Family Traditions

by Scott Bestul

WP pic
Photo by Dylan Coulter

For many of us, the outdoors are practically a family heirloom—a gift passed down to us the first time we ever spend a morning in the tree-stand with Dad or Mom, or kill a summer afternoon catching bluegills with our big brothers. Of course, as we spend more time outdoors, we discover there’s much more to this heirloom than just the pursuit of game or fish. There are lessons and legends, secrets and skills, traditions and tools. And, perhaps best of all, there are stories. Stories that are so great they almost become heirlooms of their own, because we can’t help but pass them down. Stories like the 15 you’re about to read.

Last April I guided my father, 84, and my Uncle Al, 82, to the base of a steep, tangled, and secluded bluff. “We just want to hear one that likes to gobble,” they’d told me earlier. I knew exactly the bird we needed—a trash-talking tom that loved to jabber but refused to walk. I hate turkeys like this and generally ignore them, but every day, around midmorning, this bird would start chortling from the public land near my home. If Dad and Uncle Al wanted turkey talk, this was their bird.

I took them to the spot and made three inquiring clucks. Predictably, the trash-talker erupted. For a bastard, he had a helluva gobble. I was admiring his tone when I heard rustling behind me. I turned to face Dad and Uncle Al, who were prepping for a forced march. “What’s the quickest way to get to him, Scott?” Uncle Al whispered as he shouldered his gun.

“Wait!” I hissed. “This is a bad turkey and that hill—”

Too late. They’d already slid past me and were looking for a path through the prickly ash. I sighed and followed. I’d hunted with these two long enough to know that backing off an impossible turkey was not going to happen.

Most octogenarians I know are confined to low-energy activity that protects artificial hips and wheezing lungs. Dad and Uncle Al, meanwhile, remain lean, fit, and undeterred by rough terrain. They’re also stone-cold turkey killers. Neither got serious about hunting spring gobblers until they were in their 60s, but their zeal for, and success at, bagging gobblers inspired a buddy to dub Dad and Uncle Al the “Norwegian Mafia.”

The nickname is both perfect and ironic. The violent strain in Norwegians died with the Vikings, and today’s can kill you only with kindness or cross-country skis. Uncle Al and Dad grew up during the Great Depression in a family so poor that being nice to people was their only asset. Later, as adults, they got busy working and raising families. Though they’d been hunters since boyhood, they found little time for it as adults—unless, of course, their own kids asked them to go. Naturally, turkey hunting came with a learning curve. There were air-balled shots. (Dad once whiffed three times at a strutter 20 yards away. After the last miss, he stood in disgust and announced: “Well, I’m out of shells now!”) They moved at the wrong time. Facemasks were left down in the heat of the moment. I figure it takes about five years for someone to decide they love turkey hunting, but if you can make five springs, the beauty, strategy, and rituals of the hunt suck you in forever. That’s what happened with the Norwegian Mafia, anyway.

As deadly as they came to be, however, the Norwegian Mafia displays some maddening behavior: The presence of a tom, thundering from a roost so close it’s scary, never interferes with a predawn constitutional. Or we could be tight to a turkey at about 10 a.m., which is coffee-break time—a ritual that waits for no bird. Back when hunting closed at noon, Dad once stood up to unload his gun with 30 seconds to go and a strutter standing behind a knoll, just out of range. They can drive me nuts, but I always remind myself: These two are not going to be around forever, and getting them on turkeys is the only form of payback I can offer to the men who brought me up and helped me become the man I am today. So when they want to march, I follow.

As we start our climb up the hill, I’m once again impressed by their fitness. This is rough, steep country—600-foot bluffs covered in timber and brush that can challenge men half their age. But Dad and Uncle Al come from hardy stock. Their father remained lean and wiry even after he couldn’t walk much, and nearly saw his 102nd birthday. Dad and Uncle Al relish hunts involving a challenge or a surprise.

About halfway up, we pause for a breather. The gobbler is on his own now, confident that his lusty response to the clucks is all he’ll need to find love. Uncle Al turns to smile at me, and Dad is shaking his head in appreciation. They know a hot turkey when they hear one, and even I can’t deny the appeal of believing that we might get lucky.

We are near the ridgetop when I hear a gobble indicating that the trash-talker is living up to his reputation. He sounds more distant now. There’s another ridge connecting to this one, and he could easily have slipped over there, leaving us with no route to reach him that won’t require more hiking over challenging terrain. Hunting alone, I’d be executing an immediate about-face. I look at Dad and Uncle Al, plodding surely and steadily, their faces set in the direction of the gobbler, and I realize there is no turning back on this turkey.

I shrug, then surge ahead to lead them toward the bird. These old-­timers just might walk me to death.

Article courtesy Field & Stream magazine

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