Gobble Wobble

A standup turkey hunt.  

All of us, from time to time, need a plunge into freedom and novelty, after which routine and discipline seem delightful by contrast. —Andre Maurois

Variety, of course, is the spice of life—and that applies to the outdoor life, too. How many times can a person kayak the same rapid, ride the same trail, fish the same hole? Eventually one’s enthusiasm wanes, and a new approach is in order. 

At least that’s what I tell myself, as I wobble atop my paddleboard amid a swollen Yellowstone River in early May. Otherwise, what the hell am I doing out here? I own a raft, for crying out loud, yet here I am, bobbing on an oversized popsicle stick, about to tumble into the freezing water. I could easily get swept into a snag or pinned against a rock wall. At the very least, a spill would be miserable—cold, wet, and demoralized, miles from the takeout.

But what choice did I have? Routine and discipline had rendered my life rote: the same old thing, season after season. I’d become an outdoor everyman, the Leopold Bloom of Bozeman, my life predictable and plain. A change of pace, a new and liberating plunge (figuratively, I hope) is what I needed.

And so I float, fast and free on this turgid, tea-colored river, ostensibly looking for turkeys but really just trying not to fall in. The board shifts beneath me with each wave; I teeter. It stalls atop a boiling whirlpool; I pitch forward. It spins amid the swirling currents; I fall to my knees. I’m a freakin’ mess out there and I know it. I might as well be climbing ice in tap shoes.

turkey hunting, Montana, paddleboard

But I got what I wanted: freedom from what I knew. To get it, I didn’t have to go higher, deeper, longer, or farther; I just needed a new angle, a new viewpoint. And what better way to view the Yellowstone than standing tall in the middle of it, scanning the shoreline for movement, listening for clucks, yelps, and gobbles from the underbrush?

As it happens, when I’m not struggling to remain upright, I enjoy this new perspective. From my heightened perch, I can see farther up the shore. Being upright, I can jump off into the shallows and slide the board around a snag, or portage a big rapid. The craft’s main weakness—instability due to light weight—is also an asset.

Cloud cover prolongs the dawn. All is quiet. And finally, I hear it: a gobble. I pull over and give my call a shake; the tom answers. I peer with my binos: there, downstream, on the far shore, beyond a pile of driftwood. A rotund, strutting turkey, announcing his holdings. This is my turf, he declares; interlopers get lost and ladies, check me out. I cluck to mimic a hen; he answers. Hey baby, he tells me, come on in. I’m your huckleberry. 

My paddleboard slides into the water, slow and silent, like an alligator. A few hard strokes and I’m across. I beach the board, slide my shotgun out of its case, and set out down the shore, behind a clump of cottonwoods. This part I know and know well: the routine of terra firma under my feet, the discipline of the stalk. And yes, it feels delightful.