Turkey Madness

You've been thinking about them all winter, and the time has arrived. Do you have what it takes to get your bird? >>PART 1 OF 3

Field & Stream Online Editors

All week I had been obsessively checking the Weather Channel. It was warm and clear. No wind, with the sky high and blue. The kind of days that are so perfect they are called "weather breeders." The theory, I suppose, is that nothing this good can last, and it almost always turns out that way. Sure enough, the Weather Channel maps showed a big, ugly front with snow, sleet, and tree-snapping winds coming our way. It was due to hit the night before turkey season opened, and things would really be ripe in the morning.

Every time I turned on the TV, it was with the hope that the storm might have changed its mind and turned north for Canada. But it came on so relentlessly that I almost took it personally.

"You going out anyway?" a friend of mine asked. He called right after the rain started and the wind was blowing 25 and felt as if it were just limbering up. We talk every night during the season on what my wife calls "the turkey hotline."

"Are you kidding?"

"Yeah," he sighed. "Me too. I just can't help myself."

I have another friend who has never missed an opening day of bird season in 50 years. This includes the time when he had to quit early and crawl back to his car with what turned out to be the early symptoms of polio. Like a lot of other lunatics, I feel almost that strongly about opening day of turkey season.

So as the rain turned to sleet that sounded like No. 6 shot when the wind drove it against the windows, I laid out my gear. I had been getting ready for days. My boots were greased and my knife was sharp; I'd made up a few new mouth yelpers, put chalk on the box call, and roughed up the slate with some fine-grit sandpaper. I had patterned my shotgun even though I couldn't imagine why it would be shooting any different this season from the way it had for the last 15 or 20.

I had been going up into the woods for the last couple of weeks and had located a few gobbling birds in the same places where I almost always found them. I'd known for the last few days where I was going to be when the sun came up on opening day, and I wasn't going to let the fact that there wouldn't be any sunrise get in the way. I added some long underwear to the pile of camouflage clothes, put my license in the pocket of the waxed cotton parka I use for duck hunting, and left the bug dope in my cotton jacket.

I even went to bed early, a futile gesture. I lay awake most of the night, listening to the wind howl and build. By four, when I got up, it had backed off just a little and the sleet had changed to snow.

"You're crazy," my wife said.

"No. Mad, maybe. In the Shakespearean sense, you know. But not crazy."

Future Dreams and Past Glory
I'd set up the coffeemaker the night before and while it brewed, I fried a few strips of bacon and put them between two pieces of toast. I ate my breakfast and drank my coffee in the truck, with the windshield wipers and the heater turned up full blast.

This was a long way from that vision of opening day that I'd been refining and editing since Christmas. In that vision, this morning would be still and cool and the woods, when I left the truck and started up the logging road, would be utterly quiet, the way they are in that last hour before daylight and before the first bird sings the first tentative note-so quiet and still that your own breath sounds deafening.

In that vision, which included actual clips from past opening days, I would work up a mild sweat on my way up to the landing where I would stop and wait, listening. I would hope for some help from a real owl since my own call is no great shakes. One time, I got an assist from a coyote. The yipping touched off a gobbler. I told the coyote that I owed him one and if I saw him during deer season, I'd give him a pass.

After the coyote got the turkey started, I took over and worked him for twhours until he went off somewhere. With real hens, I assume. But it was still early and the woods were in the first tender green phase after the long dormancy of winter. So I walked the ridge, looking for mushrooms and listening for another gobbling bird.

Then there was the opening day when I didn't need any help from an owl, a coyote, or anything else. I had been scouting late the previous afternoon and heard a bird gobbling aggressively as he moved through the woods above me. I stayed with the bird for an hour or so, never getting too close, and toward dusk heard him fly up to roost. I couldn't see him but I was pretty sure I knew the exact tree.

Got him, I said to myself. Got that gentleman cold.

I think I even made some big promises at the dinner table that night. My memory isn't real clear on that point.

I almost pranced up the hill the next morning, my confidence carrying me like wings. I had a new slate call that I could play like a Stradivarius, and I had the perfect setup 200 yards from where the gobbler was roosting. The turkey blasted back immediately after my first little tree yelp, and I went quiet. I'd gone from being a maximum caller to a member of the "less is more" school. Tease him and let him agonize. The turkey gobbled again. And once more. Then he couldn't take it anymore. He flew down, and I could hear him walking decisively my way. My pulse rose 20 beats.

Then with a kind of sureness I still admire, the turkey turned uphill from me, close enough that I could see him, completed a big circle, and came in behind me until he was just feet from the big maple I was pressed against. I couldn't see him but I could hear his wing feathers dragging the ground as he strutted. The woods seemed to shake when he gobbled. It went on for 10 minutes, maybe more. Until I couldn't stand it, anyway, and I whirled on him. I fired three times and was farther behind with every shot.

It is a marvelous thing, I still think, that such a big bird can fly so gracefully.

While I've actually killed a bird or two on opening day, that part of my mental inventory isn't especially emphatic. It was always about the spring woods to me: Persephone coming out of her hole and the earth coming back to life. Dogwoods in Alabama. Cherries in Vermont. The feeling, somehow, of having survived winter and that it is surely great to be alive.

Relearning an Old Lesson
These were the things I thought about as I sat parked at the end of the log landing, sipping coffee from a Thermos, waiting in the truck's warm cab to see if the snow, at least, might stop.

It didn't. And neither did the wind. So I got out and loaded up. The snow stung my face, and my eyes were tearing with the cold as I walked up into the woods.

Mad, I said to myself, not crazy. This is an important distinction, understood perfectly by turkey hunters. I wasn't really paying attention or expecting much. Then a turkey flew off the roost from a branch directly over my head.

Okay, skipper. Get your game face on.

I moved in a hurry to get to another spot, almost a mile down the road. I was sweating when I set up and shivering 10 minutes later. My fingers were numb and so were my lips. I figured the mouth call was louder than anything else in my inventory, and with this wind I'd need all the volume I could get. My first call sounded like some kind of distress cry. They say actual turkeys make a bad call now and then, and I told myself that this might be the way a very cold hen sounds when she yelps.

I tried again. And behold, a gobbler answered.

No way to judge distance or direction with so much wind. I made one more call and shut up.

I told myself I would wait 15 minutes. After that, I would have to move to keep from going hypothermic. There are a lot of disgraceful epitaphs but "Froze to death turkey hunting" has to be among the more ignominious. There was a diner I liked a couple of miles back down the highway. I was thinking I'd have pancakes with maple syrup and more coffee. Very hot coffee.

I mean, seeing one and hearing another is not a bad day. Even when it is not snowing.

The turkey was 30 steps from me when it gobbled. I hadn't heard it come in and probably wouldn't have even if it had been wearing tap shoes and playing castanets. It was off to the side, so I had to look from the corner of my eye. The turkey was puffed up but not strutting, probably because in that wind all those feathers would have worked like sails and carried him across the county line. When he turned away, I brought the gun up and found the safety with a numb finger.

The bird went 18 pounds.

Like all turkey hunters, I try to extract some lesson from each success and, also, from the more frequent failures. In this case, I didn't feel as if I had accomplished any great feats of stealth or done any especially lyrical calling. My tactics had consisted of blundering through the woods and sitting down in a lucky spot. The shooting was nothing special. Lord willing, I would never have to replicate this hunt. Just about the only thing it had validated was the blind-pig theory. And of course, an old, undeniable rule: You have to get up for opening day.

_Look for part 2 of "Turkey Madness" in the April issue._ze to death turkey hunting" has to be among the more ignominious. There was a diner I liked a couple of miles back down the highway. I was thinking I'd have pancakes with maple syrup and more coffee. Very hot coffee.

I mean, seeing one and hearing another is not a bad day. Even when it is not snowing.

The turkey was 30 steps from me when it gobbled. I hadn't heard it come in and probably wouldn't have even if it had been wearing tap shoes and playing castanets. It was off to the side, so I had to look from the corner of my eye. The turkey was puffed up but not strutting, probably because in that wind all those feathers would have worked like sails and carried him across the county line. When he turned away, I brought the gun up and found the safety with a numb finger.

The bird went 18 pounds.

Like all turkey hunters, I try to extract some lesson from each success and, also, from the more frequent failures. In this case, I didn't feel as if I had accomplished any great feats of stealth or done any especially lyrical calling. My tactics had consisted of blundering through the woods and sitting down in a lucky spot. The shooting was nothing special. Lord willing, I would never have to replicate this hunt. Just about the only thing it had validated was the blind-pig theory. And of course, an old, undeniable rule: You have to get up for opening day.

Look for part 2 of "Turkey Madness" in the April issue.