Stories in Shells

Decades ago, a near-mystical moment, taking my first turkey, set me traveling down a hunting trail I still follow with undiminished delight. Honesty compels me to admit that killing that gobbler involved nothing more than serving as an eager trigger-man. My mentor, Parker Whedon, located the bird, told me where to set up, pointed to an old logging road the bird would likely use in its approach and even indicated where the turkey would be close enough for a shot. I duly followed his instructions and within 15 or 20 minutes we were exchanging congratulations while admiring the longbeard.

Whedon, a grizzled veteran whose experiences in the sport traced back to the 1930s and an era when there were few turkeys and virtually no hunters who knew how to deal with them, shared my joy in his special understanding manner. Then, after shaking my hand, he stated in blunt, no-nonsense fashion: “That’s how it’s done. Now you’re on your own.” He realized that the finest way to learn was through making your own mistakes, slowly being educated in the school of the turkey woods and taking each step in that ongoing education alone. Periodically, Parker would — when I called him with yet another tale of missteps, mistakes, and plain misery — tender a bit of advice. It invariably ran along the general line of “next time you might want to try this.”

There was, however, one truly special insight he offered on that glorious April morning so long ago. In retrospect it may have been the most meaningful aspect of all the wisdom this grand old master shared with me. Once my adrenaline rush had returned to a point at least approaching normalcy, and as I admired the bird’s plumage in the rising April sun, he said: “Let’s go back and find your empty shotshell. If you become as addicted to and afflicted by this sport as I suspect you will, there’ll come a time when you can’t recall every turkey you’ve killed.”

After a brief search we located the hull, and then he explained why I should save it and what should be done with it. His suggestion was to use the hull to hold the turkey’s beard (in the relatively rare case where a beard is too wide for a 12-gauge shell it can be tied to the shell with monofilament fishing line) as well as typing up a little paper scroll containing details of the hunt. Those could include the date, place, and time of day the turkey was taken; make of the gun, ammunition, and call(s) used; shot size; distance of the shot; weather; and anything noteworthy about the experience.

I have followed Whedon’s advice from that day forward, and as a result several boxes of stories in shells adorn my study. All that is required for a wonderful bit of time travel calling back magical moments from yesteryear is to open one of those boxes, pick up a beard-holding shell at random and read the little story it contains. Instantly, I am transported to the time and place of a cherished moment in my life.

This is something any hunter can easily do. About all that is required, in addition to the approaches outlined above, is making sure you treat the base of the beard until it’s dry (borax is ideal) and to keep a few moth crystals in the box holding the shells. The latter step prevents mites or other insects from damaging beards. 

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