Healing in the Turkey Woods

Healing in the Turkey Woods (Mountains)

By Mitch Vazquez     


            I like many hunters started hunting turkey in the spring to fill the emptiness in our soul before fall brought screaming bulls and grunting bucks.  The obsession of chasing birds with the same tenacity as elk was not understood by me; it was more of an opportunistic hunt not something I sought out.  This all changed in the fall of 2018.


            I conceptualized the nonprofit Heroes’ Harvests during a 26-day walkabout in the mountains of Colorado.  I had returned from a deployment and a very good friend of mine had a heart-to-heart with me about the path I was traveling down.  I knew he was right, and I knew I had to change my ways, but I was stubborn, and I thought with all things it would pass and everything would be better.  I was obviously wrong so in an Audie Murphy-Esq way I decided to fix myself the only way I knew how, solo in the mountains with just my thoughts.


            I talked with my family, packed up my truck, and drove out to Colorado where my mom still resided.  I told her my plan and drove to my first launch point in Southern Colorado.  I had all the solo hunting equipment I needed, plus some, and I walked up into the mountains not knowing what experiences lay in front of me. 


            The first few days were pretty uneventful, I met several hunters from different states all chasing elk: not my target at the time.  As I continued through my journey, I came across a camp of two hunters from eastern Texas: Old Timer and Danny Boy.  They became the most interesting individuals I met on this trip, especially Old Timer.  As we talked over drinks and meals, I learned that Old Timer had been drafted in Vietnam where he spent 22 months with the U.S. Army and had been hunting that area for almost 20 years.  We shared stories of our service, deployments, families, and hunting adventures, we laughed at said stories and teared up on some also.  Old Timer profusely thanked me for all my deployments and I for him serving his country during one of the most turbulent times in our history.  He kept calling me COL because he said I reminded him of Hal Moore the way I spoke and carried myself.  Although a true honor, I had to remind him that I was an enlisted man and nowhere near as accomplished as Hal Moore, but he insisted. 


I spent almost a week in camp with Old Timer and Danny Boy, but I knew it was time to move on and continue down this weird path I had found myself.   Before leaving I exchanged phone numbers with Old Timer and ask him about possible turkey in the area. He gave me some locations over the ridge in some clearings and said there were always turkeys there and it would be an easy hunt for me, I became ecstatic at the chance to just get after some hunting solo!


I stepped off with camp on my back once again and headed to the location Old Timer gave me.  I arrived late in the afternoon and figured I could just set up camp and watch over the ridge into the open clearings and maybe get a bead on some longbeards to chase in the morning.  It wasn’t long before a large flock of hens and poults arrived in the clearing sweeping across the field and picking at bugs and seeds.  I watched intensely how they moved, talking back and forth, studying them to make myself a better hunter.  I let out a kee-kee run to see reactions and the hens perked up slowly checking out my location to make sure they hadn’t lost any of their brood.  Not hearing anything else or seeing anything alarming they went back to their rhythmic peck-peck-step of evening eating, and then I noticed a larger dark blob in the distance hundreds of yards past the flock.


I brought up the binos and scanned the far edge of the field and there he was, one of the largest Merriam toms I had seen.  The beard was a true rope dragger in all sense, he moved slow and methodically across the back of the clearing ever aware of everything around him, he was an old and wise bird, he was the hunt I had been seeking.


I watched the old bird the rest of the evening until he roosted in some pines about 200 yards from me.  I pulled out my bag and a tarp, made camp, and had a sleepless night waking to every crack of a twig, rustle of dirt, and hoot of an owl.  I was fully awake around 3 a.m. and just waited to hear or see anything come from the tom but was disappointed as the sun rose.  I packed my things and slowly closed the distance to the last spot I had seen him the night before.   As I walked the ridge around, I noticed movement through the brush.  I sat down with binos to my eyes searching intensely through the scrub finally my eyes landing on the old tom. 


He moved from brush to openings slowly feeding and watching. When he would turn away, I would move closer and as if he knew what I was doing he would move away keeping the distance ~100 yards between us.  He finally moved out into a large clearing to sun and eat the many bugs that were coming to life in the morning warmth.  I sat and watched him for what seemed like hours, never able to get closer but never moving further away, always just out of reach.


He crossed the large meadow to the other ridge about mid-morning.  I skirted the ridge around to the other side and found him again walking the edge of the meadow at the base of the ridge.  We played this cat-and-mouse game all day, moving as one it seemed.  He would stop and peck around as I would just watch him, he would move, and I would slowly follow.  This carried on the rest of the day until evening.  I roosted him again and set up my little camp 150 yards from him, hoping to have some luck.

I awoke again to the midnight chatter of nocturnal animals.  I tossed side to side trying to get back to sleep but it just wasn’t happening. I waited as sky started to lighten up and watched for my old friend to wake up to start the day again.  He came out of the roost earlier than the day before, but the day proved to be some of the same as before.  He moved slowly all day feeding along the ridge and clearings ever so aware of his surroundings.  I played this chess match with him again, he moved and then I moved.  He would stop to eat; I would snack as well.


He moved into a larger clearing again sunning and eating.  I posted up at the edge in some brush and relaxed watching him.  My mind started to drift off to family, friends, and lands far away.  I let my mind wander to memories, memories I had probably suppressed for years.  I relived deployments, decisions I had made, I “what if ’ed” everything.  I had faces and voices flash through my mind like a movie, some I had forgotten about.  Emotions overwhelmed me, I laughed, became angry and frustrated, and cried.  I was brought back to the present by a “putt” and instantly went into oh shit mode. I slowly looked over to my left and hens and poults were only 15 yards from me, intently looking at me trying to figure out what I was.  I slowly turned to look back into the clearing for the tom and he also was looking in my direction.  I stilled my heart and eyes but thought, “I’m busted.”


I don’t know how long we sat there but it seemed like forever.  The flock of hens and poults finally poured out into the clearing and crossed to the other side.  The old tom moved further up and into the shade of the ridges away from all the commotion.  I gave him some room and time before I picked up and started that direction.  I moved slowly not wanting to spook him or any other animals that might be in the area.  I searched for him through the brush and ridges but was having no luck. 


It became later in the day and I still could not find the tom again, I was devastated but not ready to give up.  I set up camp and figured I would hit it hard in the morning.  I took a dehydrated meal out and heated it up for a meal, snacking for two days wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I filtered some water from a small creek, set up my bag, and closed my eyes, drifting off to those precious memories.


I got what felt like a good night’s rest, the first in a few days which was good.  I picked up camp and started off searching for the tom to try and salvage my mistake from the day prior.  I moved along ridges and clearings searching with the naked eye then binos hoping to catch a glimpse of him again, but no luck was to be had.  This continued through the morning into the afternoon, my heart was slowly sinking knowing I probably had my chance and blew it.

I moved back to one of the larger clearings we had passed through before and from the edge scanned. About 350 yards away I spotted a large dark blob in the center and my heart stopped.  I brought the binos up and couldn’t believe it, I found him again.  I ran to the edge of the clearing and started covering the distance through the cover of the shrubs and pines.  I would cut to the edge to make sure he was still there and then move back to cover more distance.  I popped to the edge where I estimated he would be and slowly crawled so I could see….nothing.


I scanned the entire clearing with ferocity, there was no way he gave me the slip again.  I methodically searched the clearing and finally landed him on the other side of the clearing moving into the thicker foliage.  I started out of the shrubs and used the smaller pines in the clearing as cover as I moved closer.  I closed the distance quickly but also let myself know; it was the chance I had to take.  We both moved sporadically, dodging back and forth, behind cover; predator chasing prey.  We moved through rock outcroppings, brush, and shrubs around large pines, and then it was over.  The old tom had made it to that age because he was smart, cunning, always aware and he had bested me again.  He had disappeared into the forest as if the land had just consumed him, not a sign of him.


Again, I was defeated.  I walked down the ridge and picked up a game trail and decided my time in this location was over.  I kicked a rock down the trail and as I followed it up, outstepped the old tom.  I came to a dead stop, he stood not 50 yards from me, staring me down like we were in an old western showdown; he the outlaw and I the marshal, or was it the other way around?  I raised my shotgun, placed the bead just on him, slowed my breathing until it stopped, and waited for the buck and blast of the 3.5in shell, but it never came.  


The old tom continued to stare at me, then lowered his head bowing like a teacher to a student, as if to acknowledge I had passed a lesson, I had accomplished something great. I lowered my shotgun as if to return the same respect and watched him turn and walk up into the forest slowly fading away.  At that moment the last three days lessons came rushing in.  I had not been hunting an old tom this entire time, he had been leading me through my path of healing.  During the time we spent together, he made me work through my emotions and thoughts, and he made me vulnerable on several occasions.  In those three days, I became lost and frustrated in my own thoughts but also had closure in many events in my life; a conclusion to what made me tick.


I sat down just off the trail and finally took a breath, what an amazing few days.  My walkabout was far from over, but I wouldn’t have had another experience like this one.  I learned a lot about myself in such a short time and knew that I was on the right path for myself and my family. 


Since then, I have consumed my spring, fall, and some would say life, with turkey hunting. I have completed a single-season grand slam and slowly crossing states of my list for the super slam.  Turkey hunting has become a therapy for me as I continue to search for more answers to my life and at least once a year I return to the location of the old tom, hoping that maybe I catch a glimpse of him…


Mitch retired in 2020 after 20+ years of faithful service.  During his service, he deployed 11 times in support of combat and operational missions.  Mitch currently resides in Colorado where he is a licensed outfitter and Executive Director of his nonprofit Heroes’ Harvests. As if he wasn’t busy enough, he also sits on the National Advisory Board for the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ Armed Forces Initiative and the Coalition for Veteran’s Employment Opportunities



About Mitchell Vazquez

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