Morning dawned without a sunrise; night succumbed to a hazy, dull gray. In due time, a roosted wild turkey, treed to the north, uttered a hushed putt. Another bird, perched high in a leafless red oak across the narrows, whispered a purr. Other turkeys joined in the tree talk, all in subdued, almost inaudible tones. For over an hour, the bird’s quiet banter offered the only sign of life in the glade.
That day, in the Year of our Lord, 1795, a thin fog wandered through the big swamp’s poison sumac patches, scattered elders and amber sedge grass. The air smelled moist and heavy, too fall-like for mid-December. A cool butterfly wind caressed my right cheek. Yet, a minute or two later the same breath nuzzled the hair at my left temple. The fluky breeze pushed the wispy fog to and fro, leading me to believe a cold rainstorm was not far off.
A house wren flitted to a bottom branch of the left-most of two tall red cedar trees that stood guard at the fen’s cut bank. In a few moments the little bird dropped to a purple raspberry loop; the fragile switch never moved. On the ground, I watched the wren rustle one oak leaf at a time, but I could detect nary a sound. I glanced uphill, checking the middle trail for deer, and when I looked back the wren was gone.
Before first light, a still-hunt brought me to a keg-sized oak with a thick grape vine growing from its root. My left shoulder pressed against the oak’s trunk, my back rested against the vine. To the south, the dead branches of an old cedar tree, three paces distant, blocked meandering whitetails from discovering my presence; downwind, only the trade gun’s muzzle was visible.
When I first arrived at this lair, I brushed away the rotting duff with my left moccasin, then scraped the soft topsoil back and forth to fill the air with a hint of fresh turned earth to mask my deadly scent. Crossing trails emerged from the swamp on either side of the two cedar trees, but on that morning a deer had yet to use one of those trails. In the distance, I saw a doe come down the hill, pause at the swamp’s edge, then disappear in the canary grass and poison sumac.
“Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw, caw…” Two crows started a ruckus at the wagon trail on the ridge crest. One blue jay joined in, then two, then three as more crows flew over the big swamp from the east.
“Ark, ark, ark, ark, ark…” Still roosted, the turkey in the oak straight across the narrows clucked a long strain, then stopped mid-cluck. After the crows took their melee to the west, I turned my attention back to the crossing trails. The turkey gave two crisp “arks.” Big wings flapped. The bird coasted across the swamp, arcing closer to the ground with each wing beat, and thumped down in the leaves a mere 15 paces to my left.
I peered around the oak; the young hen stretched her neck and eyed the unexpected woodsman. My right thumb pushed the frizzen up. “Old Turkey Feathers” rolled. Gunpowder spilled from the pan. The hammer eased down as the muzzle inched for the hen’s eye. Missing a chance at a fine buck was a nonexistent possibility.
Two other wild turkeys yelped from uphill, near the fallen cedars. With the roll of that hill, I knew they could see the flustered hen and she could see their heads; I wasn’t surprised when she ran for safety. That pristine wilderness moment sprinted away, as well. With my heart racing, I realized I had watched over the shouldered trade gun’s browned barrel. In 18th-century terms, a head shot presented an improbable challenge, but hitting the body with the death sphere was not.
The firelock’s hammer clicked to half-cock. With my thumb over the horn’s spout, gunpowder again trickled into the Northwest gun’s pan. Once settled, I reached inside the linen hunting shirt, pulled out the leather envelope and untied the thong that held the flap closed. The brass lead holder scribbled across the folded page devoted to that morning’s hunt, recording the unexpected hen’s arrival with the same intensity of her wing beats. As I wrote, a squeaky set of clucks and putts came from the ground, not far from the tall oak. “Will another fly this way? Sounds like one in the swamp, walking to the poplars,” I scrawled.
A single deer walked off the south island and disappeared in the elders and red willows. I saw it leave the swamp and walk uphill, and as I concentrated on that deer the squeaky, sporadic turkey calls became a steady string of louder clucks followed by silence: “Ark, ark, ark, ark, ark…” When I heard two sharp “arks” like I had not ten minutes before, I dumped the pan’s charge and eased the hammer down.
The smoothbore’s tarnished brass buttplate was almost to my shoulder when the bird cackled. Big wings flapped. The muzzle picked up the gray blur as it left the far cedars. It flew straight at me. I thought it would land to the right of the cedars where the crossing trail exits the swamp, but a quick bank and three wing beats charted a course to where the hen landed. The turtle sight raced through the bird’s body when it was still behind the left cedar. In hindsight, I realized my mind said “NOW!” after the bird emerged, at the moment the muzzle passed the beak.
A young jake with a reddish head and stubby beard landed with more grace than the hen, 13 paces distant. Like the hen, he stretched his neck high, but this time the turtle sight grasped an unknowing eye. I took time to line up the sight just left of the barrel flat’s center, making certain the lead ball would hit the mark. “NOW!” The jake took two steps, then paused. “NOW!” My nose twitched from the imagined stench of spent gunpowder. Two more steps. A bird putted once uphill. The jake stretched tall again and “Old Turkey Feathers” unleashed a final death sphere through time’s portal.
A Difference of Hunting Philosophy
As I sat recording the young jake’s imagined demise in my journal, I couldn’t help but recall a conversation I overheard a few days earlier. Two thirty-something, camo-clad hunters window shopped in the ice fishing section of the local outfitters, commiserating about this year’s lack of deer. The one fellow said he gave up at Thanksgiving while the other was going to try “once more” during the muzzleloader season.
The frustration and disappointment were clear from their comments. They talked about what must be a substantial investment in new scopes, tree stands and such, but what stuck with me was the mutual feeling that deer hunting wasn’t fun—the entire season was “a bust.” These men were caught up in the hype of record-book bucks, gizmos and gadgets, the fodder of today’s mainstream hunting philosophy. I politely suggested the circumstance afforded a great opportunity to try traditional hunting, either with longbows or black powder arms. The “quitter” smirked, the other fellow laughed.
I saw two deer that morning, yet that deer hunt is more memorable than most that result in venison for the family dinner table. The difference is attributable to the unique nature of the traditional black powder hunting philosophy and the emphasis that it places on re-living America’s hunting heritage in an authentic manner. On that morn I felt blessed to experience not one, but two pristine moments, points in time when an unmistakable kinship with an old woodsman’s experience emerges in a forest happenstance that knows not the boundaries of time nor place.
Today’s game regulations and wildlife management practices break time into specific seasons allotted to each game species. Michigan’s modern turkey season ends as the firearms deer season begins. On that 21st-century day, wild turkeys were out of season, but on that December morning in 1795, the hen and the jake were fair game for an ecstatic time traveler.
The 21st-century game regulations intruded on my 18th-century hunt for only a second or two, the time it took to dump the pan and set the hammer down, the 2012 legal version of an unloaded flintlock. The modern me, the persona charged with abiding by today’s game laws, had no intention of dispatching a death messenger at either turkey, but the historical me felt a compelling need to “feed the family”.
With each trip to the glade I try to anticipate the expected and/or unexpected appearance of game. I think through each possibility and evaluate whether or not I am prepared to take a clean and humane shot. During turkey season, both spring and fall, I often consider how I would react to a roosted bird landing within the Northwest gun’s effective range. That circumstance has become somewhat of an obsession with me, I think because it has never happened.
I reflected on the hen’s unexpected arrival as I wrote, realizing that I was ill prepared for the long-awaited scenario as it actually happened. To add insult to injury, the hen was out of season, and the trade gun was loaded with a round ball, but sometimes wilderness classroom lessons are taught “out of order.”
To a degree, I felt confident of a head shot during turkey season when “Old Turkey Feathers” would be loaded with the death bees. The circumstance wasn’t optimal, but at 15 paces the cylinder bore’s swarm would have allowed an acceptable margin for error. The round ball load got me thinking about the difficulty of the challenge within the confines of this scenario. In the hen’s circumstance, the best shot was a body shot, and that held the unacceptable potential for damaging valuable meat.
When he visited the woodland grocery store, I knew Meshach Browning hunted with a rifle and seemed to prefer the head shot when taking his turkeys:
“…I would stop and shoot off their heads. I thus kept on till I had shot off the heads of nine young turkeys…” (Browning, 122)
John Tanner, on the other hand, hunted with a smoothbore, and he carried both shot and round ball:
“As I was one day going to look at my traps, I found some ducks in a pond, and taking the ball out of my gun, I put in some shot, and began to creep up to them…” (Tanner, 60)
On that day, at least, Tanner was in the woods with his smoothbore loaded with a round ball. Since his narrative touches mostly on taking large game, this is not surprising, but another occasion raises a stickier question:
“…Geese were flying over, and I raised my gun and shot one…” (Ibid, 135)
Did Tanner shoot the flying goose with a round ball, or was he loaded with shot? He didn’t elaborate, and we will never know. His words leave the impression that he traveled loaded with a ball. He was regarded as an excellent hunter and marksman by the Ojibwa. For me, these few words raise a host of questions, some will forever remain mysteries.
In today’s world shooting a round ball at flying turkeys, geese or other waterfowl is unsafe, unethical, and illegal. Modern game regulations, both state and federal, specify shot sizes, shot composition and specifically prohibit the use of round balls. Traditional hunters, as responsible stewards of our natural resources, must abide by these restrictions.
As much as I wish to satisfy my curiosity, to know if my shooting skills are capable of taking down a flying turkey like the young jake coasting past the cedar, I am left with an unanswerable “what if,” an 18th-century scenario that cannot be duplicated or tested on the range—it’s just not safe.
When I reflected on the young jake, as opposed to the hen, I came to different conclusions about my alter ego’s ability to feed his family. The historical me was prepared; the jake did not know he was in danger and thus my alter ego was able to take three, well-aimed, “imagined” shots at close range.
Again, it was never my intent to shoot at the jake, only incorporate him as a chance bit player in my historical simulation. In addition, Michigan game regulations state that wild turkeys can only be hunted with shot, so the round ball is out during a regular turkey season, too. But, as I noted in my journal, duplicating those three shots with a paper target, either on the range or while sitting against the grape vine, hidden behind the oak, is safe and doable, and will, to some extent, satisfy my curiosity with respect to the three head shots. I’m looking forward to it.
This brings me back to the two hunters in the outdoor store. One of the striking differences between modern hunting philosophy and traditional hunting philosophy is the traditionalist’s perspective on time spent in the field: every second is important, rather than those few fleeting moments when a deer or turkey or goose is downed. This difference is profound.
For those two, at least, no trophy taken equated to no fun, no enjoyment. But for the traditional woodsman dealing with the same lack of whitetails, the next instant might mark the beginning of an unforgettable 18th-century moment like the unexpected arrival of wild turkeys in the midst of a muzzleloading deer hunt. And that is what hunting is supposed to be about.
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.