Anything Fly Fishing

“PASTORALE”

8 Mins read

ORION RISES in the east,
Polaris to the north;
Jupiter’s high in the southern sky
As we go sally forth.

THE ONLY THING more soothing than the delicate multi-hued display of colors emanating from the dogwoods and daffodils and redbud trees quivering around me was the sound of the rain pattering gently on the outside of the truck as I slept.

It was a deep fulfilling sleep, serene and soothing and profound, the kind of sleep that only the whisper of the woods and the fragrance of fresh spring rain can spawn, and for what seemed an age I basked in a self indulgent, other-worldly slumber where time held no sway.

It had been a fine April day so far, searching for one of those grand old springtime gobblers whose signature calls always ennoble the world at this most holy time of year, and I had taken a mid-morning break for an early lunch with Doc and Billie and the boys down in Big Spring Hollow. But as we were breaking up after settling on our respective afternoon hunting locations and strategies, the clouds began rolling in.

As the skies opened up, Goof headed west in his old square-body Bronco to peruse the green fields along the eastern edge of the lake. Slipknot angled north out Rice Irwin Road, and Doc and Billie bore east up the mountain to the Feather Field. For my part I turned south back along the Old Forest Road to revisit those two long meadows and the wooded ridge beyond, from whose heights I had heard a single distant gobble that morning at first light.

But with a full belly and the unruffled hush of the rain steadily dampening my senses, my eyelids began growing heavy, and when I arrived back at that little grove of dogwoods and daffodils and redbuds at the base of the same nearly imperceptible trail I had taken before sun up, I eased the truck off the narrow dirt road and into the trees.

It was a good old truck—you know, the kind they used to build with a full-width bench seat that you could lie all the way across and sleep your deepest sleep, so long as you angled your hips and knees just right. My small daypack made a perfect pillow, and my old Indian blanket soon found its way up around my shoulders as I slid a cassette of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, otherwise known as “The PASTORALE,” into the portable tape player sitting propped up in the floorboard and was soon borne away into the spirit world, where I found myself immersed in a realm of radiant dreamscapes that I remember vividly to this day.

How long I slept, I do not know. But when I awoke, the rain had stopped and the coy afternoon sun was flitting in and out of the fine feathered clouds drifting east across the heavens, leaving the world an intricate patchwork of interwoven pastels that shimmered and shown in the dampened breeze.

The clear, rain-washed air was a tonic, and the leaves beneath my feet were soft and silent as they drew me forward. In a mile I crossed into the long meadows from morning, and a half hour later I topped out along the crest of the wooded ridge beyond, where I silently took my place beneath the very same hemlock from where I had heard that single distant gobble at dawn.

For a full half hour I sat there in silence, just listening and letting the woods settle. Eventually I gave a couple of short inquiring yelps from my big mahogany box call, not really expecting a response. But to my delight, the old gobbler fired right back at me from roughly the same location at the bottom of the hollow where I had heard him at first light.

I RECOGNIZED HIS voice immediately.

From the higher pitch of his raspy reply and the authority with which he spoke, it was obvious that he was an old and honorable bird.

My first instinct was to respond at once; but I knew if I replied too quickly I would most likely cede the advantage to him. So I waited a minute, then a minute more before drawing my little peg and slate from its leather belt pouch and issuing a couple of soft purrs not necessarily addressed directly to him, but instead crafted more or less for general conversation.

The voices of my two mahogany calls were entirely different—the big single-pivot Lynch box strong and reaching, the little peg and slate coy and close and seductive, giving the impression that there were at least two lonely hens here atop this ridge who might be receptive to a bit of afternoon companionship.

For five minutes I heard nothing in reply and was beginning to think about offering up another query when I detected a barely discernible shuffling in the leaves halfway down the ridge. At first its full implication nearly didn’t register—until my subconscious instinctively backtracked and kicked in all on its own for a few seconds, and I realized that this new sound was completely out of sync with the normal rustle of the woods that surrounded me.

It took a few seconds to gain an accurate bearing on his location, and another minute or so to establish that he was angling upward in my direction in a series of slow, syncopated starts and stops—just how far away, I couldn’t yet say.

The trail I was on snaked southward out the top of the ridge and I began easing in that direction, trying to conform my pace to his. I moved as silently as possible, the trail still soft and pliant. But soon I realized that he still might be able to hear my movements, and if I couldn’t provide a credible clue as to who I might be, he would most certainly abandon the area.

And so I stopped and gave a short, muffled, preemptive purr from my peg and slate, as though still oblivious to his presence, and a few seconds later a quiet little yelp.

For half a minute I stood, listening, hoping, yearning for any sound that might betray him. But it seemed that he too had halted to listen—before giving a single short inquisitive gobble.

From that moment forward, I knew he was mine.

IT WAS CLEAR that he had been moving in my direction all along. But only when I had teased him with that muffled and seemingly disinterested purr from my peg and slate had he begun to show any real curiosity.

My grandfather always maintained that it’s much more effective to try and call a gobbler uphill rather than down, and since this bird was already below me I was feeling rather smug. But I couldn’t yet determine exactly how far away he was.

Still, I felt confident that he already had a pretty good sense of my general location, and to fix it more firmly in his mind, I now gave him a matched set of the most sincere yelps I could coax from my big box call.

His response was one of absolute glee.

It sounded like he was quartering diagonally upward, now only seventy or eighty yards downhill from where I was positioned. So I quietly retraced my steps seven yards back along the trail and ducked into a small cluster of spicebush, alternately scanning the thickly wooded slopes below and the more open trail ahead for any indication of his arrival, and again he spoke, having cut the distance between us in half.

I could not believe that I still couldn’t see him. But I felt if I were quiet and patient, he would eventually appear. For five minutes I waited, then five minutes more, elbow resting on my knee with my shotgun fore end cradled in my left hand and its butt pad anchored firmly into my right shoulder. And just as I began to relax, I picked up a fleeting flick of iridescence and then the split-second glint of a clear ebony eye thirty yards below before he again disappeared.

For two or three minutes there was no sound, no sight of him, no tremor of branch nor tremble of leaf—until he stepped royally into the open sixty yards directly out the ridge and slightly above me.

He was magnificent.

He had obviously circled beneath my last position and examined it carefully before climbing to the crest and coming in from the up side.

The warm brass bead of my shotgun covered his head and upper neck, but there was no way I was going to take such a long shot. For a full minute he stood there mantled in the marbled evening sunlight, stately and erect, his piercing gaze slowly pivoting side to side as he scanned the woods for love and danger.

Finally he dropped into the most magnificent strut I have ever witnessed, his beard long and full, his broad tail fanned full width, his wings deeply cupped and held wide as their broomed tips dragged the ground. His pulsing blue and magenta head tipped purposefully from side to side, and even at this distance I could hear—heck, I could feel—the drumming emanating from his fully inflated chest. And just as I was thinking of setting the shotgun aside and reaching for my camera, he let forth a most prodigious gobble that shook the entire woods.

And then he simply vanished.

AT FIRST I WAITED for him to reappear, certain he would circle once more in search of those enigmatic hens who earlier had seemed so receptive to his advances.

But there was no movement, no shuffle of leaf or crush of twig, and with the lowering sun now rimming the tops of the backlit trees along the far horizon, I gave him another set of yelps and purrs. But the only answer was silence.

With darkness upon me I arose at last, stiff and creaking and completely bewildered. I slipped up the trail to where he had stood, wondering if in fact I might perhaps actually still be asleep back in the long seat of my old rain-soaked truck listening to Herr Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and the old gobbler had been nothing more than a dream.

But No!—here were his tracks in the dark moist earth, and there were the drag marks from his flattened wingtips as he’d waltzed and twirled and declared his dominion to all of God’s Creation.

For a moment it was as though I could hear the latent lingering echo of that one last gobble, and as if in admonition of my earlier overconfidence, I looked down and lifted a single black-tipped breast feather from the leaves and marveled at the depth and intensity of its colors.

For nearly an hour I stood there listening, puzzled and perplexed and pondering what had occurred as darkness filled the woods and stars filled the sky.

Finally I turned and eased back north along the top of the ridge toward the truck with mighty Polaris my guide. I dropped into the long meadows now occupied by the citizens of the night, whose moon shadows and unhurried meanderings I could sense or see or hear as I watched fair Orion rise in the east as Jupiter soared high to the south.

With the cool night breezes brushing my brow, I was filled with warmth and elation and a deep sense of humility, blessed to have been in the presence of such a grand and glorious creature. Had I actually been carrying that crusty old bird slung dead over my left shoulder, I couldn’t possibly have been any more content.

As I made my way along through the darkness I couldn’t resist occasionally halting and turning an ear to the moonlit slopes behind me, hoping perhaps to hear him gobble one last time from some distant roost tree and thus re-engage him come morning, all the while wondering where he had gone.

I am wondering still.


Michael Altizer’s books, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE, THE LAST BEST DAY, and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES, can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004.

The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.

© MICHAEL ALTIZER

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