Even in rural Thornbury, on a windy hillside overlooking Georgian Bay, the late spring day was an unseasonable scorcher. And the heat did not work well with my outfit. Heavy boots. Lined, padded trousers. A matching waterproof jacket, its oversized pockets stuffed to bulging. Form-fitting goves. Cap and bill pulled down low and snug over a spandex balaclava that squashed my nose facewards until it throbbed and grew numb.
All of this gear was cast in similar camouflage: dark brown and forest green. The idea was to avoid the suspicious gaze of local wild turkeys; the effect was to suck up all the available heat of the sun.
Belly down in the tall grass, awkwardly clutching a semi-automatic shotgun, I propelled myself slowly forward with my elbows, as quietly as possible. I was drenched in sweat and contemplating murder most foul. But to come clean, these dark thoughts were focussed less on the elusive fowl than on the blackflies swarming madly around my head, getting into my eyes and nose. Blackflies that I couldn’t swat for fear of drawing attention to myself.
Because wouldn’t you know it? Those fat turkeys that stroll insouciantly down the shoulder of so many country roads all summer long, oblivious to the passing traffic, behave entirely differently come opening day of hunting season. In fact, at sunrise that very morning, they are transformed. As if by magic, every last hideous one of them becomes a hyper-vigilant sentry for their flock, beady eyes scanning woods and field with a paranoid intensity reminiscent of Cold War-era East German guards keeping watch at Checkpoint Charlie.
The unexpected rustle of a leaf, the snap of a twig, a poorly suppressed sneeze, or the strike of a match for lighting a well-deserved cigarette, can each unleash spontaneous turkey panic. And note that turkeys accelerate shockingly quickly to their impressive top speed. In the blink of an eye, they tilt forward, hunker down and motor away in a blurry streak, just like those little green dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Twenty minutes earlier, from a distance, my friend Matt and I spotted a flock of them, a dozen strong, moving out from the woods that flanked the sloped field. Most of them were hens, which are off-limits for the spring shoot. But one or two of them were toms, as the older males are known (the young studs are called jakes — as I frequently remind my old friend Tom). Toms stand out for their “beards” — big, long tufts of feather that sprout and dangle majestically from the centre of their battle-scarred chests, in a sort of ornithological imitation of Burt Reynolds, circa 1976.
We were closing in on them now. Or at least we were closing in on where we had last seen them. The birds had gathered in a bowl-like indentation on the slope. Which is why we had dropped down low in the grass, to slither their way on our bellies, without the turkeys being able to see us over the undulation of the hill. There was a drawback, though, to our perfectly stealthy approach. Reciprocal repercussions, in short. If they couldn’t see us, neither could we see them. At any rate, not until we reached the top of the hill. Finally, Matt stopped just in front of it, and motioned for me to pull up alongside. To prepare to shoot.
And that was the second problem: this was my first hunt, for anything. What I was doing there was something of a puzzler. The short answer was that, as a food writer who gets around, I had long enjoyed eating wild game. Especially at a handful of favourite restaurants in the UK, where its sale is legal, but also here — where it’s not, but where I am lucky enough to be close with some fine European chefs who like to cook occasional game dinners on the sly. Such dining pleasures had inspired a curiosity that got me cooking the stuff. And when I learned that I liked doing that, too, I thought it only sensible that I should stop leaning on my hunting friends, and instead learn to go and get some of my own.
When growing up in Montreal, I had a handful of friends who hunted with their fathers — men who believed that teaching their young sons how to handle a gun, to kill and put meat on the table, was perhaps the most important lesson they could pass on about negotiating the path to manhood.
My father was of a different school. Yes, he also took pride and pleasure in putting meat on the table — or, bringing home the bacon, as I guess they said in non-Jewish homes. And with five children, he had to bring home a lot of it. But he was content to know that his strength was in doing it figuratively rather than literally. This in no way impinged on his sense of masculinity — which was healthy, and measured in professional success and mental acuity, rather than in any physical prowess. Unless you include his competitive streak vis-à-vis how much a man could drink without showing it.
He was vigorously opposed to any other form of exercise. For him all sports were spectator sports, or something you read about. But here was one exception: he enjoyed fishing. At first he probably liked it more for the quiet thinking time it afforded him than for the sport of it. He was not passionate about it. But then one day — not long after coming to terms with just how much my mother disliked cooking the muddy lake trout he and I pulled out of Lake Memphremagog, site of our family cottage — he surprised me by announcing that he had booked a salmon fishing trip for the two of us to the great Restigouche River, in New Brunswick.
He was in his mid-fifties and I was a young teenager. Neither of us had ever cast a fly before. And yet we returned from our trip with two large salmon and a grilse. My mother poached two of them, and we had the other cold smoked. All of the fish was exquisite. And my father seemed to love the spectacle of guests and family eating his catch. With one trip, he was hooked. And me too. I have been hunting large, dinner-plate appropriate fish ever since.
Three decades on there I was, writhing in the grass in full camouflage, trying to make the jump from fish to fowl. I had taken my hunter-safety and gun-safety courses — and finally, I was in the field for the first time. Which is why earlier in the day I had felt rather chuffed at being able to tell hen from tom (never mind turkey from vulture, and other assorted wildlife).
But now, wilting in the heat, wearying from stalking such uncooperative quarry, desperately hungry, horribly thirsty, and vaguely nauseated by the intense need for a long pee, I was suddenly acutely aware of never having fired a shotgun before. And more particularly, of the unlikelihood that when I did, bird and pellet would connect in any meaningful way. Worse still were my chances of successfully separating tom from his harem — or head from tom, as in all those turkey snuff videos that American crossbow hunters like to post on YouTube. (If unacquainted, and curious, search “gobbler guillotine.”)
But despite the encroaching sense of doubt, I gathered what focus I could, and slowly craned my neck to see over and down to where the birds had last been seen. Nothing. Nothing but grass. There was no reason even to disengage the safety on my gun. For a moment or two, this rather deflating culmination of the day’s activities coloured all the sizeable effort behind it with an unmistakeable streak of absurdity. Lying there, camouflaged and over-insulated in the sweltering heat, I wondered as I often do what my late father would make of this particular picture. And the answer came not in words but in the form of laughter — hearty laughter, the sort that seemed to get started deep in his belly before slowly fighting its way out.
I remembered our last salmon trip. We were at a lodge on the Miramichi, where you fish from hip waders (unlike on the Restigouche where you cast from boats). And for my father, the job of finding a foothold on the slippery rocks of the riverbed while working your way downstream, casting all the while, was altogether too much work. I pictured him, not reeling in a big fish, or even casting for one, but instead resting on the shoreline. To be precise, reclining on a boulder for a relaxing Schimmelpenninck and a dram of warming Glenfiddich from the hip flask, which — along with his flies — he packed in his hip waders for just such emergencies.
This I realise now is the principal difference between hunting and fishing. Simply put, when the fish are not biting, it is entirely acceptable to pop open the hamper for a nice snack, put up your feet, light a cigar and pour a drink. But, if your quarry is large and draws air through its nose rather than water, you must forgo such creature comforts; their aromas travel on the wind, signaling danger and occasion to flee to the very creatures you are trying to get close to.
In any case, unlike drinking and casting, drinking and shooting is frowned upon. Still undertaken in some quarters, no doubt — but, rather like drinking and driving, no longer considered to be a legitimate sport. Hunting is full on, full time, for the duration of your expedition. There is either an awful lot of traipsing about, pushing your way through difficult terrain and dense brush, or a lot of time spent perfectly still — too still, even, to turn the pages of a book, or scroll a Kindle. Either way, my father would not have liked it.
For me, though, hunting and fishing are all but the same. For starters they both feature a communing with nature of unusual intensity. Sometimes, you’re wading in a river, all alone but for the sound of the birds and your soaring line and fly. And then a passing salmon leaps out of the water, checking for familiar signposts on the long swim home. It is a magical scene to witness. Other times, when you are still and in camouflage, a bird lands on a branch a few inches away without seeing you, and just exists, unwary and unhurried. Or you look down from a tree stand on a bear sow playing with her cubs. The nature you feel a part of when you go for a stroll in the woods does not come close to this. When out for a walk, undisguised and making noise, you are afforded only a glimpse.
And then there is the fun part: bringing home dinner. For non-vegetarians like me, the daily catch is what much of life, manhood, and pleasure is all about. So what for me got started with salmon on the Restigouche, and was temporarily stymied by those crafty turkeys in Thornbury, has since continued apace with bear, woodcock, pheasant and ducks. I have, in other words, been getting in touch with my congenital caveman. And as it happens I enjoy making his acquaintance more than expected.
Fortunately my cooking inspirations are more contemporary. And of what I put on the plate these days, I’m sure my father would have approved. Because the funny thing is, even though he liked fishing and would never have taken up hunting, he did not much like eating fish at all. Pickled herring was a good snack, or, in a pinch, lunch. Salmon was okay — ideally cold smoked, on rye bread. But dinner, well, in a perfect world that was a meat-and-two-veg situation. Or better yet, meat-and-one-veg. Especially if it was a potato. Which I guess goes to show that he had a small streak of inner caveman, too.