Turkey Madness Part II: The Silent Treatment

The longer gobblers ignore you, the more desperate your tactics become.>>PART 2 OF 3

Field & Stream Online Editors

It was two weeks into the season, and a note of desperation permeated the conversations on the turkey hot line. I'd connected on opening day, but I still had another tag, and the last few days the woods had gone silent.

"You hear anything?" Tony asked almost plaintively. "Anything at all."

"Owls," I said. "Three or four, and nothing answered them."

"Man, it's like every turkey in the territory has lockjaw. I went to three different ridges, and it was so quiet you could have heard one a mile away. But nothing. I can't remember when it's been like this."

I didn't exactly agree. The truth was, it happened every year. For the first week or so, things would be hot. You'd hear birds in the evening when you went up to roost them. Not always, but often enough. And most mornings, you'd hear a gobbler. Even if you didn't call the bird in, you'd work him for a while. The turkey might hang up or move off to a real hen somewhere in the woods. You might even hear the yelping of your competition. But you'd have a story to tell, and you'd go back to the same place the next morning, motivated and expectant.

Then there would be a day when you didn't hear anything. Followed by another and another. This is when that feeling of desperation began to come over you like a low-grade fever. After a fortnight of getting up long before dawn and making it through the morning on caffeine and hope that felt increasingly forlorn, you would begin to experience this sense of malaise.

"You going in the morning?" I said.

There was a long silence, then a weary answer. "They've got to gobble sometime."

"Yeah," I said. "I suppose."

I went to bed early and woke up before the alarm rang. I put my feet on the floor and stayed there, sitting on the edge of the bed and giving some serious consideration to just bagging it. It had been 10 straight days since I'd heard a bird gobble. This was getting old, and truth was, I wasn't getting any younger. I was palsied with sleep deprivation.

"Are you going out?" my wife said. No matter how quietly I get up and get organized, she always wakes up.

"I guess."

"Crazy," she said.

"I suppose," I said. "But you know what?"

"What?"

"If this was a job, I believe I'd quit it."

Call me crazy? I knew what I was about.

Fortified with coffee, I drove a couple of miles to a place where I'd heard birds in the past. I trudged up the logging road through the still darkness until I came to a long flat of old-growth birch, maple, and oak. The ground was clean and you could see-and hear-a long way. There must be turkeys around here, I thought. Have to be.

I set up and waited, hope rising like the sun coming up behind me. The woods came to life and into clear relief. An owl hooted, and I strained to hear a gobbler respond. Nothing. Songbirds sang. A couple of deer slipped along a trail below me, testing the wind without catching my scent. The air turned warm and my stomach-full of coffee and other, less specific, acids-growled. After an hour or so, I gave up and went for a walk.

Hope in the Leaves
The great consolation of turkey hunting, when the birds aren't gobbling, is that you are out in the spring woods. If you can't find something to like about that, then you probably aren't a turkey hunter and you may want to double up on the Prozac. The doldrums are frustrating, especially since there doesn't seem to be anything you can do to break the spell, but walking the woods, still in early green, always seems to pay off even if I don't find turkeys. So I worked my way around to the south face of the ridge and to a large stand of mature ash where I sometimes find morels.

I picked a few and put them in a little mesh bag I carry. If you can't be a hunter, I thought, then you might as well be a gatherer. I was still trng to find enough morels to make a side dish for steak when I came across a patch of ground that had been turned over and churned up by a strutting gobbler. I could make out the impressions left by his wing tips and found a lone feather.

The sign was fresh, so I sat down and made a few yelps. Maybe the hens have left this old boy, I thought, and gone to the nest. During the barren time a few seasons back, I had watched a hen come out of the woods to a greenfield where she fed awhile and then went into a patch of thick brush and didn't come out. The next morning, when everything was quiet again, I looked around in the brush and found her nest. It held eight eggs.

The theory, as it has been refined and spread on the local hot line, is that the hens lay an egg a day for about two weeks, and after that, they are through with love. This is when the toms start gobbling again. And sure enough, about five days later, I worked a bird in the area of that nest.

Some of my fellow theorists hold that when the hens go to the nest in midmorning, the gobblers will crank up again. It didn't happen on this morning, but the day hadn't been a complete blank. I reported my findings on the hot line.

My buddy had gone me one better. He'd actually seen a mature gobbler with an 8- or 9-inch beard. "When I called, he turned around and walked the other way," Tony said.

"That's pretty cold."

"Yeah. At first I was insulted. I was making some sweet music. But then I figured there was a real hen I couldn't see or hear somewhere, and she called him away."

"Well, that's something anyway. The only thing I heard was my own stomach growling."

We both knew where we would be in the morning, and we wished each other luck. We had reason, however slim, to be optimistic.

A Call Without Sound
I was on the strutting ground well before daylight. I made some soft tree calls and listened intently, hoping to pick up something even if I couldn't hear a gobble: the sound of a turkey's wings as he flew down, maybe, or the soft clucks and purrs of a hen. Anything.

It turned out to be another good morning for walking and gathering mushrooms.

I was home, eating breakfast, when Tony pulled up in the driveway, which could mean only one thing. He couldn't wait to report on the hot line, later in the evening. He wanted to gloat right away.

"That turkey I was telling you about?" he said.

"Yeah."

"Well, I was wrong. Turns out, it was a 10-inch beard."

We have this implicit deal: If you kill one (or even, heaven forfend, miss one), you get to tell the story and the other guy has to listen. So for the next hour, I played straight man.

"So," I said. "What time did he gobble?"

"Gobble?" he said, going gnomic on me and enjoying himself enormously. "Who said anything about gobbling? Real hunters don't count on turkeys to gobble. Down that path lies frustration and unfilled tags."

"So he came in silent. Did you call him off the roost?"

"Call? Que pasa call?"

"You know, yelps and cackles. Clucks and purrs. Calls."

"Oh, you mean with one of those primitive slates or diaphragms. Some ugly tool like that. Those things are so unenlightened."

"So you ambushed him."

"No, no. I prefer to think it was a silent call. It's very Zen, you see. First, you clear your mind of everything. To do this, you must first go for two weeks on four hours' sleep a night and you think of nothing but turkeys that will not gobble. Then, when you go into the woods, you find a large, sacred tree."

"Any species?" I interrupted.

"I find maple is especially holy. Clear at the base, with no rude stones or roots to cause pain to the ass."

"Yes, Master, I understand."

"You lean against the tree and become one with it, then you go into a trancelike state known as sleep."

"Ah, yes."

"When you have slept so long that you have become oblivious to time and have drooled on your face mask the time will be right, and your eyes will open and you will see a turkey has appeared at 60 or 70 steps."

"And what then, Master?"

"You do nothing. Because the turkey is so close. You haven't taken any calls from your vest pockets before you went into the trance and if you move now, you will spook the turkey, and he will book out of there like a scalded dog."

"Ah."

"So now-and this is the moment of perfect Zen-you call the gobbler."

"How do you call?"

"Silently."

"Ah."

"Yes. In the mind."

"What happens next, Master?"

"If your calling is good and pure, the turkey will walk in, 20 steps from you, and you will put a load of 4s in his head."

So, for the rest of the quiet time, every night on the hot line, I listened to more wisdom on the art of the silent call. For some reason, the doldrums seemed to drag on for longer than usual, and not even the best turkey hunters among us-the guys who won calling contests and always filled their tags-so much as worked a bird. It was as if every turkey in the woods had disappeared. Of course, we all heard more and more about the technique of the "silent call." It was amusing for a while. Then it got to be a little irritating. By the last week of the season, I was starting to believe in it. I was falling asleep in the woods, anyway. But the only thing I saw when I woke up was a porcupine. With less than a week left in the season, I was on the edge. **

Look for part 3 of "Turkey Madness" in the May issue.** it, then you go into a trancelike state known as sleep."

"Ah, yes."

"When you have slept so long that you have become oblivious to time and have drooled on your face mask the time will be right, and your eyes will open and you will see a turkey has appeared at 60 or 70 steps."

"And what then, Master?"

"You do nothing. Because the turkey is so close. You haven't taken any calls from your vest pockets before you went into the trance and if you move now, you will spook the turkey, and he will book out of there like a scalded dog."

"Ah."

"So now-and this is the moment of perfect Zen-you call the gobbler."

"How do you call?"

"Silently."

"Ah."

"Yes. In the mind."

"What happens next, Master?"

"If your calling is good and pure, the turkey will walk in, 20 steps from you, and you will put a load of 4s in his head."

So, for the rest of the quiet time, every night on the hot line, I listened to more wisdom on the art of the silent call. For some reason, the doldrums seemed to drag on for longer than usual, and not even the best turkey hunters among us-the guys who won calling contests and always filled their tags-so much as worked a bird. It was as if every turkey in the woods had disappeared. Of course, we all heard more and more about the technique of the "silent call." It was amusing for a while. Then it got to be a little irritating. By the last week of the season, I was starting to believe in it. I was falling asleep in the woods, anyway. But the only thing I saw when I woke up was a porcupine. With less than a week left in the season, I was on the edge. **

Look for part 3 of "Turkey Madness" in the May issue.**