonwood tree that allowed a view of the clearing without any ditch or obstruction that might dissuade the turkey from answering the call.

As I was sitting, the damp earth started soaking through my buckskins. I knew I could remedy the situation, but I just sat, motionlessIn my reverie, something profound was happening. I felt as if I were being pulled in, consummated into the terra, into the roots and stones. At the base of my feet, I observed the decay of leaves in the newly born grass, swaying delicately in the breeze. The worms were waking, wriggling in the cool and damp. As was the earth rousing from winter's slumber, you could almost smell it in the air, something sweet and virginal. I heard the cornucopia of sexual desire and seasonal yearning with the expression of delight that only a songbird can execute. 

I started calling, a few clucks at first to see if my attendance in the symphony would be welcomed or shunned. The songbirds continued their chirruping without any impediment, so I continued with a few more tentative clucks. Somewhere in the chaos of notes, I took a break from my afternoon mission and just relaxed, breathing and listening. I remained with the cottonwood until dusk and headed back to the truck.

Unfortunately, no turkey responded to what I thought were surely amorous gobble noises. I left the woods with a wet seat, but not dejected at all. Instead, there was a sense of fulfillment and direction. My objective for my afternoon adventure was to scout, but in the process, I started to question my motives. Were these months of turkey madness just a plea to be in the woods again, or did I really want a new hunting challenge with fine delectable fare to follow?

After that first trip, I only had one more chance to bag a turkey before my wedding a couple of weeks later. My friend and I returned to the woods in what Montanans refer to as a "lovely spring day," by which we mean that it is going to rain, and if you are lucky, it won't turn to snow. 

Rain on spring grass

Nothing about that next trip worked out according to plan. My mouth call was missing, possibly in my other jacket or on the floor of the Town Pump we went to for a couple of coffees. My other call wouldn't work because the slate was wet, and I was wearing red wool plaid pants - the worst color to wear while turkey hunting, I discovered later.

The rain sleeted sideways, and the fog ghosted us, revealing glimpses of minor details in passing. But the turkeys were there, we were sure of it, and with no other option, I did the worst thing any novice turkey hunter would do. I put the stalk on them, a decision that could be dangerous on public land. Providing I was on private, I decided to risk it. I did a decent job at it, too, resulting in a careful aim with the safety off. 

But the shot did not feel right, the morning did not feel right, and by the late afternoon, the only thing that did feel right was a stiff whiskey back in town.We slogged back to the truck, and I felt like Ralphie in Christmas Story when he was rattling off all the turkey meals they lost to the dogs. I was beside myself, playing the situation over and over until I either came to a conclusion or burned myself out. So I tuned out the noise, stopped talking turkey and dove headfirst into wedding preparation.

Country wedding

As a hunter, all ventures without a result are disappointing. We make mistakes, we miss shots, and we learn from them, but we never give up. A few weeks prior, I was uncertain of my motives for turkey hunting. Was I excited about the season or the bird? Somewhere on my hands and knees, crawling in the mud and grass, I realized they might just be the same thing. Maybe the splendor of spring and the joys of turkey hunting season are birds of a feather. At any rate, I had to tell myself so to keep my sanity.

While most people embrace the sunshine by a daily jog, an afternoon on the porch, or a beer outside at the brewery, some of us feel the same way about savoring the awakening in the woods, a glory shared by anyone who chooses to chase that noble bird that, if Ben Franklin had his way, would have been the symbol of our nation. 

We are the hunters of the spring, the last ones out of the woods and the first to return. The human migration.

My first experience of turkey hunting was a non-starter, but I will never forget that first afternoon. Hunters new and old already know, but just in case, heed these words, my friends: when you are in the woods, sitting in the newly sprung grass, remember there is poetry to observation. 

Take in your surroundings, observe the green canvas set against gray skeletal limbs. Breathe with the tree you are leaning against, take in the fragrance of the wood, decomposing soil and new growth. If the setting and time are right, you too may call in a turkey in a shower of fruit blossoms. Or not. Either way, you've spent a day outside in nature's bosom.

Spring flowers

Post Script: The disappointment of the hunt was largely dissolved by our wedding day. I had all but put aside the calling and talking turkey, much to my fiance's joy. 

It was the first day of our honeymoon in New Zealand. We rented a camper van, and slowly started making our way down the island to visit Hobbiton (we're Lord of the Rings nerds, alright? Now you know our shameful secret!). 

The first afternoon, we stopped for a break to eat lunch/dinner/breakfast - jetlagged, we weren't sure what meal we were supposed to be eating, but we were hungry. That was when I thought I saw them. 

At first, I shook it off as a mind trick figment of PTSD (post-turkey stress disorder) and continued looking at my map. 

But it was not my imagination. "Hey, look," I heard my wife say. I looked up to see a strutting Tom and a few hens strolling along the fence line. 

I puckered my lips, shook my head in disbelief and muttered… well I'll let you guess what I muttered.

Cooked turkey

Lukas Pryanovich is a recovered English/History teacher who traded the classroom to teach gear for the Outdoor Industry. He is a freelance writer and historical 19th Century Fur Trade (Mountain Man) reenactor.  He currently lives with his wife in Bozeman. You can follow him on 
@buckskin_collective on Instagram.

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Jake Curren (not verified) , Fri, 04/02/2021 - 00:03
I love the detail. I could feel myself walking through the woods and wet grass with him...
Sally Roberts (not verified) , Thu, 04/08/2021 - 11:06
We always let the turkeys play through on the Wasatch Mountain State Park Mountain Course. They never rake the bunkers however.
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