If someone said, come try this sport with me, would you say yes to the following? You will be exhausted, sleep-deprived, cold, bug-bitten, in need of a wicked pee and hungry every morning for the next two months. You’ll get up long before sunrise, drive an hour in the dark, walk through the damp and chilly woods, make idiot noises for a while and risk exposure to snakes, ticks and poison ivy. Would you leap joyfully into that fray?
No, I thought not.
Good. We don’t want any more novices bungling around in the woods. The rest of the world should stay home in their flannel beds. Leave the birds to us addicts, in all their splendor. The call of the hen in the spring is so sweet with longing, only the pure of heart deserve to hear her songs. The plaintive “Kee-kee-run” of a lonesome juvenile in autumn calls out to the flock, “Here I am, please find me.”
In springtime, ah, the hen is hopeful. “Keee-yaw, keeyaw, kyawkyawkyaw,” she goes, sending her song out at dawn. From the roost she sends it, then, with a fly-down cackle she sends it again from the forest floor. And then, from a hundred yards away comes an answer. A tom, as lovelorn as she, lets loose his call. It ripples from his red, white and blue neck — a sound that marries a broken fan belt with a gargle, “Khobbl-khobbl-khobbbl-khobbl-obbl-obbl.”
As outdoor sports go, turkey hunting has an appalling failure rate. The birds have exceptional eyesight. If you move, if you even breathe visibly when a bird is looking your way, poof! He’s gone. Turkeys don’t stand and ponder the likelihood that their eyes deceived them. They flee first and ponder later. A turkey can spot you raising your gun from a hundred yards away, and before you can say giblet gravy, he’s over the next ridge and heading for the county line. To actually call a bird into shotgun range (about 40 yards) requires a combination of great patience, knowledge of the woods and the ability to remain stock-still for as long as it takes to get that bird close to your 12-gauge.
This is not a sport for sissies or dilettantes. Many a prolific deer hunter can’t believe it takes years of hunting to bag even one bird. The odds get worse if you hunt with a spouse. I should know.
I have this recurring fantasy. I am in divorce court. The room is packed with fellow hunters and outdoor writers. The judge leans toward me from the bench and says, “Now, Gita, tell us what your husband did to you.”
I sniff and say, “We were in the woods; it was a warm fall day. I had called the gobbler into range. He was stepping slowly toward me, you know, that way they do. My gun was raised. I slid the safety off and edged my finger to the trigger. Just as I began to squeeze it, BLAM!! My husband shot my bird.”
The gavel thunders down like judgment day. “The wife,” his Honor roars, “gets EVERYTHING!” The court erupts with joy.
Yes, hard as it may be to reconcile, my generous husband shot my gobbler, the one that would have been my first. For five years I had been hunting hard, walking miles, calling birds. Finally, I would have had my bragging rights around the fire, just like the guys.
One of the fondest memories I have of turkey hunts came late one fall, some years ago, in West Virginia. That is the time of year when birds group up according to gender. Bachelor groups consist of older toms and yearling jakes; the hens and new juveniles keep off to themselves. Because it’s not the mating time, there is no point in trying to lure a gobbler to you with a hen call. The way to find a shootable, mature tom is to locate his bachelor group and disperse it – preferably with a dog. The birds will all fly up in different directions. Then you wait till they calm down and look for each other. The sounds to make on crisp fall mornings are “assembly” calls.
But what about the dogs? Won’t they run the birds, over and over? This is the beauty part; some of those West Virginia boys had trained dogs to perfection. Some redbone hounds and setters are relentless. They’ll run the hills and hollows, ridge to ridge, until they find a flock. As soon as they startle the birds to flight, the dogs come back and crawl into a sack shaped like a sleeping bag. There the dogs will stay next to their trainer, still as a stone, until the next command to run.
Last week an Alabama gal who loves to hunt sent me an e-mail. Would I like to plan a turkey hunt (girls only) for the coming spring? She knows the saga of my husband’s crime; when told all she could do was sigh, “Testosterone.”
So do I want to rise before the sun, risk ticks and skeeters and blisters on my feet? Do I want to walk for miles in search of gobblers through hardwood bottomland and briars? To hear the woods wake up and see where wild azaleas bloom? Or see the tiny bloodroot flowers poke up through last fall’s leaves? Heck, yes I do, I wrote her back. I want it more than Christmas; count me in.