Looking back on it from 20 years, Tom Tucker was either really lucky or a complete liar.
Tom was — still is, until he reads this story — one of my best friends.
We started romping and hunting our hills of northern Missouri when we were in fourth grade, and by the time we reached high school we had stalked and killed about everything that lived on our farms.
Then we encountered turkeys.
Though Missouri now has the distinction of one of the largest populations of wild turkeys of any state, back in 1980 the birds were still scarce, and the only folks who had hunted them were either really old or really ignorant, like Tom and me.
We didn't have the benefit of television shows or magazines that offered tips on turkey hunting.
We each had an old Lynch box call and our fathers' shotguns, plus all the enthusiasm that a 14-year-old has for anything that involves guns.
For camouflage we had our feed coats, ratty old canvas shells that were brown and stained as a squeeze-chute railing.
Tom and I rode the same bus to and from school, so along with a couple other classmates, we had plenty of time to plan and embellish our turkey-hunting adventures.
They always seemed to begin the same way, with a hot gobbler and can't-miss cockiness.
They always ended in disappointment and wait-til-tomorrow bravado. Until that one morning when Tom boarded the bus puffed up like a county commissioner.
He still had blood on his hands from the morning hunt.
It didn't take much to conclude he had bagged a bird, but the story he told instantly elevated him to hero's status.
"I woke up late and didn't have time to find my regular hat, so I just grabbed one of my dad's Oz Gold hats," said Tom.
Oz Gold was a brand of seed corn advertised by its garish blaze-orange caps.
"I plumb forgot it was so bright, but I started working an old gobbler and I'll be danged if he didn't just strut right in."
"I shot him at 20 yards. I think it was that orange cap. Those rutting toms are just attracted to it, just like a spawning bass will whack a bright plug."
And with that conclusion the turkey hunters on that bus began a week-long turkey-repellant project.
We each wore those bright orange caps on our morning hunts, and we each reported that turkeys ran, not walked, away from us.
We tried different set-ups and different calls. We quizzed Tom about how he wore his headgear. But we never repeated Tom's success wearing the Oz Gold cap.
Match your surroundings
I still don't know if Tom's gobbler was colorblind or just had a death wish, but most turkey hunters know that the birds have prodigious eyesight, and are extremely aware of unnatural colors, movements and profiles.
If you stand out, you'll strike out in turkey country.
Which is why camouflage is the most critical element in your hunting gear, arguably even more important than your calling or your shotgun's choke.
If you're visible to a gobbler, no matter how sweet your calling, you won't draw him into shotgun range.
I learned the importance of camo the hard way, years after my strikeout under the Oz Gold brim.
I left my facemask in my pickup on an early-morning prospecting hike, and called up a hot gobbler.
I scarcely had time to throw myself against a tree when that tom strutted in.
The sun was full in my face and I know by the way that gobbler stopped, studied me and then drifted off in the underbrush that my skin glowed like a quarter on a pool table.
You don't have to invest in the latest, most expensive camouflage on the market. You don't need different camo for deciduous and pine groves.
Your camouflage doesn't even have to match.
I could spend a lot of words discussing the merits of various camo patterns, but every turkey hunter would find some quibble or hole in my argument.
Just look for these basics:
Patterns of light and dark: Camouflage should imitate nature, and the natural world is a mix of light and dark, sunlight and shadow, a collage of muted colors.
Subdued greens: Most turkey patterns are designed to work in the spring woods, but you'll be leaned up against a large tree in the heat of the action, so make sure there's plenty of browns and dark colors mixed with the greens.
Universal patterns: A good friend of mine bought $200 worth of palmetto-pattern camo for a Florida hunt.
He ended up hunting in rice fields the whole time, and stuck out like the pope at a Hells Angel's rally.
Make sure the pattern will work in dense woods as well as open fields.
The most important consideration, more critical than your specific camo pattern, is that you're covered in some disguise from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet.
It's worth considering each piece of your ensemble.
Don't scrimp on your trousers.
I've had leading-brand camo britches that fell apart after a couple of days, and I've had cut-rate stuff where all the pockets were sewn shut.
My advice is to buy a good pair of soft twill six-pocket pants, and make sure the pockets have buttons to keep them shut.
You'll need all those pockets to hold calls, maps and other hunting gear. You'll want the soft finish when you're walking through brush.
Turkeys can hear almost as keenly as they see, and the sound of cloth slapping and scraping on a pair of pants will clear the country before you have a chance to call in a tom.
Those strings that hang out the cuffs of pants are also worth considering.
I tie those strings in my shoelaces to keep my cuffs from flaring when I'm sitting with my knees up.
Those short-sleeved camo tee shirts I see advertised are almost as worthless as camouflage underwear.
Why go to extremes to cover the rest of your body if you leave your arms exposed?
The undersides of your arms are probably as pasty and pale as your face, and I've already stressed the importance of keeping your face covered.
I strongly suggest a long-sleeved tee shirt or a button-down shirt, even in warm weather.
Go with lightweight cotton and you'll stay cool, and keep the bugs from crawling on your skin.
If you don't have gloves, get them. I don't care if they're flimsy mesh jobs. Anything that covers your hands is better than nothing.
Your hands will be moving if you have a shot at a gobbler, and camo gloves will disguise those movements.
My favorite gloves have a camo mesh back with a rubberized palm and fingers that help grip my calls and my gun.
Absolutely critical, there are dozens of models you can choose, from full-face hoods with bank-robber eye slits to half-face models that pull over your mouth.
You can get masks that tie in back or on top, masks that have bendable wire around the eyes and nose to customize the fit.
If you wear glasses you'll need a mask that has larger eyeholes. Just try a few on to find one that's comfortable and doesn't obstruct your vision.
I had a mask once with elastic that pulled the fabric up my face until the fabric covered one eye.
When you're working a gobbler you can't afford to readjust your gear. Make sure your facemask also covers your throat.
I've always worn brimmed caps, but this year I've added a boonie hat to my collection of headgear.
You do a lot of head turning when you're hunting turkeys, and the round-rimmed boonie has the same profile no matter which way you're looking.
I live in the West, where you can hunt turkeys in weather ranging from sub-freezing blizzards to sweltering summer-like days.
I have camo hats ranging from insulated stocking caps to mesh brims, and I've used them all, sometimes in the same weekend.
You don't need to buy camo boots, but make sure that whatever you wear on your feet blends in to the duff on the forest floor.
And check the soles of your boots.
My favorite boots had Vibram soles with a big orange diamond at the arch.
Because my heels are planted with my toes in the air when I rest my gun on my knee, that orange diamond was staring right at any bird that might have approached.
It's easy to spend a couple hundred bucks on camo clothes that you'll wear only a few days in the turkey woods.
Don't get carried away, but rather look for deals on basic patterns and well-made garments.
And if you can't find any suitable camouflage, don't fret. I was wearing that weathered old barn coat when I killed my first gobbler.
But I left the Oz Gold hat at home.
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