How to Eat Tag Soup

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Our North Dakota turkey season has come and gone and I’m left feeling frustrated and ashamed that I was unsuccessful in filling either of my tags. Wild turkey is undeniably my favorite wild game meat, coupled with close encounter gobbles and yet another reason to spend time in western North Dakota, in just three short years turkey hunting rapidly gained my admiration…or maybe more aptly, obsession. I counted down the days until opener on my calendar, purchased new gear, savored the last of my fall turkey, and ambitiously offered to assist several others in their pursuits simply to spend more time afield. But here I am, filling out a post-season harvest survey for our Game and Fish Department, entering 11 days of hunting and checking the “no” box.

I write this in an effort to normalize these feelings, to be authentic, and in some ways, to help me cope with the emotions. To those “muggles” who do not share our passion for the outdoors, I sound dramatic, but I live for this stuff. It truly has affected my life the last few weeks. I self-prescribed a social media hiatus, reinitiated morning runs, and strategically avoided hunting conversations. But why does it have to be like this? I partially blame our hunting culture. It seems gone are the days of deer camps focused on procuring venison for the looming winter with nary a care of who pulls the trigger. The media instead constantly paints an unrealistic picture of successes afield and creates a highlight reel of others’ experiences. And further yet, as a female I feel an immense amount of additional pressure to prove myself. It sometimes seems like it is not enough to just identify as a hunter, if I do not harvest anything it is assumed that I lack skill, effort, passion or all three. Whether that assumption is true (although I have experiences that support that it is), those emotions are real and I have a hunch I’m not alone in feeling them.

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However, I also blame myself. I know my extremely competitive nature leaves me susceptible to these thoughts, so I’m working on it. I don’t want to feel this way, and I’m beginning to realize that’s up to me. I don’t want to not celebrate my friends’ successes, I want to hear their stories and I want to share mine and I don’t want to feel anything but proud and reinvigorated for next season. And when it arrives, I choose to enter it with a new perspective. I know that I love waking up at 3:00 AM to hike through the dark and shiver from the sunrise chill and anticipation of that gobble coming closer. I know that I love sharing a wild game tailgate lunch and one too many cookies with good people during the heat of the day. I know that I had a fantastic solo day, with some peaceful ridgetop revelations and one close call with a gobbler. I know that only multiple days of early alarms and 15 miles of hiking lead to inexplainable belly laughs and I know that I will always have a better week after spending a weekend entirely outside, and guess what? To me and to anyone else who needs to hear this, that is enough.

So to add to the growing reasons I live this lifestyle, it’s because it encourages and sometimes forces me to grow as a person. I know that years from now my 2021 turkey season will be small potatoes. I will undoubtedly feast on tag soup again but I will also find greater appreciation in the “successes” I know I have coming too. Of course it lessens the blow that my husband filled both his tags and there will still be turkey nuggets to savor after all.

Cayla Bendel

Cayla is a conservation professional that resides in North Dakota with her husband and pudelpointer, Finley. Together they enjoy avidly hunting, fishing, and otherwise frolicking their way through the seasons.

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