by Chris Chaffin - Friday, April 17, 2020
Not sure the medical journals list it as an official disease, but Adult Onset Turkey Hunting Syndrome (AOTHS) can be serious. For those new to turkey hunting one of the few proven cures is finding a patient, qualified and willing mentoring.
My first known exposure to AOTHS occurred in the unlikely (at that time) mountains bordering the high Sonoran Desert Mountains of southern Utah. I knew only one other adult who had contracted this ailment and it just so happened that he worked for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, as did I. He was successful in finding the temporary cure, annually, for his fever but was dang closed-mouthed about it.
My case of AOTHS was low-grade at that point because I’d had very little exposure to the actual activities that could produce the disease. But it inched its call under my skin, and after several years of badgering my co-worker, he finally agreed to show me how this turkey hunting thing worked—after he’d taken his dose of medicine for the year, of course.
In the pitch black of morning the following Saturday, we were in the canyons above Cedar City. Floyd, my friend, guide and unwitting mentor, carried nothing but what he explained was a box call. It looked like a pencil box with a handle. I, of course, was loaded down with a shotgun, extra shells, a camera, thermos, binoculars, some snacks, rain gear, extra film to capture my memories and a long camera lens.
Standing by the edge of the road, looking down into a moderately steep drop, Floyd stood still and silent, listening intently. After some time, he made several small, sweeping motions with the paddle of the box call, creating soft, raspy noises.
Within seconds a loud, shuddering, full-throated, booming gobble echoed back to us from below and Floyd took off downhill, with an urgent “Come on—we gotta get close fast” command.
And we ran, trying to avoid or jump over deadfall, swiping branches out of the way before they took our hats and glasses off, making fast, not-so-athletic adjustments to hidden roots that grabbed the soles and laces of our boots, twisting around trees and brush while trying to stay on track in the general destination toward which only Floyd had a clue. Oh, I forgot to mention that my leader said we had to be both fast and quiet.
All of that took maybe 10 or 15 minutes, most of it spent listening up top. When Floyd finally stopped charging through the woods, we again started with being still and listening. Another soft call got no reply. Floyd moved, slowly this time, another 20 to 30 yards and found a fallen tree that made for a decent natural ground blind in front of a small open meadow. “Let’s set up here,” he said. “Get your gun ready. No movement, not even your head. Just your eyes. And be ready to shoot when I tell you.” End of instructions.
We sat in anticipation … in dead silence. Twenty minutes. Thirty. Forty-five. Not a peep. Nothing except the waking forest. Finally, Floyd raised slowly up to his knees, stretched and said glumly, “Guess he went in the other direction.”
I was intrigued but disappointed to be sure. I really wanted to see a wild turkey. There was no internal longing or pressure to kill one for the dinner table, perhaps because I had doubts you really could do that. But I had hoped to see one and I really wanted to learn about how a turkey hunt happened. Fortunately, half of my expectations for the hunt had been met, at least in a Turkey Hunting 101 kind of way.
I slowly stood up too, set aside the shotgun and camera, stretching my back and legs a bit. “There he is!” Floyd hissed in a dramatic, urgency-filled whisper. And I’ll-be-go-to-heck if there wasn’t a drop-dead, gorgeous, live Merriam’s wild turkey tom sauntering in slowly from the right edge of our little meadow.
I was blown away as panic set in instantly. I was completely gob-smacked and in the moment simply could not make up my mind if I was going to grab the camera or the gun. I reached for the camera but finally grabbed the shotgun. But the ruckus was too much for the iridescent bird that was now tuned into our location. I got off a shot just as the tom shot out across the space like track-and-field Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt out of the starting blocks.
Floyd and I just stood there dumbstruck. After a bit, after my heart slowed down, I unloaded the 12-gauge and walked slowly in the direction the multicolored speed demon had taken. I found one small, triangular-shaped feather, which I tucked safely in my shirt pocket.
The hike back to the truck was harder than the sprint downhill. I also seemed to be hot, maybe fevered, from something other than physical exertion. I’m pretty sure I contracted the dreaded Adult Onset Turkey Hunting Syndrome that day.
I never fully recovered. Many turkey hunting seasons later I remain tempted by turkeys. I think about how, if not for a mentor who was willing to share his knowledge and a little bit of time, I wouldn’t have this illness. When I see Floyd again, I’ll give him an unabashed man hug for being my mentor. He made my life richer. Thank you, Floyd.
Decades later, a national R3 movement exists to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters across America—to inspire others to join our ranks as my mentor did for me and ensure the future of our hunting heritage. NRA websites such as this NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum and AmericanHunter.org go far to encourage us all to be mentors so others can enjoy our way of life. And with the spring hunting seasons upon us, it’s never too late to make a new year’s resolution to bring someone into the fold.
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About the Author: Chris Chaffin has been an outdoor communicator, educator and partnership manager for more than 40 years. On the national scene he has represented several prominent companies in the outdoor community and served two terms as treasurer of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA), eventually taking on the roles of vice president, president and chairman of the board. In 2007, he launched Chaffin Communications Inc., a communications consulting company focusing on the outdoors. In 2012, with support from the Outdoor Adventure Dream Giveaway, Chaffin founded and currently manages the Outdoor Adventure Conservation Fund, a Florida non-profit established to encourage and facilitate more people participating in traditional outdoor activities.
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